Author Archive for Ben Segal


Dissertation Excerpt: Barthelme’s Defense of Postmodernism in ‘Not Knowing’

This excerpt is from a discussion of Donald Barthelme’s essay Not Knowing, which I am citing from his non-fiction collection of the same name. Below I give Barthelme’s defense of postmodernism and both expand on it and tie it to the theme of my dissertation, namely the relation of medium-responsiveness (that is, work that is produced, at least in part, in conscious response to the material and historical conditions of its medium) to innovative fiction.

Ok, this is not really revised yet and it is 4am, so bear with some possible rough patches. There are also a few statements in the text below that refer to things outside of the excerpt. Most of these are minor and should not interrupt the flow of reading. You should know that Barthelme titles the essay Not Knowing because he believes that not-knowing is an integral part of the writing process, from the blank page to the choices a writer must make about his characters, plot, style, etc. He begins the essay with a kind of craft talk in which he walks the reader through the construction of a story. Below there is a reference to Jacqueline, Jemima, and the handsome thief. Those are all characters from the story at the essay’s beginning.

Caveats aside, here it goes:


Barthelme lists and summarizes the main arguments against postmodernist literature.

The criticisms run roughly as follows: that this kind of writing has turned its back on the world, is in some sense not about the world but about its own processes, that it is masturbatory, certainly chilly, that is excludes readers by design, speaks only to the already tenured, or that it does not speak at all.1

To his credit, Barthelme does not make straw men of his critics. Instead, though with a dose of his characteristic humor, he gives honest attention to the criticisms in order to build the ground for his counterarguments. To Barthelme, what gives postmodernist fiction its real and lasting value is that, in his understanding, it is located “in relation to a series of problems, and … that these problems are durable ones.”2 To the critics of postmodernism’s notorious difficultness and opacity, Barthelme explains that

The problems that seem to me to define the writer’s task at this moment (to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems) are not of a kind that makes for ease of communication, for work that rushes toward the reader with out-flung arms – rather, they’re the reverse. Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. First, there is art’s own project, since Mallarmé, of restoring freshness to a much-handled language, essentially an effort toward finding a language in which making art is possible at all. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago. Secondly, there is the political and social contamination of language by its use in manipulation of various kinds over time and the effort to find what might be called a “clean” language, problems associated with the Roland Barthes of Writing Degree Zero but also discussed by Lukács and others. Finally there is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense – I mean our devouring commercial culture – which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of reader from the writer.3

The sum effect of these problems, among others, is that for a writer to engage in them “automatically creates barriers to the ready assimilation of the work.” This leads Barthelme to the beautiful formulation: “Art is not difficult because it wishes it be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.” He continues,

However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.4

I’ve presented the core of Barthelme’s argument largely through this series of extended quotations because I want to convey the grain of his thought and the character of his rhetoric. In the space of about a page, he constructs a dense and sophisticated manifesto for literary difficulty, one which we will, at least partially, unpack as it bears on Barthelme’s medium-responsiveness, to fiction as conceived as a response to the conditions of language.

According to the logic of Not Knowing, the primary concerns with which a writer must wrestle, before questions of content, before the goings on of Jacqueline and Jemima and the handsome thief, are questions of how to use language, specifically how to use language in ways that are not already so loaded with popular-cultural, conventional, and political overcodings as to foreclose the possibility of art. Thus, with fiction conceived as the search for “the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken,” the not-knowing of Not Knowing slips into the unknown, and that occluded space must become the site of art. This, in part, is why the literary text must be as an object in the world, so that the language can be seen fresh – confronted as language – and not disappear like window glass, a forgettable clear barrier through which an image appears, and so that that image can be reconfigured through the dense scrim of literary language instead of as the ideologically ready-cooked, worn-in, wholly expected images of ordinary language, of stock phrases, but also of structural and syntactic formulations that have been heard so many times that they are appear for all the world as natural, representative of the order of the world as it should and must be.

