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Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

This post discusses two essays on Kafka, a decade apart. The first, from the recently departed David Foster Wallace is called “Laughing With Kafka,” and appeared in Harper’s from 1998; the second, “F. Kafka, Everyman,” comes from Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, written in the fall of 2008.

One of the striking things about Kafka is the degree to which people are interested in the way he lived his life; his relationship with Felice, for instance, has attracted about as much attention as the love life of deceased author can. Smith reviews Louis Begley’s biography of Kafka, “The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kakfa: A Biographical Essay,” from which we learn that in many respects Kafka was more normal than he has sometimes been cast; he kept a 9-5 job (actually 8:30-2:30, but more on that later), worked hard, lived with his parents, liked swimming. Kafka was not a very prolific writer, but this is perhaps because he kept a full time job throughout his life, an insurance job that was surely more prosaic than it is presented in Steven Soderberg’s overlooked Kafka, in which Kafka is shadowed at the office by two malevolent and miniature “assistants.” Smith says that his writing day was oddly organized–work from 8:30 to 2:30, nap, dinner, and writing from around 11 until late. We learn that Felice tried to rationalize his schedule, but that this approach worked best for him. As a would-be writer with a full-time job myself, I find nothing strange about this schedule–in fact the late nights here seem seems like a perfectly rational solution to the problem of carving out a block in time to devote to work.

Nonetheless, it is somewhat pleasing to learn that Kafka suffered from long stretches where he got little or nothing done, Begley writes that “Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically suited him” and suggests that the ever-handy iniquities of family life provided “cover” for procrastination and fallow periods.

Wallace’s piece describes Wallace’s attempt to teach Kakfa as comedy to college students in the U.S., which turns out not to be an easy sell: “The particular sort of funniness Kafka deploys in deeply alien to kids whose neural resonances are American. The fact is that Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement–Kakfa doesn’t do slapstick, ‘body humor’ Rothish satyriasis or Barthish metaparody or arch Woody-Allenish kvetching {…} Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once.” This last point is a central one, and helps to explain why Kakfa can be read in such divergent ways. I mostly find the works absurdly menacing, in the way that only literature from Eastern Europe can be. Even the ridiculous, near-farcical scene of K.’s arrest that opens The Trial is deeply unnerving. Wallace’s idea of fun in Kafka is “A Little Fable” about a mouse who runs into an ever-narrowing world where the walls are closing in: “‘these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stand the trap that I must run into.’ ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.” Why don’t students see the humor? “Kafka’s humor–not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane–is, finally, a religious humor, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilke and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality {…} And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get.” I think I “get” “A Little Fable,” but it is only funny like a punch in the mouth is funny; it is the kind of blow that brings forth in the recipient a momentary frisson of ecstatic anarchism that gives way to a chest-tightening expression of amusement at the smallness of human endeavor and the complete uncontrollability of fate. “Harrowing spirituality” come close, and again this particular form of black humor is something I find almost exclusively in Eastern European writers who have lived through, have survived, decades of see-saw domination and cultural brutality on the part of Russia and Germany. Kafka is an early exponent of this form of humor, but Wallace is surely correct to locate it. Read the rest of this entry »

social-media-conversionMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

Statement on Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

This post is the second in my thirty-fifth birthday series, and takes up that sexiest of subjects, “role-drift.”  In this post I will connect Laud Humphreys’ investigation of “the Tearoom Trade,” that is, casual homosexual encounters in public toilets, the initiation process in the United States military, and the conversion of Paul the Apostle.  Those easily offended by sociological explanations of religion, of sexual preference, or of the comradeship among soldiers should cease reading immediately.

Recently, I finished reading a book–which, as my next post will detail, is a somewhat rare occurrence.  The book was Laud Humphreys’ “The Tearoom Trade,” published in 1970.  It concerns men hooking up with other men, usually strangers, in the public restroom facilities in St. Louis, and it is an eye-opening read.  The blurb on the book jacket pretty much tells the story: “Many American men seek impersonal sex in public restrooms.  Called ‘tearooms’ in the argot of the homosexual subculture, these restrooms are accessible to and easily recognized by those who wish to engage in anonymous sexual encounters {…} By passing as deviant, the author was able to engage in systematic observations of homosexual acts in public settings.  Methodologists will be interested {…} in this unusual application of participant-observation strategies.”  Indeed, methodologists everywhere, I can say without hesitation, were and are all ears.  But the odd thing is that Humphreys, married and purportedly straight when he conducted his research, later divorced his wife and came out as gay.

