James Joyce, “Ulysses”


The novel, probably the most famous ever written in the English language, was first serialized in The Little Review from 1918-1920 and published as a whole in Paris by Sylvia Beach in 1922 (the same year as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and McKay’s Harlem Shadows). It takes place over the course of a single day in Dublin (think Woolf, McEwan). Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, represents Ulysses, whom Joyce believed to be the “most complete man in literature” and “the only all-round character” because he is shown in all his contradictions of valor and vice. The novel is set on June 16, 1904, as Stephen Dedalus (almost 2 years after the end of Portrait) begins his day. The fourth episode brings in Leopold Bloom, and after Stephen and Leopold get drunk together, hallucinate, and reveal their subconscious in a soulful discussion, Bloom goes to bed with his wife Molly (having an affair with Blazes Boylon), whose 8-sentence “monologue” finishes the novel.

Joyce was born in Dublin and 1882 and left in 1904, never to return from the Continent, where he died in 1941. Ulysses was written from 1914 to 1918 – the period of the war (think of what Yeats was writing…). Variously banned on charges of obscenity. Among the first “stream-of-consciousness” novels, it mixes the real and the imagined to accurately, if confusingly, reveal the psyche of the narrators, so that “the symbolic aspect of the novel is at least as important as the realistic aspect.” Essentially, Stephen searches for a father (Simon Dedalus is artistically stunted and emotionally unavailable) and Bloom for a son (Rudy is dead). Note the correlations between Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus. Some of the novel’s many themes are of the underdog, the voyage/loss of home/exile, the crisis of faith, and everyday kindnesses. Parallax, an astronomical term that Bloom encounters in his reading and that arises repeatedly through the course of the novel, is a good word with which to relate the novel to faceting. It refers to the difference of position of one object when seen from two different vantage points, which is the project of the text. I am including plot summaries from Wikipedia for study in italics and then adding my own notes in plain text.

The opening: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:—introibo ad altare Dei” 3 (I will go in the altar of God).

The ending: “. . . and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” 644.

Joyce divided Ulysses into 18 chapters or “episodes”. At first glance much of the book may appear unstructured and chaotic; Joyce once said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” which would earn the novel “immortality” [reminds me of Nabokov].  The two schemata which Stuart Gilbert and Herbert Gorman released after publication to defend Joyce from the obscenity accusations made the links to the Odyssey clear, and also explain the work’s internal structure. The original text did not include these episode titles and the correspondences; instead, they originate from the Linati and Gilbert schema. Joyce referred to the episodes by their Homeric titles in his letters. He took the idiosyncratic rendering of some of the titles–– ‘Nausikaa’, the ‘Telemachia’––from Victor Berard’s two-volume Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée which he consulted in 1918 in the central Zurich library.

Part I: The Telemachiad

Episode 1, Telemachus – 8am

It is 8 am. Buck Mulligan, a boisterous medical student, calls Stephen Dedalus (a young writer encountered as the principal subject of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) up to the roof of the Sandycove Martello tower, where they both live. There is tension between Stephen and Mulligan, stemming from a cruel remark Stephen has overheard Mulligan making about his recently deceased mother and from the fact that Mulligan has invited an English student, Haines, to stay with them. The three men eat breakfast and walk to the shore, where Mulligan demands from Stephen the key to the tower and a loan. Departing, Stephen declares that he will not return to the tower tonight, as Mulligan, the “usurper”, has taken it over.
Stephen wakes up, like Telemachus, in a usurped tower (imagines himself as fatherless Hamlet). Buck Mulligan is not unlike Cranly of Portrait, more crass but personable than Stephen. Stephen refers for the first of many times to “agenbite of inwit, a religious term meaning the “remorse of conscience,” connected to his refusal to kneel at her deathbed (Mulligan calls him Kinch, meaning ‘blade’). Bannon refers to “the photo girl,” probably Bloom’s daughter Millie. Steven decides not to return to the place of the “usurper” that night.

Episode 2, Nestor – 10 am

Stephen is teaching a history class on the victories of Phyrrus of Epirus. After class, one student, Sargent, stays behind so that Stephen can show him how to do a set of arithmetic exercises. Stephen looks at the aesthetically unappealing Sargent and tries to imagine Sargent’s mother’s love for him. Stephen then visits school headmaster, Mr. Deasy, from whom he collects his pay and a letter to take to a newspaper office for printing. The two discuss Irish history and the role of Jews in the economy. As Stephen leaves, Deasy makes a final derogatory remark against the Jews, stating that Ireland has never extensively persecuted the Jews because they were never let in to the country. This episode is the source of some of the novel’s most famous lines, such as Dedalus’s claim that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and that God is “a shout in the street.”

Unlike the charioteer Nestor, Mr. Deasy inspires Stephen by negative example. He argues with Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitism, insisting we have all sinned against the light and saying that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” 28. But for Deasy history is teleology, moving towards “one great goal, the manifestation of God” 28. Deasy says Stephen is not a born teacher, and Stephen counters that he is “a learner rather” 29. Deasy gets one last jab in – “Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persectued the jews… Because she never let them in” 30. This idea of Ireland as a chaste female body plays interestingly against Molly and other women who “let them in.”

Episode 3, Proteus – 11 am

Stephen finds his way to Sandymount Strand and mopes around for some time, mulling various philosophical concepts, his family, his life as a student in Paris, and his mother’s death. As Stephen reminisces and ponders, he lies down among some rocks, watches a couple and a dog, scribbles some ideas for poetry, picks his nose and urinates behind a rock. This chapter is characterized by a stream of consciousness narrative style that changes focus wildly. Stephen’s education is reflected in the many obscure references and foreign phrases employed in this episode.
Stephen wandering on the beach: “INELUCTABLE MODALITY of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.”
Proteus is the mutable sea-god. Stephen’s thought is like the god, changing, shifting shapes, only to be captured by special cunning. His ideas move from inner thought and philosophical solipsism toward the material world in this section. Stephen’s first thought of the “ineluctable modality of the visible” counters Kantian idealism and Berkleyan immaterialism with the Aristotelian view tactile matter, though for Aristotle, we always see form or pattern, rather than the thing itself. The line has a postcolonial parallel in Rushdie’s “ineluctable superiority of northernness!” in Midnight’s Children, which may mean that the view is immutable, and based on a criterion of the visible: race. Like Prufrock, Stephen angsts about his personal appearance and habits, and like The Waste Land his thoughts at the sea are of drowning (a man has drowned, also). Ironically, the “word known to all men” (except Stephen?) here is love.

Part II: The Odyssey

Episode 4, Calypso – 8 am

The narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. Bloom, after starting to prepare breakfast, decides to walk to a butcher to buy a pork kidney. Returning home, he prepares breakfast and brings it with the mail to his wife Molly as she lounges in bed. One of the letters is from her concert manager Blazes Boylan. Bloom is aware that Molly will welcome Boylan into her bed later that day, and is tormented by the thought. Bloom reads a letter from their daughter. The chapter closes with Bloom defecating in the outhouse.

We meet Leopold Bloom (“people’s prince”/”flower”), whose bodily delights are a far cry from Stephen’s closed-eyed testing of the world, but whose imagination, though seemingly wasted on making advertisements, is alive and brilliant: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls… Kidneys were in his mind” 45. He imagines never growing older by traveling around the world fast enough. We feel his warm anticipation for breakfast, as well as the unity of “kidney” and “mind” here – the wholeness of Bloom. Calypso is the name of the half-goddess who keeps Odysseus on her island for years. Her name means “to cover or conceal,” and Molly here conceals her letters under her pillow, covering her affair. He watches the beautiful cat, relating as a fellow creature (Leopold has lion in it, too…). We begin to see the odd things in his pockets, as befit a ‘traveler’ – here a potato, later soap, a watch, and a pig’s foot. He brings breakfast to Molly and she asks him the meaning of metempsychosis – reincarnation which he explains to her through the concept of metamorphosis. He gets a letter from Milly, while Molly gets only a card. He reads the newspaper and defecates, wiping himself with it. He pities Dignam, who is dead.

Episode 5, Lotus Eaters – 10 am

Bloom makes his way to Westland Row post office where he receives a love letter from one ‘Martha Clifford’ addressed to his pseudonym, ‘Henry Flower’. He meets an acquaintance, and while they chat, Bloom attempts to ogle a woman wearing stockings, but is prevented by a passing tram. Next, he reads the letter and tears up the envelope in an alley. He wanders into a Catholic church service and muses on theology. He goes to a chemist where he buys a bar of lemon soap. He then meets another acquaintance, to whom he unintentionally gives a racing tip for the horse Throwaway. Finally, Bloom heads towards the baths.

