Labor without Ends

Anna E. Clark

My Brilliant Friend (2012) The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante, Translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions.

In her 1975 essay “Wages Against Housework,” feminist activist Silvia Federici argues that “housework”—cooking, cleaning, care, sex, kids—should be acknowledged as work, as something taken from the person who performs it and put to ends that are not her own. Part of a collective of Marxist and post-Marxist feminists working across Europe and North America, Federici had recently helped to launch “Wages for Housework” (or WfH), a campaign premised on the assertion that any attempt at class struggle must first contend with the unwaged domestic work expected of women. Written at time when New Left activists were accusing WfH of sidelining the interests of the industrial proletariat, Federici’s essay is both a rallying cry and a defense. Wages are not an end in themselves, she asserts; rather, they’re the only proof under capitalism that labor has taken place. “Exploited as you might be,” Federici explains, wages allow you to show that “you are not that work.[1]

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Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island: The best bad worst good book of the year of the week ever

satin island

The title of this review is a desperate cry for attention, which I figure is okay, since the book’s desperation-tinged blurb describes Satin Island as “an unnerving novel that promises to give us the first and last word on the world” and suggests that in this book McCarthy “captures—as only he can—the way we experience our world.” Take that, entire rest of the world!

Of course, the blurb is in part a joke, because the book’s main character, U., who is homophonic with “you,” dear reader (i.e., the “us” the blurb addresses), is meant to write a report about everything—a report that will “name the world we live in”—for a rich business tycoon. And my title is in part a joke. But also not.

How is it possible, you ask, for a book to be the best bad and worst good book of the year? Behold. On the one hand, Satin Island is just a shockingly bad piece of literary fiction, self-indulgent flatulence yet more cliched than the self-indulgent flatulence that preceded it. Consider this list of ’90s flashbacks: U. is (are?) an anthropologist who apparently got his PhD without ever reading anything other than Levi-Strauss (so he is also a ’90s literary theory professor); U. quotes (quote?) Deleuze and Badiou as if they were fresh meat; U. doesn’t (don’t?) quote, but uses concepts from, Lacan. The novel is about masks and performativity, and it draws false analogies between constructedness and fictiveness (here’s a quick hint: fictions are intentional, constructedness is a social process). U. even brings up and misuses Schrödinger’s much abused cat (at this point my marginal notes consist of the all-caps exclamation REALLY DUDE?!). He quotes sous les paves la plage, uses easily dissolved fallacies to produce apparent paradoxes (if a skydiver dies because the cords to his parachute were cut, when was he murdered? Incipit pages of ’90s theoretical guff), acts as if writing was an act of oppression against the material world (words pollute people like oil pollutes oceans!), frets about the way media and the internet have changed everything, and somehow manages to imply that Mallarmé was a totalitarian. The novel as a whole is a paean in praise of trash and excrescence. Like Underworld was. In 1997.

But rejoice, because Satin Island does all this in the novelistic form du jour: juxtapositions of random images that are meant to produce meaning. Back in high school, you may have experienced this as “modernism.” But now, for some reason (David Shields’ irrespressible charisma, maybe?), fragmentation is freighted with all kinds of revolutionary freshness. McCarthy’s images, fyi, are anthropology, material culture, oil-spills, the aforeimplied dead parachutist, media images of crowds, the Mallareméan “book,” sex with a woman called Madison, Leibniz, pomo theory, corporate speak, Vanuatu, the Shroud of Turin, the internet, cancer, and Staten Island. Of course it ends in New York. Thank you Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, et al.

Nnote “sex with a woman called Madison,” because this is where the book might get interesting. The lists above (the internet and cancer in one novel? Why not add the Shoah and child abuse?) might have been produced by a random literary novelist who doesn’t bother to read anything, and whose illiteracy leads him to think he’s being original or thought-provoking. But introducing a woman who, for three quarters of the novel, does literally nothing other than be inseminated? One simply does not do this any more, as McCarthy knows perfectly well.

No, it is impossible to believe that McCarthy would willingly write a book so cliche-ridden as to include the sexy girl who’s up for anything and never brings you down by, you know, talking or having a will of her own. And this leads me to think that the book’s best scenes are also the key to unlocking its secret.

i) U. imagines giving a speech at a conference. An attendee accuses him of aestheticizing pollution. U. shouts down this dissenter. It’s funny, and accurate: far too many writers want to aestheticize the everyday without recognizing that the everyday is usually boring and/or and instance of oppression and/or destruction.

ii) In the book’s penultimate scene, Madison describes a trip to a protest, after which she is tortured in a rather surreal way. She ends up suggesting that human suffering might be more important than things like rhizomatics. It’s not funny, or original, but at least Madison’s allowed to do something other than fuck U.

These two scenes are important because they make it possible to read Satin Island as a spot-on parody of our zeit’s most tiresome literary geists. Why, I wonder, did McCarthy miss only one of our literary tropes—and why, specifically, did he miss one of the few worth using, i.e., female characters being something other than insemination dummies? Could it be that McCarthy wrote a terrible novel intentionally, including in it a quickly shouted down dissenter and a reckless act of immorality (i.e., objectifying the only woman in the book) as very oblique signs that he knew it was terrible?

Of course it is. And that is how I came to believe that this was in fact the best bad book of the year of the week ever, a marvelous literary polemic taking aim at everything horrible in literary fiction, including the now our hero comes into contact with other people and doesn’t have to think about stuff anymore conclusion. At least I hope so, because otherwise it’s just an even worse version of what everyone else is doing.

Robert Motherwell’s Academicism: A Review

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“Robert Motherwell and the New York School at Hunter,” The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, February 12-May 2, 2015.

Robert Motherwell was a central figure within the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. A lyrical painter, his works celebrate the dynamism of paint itself; they are grand, gestural and heroic. Their value, however, lies more often than not in the economy by which this heroism is achieved. One wonders, when contemplating what I regard as his best works—works such as his Pink Nude with Bowed Head (1958) and Chi Ama, Crede (1962)—how Motherwell knew to stop when he did: to allow this particular balance of disorder and finish.

In general, however, there’s a little too much finesse to almost everything Motherwell did. The spontaneity we tend to associate with Mothewell is often too carefully contrived; there’s a practiced flare that comes across as overly stylized, excessively rehearsed. That’s why the few paintings I admire strike me as so good. They’ve managed to corral the twee sentiment that so many of his paintings unleash toward something somehow more faulty, more contingent and careless—careless enough to make you appreciate its emergence despite all odds.

But these few successes are not what makes Motherwell worth writing about. What makes him worth writing about is the extraordinary role he played as an educator, organizer and publisher within and for the postwar New York scene. Continue reading

Propped not Supported

cooley-installation-view Pinceman Viallat

Installation view of Pinceman and Viallat. Cooley Gallery. Nov. 40 – Dec. 14, 2014.

People like to complain that the Supports/Surfaces group isn’t well enough known in America. This could mean that critics, certain critics, think their art is good enough to have warranted more attention, and probably attention from the presumptive big names: MoMA, Met, Walker, etc. They might also have in mind a historical point: the fact that the members of Supports/Surfaces were highly influenced by certain North American figures (Olitski, Greenberg, Noland, McLuhan) and so could be complaining that there is a kind of genealogy being erased when, say, Color Field painters are shown while Support/Surfaces are neglected. I have a feeling they tend not to mean that the group has benefitted from their existence outside of the limelight, although some do speculate that the “freshness” of the works today might have something to do with how infrequently they’ve been seen. Continue reading