Lucy Ives

, a ... writer, ... .

NYTBR Recommends Loudermilk
June–August 2019 Frieze Magazine

Issue 204 cover.

The New Yorker on MFA Novels

What Does It Mean to Be a “Real” Writer?

Two satirical novels, set in M.F.A. programs, challenge our ideas of literary authenticity and achievement.
By Hermione Hoby

Talent is like obscenity: you know it when you see it. It’s something that can’t be defined, only recognized—an irreducible and unteachable entity, like charisma or humor, and its confirmation all the more coveted for being so. In his fundamental study, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,” Mark McGurl detailed how, in postwar America, anointing and cultivating literary talent became the purview of creative-writing programs and how, in turn, certain modes of writing came to be privileged above others. With this professionalization—indeed, institutionalization—of a nation’s art form, three injunctions popularized by the M.F.A. became holy writ. Write what you know; show, don’t tell; find your voice. Of this trinity, only the second speaks explicitly to craft and seems readily practicable. It’s the first and last dicta, however, that have proved the most influential, not through their utility but through their confounding simplicity. The question isn’t whether you should cultivate knowledge or voice. The question instead is a screamed “Yes, but how?”

When we identify talent, we say that we’ve found “the real deal,” a flimsy idiom for a solid belief—that, although talent as an entity may be undefinable, it’s still provable. It’s on this putative objectivity, in all its insidious allure, that M.F.A. programs are predicated, offering themselves as arbiters of talent who are able to alchemize literary promise into achievement. Many have found these claims at once irresistible and dubious. One year after graduating from the University of Arizona’s creative-writing program, David Foster Wallace wrote, “The only thing a Master of Fine Arts degree actually qualifies one to do, is teach . . . Fine Arts.” Wallace’s essay, “The Fictional Future” was one of several collected, in 2014, in “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” a book that reanimated and enshrined questions both existential (Can writing be taught?) and practical (How does a writer pay rent?). The bathos of the latter tends to casts an absurd light on the former.

So it is that two new satirical novels set in creative-writing programs, Lucy Ives’s “Loudermilk: Or, the Real Poet; or, the Origin of the World” and Mona Awad’s “Bunny,” engage with the chimera of “the real deal.” They are set, respectively, in a version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a version of Brown University and are authored by graduates of those institutions. These books constitute a kind of institutional critique, to borrow a term from the art world, or an institutional autofiction, to adapt an existing literary term. On the one hand, the satirical tone of these novels tips us off that the institutions being portrayed are fundamentally defective. And yet the pages in our hands are tangible counterfactuals! Because isn’t the published novel—the material proof every candidate longs for—evidence of these institutions’ success? Here is the M.F.A. program becoming self-conscious, displaying both impatience with and anxiety over the criterion of authenticity.

The centerpiece of the program is the workshop, or rather, excuse me, the Workshop; in David O. Dowling’s recently published history of America’s most famous creative-writing program, “A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” the word is reverentially capitalized. For anyone unfamiliar with insular world of the M.F.A., the term might conjure scenes of elvin ingenuity—merry workers laboring at their craft. Instead, this mainstay of the creative-writing program has more often been understood as a process of destruction, of tough love that tears you down to build you up. Dowling writes admiringly about the “volatile cocktail of ego and competition”—the “blood sport” of peers ripping each other’s work to shreds—that pervaded the Iowa workshop in the decades after its founding, in 1936.

His book opens with the boozing, brawling John Berryman—he of the “blow-torch approach” to teaching—receiving a punch from a student. Lucy Ives’s funny, cerebral “Loudermilk,” which takes its epigraph (“Rilke was a jerk”) from Berryman himself, lampoons this kind of masculine swagger. Its prime object of satire, however, is the very bedrock of the workshop’s pedagogy, the identification of artistic achievement. The novel’s titular handsome idiot, Troy Augustus Loudermilk, is a fraud in the most incontrovertible sense; it’s only by passing off the poems of his nebbishy friend Harry Rego as his own that he’s gained entry to the prestigious Seminars for Writing. These plagiarized poems go down well, but what Loudermilk is truly rewarded for is not his artistic achievement on the page but his charismatic performance in the workshop, including cracking jokes and insulting his professor’s sexual prowess. When you’re a fraud and don’t care, you have nothing to lose.

It’s not just the students who don’t care: Loudermilk’s professors include the dyspeptic (and, in his belligerence and drunkenness, rather Berryman-esque) Don Hillary, who welcomes his young poets with a showily profane speech, assuring them that he does not give “one donkey fuck what you do while you’re here.” One student, Clare, overhearing this speech as she walks by his classroom, wonders, “Could one imagine that his pronouncements herald a really excellent form of meritocracy, somehow? That his is, paradoxically, the most sublime of metrics—since incomprehensible, profane, and therefore absolute?” In a field where the “metrics” are so hard to define, much less achieve, you can stop caring at all—like Loudermilk and Hillary—or, like Harry, you can care too much.

As Harry, whom we understand to be a “real” talent, becomes more invested in his poems, he writes himself a long list of questions that include “Am I the one who is writing these words?” and “Who is the one who is writing?” Eventually, he concludes that “the only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” In other words, he must vacate himself to find himself, must fake himself into authenticity. We sense that his private litany of questions, though painful, are far more conducive to his literary growth than the public jousting of the workshop.

