Category Archives: Writing

all these words have been poisoned, right?

McKenzie Wark, interviewed at Believer:

… in Capital is Dead I wanted to ask the question of how have we innovated language—god, I hate that word, innovate. All these words have been poisoned, right? What’s the art, if I can say that, what’s the literary dimension of writing theory? It’s a genre of literature, Marx is a literary genius. We sort of lose track of that, creating language to describe new situations but in ways that don’t lose track of their genesis and genealogy. To write theory as a literary genre, to tackle that, rather than recycle these terms we picked up from the great famous names. 

BLVR: You mentioned in a previous interview that words just aren’t doing the work anymore and if they’re not doing the work we need to be creating new ones.

MW: I think to call it “bio-political-capitalism” or “neoliberal capital” or “post-fordist capital” or using a modifier that has a modifier on the front of it—it just strikes me as bad poetry. It’s the kind of thing an editor would strike. Here’s three words–what’s the one word that would do that job? If you keep using this old language you see how it’s connected to the past. There’s kind of an aesthetic dimension to theory as a genre of literature, and I want to make it fresh, make it new. A language of surprise. What I wanted to do in Capital is Dead is reinvigorate that sense of to write theory is a form of literature. 

So much this. My first Wark was her histories of the Situationists, and I’ve loved most everything I’ve read since then, particularly Molecular Red. And regular readers will know that I’m always-already on the same team as anyone who thinks “innovation” is a trash-fire suitcase word of the worst kind…

Elsewhere in this interview Wark points out that this isn’t about “dumbing down”, but rather a matter of avoiding the abstruse contortions and deference to deep specialist detail that academic theory can sometimes encourage. I’m probably biased, but I also feel that there are some disciplines where the horizontality and foxiness she’s advocating are more commonplace… environmental politics, f’rex, is a really small-c catholic field, less a discipline than an oddball bordertown at the juncture of a dozen different disciplines, where anything goes as long as it works. (By contrast, the old-school poli-sci folk at my department are, well, very old-school, with clear disciplinary and theoretical fidelity to a particular topic or approach. And there’s probably room for both?)

But yeah: part of the challenge of my own theoretical work (still pretty much on hold, because it’s not what I’m paid to do, and what I’m paid to do is keeping me plenty busy right now) is to absorb enough material from a big sheaf of fields and disciplines that I can demonstrate a useful grasp of it without getting sucked into the minutia, and then leap sidewise between/across/through those fields in such a way as to show conceptual connections that do explanatory work. S’why I’m assuming I’ll not have much of a chance placing it with a trad academic publisher, once I actually get it written; they’ll be like “please provide five keywords situating the work in the leading edge of the field” and I’ll be like “wait, I only get five?” That’s why Molecular Red was such an inspiration: partly because it’s a book that lives its own argument, so to speak—it doesn’t just argue for foxiness, it does foxiness—but also for the more direct feeling of “oh, wait, you can do this? You can write like this about this sort of stuff?” Easterling comes with a similar kick, as does late-style Haraway. Massive parallelism, unity of theme. Yes.

the efficient universe

Synchronicity, serendipity, universal ordering… call it what you want, but sometimes you’re working on something, and out of nowhere a useful bit of info just drops into your lap or, in this case, your inbox. Joanne McNeil’s latest newsletter contains this little aside:

I was looking for a quote about efficiency in life…something said by a…an…economist? Someone not know for sentimentality? Something about…old shoes? Finally I plugged in the right search words and found it. here it is:

“I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs, because everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency—love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes.” — Edward Luttwak

I’m not sure when or how I first came across it, but it appears in Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.

I’ve just started working on a thing—or what may turn out to be a number of things, or perhaps just a thread that runs through a number of things which I am and will be doing?—which revolves around the definition of the word “efficiency” as used by economists, as contrasted to the way the rest of us tend to use it. As such, that Luttwak quote is a gift, because it illustrates exactly the point I’m trying to work with, albeit in an unusually poetic and roundabout way.

Thanks, Joanne! Hopefully some random snippet that I throw out here will help someone else out, and I will get to pay the favour forward…

struck by the fact of your own mortality

From a 1984 Paris Review interview with James Baldwin:

INTERVIEWER: This brings us to your concern with reality as being history, with seeing the present shaded by everything which occurred in a person’s past. James Baldwin has always been bound by his past, and his future. At forty, you said you felt much older than that.

BALDWIN: That is one of those things a person says at forty, at forty especially. It was a great shock to me, forty. And I did feel much older than that. Responding to history, I think a person is in sight of his or her death around the age of forty. You see it coming. You are not in sight of your death at thirty, less so at twenty-five. You are struck by the fact of your mortality, that it is unlikely you’ll live another forty years. So time alters you, actually becoming either an enemy or a friend.

INTERVIEWER: You seem very troubled—but not by death?

BALDWIN: Yes, true, but not at all by death. I’m troubled over getting my work done and over all the things I’ve not learned. It’s useless to be troubled by death, because then, of course, you can’t live at all.

the feared disseminators of complexity

A new discovery, made within Simon Reynolds’ response to the shuttering of Beyond the Beyond: Matti Swiedmann’s Red Velvet Corridor.

Top of the stack of posts at present is this thing, rambling around in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard… all the intervals in that haunting earworm of a scale that I’m still teaching myself to play. I got as far as this passage before knowing I was on board:

… all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

I guess one upside of the demise of the blog as a popular medium is that there’s space for people to write like this and leave the comments open without having to spend hours of every day wading through the moronic vitriol of replyguy chumps. Blogs may be dead media, but old infrastructures have a tendency of hanging around and being put to new uses once they become unprofitable… Reynolds’s beloved Hardcore Continuum relied upon the graveyards of British industry to be its seeding-bed, after all. It’s nice to know there’s still some of us out here, dancing in the ruins.