What’s Interesting about Roussel’s Impressions of Africa

It’s fairly easy to summarize Roussel’s Impressions of Africa: ca. 1900, some French people set sail for South America, but a storm ruins their ship and blows them toward Africa, where after they drift ashore they’re captured by an African kind who decides to hold them for ransom, sending a messenger to France stating that if he doesn’t receive the ransom, the survivors will all be killed. While everyone’s waiting for a response (which is never really in doubt—the ransom will be paid and everyone will return to France) the African king decides to hold a coronation ceremony, and to make it interesting he invites everyone to present some spectacle, deciding that whoever presents the best spectacle will win some prize. The spectacles are performed, the cat battle wins, the coronation wraps up, and finally the ransom arrives from France and everyone returns home. None of this plot stuff happens, however, until the second half of the book. The first half, chapter after chapter, is entirely given over to describing in intricate and context-less details the individual spectacles. Characters are named as if we know them already and without any explanation; some characters are executed beautifully though we have no idea of their crimes. If you want explanations or reasons for any of the spectacular objects or events or performances described throughout the first half of the book, it would be very difficult to get through; but the spectacles themselves are so interesting, so elaborately and minutely described and so wonderful and fantastic that if you give yourself over to these descriptions the book is very fun. If this first part of the book relies on the reader accepting that the spectacles are interesting in and of themselves, though, the second half provides all the back story, presumably satisfying the resistant reader who wants to know what all these things mean.

The thing is, the second half of the book is actually where the book becomes intolerably boring. Contrary to one of Jameson’s comments about Roussel—“his unimaginably detailed and minute description of objects—an absolutely infinite process without principle or thematic interest of any kind—forces the reader to work laboriously through one sentence after another, world without end” (Postmodernism 73)—I found the real labor of the book to be in trying to make it through the second half, where the endless descriptions give way to chapter after chapter explaining the shipwreck and the various other histories that led each character to appear in the coronation, along with (usually) their individual discoveries of the objects or spectacles which have already been described to us. What we find is that where we might expect such back stories to fill in emotional resonances behind some of the scenes, instead the only parts of the second half of the book that rise to the same level of interestingness as the first are the moments when these back stories branch off into their own elaborate descriptions of completely irrelevant objects or events. It is precisely in those parts of the stories that should ostensibly provide meaning for the earlier spectacles the book becomes intolerably boring.

I mention Jameson because I happened to be slogging through the second half of Impressions of Africa just when I was also reading Jameson’s postmodernism book, and because one easy reading of Roussel would be that his narrative techniques radicalize the surface—an essentially postmodern move, according to Jameson—I was curious to note that Jameson makes several offhand comments about Roussel. Unsurprisingly, Jameson does appear to view Roussel as a sort of modernist seed of postmodernism, thought it’s Jameson’s location of the difficulty of Roussel in his endless descriptions that got me really thinking. Because what potentially makes these descriptions difficult—and what conversely makes them so fun to read—seems not to do with anything inherently boring or difficult about the, but rather with a reader’s potential willingness to disregard narrative’s normal creation of desire for the meaning behind events.

I think a typical Jamesonian reading of the radicalization of surface in Roussel would link it to the way surfaceness in postmodernism is supposed to tear discourse from its historical boundedness, contributing to the peculiar late capitalist difficulty of mapping our situational within material history. Roussel would either then prefigure or perhaps inaugurate the postmodern invitation to enjoy this unboundedness—enjoy the surface in all its lack of meaning or material determination. A more sympathetic reading, and the one I most often considered while reading Impressions of Africa, is that this is a critique (for better or worse) of the form of meaning-making by consultation of historical narrative—whatever is explained by our awareness of the material conditions that bring about a beautiful or interesting surface, the explanation fails to exhaust the meaning of that surface. But, then, I’m not sure it’s actually a critique. After all, every last one of the wonders of the first half of the book is wholly and adequately explained to the reader in the second half. What really happens is not that Roussel critiques the possibility of explaining the meaning behind these spectacles so much as he deflates the potential for these explanations to be interesting. In fact, part of what’s so boring about these explanations is how totally and simply they account for every aspect of the elaborate spectacles.

Part of Sianne Ngai’s account of the interesting as an aesthetic category  has to do with the way declaring something interesting is always in some sense asking after why it is interesting, a call for justification that it is interesting. In this way, “the aesthetic of the interesting thus has the capacity to produce knowledge” in a way that is unique among aesthetic categories (815). Impressions of Africa seems very much to play with the way the interesting works on this level. What is either exhilarating or frustrating about the first half of the book is the way it confounds our desire to have these spectacles explained to us (a desire partially created by the fact that they’re presented to us as part of a larger narrative we at first get almost nothing of). By confounding this desire, the reader is invited to suspect that their question “why is this interesting?” is the twin question of “what does this mean?” or “what is the cause of this?” so that explanation and justification of interestingness become conflated. The latter of those questions is then answered to an almost exaggerated level of certainty, while because of the absence of the interesting that we find in this explanation the former begins to take on more importance even as the reader increasingly realizes the impossibility of satisfactorily answering it. To the extent that the interesting really does raise questions of justification or promise some production of knowledge in the pursuit of those questions, what is troubling and exciting about Roussel here is that he makes us aware that conventional narrative guides us to expect this knowledge will be looked for in a certain way, and forces us to confront that we have little idea as to really what sort of knowledge we should expect interestingness to lead us to.

