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by Rob Horning

24 Jul 2008

I have read Pierre Macherey’s Theory of Literary Production several times now, and I still don’t think I understand what he’s talking about. Either that, or I can’t grasp why it matters. But while re-reading it this time, I was also reading what seems to me a highly “produced” text, an Agatha Christie murder mystery, Evil Under the Sun, and this helped illustrate for me what I think Macherey is getting at.

Macherey is at pains to point out certain critical fallacies, which in his view obscure the literary object and prevent critics from generating “objective” or “scientific” observations about it. (Why deriving such knowledge is important remains unclear to me, but I may be an irredeemable philistine when it comes to “scientific” cultural analysis of the Althusserian school. Seems part and parcel of the dream of breaking through “spontaneous ideology.”) One of these fallacies (the “normative fallacy”—if I were Macherey I would be sure to italicize it) involves critics trying to restate the message of a text in their own boiled-down formulations. “Criticism proposes to modify the work in order to assimiliate it more thoroughly, denying its factual reality as being merely the provisional version of an unfulfilled intention.” Such critics are intent on replacing the literary work with what Macherey characterizes as an idealized (and falsifying) version—one that has decoded the literary text and rendered it in unambiguous language, into crystalline commentary. But no language is ultimately unambiguous; every new formulation is subject to interpretation and so on, so this is a fruitless process (“critical works which attempt to put questions about the nature of discourse when they themselves are really discourse in disguise,” writes Macherey), but nevertheless a seductive one, as it places the critic closer to the truth, mediating between the author and the true essence of the ideas that the author was trying to communicate.

From the point of view of the normative fallacy, literature is a matter of stalling the reader’s recognition of the message, staging a bunch of distractions and transpositions and using elliptical or periphrastic ways of expressing things so as to make a text out of something that the critic, after the fact, expresses in its essence. Literary works are just belabored or cryptic ways of getting ideas across.

Of course, mysteries are structured like this—the author stages a bunch of delaying tactics to prevent our seeing who committed the crime, and our pleasure comes from that protraction, from the sinkhole of time opened up within the simple details of a crime. “The detective story offers the best example of this disappearance of narrative,” Macherey explains. “It is constructed entirely around the possibility of this prophetic reading which completes the story at the moment of its abolition.” In a sense, the detective is the critic, who retells the whole story in succinct form at the end, replacing the version we just experienced before as we read. So in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot explains away the entire book in the last two chapters and the function of all the clues Christie had so carefully planted earlier. He tells the story straight, while Christie had wound in all these distractions, detours, and misleading feints and red herrings. It gets very meta, because Christie has Poirot seem to criticize the ineffectiveness of her own imaginative conceptions earlier in the book. What we thought were just lame, lazy plot and character devices were actually clues—they were unconvincing because they were the inventions of the failed criminals, not of Christie, and Poirot was able to deduce the criminal intent from these cliches that we could only ascribe to Christie herself (a neat trick that would seem to insulate Christie from being judged for her own literary merits). “First of all there were certain preliminary scenes,” Poirot says, describing how the criminals prepared their crime. “A conventional jealous wife dialogue between her and her husband, Later she played the same part with me. At the time, I remember a vague feeling of having read it all in a book. It did not seem real. Because, of course, it was not real.” So what are we, reading a book of fiction ourselves, supposed to make of that evidence? Everything in the book reads like something you’d only encounter in a mystery novel. How can we distinguish? We can’t share the ground from which Poirot judges what is real and what is not.

Mysteries fit the theory of composition Poe put forward in “The Philosophy of Composition,” which Macherey wants to expose as being absurd, if not an actual joke Poe was playing in inviting readers to take it seriously. Poe argues for a teleology in literary works—the end is preconceived and all of a texts elements are designed to produce that end—“every element should contribute to the conclusion.” Poe claims that “it is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequences of a mathematical problem.” So, Macherey notes, the artist is supposed transcending spontaneity, only the reader is experiencing spontaneous responses—the reader experiences ideology, the writer orchestrates it. And the critic who translates the work into its intentions stands even further outside ideology, exposing how ideological discourse works.