This chapter introduces many of the recurring figures in the novel. The lotus-eaters are lazy and drugged, and so is Bloom here. He ends by imagining “the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower” 71.

Episode 6, Hades – 11 am

The episode begins with Bloom entering a funeral carriage with three others, including Stephen’s father. They drive to Paddy Dignam’s funeral, making small talk on the way. The carriage passes both Stephen and Blazes Boylan. There is discussion of various forms of death and burial, and Bloom is preoccupied by thoughts of his dead son, Rudy, and the suicide of his own father. They enter the chapel into the service and subsequently leave with the coffin cart. Bloom sees a mysterious man wearing a macintosh during the burial. Bloom continues to reflect upon death, but at the end of the episode rejects morbid thoughts to embrace ‘warm fullblooded life’.

The funeral makes Bloom think of his son Rudy, who is dead. He imagines the soil “quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails… of course the cells or whatever they are go on living. Changing about. Live for ever practically. Nothing to feed on feed on themselves” 89. This reminds me of Eliot.

Episode 7, Aeolus – 12 pm

At the office of the Freeman’s Journal, Bloom attempts to place an ad. Although initially encouraged by the editor, he is unsuccessful. Stephen arrives bringing Deasy’s letter about ‘foot and mouth’ disease, but Stephen and Bloom do not meet. Stephen leads the editor and others to a pub, telling an anecdote on the way about ‘two Dublin vestals’. The episode is broken up into short sections by newspaper-style headlines, and is characterised by an abundance of rhetorical figures and devices.

Aeolus is the god of winds, here compared to the media, who does not determine history, but records it. The “windblowing” of the media is false and often out of control here. The chapter is structured as a series of news pieces.

Episode 8, Lestrygonians – 1 pm

Bloom’s thoughts are peppered with references to food as lunchtime approaches. He meets an old flame and hears news of Mina Purefoy’s labour. He enters the restaurant of the Burton Hotel where he is revolted by the sight of men eating like animals. He goes instead to Davy Byrne’s pub, where he consumes a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy, and muses upon the early days of his relationship with Molly and how the marriage has declined: ‘Me. And me now.’ Bloom heads towards the National Museum to look at the statues of Greek goddesses, and, in particular, their bottoms. Bloom suddenly spots Boylan across the street and, panicking, rushes into the museum.
The Lestrygonians were giant cannibals. It’s an interesting allusion in this chapter, full of his thoughts about food. He stresses out about what to do about Blazes Boylan, shifting perspectives but too afraid to do anything. He ducks into the library and avoids him at the end of the chapter.

Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis – 2 pm

At the National Library, Stephen explains to various scholars his biographical theory of the works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, which he claims are based largely on the posited adultery of Shakespeare’s wife. Bloom enters the National Library to look up an old copy of the ad he has been trying to place. He encounters Stephen briefly and unknowingly at the end of the episode.
Scylla is a monster and Charybdis a whirlpool – Odysseus makes the mistake of trying to fight Scylla, much as Stephen, in his argument with Mulligan, gets too wrapped up in the battle. Odysseus must go nearer the rock of Scylla (Aristotelian material reality) rather than the whirlpool (Platonic essences and ideas). Stephen admits he does not believe his argument – he merely knows it. The chapter takes the form of a dialectic. They pass Bloom on the way out. Mulligan accuses him of being gay and Jewish. Stephen thinks his anti-Semitism comes from English boarding school.

Episode 10, Wandering Rocks – 3 pm

In this episode, nineteen short vignettes depict the wanderings of various characters, major and minor, through the streets of Dublin. The episode ends with an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant, William Ward, Earl of Dudley, through the streets, which is encountered by various characters from the novel.

In 19 vignettes in 35 pages, Joyce alights on over a dozen characters. This would therefore be an interesting section to compare to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. They are somewhat interconnected, but objects are not used as jumping points in the same way – there are divisions.

Episode 11, Sirens – 4 pm

In this episode, dominated by motifs of music, Bloom has dinner with Stephen’s uncle at a hotel, while Molly’s lover, Blazes Boylan, proceeds to his rendezvous with her. While dining, Bloom watches the seductive barmaids and listens to the singing of Stephen’s father and others.

The sirens were the singing creatures whom no man survived hearing. Odysseus got around this by having his men (their ears stuffed with wax) tie him to the mast of his ship. There is a lot of wordplay here “throw, flow, flower,” etc, like song lyrics, an experiment with the sound of language over its sense. The chapter begins by “tuning” and swells, then falls at the end to ppprfff, almost like an orgasm (foreshadowing Boylan’s?).

Episode 12, Cyclops – 5 pm

This chapter is narrated by an unnamed denizen of Dublin. The narrator goes to Barney Kiernan’s pub where he meets a character referred to only as the ‘Citizen’. When Leopold Bloom enters the pub, he is berated by the Citizen, who is a fierce Fenian and anti-Semite. The episode ends with Bloom reminding the Citizen that his Saviour was a Jew. As Bloom leaves the pub, the Citizen, in anger, throws a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head, but misses. The chapter is marked by extended tangents made in voices other than that of the unnamed narrator: these include streams of legal jargon, Biblical passages, and elements of Irish mythology.

This is the chapter of parody: of legal jargon, poetic language, and translation, even the parroting of the Bible by the average man. Cyclopean view is here related as narrowmindedness, and the citizen is “nobody” (what Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is), a short sighted nationalist. It is the only section in the first-person, but it seems to condemn that perspective as being narrow and limiting in many ways.

Episode 13, Nausicaa – 8 pm

Gerty MacDowell, a young woman on Sandymount strand, contemplates love, marriage and femininity as night falls. The reader is gradually made aware that Bloom is watching her from a distance, and as she exposes her legs and underwear to him it is unclear how much of the narrative is actually Bloom’s sexual fantasy. Bloom’s masturbatory climax is echoed by the fireworks at the nearby bazaar. As Gerty leaves, Bloom realises that Gerty has a lame leg. Bloom, after several digressions of thought, decides to visit Mina Purefoy at the hospital. The style of the first half of the episode borrows from (and parodies) romance magazines and novelettes.

Nausicaa is young and lovely, but also a kind of mother to Odysseus. A similar phenomenon is at work here – the chapter begins with Gerty McDowell’s novelistic gibberish about love and moves to Bloom sort of solipsizing her as he masturbates and the fireworks go off. It’s ambiguous how much is Gerty’s perspective, especially since Bloom is an expert with advertising language, but there are several facts of her personal life that turn out to be true and that Bloom could never know about. Interspersed with romantic language are pills and ads, as well as her “long adolescence” limited knowledge of sex. Phrases like “apple of discord,” “castle of sand,” “ivorylike purity” (purse) and “golden rule” suggest to me that Nabokov had this chapter in mind when writing Lolita – it is also a Sunday, there are magazine photos, and she identifies Bloom as a foreigner with “an intellectual face,” the “image of the photo” she had of a matinee idol. In turn, she is imagining herself as a picture cutout for him, “pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed” 299. This is different because “she could almost feel him draw her face to his.” Again the golden and Os are like Lo. He animates her: “Mutoscope pictures in Capel street: for men only. Peeping Tom. Willy’s hat and what the girls did with it. Do they snapshot those girls or is it all a fake? Lingerie does it” 301, but the key here is mutuality: “Why me? Because you were so foreign from the others” 311. “Darling I saw, your. I saw all” 305. “I begin to like them at that age. Green apples” 308 – literal fruit vert! He calls himself a “murderer” for wanting to come back. Time is instated: cuckoo…

Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun – 10 pm

Bloom visits the maternity hospital where Mina Purefoy is giving birth, and finally meets Stephen, who is drinking with Buck Mulligan and his medical student friends. They continue on to a pub to continue drinking, following the successful birth of the baby. This chapter is remarkable for Joyce’s wordplay, which seems to recapitulate the entire history of the English language. After a short incantation, the episode starts with latinate prose, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and moves on through parodies of, among others, Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbons, Dickens, and Carlyle, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang.