Ives’s hyperbolic satire—her outsized, loquacious characters, her stylistic brio—lays bare the central fallacy of “write what you know.” In one sense, we believe Ives is drawing from her own, all-too-real experience. And yet, with its ludic meta-fictionality and the self-conscious construction of characters, the novel cleverly dodges knowable reality, circumventing the question of authenticity altogether.

In “Bunny,” a work of toothsome and fanged intelligence, the agons of ego and machismo are replaced by the sly and saccharine maneuvers of a femme-y clique who call themselves “Bunnies.” Our narrator, the studiedly uneffusive Samantha, joins these women in the first all-female fiction cohort at the prestigious Warren College. “Workshop is an integral part of the Process,” pontificates Ursula, a professor whose self-regard is sustained by the idolatry of her students. (Here, the capitalization of the word “workshop” is scathing.) “Workshop never ‘confuses us,’ rather it opens us up, helps us grow, leads us in new and difficult and exciting directions. My Workshop in particular, I think you’ll find.”

My Workshop: the proprietorial claim is key. The tenor of the workshop proceeds from the leader, which is to say, the particularities and prejudices of one person—one ego. At some point taste, like talent, becomes an irreducible entity. The Bunnies engage in frothy pieties and hyperbolic niceties, telling each other things like, “Can I just say I loved living in your lines and that’s where I want to live now forever?” Within a rhetoric of universal approbation, every writer turns craven; all talent withers.

Though Awad plays knowingly with the tropes of eighties movies (the book’s hot-pink jacket copy mentions the cult classic “Heathers”; like Winona Ryder in that movie, Samantha has an air of quiet mutiny), we recognize these Bunnies as the apotheosis of that most contemporary archetype, the basic bitch. They love froyo from Pinkberry. They binge-watch “The Bachelorette.” Their Instagram captions are littered with the self-evidently false hashtag #amwriting. “Basic” in this sense is a synonym of sorts for “inauthentic”; we recognize the type, or at least we think we do. These Bunnies, so very bloodless seeming, are in fact quite bloodthirsty. Because, in addition to writing fiction, they’re engaged in an extracurricular workshop of their own devising, where, unlike in the simpering diplomacy of the classroom, their creativity is literally visceral. They conjure dream boys, real flesh-and-blood creations that they call “drafts,” “hybrids,” “darlings,” from rabbits. Unfortunately, these characters can get unruly, and the girls keep an axe close at hand. “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, you know?” coos one Bunny. Just as Ives has constructed a postmodern playhouse to deflate the notion of authenticity, Awad has winkingly deployed the great ruse of the supernatural.

Are these Bunnies for real? The answer to this question is a twofold no. They are false in their friendships, and, worse, they have no true talent. Even in their own workshop, they never quite manage to pull things off. Their “darlings” always fall just a bit short of the intended reality, lacking fully operational hands or penises. In other words, the Bunnies fail both literally, within their necromancy, and metaphorically, within their writing, to bring their characters to life.

Like rabbits, bad writers are everywhere, bred by M.F.A. programs across the country, turning out banal, interchangeable stories. When Samantha finally conjures her own piece of literature, it’s from a lone and noble creature—a stag. Her creation, Max, is the workshop’s first fully functioning boy. In the wickedly hilarious climax of the novel, the Bunnies show up to their last class bruised, bleeding, and ready, finally, to get real. With sweet feminist irony, it’s this dream boy made flesh who finally liberates them from that feminine yoke, extreme faux niceness. One classmate passes a simple and supremely unsayable verdict of another’s work: “I hated it.”

Max, Samantha’s triumph of extracurricular creativity, is also the agent of institutional destruction. In true Frankensteinien fashion, the proof of the author’s brilliance is her character’s apparent autonomy. No one proves this more starkly than Ava—Samantha’s lodestar and world center, her beloved best friend, whose contempt for the Bunnies (“that little-girl cult”) and Warren is spectacular. She is the one character who seems to radiate pure, unassailable selfhood—tango-dancing, white-haired Ava, to whom Max says, rapturously, “being with you is like being in literature.” It turns out that Ava really is too good to be true; she, like Max and the other bloody boys, is a fictional invention come to life. How is it, then, that she feels more real than anyone else, both to the reader and to Samantha, her unwitting “author”? The question is unanswerable, or, rather, the answer is that unanswerable thing, talent realized. For Samantha, it’s the possibility of companionship with her characters (no less real for being, technically, fictional), not the praise or censure of peers or professors, that galvanizes her to write more, and to write better.

In the final chapters of “Loudermilk,” a “poetry showdown” finally reveals Loudermilk as a fraud and his proxy as the real poet. But, as with an unshameable wind sock of a politician whose lies and blunders do nothing to unseat them, this is by no means Loudermilk’s undoing. Workshop, which we understand to be a sort of microcosm for what Ives later denounces as the “banal hypocrisy” of institutional American life at large, has worked well for Loudermilk. He skips town for New York and gets an agent. Of course he does. “I feel like I couldn’t even have planned this, like how amazing things worked out,” he writes in an e-mail to Harry. “But, hey when you’ve got extreme talent haha ;).” He does not, however, have the last word. At the end of the novel, his author seeks to make explicit her intent in a startling afterword:

If the institution wants to render Loudermilk’s self-expression false, a gesture accomplished merely in order to obtain a fellowship, then so be it! Loudermilk will go one step further: he will be already false, already a pastiche, already a construction.