If you buy into Poe, everything in a work is intentional, and good critics can presumably read out the intention of every detail by working backwards from the achieved effect. That is what Poirot does at the end of the novel, collecting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and placing them properly, as the hackneyed metaphor Christie works into the text would have it. A character doing a jigsaw puzzle tells Poirot, “I do think the people who make puzzles are kind of mean. They just go out of their way to deceive you.” Obviously Christie is venting some criticism she must have heard often. Poirot replies the his crime solving “is a little like your puzzle. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic—many colors and patterns—and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place.” By analogy, the text is conceived as a complete picture, and Poirot’s assemblage of the pieces is the narrative we experience in reading. 

But what Macherey argues is that it would be silly for literary critics to proceed in the same way as Poirot, deducing the proper meaning of every piece. He argues that this would be a “radical misunderstanding of the writer’s work,” and that a text is “never a coherent and unified whole”—there are always multiple things being suggested at every moment in the text, by every analyzable aspect, and these things are often moving us in different directions simultaneously.

If I understand Macherey correctly, he is saying that what is interesting or significant about a book like Evil Under the Sun is the stuff that Poirot can’t explain in his summation, the aspects of the book that aren’t integrated into his construction of the completed jigsaw puzzle. The excess, so to speak. These are details that prolonged the narrative but had nothing to do with the crime; they just helped perpetrate the novel itself—give it character types, make the motives plausible, provide the backdrop of normality on which the relevant anomalies in the criminals could be registered. In this excess, we can catch a glimpse of ideology, which Macherey, following Althusser, suggests is otherwise inarticulable. As they see it, ideology is lived in, a habitus—tangible, not merely a characteristic of certain statements or positions. Rather it enables ideas to be formulated and expressed, and can’t be expressed directly in language without again being masked or distorted. But literary texts, in their roundabout approach to rendering lived experience, capture something of it, pin enough of it down to make it subject to analysis: “The spontaneous ideology in which men live (it is not produced spontaneously, although men believe that they acquire it spontaneously) is not simply reflected by the mirror of the book; ideology is broken, and turned inside out in so far as it is transformed in the text from being a state of consciousness. Art, or at least literature, because it naturally scorns the credulous view of the world, establishes myth and illusion as visible objects.” It manages to “present ideology in a non-ideological form,” in what ideology enables it to say and what it inhibits.

So what is left over in Evil Under the Sun after Poirot is finished giving the official solution to the book? Quite a lot, actually. What’s particularly jarring are the superfluous suspects, who are given reasons to kill that are convincing enough within the context of the novel but then are dropped as irrelevant red herrings once the real killer is revealed. But if one of these alternate suspects was the guilty party, the novel wouldn’t change much at all. The motives are purely on the level of surface, one as significant as any other. Whether the woman was murdered by her stepdaughter or a drug-smuggling ring makes no difference in the world of Evil Under the Sun. The suspects are perfectly interchangeable, like the cards in a game of Clue. The implication of this is that there is always a superfluous amount of evil, that crime in the culture she depicts is overdetermined, but at the same time utterly arbitrary. No deeper implications can be inferred from the occurrence of any crime; each is isolated from larger social problems or deeper psychological insights.

But the main thing is the sexism—after the crime is solved, Christie is at pains to deprive the working woman character of her job, marrying her off to the husband of the dead woman, who was killed basically because she was a vain and pathetic attention-seeker. (Christie basically leads us to believe that she deserved to die.) This betrothal was utterly unnecessary to the mystery aspect of the novel, but it ties together other assumptions animating the plot about a woman’s place and her proper aspirations. Working women are essentially no different than criminals, cold-bloodedly calculating how they can prey on the world for gain. They should instead be at leisure, prettified trophies for the vacationing men to ogle at their own leisure (their attention should not be co-opted by ostentatious female vanity). If they become ornaments, they might be spared the unpleasant business of having murderous motives assigned to them.

by David Pullar

24 Jul 2008

We were nothing like the quirky characters in the BBC TV series The Book Group, but we did meet every month or two to discuss a book we’d all planned to read.  The key difference with the TV show was that we weren’t all sleeping together.  The main similarity was that often a whole night would pass with us barely mentioning the book of the month.