A midwife delivers a boy – no coincidence that this is where Bloom and Stephen meet! This is interesting in light of the idea of faceting. It is a kind of bildungsroman for the English language itself, and like Stephen in Portrait, it moves from the impersonal to the personal, the abstract to the concrete, through the spiritual to the political. It is a rejuvenation of language by dragging it through mud that also reminds me of Eliot and Stein. The unity of form and content on display here is remarkable (form is content, content is form – a Keats chiasmus like beauty is truth, truth beauty). The two men are both outcasts, and this is how they bond. The connection to Odysseus is his men eating the sacred cattle, which come back to life in distorted, zombielike forms.

Episode 15, Circe – 12 am

Episode 15 is written as a play script, complete with stage directions. The plot is frequently interrupted by “hallucinations” experienced by Stephen and Bloom—fantastic manifestations of the fears and passions of the two characters. Stephen and Lynch walk into Nighttown, Dublin’s red light district. Bloom pursues them and eventually finds them at Bella Cohen’s brothel. When Bloom witnesses Stephen overpaying for services received, Bloom decides to hold onto the rest of Stephen’s money for safekeeping. Stephen hallucinates that the rotting cadaver of his mother has risen up from the floor to confront him. Terrified, Stephen uses his walking stick to smash a chandelier and then runs out. Bloom quickly pays Bella for the damage, then runs after Stephen. Bloom finds Stephen engaged in a heated argument with an English soldier who, after a perceived insult to the King, punches Stephen. The police arrive and the crowd disperses. As Bloom is tending to Stephen, Bloom has a hallucination of Rudy, his deceased child.

Bella Cohen, the brothel mistress, is Circe, and all the men dogs. This is the section of “Gentleman of the jury, let me explain” and “the halcyon days” 373 – also like Lolita. Both men have sexual neuroses, which are mocked here. The chapter ends as Stephen breaks a chandelier, Bloom pays for it, and they leave. On the street, he “brushes the woodshavings from Stephen’s clothes with light hand and fingers” – like Prufrock 496. Stephen is mumbling abstractions and poetry in the fetal position. Bloom thinks of “the rough hands of the sea” and a figure appears: “BLOOM (wonderstruck, calls inaudibly) Rudy!” 497 (it’s interesting that it’s inaudible – something only the novel can do). Rudy is all dressed up and unseeing.

Part III: The Nostos 

Episode 16, Eumaeus – 1 am

Bloom and Stephen go to the cabman’s shelter to restore the latter to his senses. At the cabman’s shelter, they encounter a drunken sailor, D. B. Murphy. Riding in the cab, Stephen sings a spirited song by the Baroque composer Johannes Jeep, and he and Bloom bond over its misogyny. The episode is dominated by the motif of confusion and mistaken identity, with Bloom, Stephen and Murphy’s identities being repeatedly called into question. The rambling and laboured style of the narrative in this episode reflects the nervous exhaustion and confusion of the two protagonists.

Odysseus meets Eumaeus the swineherd when he returns home. He welcomes and feeds him. I’m most interested in this chapter for its confused identities – the different characters being mixed up is like Ellison, Woolf, and Pynchon. The chapter returns to an older, more classical narrative style. “So they turned on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love” 539. Bloom admires Stephen’s voice, nice like his father’s. He tells the boy Molly would like to meet him (this chapter also like a bookend to “Sirens,” also “My Little Carmen.”

Episode 17, Ithaca – 2 am

Bloom returns home with Stephen, who refuses Bloom’s offer of a place to stay for the night. The two men urinate in the backyard, Stephen departs and wanders off into the night, and Bloom goes to bed. The episode is written in the form of a rigidly organised catechism, and was reportedly Joyce’s favourite episode in the novel. The style is that of a scientific inquiry, with questions furthering the narrative. The deep descriptions range from questions of astronomy to the trajectory of urination.

This episode toggles between a kind of Socratic dialogue and the depressing idea of memorized doctrinal response, beautifully creating tension between information and emotion as the two sit up and talk (309 Q and R – think of To the Lighthouse!). We return to the theme of water as Bloom begins to make tea and Stephen reveals himself to be afraid of water. Odysseus is a hero at the banquet, but Bloom is an ordinary man, whose heroism is his kindness to Stephen. Bloom also forgives Molly, considering all the crimes worse than adultery. This is the last we hear of “narrator” and “listener.”

Episode 18, Penelope – 3 am or later – the infinity symbol

The final episode, which also uses the stream of consciousness technique seen in Episode 3, consists of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: eight great run-on sentences (without punctuation) describe the thoughts of Molly, Bloom’s wife, as she lies in bed next to her husband. Molly guesses that Bloom had an orgasm that day, and is reminded of his past possible infidelity with other women. She considers the differences between Boylan and Bloom, in terms of virility and masculinity. Molly feels that she and Bloom are lucky, despite their current marital difficulties. Molly recalls her many admirers, previous and current. She wishes she had more money to buy stylish clothes, and believes that Bloom should quit his advertising job and get better paid work elsewhere. Molly thinks about how beautiful female breasts are, particularly compared to male genitalia. She thinks of the time Bloom suggested she pose naked in exchange for money. Her thoughts return to Boylan and her orgasm earlier.

A train whistle blows outside, and Molly thinks of her childhood in Gibraltar. Out of boredom and loneliness, she had resorted to writing herself letters. Molly thinks about how her daughter sent her a card this morning, whereas her husband received a whole letter. She imagines that she may receive another love letter from Boylan. Molly recalls her first love letter from Lieutenant Mulvey, whom she kissed under the bridge in Gibraltar. She later lost contact with him and wonders what he would be like now. Her thoughts turn to her singing career, and Molly wonders what path her career could have taken had she not married Bloom. Molly senses the start of her period, confirmation that her tryst with Boylan has not caused a pregnancy. She gets up to use the chamberpot. Events of the day spent with Boylan run through her mind.

Molly climbs quietly back into bed and thinks of the times she and Bloom have had to relocate. Her mind then turns to Stephen, whom she met during his childhood. She conjectures that Stephen is probably not stuck-up, and is most likely clean. She fantasizes about having sexual encounters with him. Molly resolves to study before meeting him so he will not look down upon her. Molly thinks of her husband’s strange sexual habits. Molly speculates that the world would be much improved if it consisted of Matriarchal Societies. Thinking again of Stephen, and then of his mother’s death, evokes memory of Rudy’s death, whereupon she ends this line of thought as it is making her depressed. Molly thinks about arousing Bloom in the morning, then revealing the details of her affair with Boylan to make him realise his culpability. She decides to procure some flowers, in case Stephen Dedalus decides to come around. Thinking of flowers, Molly remembers the day she and Bloom spent at Howth, his marriage proposal, and her acceptance: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Helene Cixous cited this chapter of the novel as ecriture feminine, since “the body unfurls” in the woman’s voice here. (You could think about Woolf building a more structured and precise version of the in medias res “Yes because he never did a thing like that,” more drawn from Mansfield, perhaps, than Joyce). Part of her body unfurling is to consider her own beauty, greater than a man’s and to fart, proving women are not without scatological functions. As lovely as this chapter is and Cixous’ idea of it is, there is something troubling about the leaky chaos of Molly’s discourse – an infinity time free of the clock.

As Bloom, the modern man, is not the hero Odysseus is, so Molly, the modern woman, is not the faithful wife. Still, she is a storyteller, and she brings all of the ideas and passions to a close here in her eight runon sentences. (Penelope kept Odysseus alive through her weaving in the original story.) More materially, she will likely weave them together in reality – she thinks of offering Stephen the room upstairs “itd be great fun supposing he stayed with us why not theres the room upstairs empty and Millys bed in the back room… and if he wants to read in bed in the morning like me as hes making the breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2… Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent welleducated person” – and then turns right to shopping 641.

Strikingly, the stream of consciousness here is most like the Proteus chapter – Stephen and Molly get that concatenated, runon perspective more than Bloom. One of my favorite parts of the chapter is when she says she’d like to make a book of “Poldy’s” sayings. He called her “a flower of the mountain… one true thing he said in his life.” The repetition of O here connects it to the orgasms of the Nausicaa chapter, but the repetition of Yes reminds me of Bloom’s affirmation or choice of life in Hades. Like her husband, Molly chooses life, and this is the beauty between them, despite their problems.


Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”


Though it owes much to Richard Wright’s earlier Native Son, Ellison’s complex and subtle work supersedes the genre of protest novel and is one of the earliest examples of postmodern tropes in American literature. The repeated use of spectacle in the novel, the trickster-like cycle of stories, the flatness of characters who are overstated types and come and go, and the cryptically unnamed narrator and his bizarre underground life all point ahead to the literature that would take firmer hold in the 60s with novels like Pale Fire & The Crying of Lot 49. 

More than anything, Ellison’s novel represents a moving away from the binary or double-consciousness (Hegel, DuBois, the Marxist dialectic) and towards a more uncertain multiplicity. Ellison wrote to Wright that he wanted to expose the Communist Party’s abandonment of blacks in the novel, and to depict a man “who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic.” Part of his resistance to becoming a “type” is his constant movement, his search for self-knowledge, and his awareness of his own contradictions – like Langston Hughes’ speaker, this narrator, too, sings America and ‘contains multitudes.’

It’s interesting to consider women in this novel – the narrator champions women’s rights at one point, relates to a white stripper, has an affair with a white woman (its ‘rape play’ rehearses Birth of a Nation and Bigger and Mary, but also looks ahead to blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback). Unlike the “invisible man,” itself a rewriting of the “native son,” women do not have the luxury of remaining invisible in the novel; they are made into spectacle, as the stripper and raped daughter of Trueblood attest.

– The Introduction: The unnamed narrator squats in a basement at the edge of Harlem, “a border area,” sucking power off the grid to light it up brightly with filament bulbs, which are more expensive to run: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this sense, he siphons and ‘wastes’ the provisions of capital in a repurposed way. He listens to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” because Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” 8.

– The Battle Royal: The story begins 20 years earlier, when the narrator is a boy. He does not understand his grandfather’s advice to treat life as a war, to “overcome ’em with yeses…let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He is invited to give a speech to a group of white men in the town. There is a stripper there who “saw only me with her impersonal eyes” – as in McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” the woman’s eyes are vacant as she performs, moving outside her body (the kewpie doll is comparable to the Sambo doll here). The white men make the black boys fight for coins on an electrified rug, dehumanizing them before the boy’s speech. He wonders if this is not a time for “humility and nonresistance,” but is forced into battling the others. It is no surprise that his speech is largely a recitation of Booker T. Washington’s “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech. He is given a scholarship in a briefcase, and in a dream, he sees the paper as “To Whom It May Concern: Keep this Nigger Boy Running” 33.

– The university: The narrator drives the rich, white Mr. Norton around, who is obsessed with his own pure, dead daughter. He is fascinated by Trueblood, a local black sharecropper who rapes and impregnates his own daughter, supposedly in his sleep. Trueblood says he is in “the tunnel” in his dream (MattyLou’s vagina), and once a man gets himself in “a tight spot” like that, he “wants some more” 68. Norton gives him cash and makes the narrator take him to a black brothel, where he gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Homer Barbee lectures the narrator on how great the founder is and says he should have shown Norton an idealized picture of black life. He is dismissed from the college with 7 letters of recommendation.

– Harlem: The narrator learns from the trustee Emerson that he can’t get a job because the recommendation letters condemn his character. He gets a job at Liberty Paints making Optic White with Lucius Brockway. They quarrel because Lucius fears he is in the union. One of the paint tanks explodes and the narrator wakes up in a hospital. The doctors experiment with electric shock treatments on him, feminizing him as hysterical and bringing an element of madness in that also reminds me of the Beats. He recovers his memory, is released, collapses outside, and is taken in by Mary.

– The brotherhood: Brother Jack offers him a job as a spokesman for the Party after his impassioned speech at the eviction. He takes it to earn some money to help Mary. He associates with Tod Clifton and Ras the Exhorter (and sleeps with a white woman after a rally). The white Brother Hambro trains him in rhetoric, and he gives speeches.

– Clifton: Clifton sells Sambo dolls on the street and is shot for not having a permit to sell them. After the narrator holds a funeral, the Brotherhood is angry and lectures him. He turns against the brotherhood, as Ras has, but Ras also turns against him, since he blames him for the Brotherhood’s failure to use the momentum of the funeral for action. He is mistaken in a disguise for “Rinehart” – a pimp, bookie, and reverend. He confronts Brother Hambro, who has decided the Party is not interested in racial issues (here is where Ellison plays out his disillusionment with the Party, which he shared with Richard Wright). He sleeps with Sybil to try to play along with the Party, but she is clueless and only plays out her rape fantasy with him.

– The riot: Ras has started a full-blown riot in Harlem. The narrator participates, setting fire to a tenement house. As the police chase him, he falls down a manhole and has stayed there ever since, mulling over his own individual complexity and preparing to emerge again, which he says he is now ready to do. His conflict explores the complexity of self-articulation vs social struggle. (You could also read this against the simplifying films he discusses in “The Shadow and the Act.”)

Importantly, the narrator insists at the end, “I’m invisible, not blind” and that “white is not a color but the lack of one” (a reversal of the Freudian sex dynamic that feminizes white men?) 576. He observes the “spectacle” of whites becoming blacker and blacks becoming whiter without understanding each other. The stench in the air is “either of death or spring” 580. “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole… even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play… Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 581.



Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”


The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.


Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

Zadie Smith, “This is How It Feels To Me”

“THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO ME” – The Guardian, October 13, 201

The byline of Zadie Smith’s piece, “Last week James Wood blasted modern fiction, calling for a return to feeling from self-conscious cleverness in the wake of the terrorist attacks,” promises a bolder and braver response than the young Smith delivers. Though she explains her point of view, she says later that this interaction shaped and changed her writing – her later novels are far more “modernist” and “realist” in tone (NW is a “London novel” in the olden sense). Here is Smith’s self-effacing beginning:

The critic James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called “hysterical realism”.It is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention. These are hysterical times; any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped – this was Wood’s point, and I’m with him on it. In fact, I have agreed with him several times before, in public and in private, but I appreciate that he feared I needed extra warning; that I might be sitting in my Kilburn bunker planning some 700-page generational saga set on an incorporated McDonald’s island north of Tonga. Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.

At least she’s funny. Here Smith begins to explore with a bit more nuance some of her issues with Wood’s critique:

The first is this: any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna. You cannot place first-time novelists with literary giants, New York hipsters with Kilburn losers, and some of the writers who got caught up with me are undeserving of the criticism. In particular, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth beast Infinite Jest was heaved in as an exemplum, but it is five years old, and is a world away from his delicate, entirely “human” short stories and essays of the past two years, which shy away from the kind of totalising theoretical and thematic arcs that Wood was gunning for. If anyone has recently learned a lesson about the particularities of human existence and their separation from social systems, it is Wallace. But even if this were not true, frankly, literature is – or should be – a broad church. Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned, I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise; the very books, in fact, which have cast such a tremendous shadow over two generations of American and English fiction.

What Smith points to again is a kind of multiplicity at the intertextual level of readership that her own novel seeks to create in a world she has written:

I read Flaubert and Nabokov for the varicoloured intimacies of life; I read Zora Neale Hurston to hear the songs of love and earth, and I read White Noise to experience, yes, a Frankfurt school comedy, in which every boy, girl, man, woman, black, white, lesbian, Jew and Muslim speaks in exactly the same way: like DeLillo.

Here she does the same move as Wood on what writers “can” and “cannot” do, which I don’t love:

We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. Which leads me to my second point: writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.

She discusses the pains of writing, the resistance to encyclopaedic knowledge, the call to arms in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for “a look to power sources.”

Except… er… it turns out that the plot is horrendously simple. It has to do with things like faith. Revenge. Poverty. God. Hatred. So what now? Does anyone want to know the networks behind those seeming simplicities, the paths that lead from September 11 back to Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and then back to Israel, back further to the second world war, back once more to the first? Does anyone care what writers think about that? Does it help? Or shall we sing of love and drawing rooms and earth and children and all that is small and furry and wounded? Must we produce what you want, anyway? I have absolutely no idea.

But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense. Bellow’s Seize the Day, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Nabokov’s Pnin – works that stubbornly speak and resonate, even in these image-led, speechless times. But it is a trick of the light that makes us suppose these books exist in soulful opposition to more recent examples of “dialectical devilry”. These books are works of high artifice, and there isn’t a decent novel in this world that isn’t; their humanity derives from their reverence for language, their precision, their intellect and, more than anything, from their humour.

