Archive for the 'ethics' Category


Ideal vs. Material

If anyone read the review of Irving Kristol’s posthumous collection of essays The Neoconservative Persuasion, they may have also noticed the strict line that neoconservatism draws between the dynamics of the material world and the “moral” and “religious” considerations. It never occurred to me before, but it seems like a great number of the larger ideological debates of the modern era can be drawn along these lines. To quote from the review, most of Kristol’s essays

add up to an extended tirade against American liberalism, which I think should figure as still another of neoconservatism’s principles — the largest and most energetic principle of all, judging by the evidence here. The tirade rested on two main inspirations, neither of which can be dismissed out of hand. Kristol repeatedly argued that American liberalism, in its domestic programs, has relied on a parched and narrow vision of human nature, which attributes too much importance to material conditions and not enough to moral and religious considerations.

Such dogmatism and rabid anti-materialist sentiments (in both the capitalist and the philosophical senses of the word), of course, are the cornerstones of modern American religion, and the dogmatism, at least, carries over to the American right. It’s not outlandish that American religion and conservatism make for such wonderful bedfellows.

The main sticking point for me, the one thing I cannot get past, is this reactionary attempt to deny what is so obviously true about the world: things change quickly and dogmatic rules prove to be inadequate to them as soon as they’re printed or typed. What’s so bad about admitting this fact and trying to deal with it rather than taking the conservative path by closing one’s eyes, plugging one’s ears, and yelling as loudly as possible. Wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true, and attempting to strong-arm materialist (or realist) considerations in the name of morals, dogmas, and static, proscriptive ideals won’t make it go away.

That this is an accepted and acceptable route is something I just cannot fathom.


John Cage//Nietzsche//Techniques of Listening and Life

John Cage, from Silence

But this fearlessness only follows if, at the parting of the ways, where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one turns in the direction of those he does not intend. This turning is psychological and seems at Ilrst to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity-for a musician, the giving up of music. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature, where, gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.

Is this not a certain technique for achieving what Nietzsche intended in the figure of the overman? It seems uncannily similar, and Cage’s arguable political naivete aside, it presents at least the glimmer of a course of aesthetic action (the positive suppression of positive intention) for the goal that Nietzsche, as I read him, set out.

If nothing else, silencing yourself for a bit makes for a good exercise.




Against Completion

Pick up a book that you love but don’t read it cover to cover. Pick up a book you might love. Start into a book with your hands. The water damage makes tumors, topography.

Read a passage of Gertrude Stein. Read a page or less or more.

Completion, the impulse towards completion, and the desire to make a reader complete are all tied together and all fundamentally non-responsive to the condition of the book. Plot is not meaning is not the essence or ontological core of the book. The book is pages and language, so experience it as pages and language.

Take a language bath. Pull down five books that will go sentence by sentence and break you up a little bit. Completion holds you and things together. Completion is the logic of progress. Do not believe that heterodox reading challenges the state but realize that orthodox reading is within the logic of the state.

The book that asks for completion is making a demand on you. Make demands on your books. Take them up as tools and aides. Take them seriously as what they are. Does the book truly make that demand of completion? The author may, but what do you owe the author? What right has he to demand?

Books are objects that archive orders of language and language meaning shifts. The logic of completion is the logic of exhaustion and the logic maximization. Do not exhaust your books, do not enter into a relationship of need or demand, but rather of free entry, movement, exchange.

To complete, to exhaust, to close the book on a book is to foreclose the realm of the unread, the fantastic aporetic space of potential. Read the all words of a book in the order they are printed but do not complete the book. The act is less important that the framing. Read a passage of Kathy Acker, put down the book, trace the crack on the cover.

Which is to say, take your books seriously. Take seriously their status instead of the edifice of cultural expectations surrounding them. Do not lament the impossible spans of time it must take to complete a book, but instead rejoice that you can enter at will, stop, skip. Rejoice that there is and will be the unread into which you can project the fullness of your fantasy and desire.


A Prick is a Prick: Still Hating on Jonathan Franzen After All These Years



I know the Ben Marcus V. Jonathan Franzen thing is an old debate, but I’ve been recently reminded of it so thought to weigh in. I’m not responding directly to Marcus V. Franzen, though I’d obviously come down on Marcus’s side. I am instead responding to the argument that it is silly to dislike Franzen- that he’s fine, that’s he’s a good writer just doing something different than Marcus and we should be happy they both write, that instead of engaging in polemics we should just appreciate them both.