Back in 2004, I was invited along to a group by my then-housemate and my overactive sense of responsibility quickly made me one of the “reliables”, the three or four who would turn up every time and have read the book without fail.  The rest of the group was made up of semi-regulars who mostly just wanted to hang out for a beer.  It was a great group.

If you’ve ever been a member of a book group, you will likely have encountered the same issues that we did.  How do you keep everyone interested?  How do you pick a book that everyone wants to read?  Do you bother rescheduling for people who never turn up anyway?

Picking books was definitely the biggest challenge.  The two men in the group weren’t so keen on some of the more Oprah’s Book Club-type selections.  No one was especially keen on books over 400 pages long—who has time?  Finding enough copies for everyone was always a challenge, especially for anything left-of-centre.

There’s something to be said for book-choice-by-committee, though.  That group and its democratic selection process were responsible for me reading a dozen books that I never would have picked up otherwise.  Sometimes this only confirmed my initial impression of the book (My Sister’s Keeper was compulsive but very superficial) and other times it blew my preconceptions away.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was the biggest surprise.  It’s a phenomenally popular book and one of the biggest landmarks in recent Australian fiction.  For some reason, I figured it would be dull and very middle-of-the-road.  Instead, it was engaging and beautifully told.  Rather than relying on the worn clichés of Australiana, it dug deep into the world of post-war Perth and turned up all sorts of unique characters and situations.

Being in a book group and reviewing books are similar in a few ways.  Firstly, you have to read to a deadline and somehow fit a book in with all your normal activities.  The deadlines for our group weren’t too strict—every meeting was delayed at least two weeks—but once you factored in sourcing a copy and the rest of modern life, it could be difficult.

The other similarity is being forced to verbalise your opinion on a book.  Once we’ve finished with the rigours of High School English Lit, most of us are more than happy to just enjoy a book and leave any analysing to our subconscious.  But talking about a book in a group takes you away from vague feelings and impressions and requires you to put boundaries around those feelings.  Once you’ve expressed an opinion out loud, it feels more fixed but also more dubious.

This is a mixed blessing.  Some books open up under that kind of analysis and you find yourself loving them in a deeper way.  Other times you realise that your positive feelings evaporate once they’re aired, especially when you have to defend them.  My good feelings regarding Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised didn’t survive the questioning.

It doesn’t matter, really.  Some books will change your life, others will amuse you briefly and others will let you down.  But talking about a book over a beer in warm pub on a frosty winter with good people, well it’s one of life’s little pleasures.

by Christel Loar

23 Jul 2008

I’m beginning to feel a bit guilty—and geeky—getting to see episodes of Live from Abbey Road before they air and playing them over and over. I’m like a kid in a candy store! Show six (Sundance Channel, Thursday, July 24 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) features a selection of several of my favorite varieties of auditory confection and might just be the series’ Best. Episode. Ever.

First up, the Hoosiers, with a perfect blend of self-deprecating humor, witty banter, smart lyrics, sharp hooks (and sharp shoes!) close harmonies, bright horns and power-pop keyboards all wrapped up in ribbon of irresistible rhythm! And these guys really have fun with the whole affair, there are far more interview bits cut into this episode than last week’s, there are the obviously great songs (Two hits off of last year’s The Trick to Life and a brilliant rearrangement of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that you’ll have to see to believe!) and, of course, there are the costumes (to appeal to everyone’s inner geek). It’s the whole package!



Then, the Black Keys step into the echo chamber to talk “ham sandwiches” and studio lore (did you know that all the studio equipment at Abbey Road was once—and perhaps still is—rebuilt, repaired and maintained entirely within the building? That’s so cool! But, maybe I’m just geeking out on little details like that.). Sometimes it’s hard to believe the Black Keys is only two people, but seeing them facing each other in this setting, looking, momentarily, almost like a standoff between guitar and drums, it’s doubly easy to be impressed by the music they create from such a spare and simple setup. One is tempted to throw out exclamations like “incendiary!” and phrases like “power-duo”, with absolutely no irony (but, again, I may be geeking out a bit).