Loudermilk, c’est moi.

This confounding, fourth-wall breaking address is a spectacularly brazen announcement of inauthenticity. Ives seems to be reminding us that she has fabricated Loudermilk, just as he has fabricated himself. Our “hollow hero” is a fiction who knows himself to be a fiction. Might authenticity itself be an equally fragile myth?

Master’s degrees, agents, and advances can make a difference: talent thrives on recognition, and bills need to be paid. There is, however, no great and infallible arbiter of literary merit. The longing to be anointed, once and for all, as “the real deal” is a fundamentally hopeless desire. Moreover, such longing for external approbation might be the very thing stymieing a young writer from becoming what they need to be, since, as Harry and Samantha realize, both “knowledge” and “voice” can only be discovered for oneself, not bestowed from beyond. What is required is a sort of faith in uncertainty—an acceptance that one’s capacity to conjure authentic new realities will have to be tested again and again, that the writer must be in a constant state of becoming. (In this sense, Harry’s self-interrogation, born of self-doubt, is essential, if exhausting.) And, since thinking must precede (good) writing, it follows that a question might be a more generative tool for a writer than an injunction. Kant famously posed a heuristic in three questions. The first serves as a useful counterpart to the M.F.A.’s first dictum. Not “Write what you know” but, with its honest combination of curiosity and humility, “What can I know?”

The Nation on Loudermilk

Scamming the Scene: Lucy Ives and the Fiction of the Cultural Industry
Ives’ second novel, Loudermilk, lampoons MFA writing programs and the inherited wealth that props them up.
By Charlie Markbreiter

Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk is an aughts period piece: It takes place between 2003 and 2004, during the start of the Iraq War. Troy Loudermilk—rich kid, Abercrombie hot—has enrolled at the Seminars, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop–like MFA program. But he doesn’t write. That gig belongs to Harry Rego, his debilitatingly anxious working-class friend from undergrad. In a present-day version, Harry might write Loudermilk’s application to USC as an independent subcontractor for Varsity Blue. Harry’s nascent poetry skills are derived from a Writing Poetry for Dummies–like guide, which directs him to use language that “[means] more than one thing” and phrases he finds in the local newspaper. The poems, written by Ives, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop poetry MFA program, are inserted throughout the book.

The dudes could have picked other lines of work to scam, but poetry seemed easy to sneak into. “Do you have any idea how many people are into this?” Loudermilk asks Harry. “Somebody could totally run this scene.” In exchange for writing poems in secret, which Troy passes off as his own, Harry gets a split of the program’s stipend while Loudermilk cruises female undergrads. After the Sessions, Loudermilk plans to ping-pong between free bags of poem money: “There was significantly more lucre than you would think in terms of fellowships and grants waived fees…. It would be stupid easy to get in and get out.”

Loudermilk just isn’t rich, though; he’s an heir, which makes Loudermilk what you might call inherited wealth lit—a modern-day version of the 19th century bourgeois novel’s dramas of inheritance. Loudermilk’s father, an “ex-military man” known as the Cleaner, had “made good in the 1960s and early ’70s providing infrastructural triage in locales the United States had not explicitly invaded” and became “alarmingly wealthy during Bill Clinton’s second term.” What does “triage” mean here? The line reads like a child asking an arms-dealing parent, “What do you do?” The parent lies, and the child swims in the results, a boorish aggregate of surplus value and other people’s blood. But Loudermilk isn’t stressed that his trust fund will end; he’s scared that it won’t. Is Loudermilk ashamed of being rich? Does he think that making his own money is the only way to be his own person? We don’t know; in October of his senior year, after Loudermilk proclaims that the Cleaner “had really crossed a line” and falls into an uncharacteristically deep depression, Harry infers that “the Cleaner had probably offered to pay for the rest of Loudermilk’s life.”

With the first round of stipend money, Loudermilk moves them into an apartment smashed next to an undergrad frat house where initiates are shot with BB guns. It’s a raw deal, but it saves Harry from doing the thing he hates most: speaking. Harry’s hatred for his voice borders on dysphoria. “The voice is ugly and sometimes shrill and sometimes bass and otherwise ludicrous, but the major thing about it is that it is not even his.” Loudermilk is obsessed with talking, and if they are together—always—then Loudermilk can speak for Harry. This engenders another dissociative relation: Harry hates Loudermilk’s voice; he just hates it less, despite knowing that the voice is an excuse. The larger problem is that he “dislikes and fears” other people and wants to avoid them. Loudermilk tracks Harry’s quest to find his voice by learning to write, speak, and assert himself. But it’s also a narrative in defense of narrative.

As with Ives’s debut novel, 2017’s Impossible Views of the World, Loudermilk satirizes a particular creative industry: While Views was set at a pseudo–Metropolitan Museum of Art, Loudermilk looks at poetry and academic creative writing. In both books, the markets judge a cultural product’s financial value, but its real (historical, cultural) value is always uncertain, necessitating an informal economy of gossip, jealousy, and clout. Members of the scene trade takes on a cultural product’s worth, and Ives excels at tracking the market-accelerated narcissism of small differences.