I tried to make an argument for Mr. Franzen. Let us assume that we enjoy reading his work, that we find it touching, that we don’t find his very essence to be of smugness and pedantry. We could say: Jonathan Franzen is a competent chronicler of the condition of people of a certain class and period. He uses the conventions of ‘literature’ to produce finely wrought craft items. He is sensitive to and thus helps make sense of the human condition in his era, and in so doing he entertains and enlightens his readership.

At the very most, he is a member of a rather large class of very talented writers. Quite frankly, I don’t see how this is a laudable position. This kind of literature is not, at the level of its construction and goals, in relation to or in conversation with its moment. It is stale by design, a decadent expression of nostalgia, an analgesic comfort food for a self-satisfied middle brow.

I firmly believe that Ben Marcus’s work is of greater worth and greater artistic value than Franzen’s. I believe there is a place for a polemics that stresses the value of innovation, ambition, and serious grappling with the material and ontological condition of text as a medium.

Still, I am well aware that, as much as I dress it up with theory, any opinion I may have on Mr. Franzen and his work is only a matter of taste. However, laying aside general questions of the literary value of innovative vs. traditional writing, I think there is still a strong case to be made against Franzen. It ought not be controversial to say that there are more very well written conventional novels published every year than any person could possibly read. Many of these books are written by people with humility and a simple desire to tell a good story; by people who don’t take lack of artistic ambition and market-based aesthetics as badges of honor.

Which is to say: No, I don’t think that A) -it’s ok for people to like what they like- correlates to B)- it’s ok for people to like Jonathan Franzen. Given the volume of equivalent writers of erudite middle-brow fiction, it is unethical to support a huge fucking asshole who contributes nothing new to literature.


Whoa, Grad School!

Just got this acceptance to Columbia! Check it out:

Dear Mr. Segal,

I was awake last night, late, thinking of my father, vacuums, my father’s speech suspended in a vacuum and on hooks. I was reading a small online journal to feel like I was ‘supporting independent literature’. When I am feeling like my work is meaningless, I like looking at small online journals to see all of the people who take on my voice in the hopes of becoming ‘important writers’. Lately, I’ve taken to throwing ‘scare-quotes’ around phrases that make me uncomfortable, as if by bracketing them as such, I can re-animate and heighten their meaning. As if I can distance myself from the draining-power of dessicated cliches.

One thing that did not make me feel the need to employ ‘scare-quotes’ was your writing. I have been google searching you since 2:00 AM this morning. I found pictures of your face that I’ve printed out with an ink-jet printer and drawn hearts on. No, that is a lie. But what is not a lie is that I think you are doing a kind of new weird that is newer and more pure, that is secretly activating otherwise vestigial brain-parts, that is apt to set real physical fires all on its own, independent of readers. What I’m saying is that if this were seized by the state as samizdat, the text would leach into the steel containers in which it was locked and re-figure the metal in its own image.

So here is what I am thinking: I am thinking you ought to be at my side, co-instigating the destruction/revival of American Letters. We will write books that get up in the night and crawl down Jonathan Franzen’s throat, and Jonathan Safran-Foer’s, and every other middle-brow Jonathan within a 200-mile radius of New York.

All this to say: Congratulations on your acceptance to the Columbia University MFA program in Creative Writing. Although you did not apply, I have taken the liberty of accepting you and waving all fees and application requirements. You will also be given a full tuition waver and stipend. Please respond to this offer as quickly as possible. Language Helmet fittings begin next week.

Ben Marcus


Hogzilla and Crappy Internet Magazines

This is a small and minor post.

I recently came across a new literary journal that billed itself as ‘the world’s first green literary journal’. This is because it is paper-free and publishes on Amazon Kindle!!!

Excuse me? Does this even begin to make sense? There have been online lit. journals since the 1990s. There are literally hundreds of all-online journals. There are even online journals that have nature oriented-themes, which I suppose makes them double-green. Either the editors are totally unaware of the last decade of publishing, or they are cynically (and stupidly) trying to hype themselves using totally false claims. Either way it’s just gross/pathetic.

Ok. Rant over. Picture time:

By which i mean motion picture time. This looks awesome.

Based on this:

August 2019
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