Now, it may not be considered particularly odd that someone, sociologist or no, who spends several months or years in public toilets observing “insertors” and “insertees” would himself come out eventually, and Humphreys’ persistent use of “us” and “we” to refer to the denizens of the restrooms of St. Louis appears, in retrospect, to be something of a “tell.”  Consider, for instance, sentences such as the following: “when a group of us were locked in a restroom and attacked by several youths, we spoke in defense and out of fear {…} This event ruptured the reserve among us and resulted in a series of conversations among those who shared this adventure for several days afterward” (12), and several other similar uses of plural pronouns.  (It may be of interest here that Humphreys and his study of tearooms enjoyed a brief week in the sun a few years ago when Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in an airport bathroom stall for foot-tapping–Humphreys covered this topic as well, making clear that foot-tapping was, in 1970, a well-established method of making contact from stall to stall, and already in use by police decoys so many decades ago (20, 87).)

Indeed, the whole study is fascinating, and peppered with wonderfully matter-of-fact passages such as: “There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter.  In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act.  In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions.  One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio is the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom.  For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is one of finding where the action is” (6) (alert readers will recognize the influence of Erving Goffman here; Goffman’s study of gambling establishments is titled “Where the Action Is”).  But the passage which really caught my attention deals with what Humphreys calls “role instability” or “role drift.”  He makes two major points; i) those who start out pitching tend to end up catching; “It appears that, during the career of any one participant, the role of insertor tends to be transposed into that of insertee” (55) (Humphreys attributes this tendency to “the aging crisis” common to tearoom participants); ii) “If {straights} remain exposed ‘too long’ to the action, they cease to operate as straights” (56).  Humphreys here is not referring to men who one day, by accident, may wander into an operational tearoom, but rather to members of the parks department or vice squad who, over time, may be exposed to a wider swath of tearoom activity.  Here is the key passage:

“When some communication continues to exist, parents tend to be ‘turned on’ by their pot-smoking offspring.  Spectators tend to be drawn into mob action, and kibitzers into card games.  Even police may adopt the roles they are assigned to eliminate:

‘It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad–the maximum allowable at  any one time being four to five years–they begin to ‘go over’, adopting the behaviorisms and mores 0f the criminals with whom they are dealing, and shifting their primary allegiance'”(Here, Humphreys is quoting from Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner from 1967.  My emphasis).

It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad they begin to ‘go over’. The moment I read this, having known of Humphreys’ own history before I read his book, I immediately recognized either a brilliant justification for future defection or an alternative, sociologically-based, theory for how sexual preference is formed. Read the rest of this entry »

MForm Function Bangleatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

Statement of Intent and Concern: Berger and Luckmann on Typification and Reification

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.
Fernando Pessoa

An apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative derefication of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman

This is the first in a projected series of posts which will represent an attempt on my part to synthesize a variety of theoretical and practical concerns that confront me as I approach thirty-five.  This post will begin with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, a book we have looked at before here on Sympathies.  I have re-posted the original post so that readers can familiarize themselves with the work.

A good deal of the writing on this blog has taken as its theme the relationship between the individual and the institution, and we have seen various attempts to come to terms with the ideal stance of one who, as we all do, exists within the grasp of institutionalization.  In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of institutionalization, and what they have to say provides me with my jumping off point.  They make the point that while man (and yes, The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the outdated gender-specific catch-all term for humanity), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (“reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control.  “Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise.  Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations” (51), but, being prone to reification, they will sometimes “{apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will.  Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world {and experiencing it} as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control” (89).

When mis-apprehending (social) reality as something other than the product of his own action and consciousness, he forgets that “the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically, “reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it.  I would like to extrapolate this to mean that the perception of sedimented, externally controlled or created, facticity continually creates the very facticity in question.  Put slightly differently, the denial of agency diminishes, uncreates, free-will, while the exercise of free-will depends in large part, perhaps entirely, on the strength of one’s belief in it.

Now, this is not to argue that reification is simply false-consciousness, or that groupings within society do not go to considerable trouble to perpetuate and legitimate reification of their activities.  Berger and Luckmann make this quite clear in their analysis of what they call “socially segregated subuniverses of meaning” such as “Hindu castes, the Chinese literary bureaucracy, or the priestly coteries of ancient Egypt” (85), not to mention lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments.  They write that subuniverses  “become esoteric enclaves {…} to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries {…} The outsiders have to be kept out {but} If the subuniverse requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure.  This is done through various techniques of intimidation {…} mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols” (87).
And generally the manipulation of prestige symbols.  Indeed.  Those who engage, consciously or unconsciously, in the manipulation of prestige symbols are, in Berger and Luckmann’s language, involved in creating a “typification.”  The acceptance of typifications, in turn, sediments social facticity and brings into being a taken-for-grantedness in the performance of social actors.  “The typification of forms of action requires that these have an objective sense {…} In the course of the action there is an identification of the self with the objective sense of the action {…} Although there continues to be a marginal awareness of the body and other aspects of the self not directly involved in the action, the actor, for that moment, apprehends himself essentially in identification with the socially objectified action {…} In other words, a segment of the self is objectified in terms of the socially available typifications” (72-3).  The authors point out that after the actions of the typified actor have been carried out, in, say, the privacy of the home, the meditation chamber, the confessional, the actor may re-establish a certain “role distance,” but this distance is apt to shrink again when the times comes once again for the actor to take up the role by re-activating the segment of the self objectified in terms of the currently applicable socially available typification.