Ives’s protagonists—Harry in Loudermilk and Views’ Stella, a lower-level curator at Manhattan’s Central Museum of Art—are shy and observant, repulsed by the social climbing around them and harangued by a clout-chasing inverse. For Stella, it is senior curator Frederick Lu, who wants the museum to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational seeking to privatize the global water supply and establish WANSEE-sponsored satellite museums. In Loudermilk, the nemesis is Anton Beans, who likes poetry but isn’t sure what it is for; he fills this void of uncertainty by humping up the career ladder, a caricature of the preprofessional MFA candidate.

In the afterword to Loudermilk, Ives writes that the novel is neither satire nor realist fiction; it is a libertine novel. “The libertine,” according to her, “hates society’s laws and loves the roiling dynamics of nature.” This archetype “transgresses in the service of freedom—a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk is less interested in binge-drinking, group sex with corn-fed undergrads, and the Seminar stipend than in unmitigated freedom. He doesn’t know what he wants but wants to keep wanting without restraint.

Ives is invested in the sociological detail characteristic of a social novel, although Loudermilk isn’t a social novel. It isn’t a fully libertine novel either. In a literary critical flourish, she combines elements of libertine novels, realist novels, social novels, inherited wealth lit, postmodern novels, period pieces, poetry, satire, and revenge plots. Why does this book have so many genres? An answer can be found in two of Ives’s recent critical essays, the first on French theory’s American reception, the second on the social novel. Both pieces examine a disconnect between these genres of writing and their intended audiences. Loudermilk—and Loudermilk—result from this disconnect.

In a 2018 Baffler essay, “After the Afterlife of Theory,” Ives gives an intellectual history of French critical theory’s American reception, ending with its co-option by segments of the alt-right, as MAGA stans use postmodernist claims about the constructed nature of truth to peddle fake news. She is not anti-theory; she is against theory that doesn’t serve its pedagogical function, namely, to give readers “the tools…they need to see connections between their studies and the world.” Theory—and genres of writing that employ it, such as Beans’s poetry—that fails to do this is remiss, especially considering how much undergraduates pay to learn it, anyway. Ives ends her essay with this declarative: “The cost of a B.A. is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism.” Her critiques of theory production are essential to Loudermilk. That Harry, who has no background in poetry, hacks his way into the country’s most prestigious poetry MFA program is both scandalous—if he got in, then can’t anyone?—and appropriate—people without the academic credentials to do poetry should be able to get in. More often, however, they don’t.

A year later, Ives wrote another essay for The Baffler, “Orphans of Dickens.” Similarly concerned about a genre of writing and its pedagogical function, the piece asks why nonfiction literature has dramatically superseded fiction sales since Donald Trump’s election. “Information’s stock rose; artifice suffered.” People want to understand why the world is so bad, so they turn to nonfiction, plump with data. She gets why, but if people want to understand “what’s going on,” she argues, they should read fiction, too. Narrative is, after all, a sense-making device whose ability to string events into meaningful progressions feels especially necessary in an increasingly non-narrative world. (“So much of the media we consume is non-narrative, in spite of the existence of presumably linear ‘timelines.’”) Fiction is already reshuffling to meet this rising need for social context plus narrative, hence the resurgence of the social novel, a genre invented by Charles Dickens out of “an ambition to move between world-historical events and the mundane dramas of intimate life,” as Ava Kofman put it in a recent review of Olivia Laing’s Crudo, a novel that is supposed to feel like reading tweets.

Like Kofman, Ives points out that when fiction simply mimics nonfiction, hoping to absorb its truth value via osmosis, the results are unsuccessful. She critiques Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success—about a hedge fund bro who flees his New York City life on a cross-country Greyhound—for the novel’s failure to examine the power structures behind its sociological detailing, as if the details themselves made the work automatically good. Fiction with a misapplied nonfiction-y style makes the same error as the tweet format in which the same declarative statement is repeated in a grave tone: assuming that adopting a specific genre form automatically endows your words with reality. For Kofman, shafting narrative for non-narrative because the latter is supposedly always more realistic “bodes ill for the readers and critics who still look to the novel as a respite from, and not simply an extension of, the relentless stream of social media.”

Loudermilk, in contrast, is a defense of narrative contra nonfiction’s and theory’s claims as the only good forms of writing—claims that have escalated under Trump. Loudermilk’s plot wraps up neatly because the point of narrative is to make points. Loudermilk and Harry’s agreement is broken, although Loudermilk, with his scammy charisma and trust fund, will be just fine, even when the Great Recession hits five years later. (The tax loopholes that generated his trust fund are not unrelated to the financial crash.) Harry finds his voice, but becoming “the real poet” doesn’t resolve the problems of the market-driven poetry world he is about to willingly enter.

While Loudermilk succeeds in making good on the arguments outlined in her Baffler essays, it does not totally succeed as a novel, although—unlike Crudo or Lake Success—it falters for more conventional reasons. Harry and Loudermilk can feel like tropes. Each is mostly defined by a single desire (for freedom and isolation, respectively), which makes their dynamic and relationships with other characters feel predictable. Her combinations of genre tropes never fully cohere. Each narrative flourish is so anxious to prove its right to exist as a narrative flourish in a narrative work that the book is always pulling the reader out to point at what’s going on.