It’s all laughter in the dark – the title of a Nabokov novel and still the best term for the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.

But he might see even that question as too intellectual in approach. I think Wood is hinting at an older idea that runs from Plato to the boys booming a car stereo outside my freaking window: soul is soul. It cannot be manufactured or schematised. It cannot be dragged kicking and screaming through improbable plots. It cannot be summoned by a fact or dismissed by a cliché. These are the famous claims made for “soul” and they lead with specious directness to an ancient wrestling match, invoked by Wood: the inviolability of “soul” versus the evils of self-consciousness and wise-assery, otherwise known as sophism.

Thus Wood’s advice to Smith is “be more human… I wonder what to do with that one.” This becomes the strongest part of Smith’s response – how she demonstrates the way in which these novels are working with cultural materials in exciting ways Wood does not see:

I want to defend the future possibility of some words appearing on pages that will be equal to these times and to what I feel and what you feel and what James Wood feels; that is, this fear that has got us all by the throat. He argues against silence and against intellectual obfuscation. He says: tell us how it feels. Well, we are trying. I am trying. But as DeLillo dramatised (again, in White Noise), it is difficult to discuss feelings when the TV speaks so loudly; cries so operatically; seems always, in everything, one step ahead. Yet people continue to manage this awesome trick of wrestling sentiment away from TV’s colonisation of all things soulful and human, and I would applaud all the youngish Americans – Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Moore – for their (supposedly) small but, to me, significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation – brain and heart – present in their fiction.

Even if you find them obtuse, they can rarely be accused of cliché, and that – as Amis has argued so well recently – is the place where everything dies… I truly hope they are not cowed by these renewed assaults on “clever writing”, calls for the “death of irony”, the “return of heart”. There was always a great deal of “heart”, of humanity, in these writers.

Smith seems to give a credit to American tradition, rather than accusing it of corrupting her work: “Sometimes it seems purely an American trick, this ability to draw the universe, as Carver and Fitzgerald did, into a circumscribed artificial, yet human, space.” Smith considers whether the novel itself still has value as a genre, something 9/11 has made her think about:

Most mornings I think: death of the novel? Yeah, sure, why not? The novel is not an immutable fact of human artistic life, after all, just a historically specific phenomenon that came and will go unless there are writers who have the heart, the brain and, crucially, the cojones to keep it alive.

She turns to the shorter novel (reminds me of what Woolf says about women’s writing!): “Personally, I find myself more and more struck by controlled little gasps of prose, as opposed to the baggy novel… Which seems the exact opposite of the American/ English instinct: I must cover the world in my shit immediately.” Her conclusion is uncertain and multiple, for which I am grateful. She speaks to Wood, but she is also speaking back:

Is it this reverence, this care, this suppression of ego that Wood wants to see from us? It is what I want to see from myself, but whether I will manage it is another matter. It will take sympathy – a natural instinct, a sentimental reflex – but it will also take empathy, which I still contend is largely a matter for the intellect. Your brain must be up for it, for making that necessary leap. At the moment, my brain feels like catfood. So I may never prove to be much of a writer – a real writer, the kind I like to read – but then again, maybe I will. I’m not sure how much it matters any more. But we shall see.



James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

Tom Stoppard, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”


Later than the other drama on my list, Stoppard’s play is more distinctively postmodern in tone. Its split subject (the two minor characters from Hamlet are, like Vladimir and Estragon of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, almost like 2 halves of the same character) is a central trope of the period. The tone of Stoppard’s play is much lighter, funnier, and metafictive than Beckett’s, though. It is staged across many levels, some excerpts from the original play, some dramatic interludes by players, and some weird surrealist events on a boat, where the two characters die. The plot points become preconditions in this play, since it rewrites Shakespeare (think Jean Rhys!). Rather than a linguistic inability being the focus or end-point, as it is in Beckett, here it is the starting point, as the characters not only misunderstand each other, but even forget amongst themselves who is whom (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon). 

Walter Benjamin, “The Arcades Project”


A massive, incomplete work also called Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century, which Benjamin worked on from 1927 until his death in 1940. I’d like to think of this text as the closest possible example we might hold up to Deleuze & Guattari’s model of the rhizome. It has many nodes and is made up of a number of points joined by innumerable, non-directive lines of connection. There is no linear order or structure to it, and the leaps the reader must make across facets and across sections are part of the interest of the work. Benjamin moves between historical facts, contemporary observations, quotations, references, interpretations, philosophical treatises, and so on. In “Fashion,” a typical juxtaposition:

“In fetishism, sex does away with the boundaries separating the organic world from the inorganic. Clothing and jewelry are its allies… Hair is a frontier region lying between the two kingdoms of sexus…

A caricaturist – circa 1867 – represents the frame of a hoop skirt as a cage in which a girl imprisons hens and a parrot…

Fashion consists only in extremes. Inasmuch as it seeks the extremes by nature, there remains for it nothing more, when it has abandoned some particular form, than to give itself to the opposite form. 70 Jahre deutsche Mode (1925), p. 51. Its uttermost extremes: frivolity and death.”

It would be interesting to compare Benjamin’s salient image of the arcade – a glass and steel wonder with many entrances and exits that you can see into and out of – to Jameson’s ideas about the Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles. The arcades provide the “dialectical fairytale” image most central to the project, and Benjamin ties them to utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Benjamin performs a dialectical engagement of “then” and “now” as history – understanding history through the lens of his current experience of Paris (I’d like to think about how Pynchon and others do this – not dialectically, but more rhizomically). For Benjamin, capitalist modernity is “a crisis of experience,” and “in classically ‘modern’ terms, the present is defined as a time of crisis and transition, and philosophical experience (truth) is associated with the glimpse within the present, via the past, of a utopian political future that would bring history to an end” (SEP).

A 2010 meditation on the “Flaneur” convolute in conversation with a number of other texts as an example for the readership the text invites:

Barthes sets up a contrast between the Nautilus and the Drunken Boat that encapsulates Benjamin’s relation of the flaneur to the rider of public transport:

–       The Nautilus – an enclosed space that yet has a destination in mind as it moves, Barthes posits it as a snug place, the fantasy of travel.

–       the Nautilus is therefore like public transport, especially modern forms that don’t have you in/just above/ in contact with crowd like a horse-drawn omnibus where you get rained on, but instead SEPARATE you from the street, place you in a crowded, protected, static moment, crushed in a compact space against strangers, but all moving toward a common goal.

–       This is like the bus driver in Gig, who is then also meant to not just drive, but operate, and in fact order, this moving space.

–       On the other hand, in Barthes, you have the Drunken Boat, which is unmanned, wild, and wandering, its very apellative suggesting the kind of intoxication, the dizzying, opiate-like high of the wandering gesture of flanerie.

–       Silliman’s poem, Skies has this element of linguistic flanerie here, wandering the city, looking at crowds of clouds, writing one sentence each day for a year (he said in an interview), the poem is a kind of flanerie in that it takes right and left turns, but has no particular trajectory or destination.

Thrilled at the convolute’s focus on London – as a city that industrialized earlier and grew faster than Paris, and one that was never Haussmannized – perfect both for explorations of flanerie and public transport – nowhere is there a greater number of wandering, tiny streets OR a bigger, more packed public transport system characterized by a stiff and gracious ignorance of others in crowded spaces than in London.

The conflict between organic and schematized motion, between nature and urbanity, is summed up in Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro” – “the apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.”

Pound’s look at the urban landscape, as embodied by the metro, works also through ideas of mapping. When you walk through a city, you confront its topography organically; when you travel through it on something like the tube, you not only can’t see where you are, but the schematic map given to you is utterly distortional, because schematic: Tube map now // Original London // Harry Beck 1918-1922 // modern organic map.

This also hits on the ideas of landscape that surface in both Benjamin and Lefebvre, and ties in with the presence of Native Americans in the reading, which is another topic I’m really interested in.

The sort of fresh, virgin, colonial space of Native America is fetishized as both space of noble hunter in the land of plenty and home of the violent savage – thanks James Fenimore Cooper.

This gets linked a lot in the Benjamin to the urban space and its dangers, but this is problematized by the fact that you cannot wander aimlessly in the woods and know you can go home. The delirious high of walking in the city as flaneur IS akin to the rush of the unknown in the wilderness in the sensation of a thrilling LOSS of control.