Last in this episode is Manu Chao, bringing poly-rhythmic, poly-ethnic, politically-charged, punk-infused music from around the world to St. John’s Wood. He’s another incendiary artist (and yet another to thank Joe Strummer for bringing to my attention), but one who, although he has best-selling albums and legions of fans who follow his live shows in Europe and South America, is lesser-known in the UK and relatively unknown in the US and Canada. This is a travesty, for there’s no other artist I can think of right now with his finger so truly on the pulse of the people, so on the beat of the music of the streets of the world. During one interview segment, Chao says, “[When you are] a long-time musician… you have to be able to improvise any time, you know? I think that’s the meaning of music.” It could be said that it’s also the meaning of life (and, if I were still geeking out, which I am, I’d point out that this must mean music and life are one in the same. I knew it! Music is life!).

by Bill Gibron

23 Jul 2008

How do you like your comedy - serious (meaning witty without being wanton) or scatological (bring on the feces and the farts!)? Do you prefer your laughter driven by sparkling dialogue, insightful characterization, and tasty interpersonal bon mots, or do you favor giggles glazed over with expletives, bodily fluids, and the fun that can be found in both? It’s a contention that’s as old as the genre itself. For centuries, jesters have lived (and often died) by mocking the rich, ribbing the poor, and playing to both’s baser instincts when the subtler forms of funny didn’t do it. In the movies, it seems the two are often mutually exclusive. After all, no one mistakes The Marx Brothers for the Three Stooges. With the sensationally sophomoric Step Brothers hitting theaters tomorrow (25 July), it’s time to look back on some illustrations of how clever and crude in combination - or C3’s for short - end up being a source of undeniable hilarity. 

While the latest from Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and newest creative soulmate John C. Reilly is all foul mouthed frat boy toilet trade-offs (and damn funny in the process), it’s really nothing more than an extended series of splatter jobs. There’s no important message, no attempt to find reality in its ridiculousness. Yet there are many actual examples of where the two seemingly divergent styles of comedy have meshed quite effectively. Some would even argue that, when done properly, the clever/crude combo gives rise to another alliterative adjective - classic (anyone for C4?). Below are just a few non-inclusive illustrations of the best of both wit worlds expertly fused together. The only comic continuity present is that both types are offered equally, and balanced to make sure neither completely overwhelms the others. If one or the other is out of whack, they fall back into their home category for easier examination.

And let’s get some debatable punchliners out of the way right up front, shall we? The Producers? Too brilliant to be considered crude, even given the bad taste hippie Hitler subtext. There’s Something About Mary? Jokey juvenilia without a stitch of socially redeeming value. The Blues Brothers? The outsized physical shtick and stunt set pieces override the craven culture steals from the black community. Animal House? Something serious? Come on…it’s college after all. Certainly, one could go out on a limb and champion subversive standard bearers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, groove on the gore-laced lunacy of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or defend the dick driven delights of something like Superbad. But when it comes to the C3’s, the comparison goes beyond good. There must be a visible inclusion of both the dignified and the dumb within final framework. Let’s begin with:

Knocked Up

While many people write off this Judd Apatow masterwork as just another example of his communal comedic approach (same group of actors, different storyline and setting), there is really much more going on here than slackers obsessed with sex. The message of maturity, about facing life’s unexpected events with candor and personal power are unmistakable. Toss in a few priceless takes on marriage and parenting, and a group of computer geeks that give both delineations a bad name, and you’ve got one of the greatest laugh-fests ever. If Mr. Apatow is remembered for nothing else, this stellar reflection of reality circa 2007 will stand as his best.

Blazing Saddles

You can tell Mel Brooks meant to be confrontational when he helmed this racially charged laugh riot. After all, he was working from material co-written by Richard Pryor, and a few of the original titles for this crazy comic western were Black Bart and Tex X. This remains one of the few non-blaxploitation films to drop the “N” word with intense regularity (up to 70 times, almost always exclusively by whites), and even today, it’s depiction of Old West prejudice still stings. Beyond anything PC, this is one terrific satire, a film that competently comments on the civil rights movement while incorporating a campfire sequence filled with air biscuit floating cowboys.