Still, Loudermilk is worth reading. It’s a funny and cutting novel whose critiques of inherited wealth and its effects on culture in the aughts will keep being true until a full redistribution of wealth, beginning with reparations, occurs. Until then, Harry will fester with avoidance, Loudermilk will be horny, and Beans will continue his lifelong plot for empty career success, while the rich, like the Walton family of Walmart, for example, pour their money into trusts ($9 billion as of 2011) to avoid having to pay an estate tax. They’re thieves but also quite charitable. They support the arts. In 2011, Walmart heiress Alice Walton founded a museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Maybe next time, she will found a poetry MFA program—or just send her child to one.

The New Yorker on Loudermilk

What We’re Reading This Summer
June 4, 2019

“Loudermilk,” by Lucy Ives

“Loudermilk,” a new novel by Lucy Ives, is set at a lightly fictionalized Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ives is either puncturing a myth about Iowa or advancing it; either option makes her book an indulgence. I loved the character of Anton Beans, a “conceptual lyricist” with a baby-bald head and a lush, Abrahamic beard. I loved Don Hillary, the requisite alcoholic professor, who once wrote cowboy poetry and now appears to be “slowly embalming himself as a source of perverse patrician fun.” The book’s title refers to Troy Augustus Loudermilk, who scams his way into the program with the help of his friend Harry. Their division of labor is as follows: Troy, a glorious idiot, goes to class, flaunts his loutish good looks, and tries to sleep with as many coeds as possible; Harry, who is painfully shy, sits in their crumbling apartment—the toilet’s in the center of the floor—and completes Troy’s assignments. The pair’s comic adventures interweave with the more melancholy account of Clare, a first-year fiction writer who can no longer write. Clare, who speaks with a clipped, mysterious precision, is an early indication that Ives’s interests point toward the philosophical, even the mystical. “Loudermilk” is not just funny; it becomes a layered exploration of the creative process, from the “tension that once indicated to [Clare] a beginning” to Harry’s feeling, as he plans a poem, that “he wants to walk backward … The challenge is to get himself to fall.” Ives approaches the students themselves with canny tenderness, and their work (which the novel excerpts, delightfully) with grave respect. Her own language is prickly and odd, with a distracted quality, as if she were trying to narrate while another voice is murmuring in her ear.—Katy Waldman

Loudermilk Reviewed in The Believer

A Review of: Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, by Lucy Ives
by Jameson Fitzpatrick
May 28th, 2019

Format: 304 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5 x 8.25 in.; Price: $16.95; Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Number of dramatis personae: seven; Number of scenes in which A character is in the process of writing: six-ish; Number of metafictional stories and poems appearing within: eleven; Number of fonts used: three; Number of uncomfortable moments of recognition writers are likely to experience while reading: countless.

Central Question: How does a person write (about writing)?

On December 3, 1961, Susan Sontag wrote the following in her journal:

The writer must be four people:

1) The nut, the obsédé

2) The moron

3) The stylist

40 The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.

A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

I thought of Sontag’s formulation often while reading Lucy Ives’s new novel Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, as the titular character is a writer who is quite literally more than one person. Loudermilk centers on two friends conning their way through the 2003–2004 academic year at “the Seminars,” a prestigious Midwestern MFA program very transparently modelled on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Ives is an alumna). The charismatic Troy Loudermilk attends classes and is the one officially matriculated, while his extraordinarily shy sidekick Harry Rego ghostwrites the poems. As Loudermilk/Harry’s work arouses the admiration—and suspicion—of those around them, the teenaged daughter of two poetry faculty vies for Loudermilk’s affection, and a fiction student removed from the rest of the action struggles to write. Though Ives’s portrait of the Seminars/Workshop is more farcical than flattering, readers expecting yet another referendum on the MFA will be pleasantly surprised to discover a much stranger and more ambitious book. In Loudermilk, Ives has taken a subject notoriously difficult to make interesting—the difficulty of writing itself—and narrativized it into an elaborate plot peopled by avatars of the types Sontag enumerated decades ago.

Loudermilk, who plays chicken with a semi-truck in the novel’s opening scene and sends emails from, is Ives’s moron (2), or fool (a substitution I’ll be making given “moron”’s eugenicist history). Importantly, he is quite wealthy, the sole heir of a former military contractor turned disaster profiteer, and quite hot: “He is six foot three and built like a water polo champion. His face is hard to look away from.” He is also (if this were not already obvious) white, straight, cis, and able-bodied, biographical details frequently correlated with an assumed (if unearned) sense of authority—Loudermilk doesn’t have to write a word to feel right at home at the Seminars. In her afterword, Ives refers to him as a libertine, and indeed, Loudermilk is so free of shame he seems incapable of the emotion, a handy lack for a would-be writer to have. If, per Sontag, one must be a fool in order to muster the confidence necessary for self-expression, Loudermilk’s superlative confidence reflects a profound foolishness.

Only it isn’t his self that Loudermilk is expressing—at least not in the poems that quickly distinguish him as one of the Seminars’ star students. Those are secretly written by Harry, the Cyrano de Bergerac to Loudermilk’s Christian de Neuvillette (whose classic tale of literary impersonation Ives cites as an inspiration in the afterword). The two unlikely pals are collaborators on a hare-brained scheme that began on a whim: during their senior year at SUNY Oswego, Loudermilk discovered the existence of funded graduate programs in poetry and decided it would be a fun and easy way to spend two years. Harry, a former child genius who started college at fifteen, is more than happy to play along, particularly since their arrangement requires him to interact with no one but his trusted symbiont (he has an aversion to his own voice so pronounced that it renders him unable to speak in most situations).