This discussion inevitably brings us back to Mr. Inch’s post about sartorial conformism/ non-conformism.  Longtime readers will recall that Mr. Inch wrote, “Reflection on MT’s devotion to this apparently innocuous task, knotting a piece of cloth around his neck each morning, leads us towards what has become a key element of many recent theories of ideology. Derived from Pascal’s advice to non-believers, ‘kneel and pray, and then you will believe’, the French philosopher Louis Althusser sought to assert the materiality of ideas, and how ideology works through our actions as well as our words to define us as certain sorts of subjects.  For Michel Foucault, one of Althusser’s students who sought to break with Marxism and the concept of ideology, the knotting of that neck-tie might have been considered a ‘practice of the self’, a way of disciplining oneself in line with a particular matrix of power and knowledge. The question that I think both of these thinkers struggle to address, however, is the extent to which we are able to shape our own selves, rather than simply being shaped by power.  What scope do we have to resist the power embedded in these apparently mundane everyday motions? {…} By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities.  And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting.  In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting?  Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all?”

In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? Read the rest of this entry »

victorian-mother-of-pearl-button-stud-cufflinks-640Matthew Thomas, Kyoto 

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

Raymond Carver is not one of my very favorite writers, but his work is full of resonant nuggets of greatness that linger long after one puts him down. Fires, contains four essays, a number of poems and half a dozen or so stories. Carver has useful things to say about using common language in writing, although he arguably makes a fetish of it. The best things in the book are a handful of poems, and the one standout work seems to be “The Baker.” Other excellent poems include: “Iowa Summer,” “For Serma with Martial Vigor,” “Looking for Work,” “Cheers.” Fires also includes a lengthy poem on Bukowski where Carver appears to be recounting an evening’s worth of Bukowski’s conversation. Good stuff, but not of overwhelming interest except to Bukowski fanatics.

The essays, on his father, on writing, are very sharp. Carver’s prose, as he himself admits, tends to be lean, approaching flat, but accumulates force on that account: “If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason-if the words are in any way blurred-the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved” (“On Writing”). This is fundamentally true and great–the statement has a corollary, if the words are just right, the reader’s eyes will stick, and come back to them for a second look, even though they were taken in the first time.

Little things register. From the title story: “On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was the wrong number and I said so and hung up.” Here, decisiveness of language (“and I said so”) fused with perfect choice of noun phrase “a party named Nelson” achieve a remarkable force. Sometime his terms are loaded with meaning because Carver’s paragraphs tend to close where other writer’s would just be beginning: (his motto: “Don’t explain. Don’t complain.”): “I really don’t feel that anything happened in my life until I was twenty and married and had the kids. Then things started to happen.” Fin. What does he mean? does he mean happen, like, “that’s really happening man,” or just happen, as in, flatly events transpired. We are left to guess; the paragraph ends.

Here is “The Baker”:

Then Pancho Villa come to town,
hanged the mayor
and summoned the old and infirm
Count Vronsky to supper.
Pancho introduced his new girl friend,
along with her husband in his white apron,
showed Vronsky his pistol,
then asked the Count to tell him
about his unhappy exile in Mexico.
Later, the talk was of women and horses.
Both were experts.
The girl friend giggles
and fussed with the pearl button
on Pancho’s shirt until,
promptly at midnight, Pancho went to sleep
with his head on the table.
The husband crossed himself
and left the house holding his boots
without so much as a sign
to his wife or Vronsky.
That anonymous husband, barefooted,
humiliated, trying to save his life, he
is the hero of this poem.