Seen thus, Barthelme’s desire for a thoroughly enstranging5 literary language is the logical response to the state of his art and the historical condition of language, his primary medium. For those writers who concern themselves with the problems of language, novelty and innovation are practically imperatives, as their task is the continual refreshing of a language that is constantly in danger of being co-opted and overused. Thus innovation is quite literally a consequence of writerly medium-responsiveness. The inverse of this is alluded to in the parenthetical “(to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems.)” The fiction writer who has not chosen these as his problems is not concerned with his medium and cannot be expected to invigorate it. He will only say what is already known and said. In so doing, he is little more than a copy clerk who we may wish, like Bartleby, would prefer not to write, for what he writes is journalism without the virtue of truth, and so truly only the purest expression of ideology, unwittingly but unmistakably propaganda.


1Not Knowing. p. 15

2Ibid. p. 14

3Ibid. p. 15


5See: Viktor Schklovsky’s Theory of Prose


Gass and Barthelme (tiny dissertation excerpt)

As most of you know, I’ve been neglecting to post on Ghost Island because the vast majority of my critical writerly energies are going to work on my increasingly sprawling and unruly dissertation.

In the hope that there is some crossover interest between readers of this blog and my intended dissertation audience, I’m going to sometimes post some excerpts of my draft if and when they feel like they make sense cut out of context.

Here’s a short one from the chapter on Donald Barthelme’s book, The Dead Father:

William Gass, in a review of Barthelme’s collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, observed that,

Dreck, trash and stuffing: these are [Barthelme’s] primary materials. But not altogether. There is war and suffering, love and hope and cruelty. He hopes, as he says in the new volume, “these souvenirs will merge into something meaningful.” But first her renders everything as meaningless as it appears to be in ordinary modern life by abolishing distinctions and putting everything in the present. He constructs a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value – a flatland junkyard – since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage.

This analysis is as true for The Dead Father as it is for Barthelme’s stories. Of course, this does not mean simply that the beautiful, meaningful, and affecting aspects of his fiction are simply devalued and stripped of their power to impact the reader. That he works with trash does not make of Barthelme’s books undifferentiated garbage fields. Barthelme, Gass argues, “has the art to make a treasure out of trash to see out from inside it, the world as it’s faceted by colored jewelglass[.] A seriousness about his subject is sometimes wanting. When this obtains, the result is grim, and grimly overwhelming.” Here and elsewhere in his essay, Gass draws his readers’ attention to various “treasures” and “grimly overwhelming” passages Barthelme has assembled. These are often short outcroppings of text – a sentence, a paragraph – in which Barthelme’s freewheeling play in his piles of language-dreck crystalizes into a stunning moment, some heavy, arresting instance of art not so much shining through as arriving, unexpected and inevitable.

Note: The Gass quotes are drawn from the essay The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon, which is found in his book Fiction and the Figures of Life.


This would be news…

These are real screen captures from CNN.


A Tiny Unimportant Earthquake Footnote

Yesterday I noticed that, a few days ago, Ghost Island saw a huge spike in visits. Usually, we can expect some fluctuation in visits, with small increases correlated to new posts and slightly larger increases any time that someone links to a post, for example on Facebook.

However, this recent spike was both much larger than normal (within a few hits of breaking our record for single-day visitors) and did not correlate to any recent activity on the site. I was puzzled.

The reason we got so much traffic was because our site shows up somewhere among the first several pages for the search term ‘earth’s axis’, and that term was searched in record numbers because of the shift in said axis that was caused by the recent massive earthquake in Japan. This means that the ripple effect of the quake was such that it sent online traffic waves to small and irrelevant websites like this one.

Which goes to show the old saying is correct: If an earthquake strikes the coast of Japan, even small conceptual islands on the internet get hits.


The Museum of Expensive Things

Feliz and I started a drawing blog: It is called The Museum of Expensive Things

Here are some sample images. I hope you like them. Of these, hers are the 2nd and 4th. Mine are the others.


An Attempt At Assessing Perec In Paris

This review was originally written for another publication, but I had a disagreement with the editor regarding substantial requested edits and opted instead to just post what I’d written because it represents what I actually took away from the book.

I have also cross-posted this at the continent. blog ( I hope it’s of some interest.