It’s not just Harry’s prodigious intelligence that makes him the critic (4) in Ives’s story, but also his approach to writing poetry. Harry writes because he has to provide Loudermilk’s lines, not because because he has something to say—at least not at first—and so his entrée to poetry comes through analysis rather than inspiration. Like any good counterfeiter, he first has to understand how the thing is made:

Harry knows, based on his limited poetical reading, but whatever, that he’s supposed to be using language that might “mean more than one thing” when he’s creating a poem. But it’s confusing to him how exactly this should work, from the point of view of production. For this reason, he’s developing a work-around. He’s decided to find language that definitely means one thing and then try his best to use it in another way, so that it definitely cannot mean the very thing it usually means—which is to say, exclusively.

As he collages appropriated language into poems that parody the vernacular of American empire in the early aughts, Harry’s first subject becomes doublespeak; or, language itself.

The true nut or obsédé (1) here—the personality who, according to Sontag, provides a writer’s material—is Lizzie Hillary, the precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of two members of the Seminars’ poetry faculty. The undeserving object of her affection is (of course) Loudermilk, who, much to her mounting frustration but certain benefit, she fails to woo. Does anyone have a greater capacity for obsession than a teenager in love? Yet Ives is careful not to reduce Lizzie to a caricature; she is not frivolous (Harry recognizes her at once as “a worthy fucking competitor”). In fact, Lizzie is the first to see—almost immediately—through Loudermilk’s act, and even her infatuation with him belies another, more nebulous desire: to grow up and into an artist. Once again, Loudermilk is just a stand-in.

Finally, there is Clare Elwil, a first-year student in fiction and our resident stylist (3) (Ives declares this outright on page 10). The daughter of a minor but notable expat poet from whom she has long been estranged, and blessed with the kind of C.V. you might expect from an Iowa grad announcing their six-figure first book deal, Clare shares some of Loudermilk’s material advantages, though hers come along with significantly more baggage. Having deferred admission after a serious car accident, she is arriving to the Seminars a year late and with a bad case of trauma-induced writer’s block. Clare’s struggle to write constitutes her entire subplot (her story barely intersects with the other characters’) and the question of style—how to say what she has to say—is both her primary obstacle and ultimate salvation.

We are introduced to Clare via “two terse sentences [she] has been writing for the past ten weeks” Here, and in Clare’s scenes throughout the novel, Ives captures with painfully vivid detail how it feels when words fail you, or, worse, when you fail words:

It is in description now that Clare has a tendency to become most mired. No, now it is in description that Clare has a tendency to become the most mired. The tendency? Is that the word? Mired? The? She slides back and forth, on wheels, mobile yet unable to pass over the hump that stands between her and poised, proper articulation.

Over the course of the novel, Clare reflects on her past success (a prize-winning short story she remembers as “an exercise in style”), struggles with two unfinished drafts, and, at long last, writes a new story, tricking herself into success by “[telling] herself she is not the one writing.” Her classmates highlight “her unique style” in their praise.

Through these characters and their respective fates, Loudermilk posits that all artistic creation requires the use of a proxy. Harry needs to use Loudermilk’s voice to find his own. Lizzie needs to use Loudermilk as a receptacle for her ambition until it can take another form—a work of guerilla art she titles The Origin of the World, after Clare’s story of the same title, which is itself titled after Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. Clare has to pretend to be someone else in order to write like herself. It is only in their proxies that they are finally able to recognize themselves.

Sontag says a good writer must be a fool and an obsessive, that the critic and the stylist are bonuses (so, inessential). But Ives—not just for her own erudition and syntactical artistry, remarkable as they are—counters that it is the critic and the stylist who are indispensable, for they are the ones who interface thought with language. Obsessions can be substituted, replaced, and tend to descend on us whether our nature is obsessive or not. Likewise, a fool’s confidence can be adopted when necessary; it’s no coincidence “bravado” so often collocates with “false” (or that Loudermilk is the only one of these characters without any apparent artistic promise of his own). Taste and intelligence can be faked, too, of course, but a good writer nevertheless must develop them sometime. Perhaps it is, after all, through the faking that the making happens.

Loudermilk Reviewed in Bookforum

May 16, 2019 • Sylvia Gindick

In Lucy Ives’s second novel, Loudermilk, a charismatic dumbass scams his way into a prestigious MFA poetry program by submitting the work of his antisocial companion. The real writer, who hates the sound of his own voice, follows the oversexed, symmetrically featured dumbass to school and continues to write for him. It’s a fun setup, but the book aims for more than just comedy. Ives, who once described herself as “the author of some kind of thinking about writing,” examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word.

Through canny third-person narration, Ives cycles through the perspectives of five characters as the book progresses: Harry, the “real poet” (whose voice tends to break into an “unintelligible croak”); Loudermilk, the charming but “hollow hero” (whose speech is littered with creative iterations of “dude,” “dick,” and “fuck”); Clare, the brooding early-success who fears she can no longer write (“What I’ve lost is so easy to name as to make it impossible to speak about.”); Anton, the pompous try-hard who always thinks he’s the best writer in the room (“heir apparent to the poem-based sector of the American humanities multiverse”); and Lizzie, the precocious daughter of poetry professors (“I’m just curious, so sue me!”). Their artmaking involves varying degrees of creativity and mimicry, and it’s often unclear whether we should laugh at their marginal successes—or grudgingly respect them. The fiction and poetry that the characters write, many pieces of which are included in the text, are rendered in a tone that balances sarcasm with tenderness.