But o n page 453 of the Benjamin, he says the basis of flanerie is that the “fruits of idleness more precious than fruits of labor” 453 – this is the luxurious assertion of modernity and urbanity. So in claiming that the flaneur is exposed to dangers – it’s true, but to pretend they are totally comparable is romanticizing. The flaneur feels thrilled because he has had to exert effort to lose that control; it is a cultivated rush because he is choosing the concept of adventure, but he knows that he can wander because he can return to a home, whereas the hunter has to walk with the purpose of hunting, of feeding and clothing himself.

On 447, Benjamin says that “There is an effort to master the new experiences of the city within the framework of the old traditional experiences of nature.” But then you also have the guy in Benjamin who addresses the holy architecture of the mountains.

So you have this mutual exchange of fetishization, whereby the wilderness is cathedral for in America and the avenue is a wilderness in Paris, what Lefebvre calls the imago mundi, where “urban space is reflected in the rural space that it possesses and indeed in a sense contains,” for the town “comtemplates itself in the countryside that it has shaped.” 235.

Love the idea that America is always deeply affected, then by the presence of the Indian – Benjamin 440 – “endurance, tenacity, concentration” all come from the tradition of that hunter (“the reader is the hunter in the forest of the text,” writes Benjamin).

You can see this in Gig, in the language of the Traveling Salesman is like the ruthless hunter, the man of the crowd who moves through it with direction and purpose, the game he pursues is unpredictable – thousands of dollars one day, a hundred the next, he is nomadic, in his travels through the countryside, and though Benjamin links the sandwich man is compared to the flaneur, this guy is more like the sandwich man – because they both have a distinct purpose in mind.

We might also look at this language in Silliman. The Native American language comes out in images of clouds as  “herds of wild stratus” and the black smoke signals of structural fires, gunmetal sky, white valleys in which a large cloud is the “mother of the sky,” a matrilineal observation in contrast with what Lefebvre points out is the ordering, imposing, constructive-destructive force of  patriarchal architecture.

So if Trace is the appearance of a nearness, however far removed – that’s what’s being searched for in the wilderness in the city. In America, however it’s Aura – the appearance of a distance, however close the thing – NA memory.

Lefebvre kind of explains this on 229-231 by saying that “In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows” so that space, for Lefebvre, is “qualified” by “sediments left behind by history,” this “repose{s} upon specific spatial bases (site, church, temple, fortress, etc.) without which they would have disappeared – and the ultimate root of this is Nature (230-1).

Because the Native Americans were pushed into reservations, otherwise unpopulated territories, and because they left behind, at least in North America, very few actual monuments, it is the natural landscape itself and the NAMES it has been given which manifest these spatial bases, so that America accesses Nature as a root in a special way:

The temples formed by the mountains and the sacred, auratic quality of their fetishized Native American nomenclature preserve the Hudson River ideal of Nature as temple.

So when we name lakes like Sunapee, Winnipesaukee, Minnetonka, place names for the Dakotas, Manhattan, Milwaukee, Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, everyday language takes on a mantric and auratic recitation of the loss, mourning, and survival of that space.

I’m using haunted in the sense Lefebvre uses it – if a cemetery is absolute space of “formal beauty and terrifying content,” “haunted places, places peopled by the living dead,” then surely the cemetery of the American landscape has this quality.

SO then Native Americans DO affect the American consciousness, or ARE maybe reflected in the land, in our values – how we float this notion of a kind of nobility over the map of America to conceal a genocide (Thanksgiving, Sacajaweia, Pocahontas, etc.).  Lends a kind of nobility to the American intrepidity and exploration w/o acknowledging the violation.

Silko and Alexie play with this. As much as maps schematize things, cover topography, erase Native American history, they also kind of can’t help but preserve it, and there are a number of Native American writers, like Leslie Marmon Silko, who are interested in reinscribing their presence on the maps of the Americas, or Sherman Alexie, who want to kind of play with the use/abuse of benevolent or malevolent stereotyping of NAs, or throw the city/ capitalism back onto a lost Native American wilderness to reapprop. it.

Which is all a really long way of getting to these questions: How is the American landscape is a sort of repository for the mythic? How do remaining open, natural spaces though the original inhabitants have been killed or removed, still hold a sacrosanct presence in the auratic and linguistic qualities of that landscape? How much have we “schematized the map” like the London tube map, and how much does the true, organic form of the land still HAVE A VOICE AND SPEAK? And therefore, is American culture’s speaking history fundamentally different from that of a European city?


dir. Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner”


Ridley Scott’s futuristic post-human adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an assasin who is neither exactly vigilante nor part of the legal institutional framework, hired to kill “replicants” who have tried to return to Earth to live from the planet where they are slaves. As he falls in love with Rachel and tries to teach (program?) her about love even though he is supposed to kill her, the film leads us to question whether Deck himself, like Rachel, Pris, Zora, and Roy, is himself a replicant. The mixture of film noir and 1980s corporate culture with an imagined ‘future’ another 40 years hence (now almost the present!) suggests a concern not so much with the traditional noir anxiety about gender (though that is present as well), but humanity itself.

The “simulation city” of Scott’s imagination also has the dark, steamy fog and cramping light and space effects of film noir, where Rachel plays Joan Crawford to Dex’s Humphrey Bogart. It is carceral, hierarchized, and Foucauldian in its ‘futurism’ (not only in its surveillance, but in the brief lifespans of the “lower class” of replicants, which reminds me of what Foucault says about the bourgeois “cult of life” and trying to live forever). While the machines breathe and flicker like humans, naturalized, the humans are mechanical, robotic, unrecognizable in their humanity. The presentation of space renders the horizontality of LA as verticality, but often flatly – the opening scenes present the buildings as cutouts against the smog, the flying craft move in gridlike patterns (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “striated space”), and the advertisements playing on the sides of high-rises are like the opening credits of Mad Men – massive plays on surface and the Jamesonian sublime (many of the products are real, too – like Coke). This LA has illegible foods and surfaces, saturated as it is with a melange of “Asian” cultures – bicycles, noodles, and characters from numerous Oriental languages.

The film engages intertextually with a wide range of other materials. As a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it at least materializes women (which that novel does not – Dr. Frankenstein throws the component female parts into the sea in a trunk). But it parallels the classic novel in presenting the rejected spawn of the scientist’s mind as “human” – returning in this case to beg for more life. His queer, campy brand of aestheticized violence and superhuman capabilities remind me of Omar in David Simon’s TV series The Wire, and like the gay murderer of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Scott provides another model for homosexual masculinity than effeteness. Many of the female characters are strikingly robotic and, in Pris’ case (Daryl Hannah as a sex slave), unintelligent, suggesting that men have “programmed” them that way, both literally and metaphorically. Like Pynchon’s Pierce Inverarity, who lives on “as a paranoia,” Tyrell’s death fails even to dent the monolith of social change is corporation has wrought.

It would be interesting to think about how the original ending of the film – with the unicorn sequence revealing Deck as a replicant and the fantasy of “driving away” into the country would act in conversation with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an urban tale focused on the many nodes of city space, as well as its resistant fringes (the underbelly of the city, too). This “resolved” ending is more 50s, or 80s-conservativist, and the more ambiguous end of the origami unicorn and uncertain escape seem more 40s, or noir, in tone.

The film interests me in terms of surfaces in a number of ways. First, it challenges the status and even the value of memory as a source of depth, as it was in many modernist works. Like the “unicorn sequence” that suggests Deckard’s “memory” is false as well, all the replicants are “implanted” with memories from a computer database, which they believe to be their own, but which are fabrications. Deckard’s name also has the ring of Descartes, or “deck-of-cards” – you might connect this to the crisis of the cogito, ergo sum in the film or to Eliot’s The Waste Land and the shuffling of pieces in and out of persona. Pris and Roy’s insistence on styling themselves is a sort of queer-empowered surface rendering of Foucault’s ideas about self-fashioning. Roy speaks largely in song lyrics, and the cheesy, melodramatic flight of the dove at his death makes him (his body) into a work of art in a paradoxically humanizing mode. The replicants also squat in an empty building like artists as well. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go seems to have faith that art is redemptive, whereas that is a subject for contemplation and distress in Scott’s universe.