Review: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
By: Georges Perec
Trans. Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010

As its title suggests, this book is most best understood as two things: as an attempt and as exhausting. Perec tires (I mean this doubly; he tires himself, his work tires the reader) and he of course cannot succeed. An Attempt is a scattered and inconsistent failure of a project and – not in spite of but because of this – a wonderful little book.

Georges Perec is most famous as a member of the Oulipo. For most of his career he used intense formal constraints in order to shape his work, famously writing A Void (La Disparition in French) without the use of the letter ‘E’ and ordering the chapters of Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie en Mode D’emploi) according to a knight’s tour of a 10X10 grid. The constraint behind An Attempt is a simple one: Perec sits in the Place Saint-Sulpice and tries to describe all of the banal happenings he witnesses. In his terms, it is an attempt at documenting the infraordinary- “what happens when nothing happens.”

For three days, Perec sits at cafes on the square and takes notes. He makes systems and abandons them. Cataloging conventions emerge and dissolve. Certain repetitions are remarked upon, certain details settle into certain customary spots. Sometimes they cease to appear where expected. Perec pauses, resumes. He notes his pauses. He ceases to note his pauses. He starts to note the time of each pause. He counts buses and tires of counting buses. He is often fatigued and mentions being so. He takes more notes on the first day than on the subsequent two days combined.

Perec employs and abandons a slew of techniques: headings, paragraphs, proper punctuation, taxonomies and lists, various ordering regimes. He tries to separate his subjective conjecture from his objective observation via parenthetical bracketing and capture. The containment method does not work, thank god. This attempt at quarantine, another failure, is the key to the book’s success.

As An Attempt is slight, replete with failure, and engaged with intentionally dull subject matter, the question becomes: Why do I so value this book? The answer is also something slight and easily mocked: charm. Georges Perec is a thoroughly charming writer. His charm comes from his diction, his dry humor, and most of all from the inclusion of details that do not seem to belong. That is to say, the text is most charming when the recitation of the Place Saint-Sulpice’s minor goings-on is intruded upon by details of Perec’s life, his knowledge, his musings – the details that are only of the Place because Perec is in it. It is as though he is a scientist who alters his experiment by observing it, and I am thankful for this bad science. It is this intrusion of intimacy into the arid nothing of banal observation that makes his Attempt worthwhile. The key to the infraordinary is that it is open enough, event-less enough, for the quirks of the subject to emerge.

At one point, without context or even punctuation, he notes the presence of “Ghostliness” and then, italicized and parenthetically, his own “(Fatigue).”(24) Early on in the second day, he tries to list the differences he observes from the day previous. He notes that he “is drinking a Vittel water, whereas yesterday [he] was drinking a coffee” and then immediately reprimands himself with a parenthetical “(how does that transform the square?)”(30) Perec writes that a man “holds his cigarette the same way I do (between the middle finger and ring finger): it’s the first time I’ve come across someone else with this habit.”(19) The observation is really an occasion for self-reflection.

In the absence of plot, action, characters, or larger message, the text is somehow charmed. The archive of the ordinary ends up documenting the subject Perec, the grain of his narrative voice, his small movements, his moods, the rhythms of his sitting. The infraordinary that impresses itself on the reader is the infraordinary of Perec himself, not really the Place Saint-Sulpice. The ‘Place in Paris’ could be any city square. What is specific is Perec.

I should make an admission, my own highly subjective aside, though I won’t parenthetically bracket it. I adore Georges Perec. I find his work thrilling. Life: A User’s Manual and W, or the Memory of Childhood are two of my very favorite books. Naturally then, I am fascinated also with Perec the man. The complications this presents for a reviewer are obvious. Perec’s name itself carries magic or fascination into (charms) the space of a spectacularly uneventful text. An example of how this works can be found in the book at the moment when Paul Virilio passes through the Place Saint-Sulpice. Virilio does nothing of interest, but his celebrity (at least for a theorist) status heightens the interest his appearance in the text holds for the (at least this) reader. It may be the case that a reader with no previous knowledge of Perec would be significantly less enchanted than I am. It’s hard to quantify and separate out the workings of charm via name and via text. The two inevitably operate in tandem. I would hope not, but it is conceivable that a reader might not be struck by the book’s charm at all.