Unlike Ives’s previous novel, Impossible Views of the World, which was largely focused on the protagonist's glossy, external world, Loudermilk dives into the characters’ inner lives. This is a chaotic place. They feel shadowed, almost overpowered, by fantasies and visions. Harry’s imagination feels so alive that he envisions it as another person walking alongside him. Clare sees her her dead father everywhere. Both feel constrained by these doubles, which also, paradoxically, give them license to create. As Ives describes the condition in which Harry writes, “He needs to sink back into that greenish-reddish veil through which he can see the gently pulsing backs of words, the frilled edges of sentences. The only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” Clare writes of one of her characters, “She was alone. Sort of. No, she was not alone. She could feel it waiting in the wings, as it were, there, ready to take a word from her, take it to say it again, back, back, back again, as you,” followed by four pages of nothing but “SSSSS$S.”

The novel concludes with a curious afterword in which Ives explains that Loudermilk is a libertine, a symptom of democracy, a lover of freedom who has little capacity for self-restraint. “The libertine transgresses in the service of freedom,” she writes, “a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk continuously does what he does just because he can, embodying Harry’s voice until Harry is ready to claim it as his own. The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.

2018 Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant

New York, NY (December 3, 2018) — The Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program is pleased to announce the recipients of its 2018 grants. The program supports writing about contemporary art and aims to ensure that critical writing remains a valued mode of engaging the visual arts.

Joel Wachs, President of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, explains that “the Foundation’s commitment to arts writing is a natural extension of the grants the Foundation makes to artist-centered organizations and museums, which often include funds for the publication of exhibition catalogues, brochures, and other outlets for scholarly perspectives. Critical writing on contemporary art connects artists to audiences, increases dialogue around their work, and is vital to a dynamic and engaged visual art community in this country.”

In its 2018 cycle, the Arts Writers Grant Program has awarded a total of $725,000 to 21 writers. Ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 in four categories—articles, blogs, books and short-form writing—these grants support projects addressing both general and specialized art audiences, from scholarly studies to critical reviews, and self-published blogs.

“Since 2006, the program has funded 272 writers,” said Program Director Pradeep Dalal. “A valuable reminder of the rich possibilities of arts writing today, the 21 grantees this year address a remarkable breadth of topics in nuanced and often interdisciplinary ways. Rahel Aima will write on the persistence of techno-optimism and relate it to race and the global south, while Dawn Chan will address Asian-futurism and media art's relationship to the formation of identity. Several projects address the urgent themes of ecology and environment, including Jessica Horton's book on indigenous American art which the jurors felt would reset the parameters of discourse in eco-criticism and anthropocene studies. Wendy Vogel will write on the art world's response to the #metoo movement and will discuss practices like Ana Mendieta's within the framework of sexual violence. Lucy Ives's critical biography of the radical and visionary practice of Madeline Gins calls greater attention to an artist primarily known for her partnership with her husband, Arakawa. Yxta Murray will write on the critique of property redistribution, post-Katrina, by the art collective Blights Out New Orleans. And several writers address public art, ranging from Claire Tancons’s book on processional performance, and Malik Gaines's research, which deploys arguments from art history, performance studies, black studies, and queer theory to sharply articulate the stakes of public art in present day America.”

The 21 grantees are listed by category as follows:

Ashley Hunt, The Political Economy of the Prison in Contemporary Art Exhibitions
Yxta Murray, Blights Out and Property Rights in New Orleans Post-Katrina
Erin Thompson, Art after Guantánamo

Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz, Disparate Minds
Essence Harden and Olivia K. Young, Speculative: Black Art Practices of the West
Bradford Nordeen, Memorabilia: Queer Countercultures and Moving Image Art
Susan Snodgrass, In/Site: Reflections on the Art of Place

Malik Gaines, Future Ruins: The Art of Abstractive Democracy
Elena Gorfinkel, Aesthetic Strike: Cinemas of Exhaustion
Jessica Horton, Earth Diplomacy: Indigenous American Art and Reciprocity, 1953–1973
Lucy Ives, She is Raining: The Work and Life of Madeline Gins
Eric Golo Stone, Artist Contracts in the Political Economy
Michael Stone-Richards, Care of the City: Ruination, Abandonment, and Hospitality in Contemporary Practice
Claire Tancons, Roadworks: Processional Performance in the New Millennium

Short-Form Writing
Rahel Aima
Siobhan Burke
Dawn Chan
Darren Jones
Christina Catherine Martinez
Wendy Vogel
Chloe Wyma

Impossible Views Reviewed in Art in America

MAGAZINE JAN. 01, 2018

by Jameson Fitzpatrick

That Lucy Ives's Impossible Views of the World (published in August by Penguin Press) and Andrew Durbin's MacArthur Park (published in September by Nightboat Books) are both debut novels written by poets who are also art critics might explain the two books' further similarities. Each centers on a neurotic art worker—Ives's Stella Krakus is a curator and Durbin's Nick Fowler, a writer—in the midst, simultaneously, of an affair with a wealthy, insufferable man; a research project with no clear end; and an ensuing existential crisis. Stella and Nick are both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions about art, urban life, and the familiar archetypes that populate arts professions. Most significantly, the two protagonists share a fascination with utopias—and a troubling readiness to accept their impossibility as an excuse to stick to the status quo.