A great poem, I think, nearly perfect. The one line that may have been implicit, and didn’t need explication is “both were experts.” Cut it, and see how it reads. Also, the “promptly” is questionable. The action verbs, “hanged,” “summoned,” “showed” establish Pancho beautifully. “Showed Vronsky his pistol”-does Carver mean he showed it off, or showed it to him as a threat? The line works both ways.  He doesn’t let the husband off the hook either; the “humiliated,” at once celebrates his pragmatism and signals his cowardice. Finally, in the second to last line, the additional, grammatically unnecessary, “he” cements the husband as a man, even if a emasculated one. The poem ends unresolved; the husband is “trying” to save his life. We don’t know whether he succeeds.  Carver doesn’t explain.

debord-guide1Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

In the comments section for my earlier post “On Staying in Business Hotels II: A Ballardian Perspective,” Mr. Andrew Inch introduces the concept of “psychogeography” in relation to Ballard: “His vision of the ignored edges of urban life, and the sinister presences that inhabit these spaces seems to reveal a deep engagement with the psychic impacts, and psychotic tendencies of late modern capitalism. Business hotels certainly fit squarely within the Ballardian imagination.”  Andrew points out that psychogeography is also a fitting description for Walter Benjamin’s method, if it could be called that, and indeed Benjamin’s rambling and unstructured yet somehow systematic exploration of European cities, Paris, Naples, Marseilles, will be the subject of a future series of posts.

This post, on the other hand, will put a period on Ballardania for the time being by offering a run-down of some of the highlights of Re/Search’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.”  We will also investigate the intersections between the Ballard material and nuggets from the inimitable 1981 film My Dinner With Andre. For readers who wish to follow up on Ballard, Re/Search has issued a whole book of Ballard quotes.  Also, The Complete Short Stories are available in two volumes, and are the best place to start digging into Ballard.

Re/Search’s 350 page book of Ballard on the phone is, admittedly, for fans only, and in these conversations Ballard runs true to form by going around and around on his pet “obsessions.” Occasionally he falls into outright repetition, but for the most part each conversation sheds new light on already familiar ground. The striking thing about reading Ballard, whether in novel form or here, is the degree to which Ballard’s interests intersect only casually with my own. Running down the list: swimming pools, beach resorts, and gated communities; Ronald Reagan; plastic surgery; the evolution of sexuality through technology; car crashes, airplane crashes; William Burroughs–none of these topics keep me up nights.

World War II; deserts; Miami; obsessed scientists on a futile quest–we’re getting warmer, but still not really where I live. The collaboration and complicity of the individual in the media landscapes and power structures that surround them; turning conspiracy theory inside out to ask not what they do to us but what we allow and even facilitate–this is interesting territory, but the thing is while I have no especial interest in gated communities, in plastic surgery, or in Miami, I like to read Ballard hold forth on all of the above topics and more–not because I am interested in them, but because he is.

Most of the conversations recorded in the book are between Ballard and V.Vale, the publisher of Re/Search books (a U.S. imprint) and apparently Ballard’s biggest fan.  At one point, Vale and Ballard discuss the feedback loop between popular culture images of professions and how members of that profession or group behave in real life:

V. VALE: “I saw a magazine article describing the search and seizure of a Mafia home in which a huge collection of books and videotapes on the Mafia was found.  The final comment of the article was, ‘They’re looking to the movies to learn how to act.'”

BALLARD: “Right; the actual Mafia gangsters are watching the movies to learn how to get ‘in style.’  It’s terribly funny that” (307).

It is, of course, far from surprising that would-be gangsters would model themselves off of The Godfather or The Sopranos; and we have come to almost expect this kind of synergy between image and action where a person’s authenticity is established precisely through the degree to which their behavior corresponds with their fictional counterparts.  But before we conclude that this kind of modeling is confined to those living on the fringes of legality and respectability, we should recall the part in My Dinner With Andre where Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn discuss the redundancy of the theater in an age of constant performance:

ANDRE: “You know, that was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way obscene.”

WALLY: “Hum!”

ANDRE: “I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? I mean, you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists, are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist, should look and behave! They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident.”

There is pure gold here, but…what exactly is a doctor supposed to look like?  Do we know a doctor when we see one based on the fact that the doctor’s physical appearance and bearing conforms to a pre-existing “doctor” ideal, or is it more that the setting and trappings of the medical situation–that is, where we encounter a doctor in his or her professional guise–give the man or woman in question a sort of aura of doctorhood which is quite separable from raw physical image?  I think perhaps the latter, which is what Ballard suggests in what is my favorite quotation in the book: “People take you at face value.  Any role that people see you in they will accept, by and large.  That seems to be a rule of life” (127). When we encounter someone who appears to inhabit a certain role by dint of the trappings of that role–uniform, badge, necktie, the contextual paraphernalia that surrounds the person–all of these add up to a kind of fait accompli of identity. Read the rest of this entry »

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