Still, even aside from the appeal (charm) of An Attempt as Perecian micro-autobiography, there are a number of other critical avenues of entry into the book. The most apparent of these is probably the tension between the impossibility of the archive and the passion to document- to render the ordinary as requiring preservation and at the same time necessarily only preserving a fraction of it. One could quite profitably consider the book in light of the impulse to collection, obsessive documentation, the fetishization of the banal. Marcel Duchamp was a member of the Oulipo. An Attempt could well be understood as a sort of literary ready-made.

Another angle: An Attempt as plotless noir. Perec’s practice is surveillance and his text reveals him as a detective of the everyday. We see him slugging coffee, smoking cigarettes, noting every change, every deviance from the absolute stillness. The book is run through with a strong and growing paranoiac streak and a creeping sense of an impossible search. At one moment, Perec writes of his “Unsatisfied curiosity (what [he] came here to find, the memory floating in this cafe.)” (33) His clipped prose of discomfort and undefinable mission seems almost to anticipate the aimless and dreading detectives that will come to populate later postmodern American fictions like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy or many of Brian Evenson’s stories.

Too, the book recalls a literary tradition to which Perec is temporally and geographically closer: that of the nouveau roman. It is similar to the nouveau roman in that it attempts to catalog and account for all the things in a place. Like Robbe-Grillet, Perec piles his nouns, ticks off the usually unremarked upon. An Attempt, however, is ultimately unassimilable to the category. Perec is not so dogmatically wedded to the objective, the camera’s eye perspective or, his title notwithstanding, the true exhaustion of a place’s details. In the nouveau roman, the book is a fiction and the author can fashion a precise, detail rich environment, the description of which freezes narrative time. Perec’s constraints afford him no such luxury. Time and movement sweep details in and out of his line of sight and he can only hope for incomplete imprecision. So An Attempt is not an example of the genre, but can be taken as a genial fellow-traveler.

There are other angles to take, other points to be made for a person interested in truly exhausting An Attempt. Perec, however, took on this project as a way of focusing on the infraordinary. To focus on the infraordinary is to not lose sight of the easily overlooked material conditions of the world in favor of big events, ideas, points of rupture. In this spirit, I will close with a few notes on the circumstances and physical qualities of this edition of An Attempt. Even including supplementary material such as the translator’s afterward, An Attempt is barely fifty pages long. These are not a particularly dense 50 pages either, but they are a rich and important part of Perec’s ouvre. Marc Lowenthal’s translation marks the first time this text (originally written in 1974) has been made available in English. This is to be celebrated. Fittingly, the book’s design is also worthy of celebration. The edition is stylish, classy. It is attractive and feels good to the touch. It is charming, with all of the charm-exceeding qualities that the charming, at its best, can entail.


Continental Thoughts

When I read ‘html’ I read ‘hatemail’

When I see ‘VD’ I wonder: Valentine’s Day or Venereal Disease?

When I say I’m in Continent, I don’t mean I have bowel troubles. I may, however, have vowel troubles. I’m helping to edit Continent, a new journal or landmass or thoughts-holding project from a bunch of EGSers and assorted smart friends of said EGSers. Like EGS it is sprawling, changing, trans-(disciplinary/everything), and yeah, a little star-studded.

The first issue is going online (hopefully) by the time you click this link. Already online is the blog (to which I need to contribute and will soon do so), so do poke around, bookmark, add to your rss feeds. My contribution to the first issue was obtaining the rights to an out-of-print version of a Gary Lutz story that was later revised in the re-issue of I Looked Alive. I also wrote a very short introduction to the piece. Besides fiction, the issue will feature new poetry, visual art, and political and theoretical writing. Picture the edge that cuts of the advance guard of the cutting edge of the avant garde, etcetc., the image of which, repeated ad infinitum in trompe l’oeil fashion, begins to locate Continent on topology of thought. Or or, I think it’s neat.

April 2017
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