This is complicated, though, by our awareness after the publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books that Roussel’s composition method prefigures much of contemporary procedural and conceptual poetics. The question then might be to what extent this awareness satisfies the search for justification and/or the production of knowledge inherent in first finding Roussel’s work interesting. Is it that the material conditions of composition are what is interesting and therefore meaningful and Roussel’s little play at exhausting explanation is really just a ruse?

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Roussel’s Procedural Handel

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910), trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011, (204-06).

According to Corfield, a musical phrase hatched by a brow endowed with such a divine spark could enliven many pages of score with its breath, even when banally developed by a mere technician. On the other hand, the speaker added, an ordinary theme, treated by even the most inspired mind, would necessarily preserve its heaviness and awkwardness, never managing to conceal the indelible stamp of its undistinguished origins.

At these words Handel let out a bellow of protest, claiming that, even on a mechanically devised motif furnished solely by chance, he was quite sure he could write an entire oratorio worthy of inclusion among his works.

This assertion having provoked certain murmurs of doubt, Handel, stimulated by the libations of the feast, stood abruptly, declaring that he wanted, then and there and before witnesses, to establish honestly the skeleton of such a work.

Feeling his way, the illustrious composer headed toward the fireplace and plucked from a vase several branches of holly left over from the previous Christmas. He lined them up on the marble mantelpiece, drawing everyone’s attention to their number, which rose to seven; each branch was to represent one not of the scale and carry some kind of sign that would make it identifiable as such.

The maestro’s elderly housekeeper, Madge, an expert seamstress, was immediately sent for and ordered to provide—that very instant—seven thin ribbons of different hues.

The ingenious woman, hardly put out by such a trifle, returned after a brief moment with seven ribbons, each partaking of one color of the prism.

Corfield, at the great composer’s request, knotted a ribbon around each stem without disturbing the regularity of the alignment.

This done, Handel invited his guests to contemplate for a moment the gamut spread before their eyes, each attendee attempting to keep in memory the correspondence of colors to notes.

Then the maestro himself, his sense of touch prodigiously refined by blindness, proceeded to a minute examination of the clusters, scrupulously registering in his memory a given particularity created by the arrangement of leaves or the spread between their thorny points.

Once he was sure, Handel gathered the seven branches of holly in his left hand and pointed toward his worktable, bidding Corfield bring his pen and inkwell.

Guided out of the room by one of his faithful devotees, the blind maestro had himself led to the stairway, whose flat, white banister lent itself perfectly to his designs.

At length, after shuffling the branches of holly, which no longer retained a trace of their initial order, Handel called for Corfield, who handed him the plume dipped in ink.

Brushing haphazardly, the the free fingers of his right hand, one of the spiky clusters, which for him had individual personalities recognizable to the touch, the blind man approached the handrail, on which he easily wrote, in ordinary letters, the note indicated by the rapid contact.

Descending one step and again shuffling the thick bouquet, Handel, by the same purely random process of touch, gathered a second note, which he inscribed a bit lower on the rail.

And so his descent continued, slow and regular. At each step, the maestro conscientiously rearranged the sheaf in every direction before seeking, with his fingertips, the designation of some unpremeditated sound immediately inscribed in sufficiently legible letters.

The guests followed their host step by step, easily verifying the rectitude of the process by checking the variously colored ribbons. Sometimes, Corfield took the plume and dipped it in ink before handing it back to the blind man.

After ten minutes, Handel wrote the twenty-third note and descended the last step, which left him back at the ground floor. Reaching a bench, he rested a moment from his labors, telling his friends his main reason for choosing such an unorthodox form of notation.

Sensing his end was near, Handel had bequeathed his entire house to the City of London, which planned to turn it into a museum. A large quantity of manuscripts, curios, and memorabilia of all sorts already promised to make any visit to the illustrious home highly worthwhile. Still, the maestro remained haunted by the constant desire to augment the attraction of the future pilgrimage site. This was why, seizing the propitious opportunity, he had that very evening made of the handrail in question an imperishable monument, by autographing onto it the odd and incoherent theme whose length was alone determined by the previously unspecified number of steps, which thereby added a supplemental peculiarity to the mechanical and deliberate aspect of the composition.

Restored by these few moments of rest, Handel, accompanied by his friends, went back up to his study, where the evening ended on a gay note. Corfield volunteered to transcribe the musical phrase spawned by the whims of chance, and the maestro promised to follow its parameters strictly, reserving only two liberties for himself: the duration of the notes and the pitch, which could move unrestrictedly from one octave to the next.