Deleuze & Guattari, Introduction: “One Thousand Plateaus”


Translator’s Note (Brian Massumi): Deleuze “discovered an orphan line of thinkers who were tied by no direct descendance but were united in their opposition to the State philosophy that would nevertheless accord them minor positions in its canon. Between Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson there exists a ‘secret link constituted by the critique of negativity, the cultivation of joy, the hatred of interiority, the exteriority of forces and relations, the denunciation of power'” x. Guattari is a practicing psychoanalyst. Versus phallogocentrism as pointed out by Cixous and Irigaray (“what the most privileged model of rocklike identity is goes without saying”), “Deleuze & Guattari describe it as the ‘arborescent model’ of thought (the proudly erect tree under whose spreading boughs latter-day Platos conduct their class) xii. “Nomad thought does not immure itself in the edifice of an ordered interiority; it moves freely in an element of exteriority” xii.

“The space of nomad thought is qualitatively different from State space. Air against earth. State space is ‘striated,’ or gridded. Movement in it is confined as by gravity to a horizontal plane, and limited by the order of that plane to preset paths between fixed and identifiable points. Nomad space is ‘smooth,’ or open-ended. One can rise up at any point and move to any other. Its mode of distribution is the nomos: arraying oneself in an open space (hold the street), as opposed to the logos of entrenching oneself in a closed space (hold the fort)” xiii.

For Massumi, nomad thought is comparable to Spinoza’s ethics, Nietzsche’s gay science, Artaud’s crowned anarchy, Blanchot’s ‘space of literature,’ or Foucault’s ‘outside thought’ xiii. “On a formal level, it is mathematics and music that create the smoothest of the smooth spaces” xiii. (Philosophy is more “music with content” than the opposite.) The book, then, is more like a record – one can skip tracks, repeat, etc. “Plateau” has its origins in a sexual reference – to a world of “plateaus’ in sexuality, rather than “the West’s orgasmic orientation” xiv.

“A plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax. The heightening of energies is sustained long enough to leave a kind of afterimage of its dynamism that can be reactivated or injected into other activities, creating a fabric of intensive states between which any number of connecting routes could exist” xiv.

Thus, ‘consistency’ or ‘style’ here is a holding together, rather than a homogeneity. The particular dates of particular chapters “correspond to the point at which that particular dynamism found its purest incarnation in matter… that never lasts more than a flash” xiv.

“The reader is invited to follow each section to the plateau that rises from the smooth space of its composition, and to move from one plateau to the next at pleasure. But it is just as good to ignore the heights. You can take a concept that is particularly to your liking and jump with it to its next appearance. They tend to cycle back. Some might call that repetitious. Deleuze and Guattari call it a refrain. Most of all, the reader is invited to lift a dynamism out of the book entirely, and incarnate it in a foreign medium, whether it be painting or politics. The authors steal from other disciplines with glee, but they are more than happy to return the favor” xv.

“Deleuze’s own image for a concept is not a brick, but a ‘tool box.’ He calls his kind of philosophy ‘pragmatics’ because its goal is the invention of concepts that do not add up to a system of belief or an architecture of propositions that you either enter or you don’t, but instead pack a potential in the way a crowbar in a willing hand envelops an energy of prying… read [this book] as a challenge: to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes could exist. Some might call that promiscuous. Deleuze and Guattari call it revolution” xv.

Interesting how the text enacts “refrain” here! “The question is not: is it true? But: does it work?” xv.


In the process of writing together, “We are no longer ourselves… We have been aided, inspired, multiplied” 3.

“A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements… articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories… lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification… rates of flow… phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity… acceleration and rupture… an assemblage… It is a multiplicity” 3-4.

“One side of a machine assemblage faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signifying totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity” 4.

“What is the body without organs of a book?… there is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made… as an assemblage, a book has only itself, in connection with other assemblages and in relation to other bodies without organs… [not] what it means, as signified or signifier… with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own converge” 4.

“A book exists only through the outside and on the outside… this literary machine to a war machine, love machine… All we talk about are multiplicities, lines, strata, and segmentarities… writing as always the measure of something else” 4.

“Writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come” 5.

The authors describe “the root-book… the classical book, as noble signifying, and subjective organic interiority (the strata of the book)” 5.  ”

“The book imitates the world, as art imitates nature… The law of the book is the law of reflection, the One that becomes two… whenever we encounter this formula, even stated strategically by Mao or understood in the most ‘dialectical’ way possible, what we have before us is the most classical and well reflected, oldest, and weariest kind of thought… [but] in nature, roots are taproots with a more multiple, lateral, and circular system of ramification, rather than a dichotomous one… Binary logic is the spiritual reality of the root-tree… this system of thought has never reached an understanding of multiplicity… [but instead a dualism based in] a strong principle unity…” 5.

“The binary logic of dichotomy has simply been replaced by biunivocal relationships between successive circles. The pivotal taproot provides no better understanding of multiplicity than the dichotomous root. One operates in the object, the other in the subject. Binary logic and biunivocal relationships still dominate psychoanalysis… linguistics, structuralism, and even information systems…” 5.

Deleuze & Guattari point to the “radicle-system or fascicular root” (interesting that radical has as its root the word “root,” and that fascicular is the same root, fascista, as gives us fascist) 5 and William Burroughs’ “cut-up method: the folding of one text onto another, which constitutes multiple and even adventitious roots… implies a supplementary dimension… of folding… the most resolutely fragmented work can also be presented as the Total Work or Magnum Opus” 6.

“Most modern methods for making series proliferate or a multiplicity grow are perfectly valid in one direction, for example, a linear direction, whereas a unity of totalization asserts itself even more firmly in another, circular or cyclic, dimension. Whenever a multiplicity is taken up in a structure, its growth is offset by a reduction in its laws of combination. The abortionists of unity are indeed angel makers, doctores angelici, because they affirm a properly angelic and superior unity. Joycce’s words, accurately described as having ‘multiple roots,’ shatter the linear unity of the word, even of language, only to posit a cyclic unity of the sentence, text, or knowledge: 6.

“The fascicular system does not really break with dualism, with the complementarity between a subject and an object… the world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world… A strange mystification: a book all the more total for being fragmented… The multiple must be made… Subtract the unique from the multiplicity to be constituted; write at n-1 dimensions. A system of this kind could be called a rhizome” 6.

“The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers… the best and the worst…” 7.

The authors go on to delineate 6 characteristics of the rhizome:

1. & 2. “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” 7. They want to differentiate this from other systems, including Chomsky’s on language, which holds a central symbol. “Our criticism of these linguistic models is not that they are too abstract but, on the contrary, that they are not abstract enough… A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles… a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages… no ideal speaker-listener” 8. The rhizome decenters and destabilizes language.

3. “It is only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, ‘multiplicity,’ that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world” 8.

“Multiplicities are rhizomatic, and expose arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide in the subject. A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows). Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet in other dimensions… the weave… An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhyizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines… making the whole piece proliferate.” 8.

“Unity always operates in an empty dimension supplementary to that of the system considered (overcoding). The point is that a rhizome or multiplicity never allows itself to be overcoded, never has available a supplementary dimension over and above its number of lines, that is, over and above the multiplicity of numbers attached to those lines. All multiplicities are flat, in the sense that they fill or occupy all of their dimensions… a plane of consistensy of multiplicities… the dimensions of this ‘plane’ increase with the number of connections… Multiplicities are defined by the outside… the line of flight or deterritorialization according to which they change in nature and connect with other multiplicities… flattening all of the multiplicities on a single plane of consistency or exteriority, regardless of their number of dimensions” 8-9.

“The ideal for a book would be to lay everything out on a plane of exteriority of this kind, on a single page, the same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social formations… a broken chain of affects and variable speeds, with accelerations and transformations, always in a relation to the outside. Open rings [versus] the classical or romantic book constituted by the interiority of a substance or subject. The war-machine book against the State apparatus-book. Flat multiplicities of n dimensions are asignifying and asubjective… partitives… some…” 9.

4. “Against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure. A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines… ants… lines of segmentarity… as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees… one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy” 9.  “Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystallize” 10. ‘We form a rhizome with our viruses, or rather our viruses cause us to form a rhizome with other animals… The rhizome is an anti-genealogy” 10-11.

“The same applies to the book and the world: contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it is capable, if it can). Mimicry is a very bad concept, since it relies on binary logic to describe phenomena of an entirely different nature” 11. (hysterical realism!)