Female Trouble

John Waters always wanted to make a mass murder melodrama, a combination of Douglas Sirk and Charles Manson. Inspired by Helter Skelter participant Tex Watson, he succeeded with this outrageous sudser, the story of Dawn Davenport, her retarded daughter Taffy, and her rags to riches to repugnance career as a ‘crime is beauty’ supermodel. Loaded with the kind of dialogue that bears constant repetition and the sort of over the top plot points that make Peyton Place seem like The Seventh Seal, this bad taste treat only gets better with age. Along with the equally unsettling (but not quite as funny) Pink Flamingos, it proves Waters’ reputation as the genuine Prince of Puke. 


Before you start squawking and defending this brilliant Dustin Hoffman romp as a pure example of serious, straightforward comedy, remember one very important thing. This movie is entirely premised on one of the most hackneyed, lowbrow facets in all of humor - a guy in a dress. Drag has been a staple of the genre since the all male days of the ancient Greeks, and from burlesque to Benny Hill, it’s been viewed as the cheap and easy way to tweak an audience’s funny bone. In this case, all parties involved raise the vaudeville stunt into something sublime. And don’t forget the less than subtle amorous advances of the dirty old man soap star. Now that’s disgusting!

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Kids spewing profanity. Movies as bad influences. Grassroots campaigns against flatulent Canadians. A useless war fought over stupid USA entitlements. Political hot potatoes tied tenuously to the First Amendment and the right to free speech. These are just a few of the areas creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mine for this flawless big screen adaptation of their hit animated TV series. Taking on the then simmering subject of the media’s influence on the young (Columbine had just occurred four months prior) the duo drove a massive middle finger directly into the eye of dim-witted pundits and self-proclaimed know-it-alls everywhere. It remains the best miscreant musical of all time.

by Rob Horning

23 Jul 2008

The myriad of choices we have in the consumer marketplace is supposed to make up the bulk of our inheritance for having been born into thriving capitalist democracies. Parsing these options allow us to experience the freedom of choice, which is elided with freedom and liberty in general and is meant to compensate for various inequities in income, social mobility, and political access. But as behavioral economists and various consumer researchers have attempted to demonstrate, a surfeit of choices is as likely to make us miserable as it is to make us happy, and the choices can feel merely like occasions to make mistakes, not reveal personal preferences and give tangible shape to our innermost sense of ourselves. We frequently lack the information to make wise decisions in the marketplace yet are compelled to make them anyway—to express our pseudo-political will, and make manifest our vaunted individuality, of which we are supposed to be so proud. So we are left feeling insecure, vulnerable, beleaguered—paradoxically looking for advice on what to buy to express our uniqueness.

The studies detailed in this Scientific American article make matters appear even worse, as it suggests that having to repeatedly make choices—as our consumer culture prides itself on making us do—leads to degraded “executive function”.

When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or choose to eat a salad instead of a piece of cake, you are flexing your executive function muscles. Both thought processes require conscious effort-you have to resist the temptation to let your mind wander or to indulge in the sweet dessert. It turns out, however, that use of executive function—a talent we all rely on throughout the day—draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hindered in another, seemingly unrelated activity.

In other words, the bombardment of marketing we are confronted with tires out our brains and makes it more likely we will make poor decisions or lack the wherewithal to resist that marketing. The advertiser’s campaign against us is really a war of attrition.

If making choices depletes executive resources, then “downstream” decisions might be affected adversely when we are forced to choose with a fatigued brain. Indeed, University of Maryland psychologist Anastasiya Pocheptsova and colleagues found exactly this effect: individuals who had to regulate their attention—which requires executive control—made significantly different choices than people who did not. These different choices follow a very specific pattern: they become reliant on more a more simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.

This way of viewing the brain suggests we should take a conservationist approach to decision-making, delegating insignificant ones so that we may be sharp for the ones that matter. One might even argue that we could let ads make the unimportant consumption decisions for us, trusting the ubiquity of certain products in the media as a proxy for their worthiness. But then, of course, we would need to decide which decisions to delegate (or make on automatic pilot) and which ones to take ourselves. And that may be the most insidious aspect of all the marketing—it obfuscates the importance of various choices, making silly things seem integral and important decisions seem matter of fact.

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