The very next day, Handel set to work with the help of a secretary accustomed to taking his dictation.

Blindness had in no way lessened the famous musician’s intellectual faculties.

In his hands, the theme with its bizarre contours acquired an engaging and beautiful grace, through ingenious combinations of rhythm and harmony.

The same twenty-three-note phrase, repeated over and over but each time presented in different form, alone constituted the famous oratorio Vesper, a powerful and serene work whose success continues to this day.

 

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Coke as Queer Utopianism

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
-Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

“In it’s everyday manifestation such an object would represent alienated production and consumption. But Warhol and O’Hara both detect something else in the object of a Coke bottle and in the act of drinking a Coke with someone. What we glean from Warhol’s philosophy is the understanding that utopia exists in the quotidian. Both queer cultural workers are able to detect an opening and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead commodity.”
-José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

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On Raoul Eshelman’s “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism.”

The new notion of performativity serves neither to foreground nor contextualize the subject, but rather to preserve it: the subject is presented (or presents itself) as a holistic, irreducible unit that makes a binding impression on a reader or observer.
-Eshelmen, “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism”

As a piece of writing, I don’t find Eshelman’s “Performatism” to be very convincing at all. It seems as if Eshelman essentially establishes post-postmodernism by fiat, from which two other main assumptions follow: 1) that postmodern thinking, basically defined as thinkers in the latter half of the twentieth century but prior to, like, 1997 or something, are wrong, or that we no longer think like them, and 2) that postmodern is purely pessimism and nihilism. Therefore, the answer to postmodernism, performatism, must be diametrically opposed to postmodern thinking: optimistic and defined by belief. The logical structure of that argument just bothers me, and in addition to that I find almost none of Eshelman’s readings of films or literature or art to be convincing at all, either in those places where he attempts to articulate the obsolescence of postmodern art, or more often in those places where he tries to describe how his selected artworks are performatist. This could just be because American Beauty seems like a profoundly stupid movie in every way to me, so it’s hard for me to accept it as a paradigm of the new direction in thought.

Particularly egregious in this essay are those moments when he tries to outline a performatist politics, as are his arguments about the reassertion of the phallus. His notion about performatist politics seems to boil down to a replacement of politics with the achievement of personal transcendence and wholesome living. He correctly points out that because of the size and complexity of the most dire political problems we’re faced with (environmental problems, for example, cannot be adequately addressed by a politics of resistance and emancipation, really, and the contemporary economic world creates problems whose solutions very likely cannot resemble the sort of mass revolutionary politics nor the critical acts of localized resistance that early and late modernism tended to envision), new ideas of the political are needed. But the solution offered by performatism borders on the solipsistic: “If we do not become the sort of people–more reflective in our demands, more modest in our needs, more attentive in our actions–who could inhabit a responsible economy, such an economy will not come to us by law or government. Because it will not come without law and government, changing ourselves is all the more important” (6). Essentially, we are invited to performatively change ourselves to good people who believe in love (or just believe in things more generally) which will create a new space that through a kind of osmosis of goodness will draw out a new government and economy. I’m sorry, but this is stupid. His argument about the re-invigorated phallus seems likewise to be incredibly problematic. If he were just arguing for a way that the phallus can now be understood as not necessarily oppressive or dominant, that would be one thing (not unproblematic, but maybe less so, at least), but here he seems to base his sort of call for this reinvigoration on that really simple and old and wrongheaded classic division of masculine/active and feminine/passive, and when that’s your starting point, calling for the reassertive (but friendly! I promise!) phallus as a basis for the new performatist subject doesn’t get the benefit of doubt.

Backing away from those complaints, though, there is something here, in Eshelman’s idea of performatism. The basic idea behind a turn away from the endless ontological undermining of thought (and language and the subject and what-have-you) that characterized the 20th century does seem to bear a certain resonance in the present. For it to happen just as a naive and stupid rejection of all that critical work would, I believe, be likely to lead to the negative side of this possibiliity, and Eshelman’s insistence on treating all his examples as representative of a new transcendent hope for our present seems to lead precisely to those problems (see, as I just mentioned, his solipsistic politics). But the careful deployment of thought toward constructively building new ideas and concepts, of politics toward concrete localized actions of community-building, etc., these do seem to be aspects, and useful aspects, of the present. Within that matrix, a theory of performatism that begins with the holistic treatment of subjects and ideas as non-reducible could potentially carry some weight.

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1990: In some ways, not at all long ago.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990:

Always already a cultural sign, the body sets limits to the imaginary meanings that it occasions, but is never free of an imaginary construction. The fantasized body can never be understood in relation to the body as real; it can only be understood in relation to another culturally instituted fantasy, one which claims the place of the “literal” and the “real.” The limits to the “real” are produced within the naturalized heterosexualization of bodies in which physical facts serve as causes and desires reflect the inexorable effects of that physicality.

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