“Always follow the rhizome by rupture; lengthen, prolong, and relay the line of flight; make it vary, until you have produced the most abstract and tortuous of lines of n dimensions and broken directions… Follow the plants: you start by delimiting a first line consisting of circles of convergence around successive singularities; then you see whether inside that line new circles of convergence establish themselves, with new points located outside the limits and in other directions. Write, form a rhizome… extend the line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract maching covering the entire plane of consistency” 11.

D & G idealize music somewhat because it so often overturns its own structures.

5. & 6. “Cartography… The rhizome is… a map and not a tracing… entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real… does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious… connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs… open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification… Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways… the burrow… performance [vs competence]” 12 (think of Silko and Pynchon, as well as of Jameson’s critice of the Hotel Bonaventure).  Applied to psychoanalysis, this approach pushes against approaches that treat drives as “entryways and exits,” not facile labels and structures to which patients easily adhere 13. “Take a look at psychoanalysis and linguistics: all the former has ever made are tracings or photos of the unconscious, and the latter of language” 13. “Plug the tracings back into the map,” suggest the authors 14.

“If it is true that it is of the essence of the map or rhizome to have multiple entryways, then it is plausible that one could even enter them through tracings or the root-tree, assuming the necessary precautions are taken… one will often be forced to take dead ends, to work with signifying powers and subjective affections, to find a foothold in formations that are Oedipal or paranoid or even worse, rigidified territorialities that open the way for other transformational operations. i tis even possible for psychoanalysis to serve as a foothold, in spite of itself… there are very diverse map-tracing, rhizome-root assemblages, with variable coefficients of deterritorialization… a tree branch or root might begin to burgeon into a rhizome… aggregates of intensities” 15.

(This sounds a lot like Foucault’s suggestion for resisting power structures.) “Accounting and bureaucracy proceed by trancings: they can begin to burgeon nonetheless, throwing out rhizome stems, as in a Kafka novel. An intensive trait… challenging the hegemony of the signifier” 15. The child has freedom in his movements from dominance (think Lolita!).

“To be rhizomorphous is to produce stems and filaments that seem to be roots, or better yet connect with them by penetrating the trunk, but put them to strange new uses. We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, radicles… from biology to linguistics” 15.

“Thought is not arborescent, and the brain is not a rooted or ramified matter. What are wrongly called ‘dendrites’ do not assure the connection of neurons in a continuous fabric… the leap each message makes across these fissures, make the brain a multiplicity immersed in its plane of consistency or neuroglia, a whole uncertain, probabilistic system (‘the uncertain nervous system’). Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree” 15.

D & G differentiate between short-term memory as rhizome and long-term memory as tree:

“The splendor of the short-term Idea: one writes using short-term memory, and thus short-term ideas, even if one reads or rereads using long-term memory of long-term concepts. Short-term memory includes forgetting as a process; it merges not with the instant but instead with the nervous, temporal, and collective rhizome” 16.

“The tree and root inspire a sad image of thought that is forever imitating the multiple on the basis of a centered or segmented higher unity… even if the links themselves proliferate, one can never get beyond the One-Two, and fake multiplicities… even when one thinks one has reached a multiplicity, it may be a false one – of what we call the radicle type – because its ostensibly nonhierarchical presentation or statement in fact only admits of a totally hierarchical solution.. the structure of Power” 16-17.

“Psychoanalysis… subjects the unconscious to arborescent structures, hierarchical graphs, recapitulatory memories, central organs, the phallus, the phallus-tree… a dictatorial conception of the unconscious… there is always a leader (General Freud). Schizoanalysis, on the other hand, treats the unconscious as an acentered system, in other words, as a machine network of finite automata (a rhizome), and thus arrives at an entirely different state of the unconscious… and linguistics… never to reduce the unconscious or to interpret it or to make it signify according to a tree model… [but to] produce the unconscious… new statements, different desires: the rhizome is precisely the production of the unconscious” 18.

(How ironic that Saussure came up with the argument for sign, a unity made of the binary signified/signifier, with the arbor/tree example.)

“Transcendence: a specifically European disease. Neither is music [in the East and the West] the same, the music of the earth is different, as is sexuality: seed plants, even those with two sexes in the same plant, subjugate sexuality to the reproductive model; the rhizome, on the other hand, is a liberation of sexuality not only from reproduction but also from genitality. Here in the West, the tree has implanted itself in our bodies, rigidifying and stratifying even the sexes. We have lost the rhizome, or the grass” 18.

“America is a special case. Of course it is not immune from domination by trees or the search for roots. This is evident in the literature, in the quest for a national identity and even for a European ancestry or genealogy… nevertheless, everything important that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs, successive lateral offshoots in immediate connection with an outside. American books are different than European books, even when the American sets off in pursuit of trees. The conception of the book is different. Leaves of Grass. And directions in America are different: the search for arborescence and the return to the Old World occur in the East. But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American ‘map’ in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes. America reversed the directions: it put its Orient in the West, as if it were precisely in America that the earth came full circle, its West is the edge of the East” 19.

“[America] proceeds both by internal exterminations and liquidations (not only the Indians but also the farmers, etc) and by successive waves of immigration from the outside. The flow of capital produces an immense channel, a quanitification of power with immediate ‘quanta,’ where each person profits from the passage of the money flow in his or her own way (hence the reality-myth of the poor man who strikes it rich and then falls into poverty again): in America, everything comes together, tree and channel, root and rhizome. There is no universal capitalism, there is no capitalism in itself; capitalism is at the crossroads of all kinds of formations; it is neocapitalism by nature. It invents its eastern face and western face, and reshapes them both – all for the worst” 20.

This seems relevant again to Foucault’s idea of how to fight fire with fire, so to speak.

“There are knot of arborescence in rhizomes, and rhizomatic offshoots in roots… the root-tree and canal-rhizome are not two opposed models: the first operates as a transcendent model and tracing, even if it engenders its own escapes; the second operates as an immanent process that overturns the model and outlines a map, even if it constitutes its own hierarchies… not a question of this or that place on earth, or of a given moment in history… a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing, and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again… not a new or different dualism… we employ a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models” 20.

“Arrive at the magic formula we all seek – Pluralism = Monism – via all the dualisms that are the enemy, an entirely necessary enemy, the furniture we are forever rearranging… it is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion… neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills. It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plane of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n-1). When a multiplicity of this kind changes dimension, it necessarily changes in nature as well, undergoes a metamorphosis” 21.

“Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relationships between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made only of lines: lines of segmentarity and stratification as its dimensions, and the line of flight or deterritorialization as the maximum dimension after which the multiplicity undergoes metamorphosis… it is a short-term memory, or antimemory… operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots… a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight… an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton… What is at question in the rhizome is a relation to sexuality – but also to the animal, the vegetal, the world, politics, the book, things natural and artificial – that is totally different from the arborescent relation: all manner of ‘becomings'” 21.

“A plateau is always in the middle… a rhizome is made of plateaus… a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end… [Balinese] mother-child sexual games… ‘Some sort of contintuing plateau of intensity is substituted for (sexual) climax’… a book composed of chapters has culmination and termination points. What takes place in a book composed instead of plateaus that communicate with one another across microfissures, as in a brain? We call a ‘plateau’ any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome” 22.

“Rhizomatics = schizoanalysis = stratoanalysis = pragmatics = micropolitics. These words are concepts, but concepts are lines, which is to say, number systems attached to a particular dimension of the multiplicities… all we know are assemblages… machinic assemblages of desire and collective assemblages of enunciation” 22.

“It’s not easy to see thinkgs in the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left… never is a plateau separable from the cows that populate it, which are also the clouds in the sky” 23.

The authors oppose Nomadology to History – not the sedentary, unified product of the state apparatus, but a moving, diverse one of multiple narratives. “Why is a model still necessary?” 24.

“Rhizomatics = pop analysis, even if the people have other things to do besides read it, even if the blocks of academic culture or pseudoscientificity in it are still too painful or ponderous… any precarious and pragmatic framework is better than tracing concepts, with their breaks and progress changing nothing. Imperceptible rupture, not signifying break” 24.

“A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjuncion, ‘and… and… and…’… proceeding from the middle, coming and going rather than starting and finishing. American literature, and already English literature, manifest this rhizomatic direction to an even greater extent; they know how to move between things, establish a logic of the and, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings” 25.

Again, this would be an interesting linguistic/national/periodizing gesture to include in the justification of the works I’m choosing – mostly American but also British novels and television series.

Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.