This is not to say the books are not distinct. Stella, to a greater degree than Nick, dwells in the particular, as does her story: Impossible Views of the World takes place in the course of one eventful week. An awkward thirtysomething "termed a cartographic specialist in the art history world" but "a dilettante in the world of cartographers," Stella works as a curator in the American Objects department at New York City's Central Museum of Art. (Called CeMArt for short, the museum is a barely veiled send-up of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though the administration's immoderate coziness with a corporate sponsor smacks of the Guggenheim.) Her unfulfilling routine is upended by the disappearance of her colleague Paul, who is "almost a friend" and an obscure but respected poet. Tasked with completing Paul's work on the checklist for an upcoming exhibition, Stella discovers in his desk a photocopy of a fantastical early-nineteenth-century map of a utopian community called Elysia. Determined to figure out the map's significance, she steals the document, along with copies of Paul's files. What follows is an art historical caper that Vogue aptly dubbed "something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups."

As Stella gets closer to determining the map's provenance, she may (or may not) be uncovering a conspiracy connecting Paul's disappearance, several generations of a wealthy but disgraced New York family of artists and patrons, possible forgeries, and CeMArt's latest exhibition of American portraiture. That exhibition is organized by the impossibly handsome Fred Lu, a senior curator in American Objects and scion of two wealthy New York families, with whom Stella has been conducting a (mostly) emotional affair while going through a bitter divorce. Stella seems to loathe Fred almost as much as she loves him, particularly for his willingness to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational corporation seeking to privatize the world's water supply and partner with CeMArt to open satellite museums around the globe.

Where Impossible Views finds its subject matter (and critique) in the institution, Durbin's MacArthur Park looks to what Ives, in her blurb for the novel, calls "the precarious margins of the art world." And where the focus of Views is small, concerned with inconspicuous but meaningful detail, MacArthur Park is big and sprawling, in both its settings and its questions. Nick, a twentysomething poet and budding art critic, begins his travel narrative in New York, where the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy catalyzes a preoccupying anxiety about climate change and the impending end of the world. He then sets out on a nebulous book project "about the weather"-and on trips to Miami, upstate New York, Fire Island, Los Angeles (because he has been commissioned to write about the Tom of Finland Foundation), London, and Vienna.

While in Los Angeles, Nick's book about the weather (which, in a reflexive turn, is what we understand ourselves to be reading) also becomes a book about utopia. This section opens with a history of intentional communities and cults in Southern California, beginning at the start of the twentieth century and concluding with Scientology; at the Tom of Finland Foundation, Nick's guides frame Touko Laaksonen's erotic gay drawings as a "utopian project." But Nick suspects that "a utopia of men is no utopia"—and that all utopias, however appealing, are illusory. In Impossible Views, Stella comes to a similar realization about the Elysia of her map. Though she never believes the town depicted is real, when she finally solves its tantalizing mystery—her own idealized project—she is not quite satisfied. Every utopia fails on its own terms.

TOGETHER, Impossible Views and MacArthur Park suggest that art itself might be such a failed project. Or that the art world is, at least, as Nick implies while considering the 2014 Pierre Huyghe retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

The art world is an unregulated economy that borrows from other economies . . . to continually update its relationship to the world and, in acting as a conduit for other (and all) disciplines, strives to become the clearest image of the world in which we may better see ourselves. . . . Art tries to be everything for everyone at once, all of it contained within salable products that can be exchanged between artists, galleries, individuals and institutions, across media, in a ‘conversation' about what now means, and what that now once meant and will someday come to mean. . . . Everyone wants to be an artist because everyone wants to speak about the now.

An impossible aim, to be sure, "to be everything for everyone at once." But it is not its ambition that dooms the project of art so much as its constraints, "contained" as it is. Consider, in Impossible Views, CeMArt's partnership with an evil corporate sponsor that wants to include affiliates of the museum in each of its planned "smart cities"—"‘technology responsive' communities" around the world in which people will "take refuge not just from everyday inconvenience and security issues posed by fundamentalists but from approaching environmental collapse." (It's worth nothing that WANSEE echoes Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where Nazi officials planned the Final Solution.) The proposed sites include Nevada and Abu Dhabi, evoking international expansions undertaken by the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and others.

Art's complicity in capitalism and its exploitation of natural and human resources is not news, nor is this the most meaningful insight offered by these novels. "Everyone" might want to be an artist not only because they want "to speak about the now" but also because they wish to be a part of the noble project of crafting an "image of the world in which we may better see ourselves." Who doesn't? Who in the art world, anyway? But reflection is not action, nor is this the only way to imagine art's function. As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."

In their accounts of the flawed contexts in which they live and work, both Stella and Nick position themselves as outsiders. Though they blend in well enough, they go to great lengths to make it clear they see through the fictions that others around them happily accept. Disgusted by the scene of the swanky party where Fred announces CeMArt's partnership with WANSEE, Stella wonders: "How could I possibly be a curator if Fred was a curator?" Of the partygoers at a club vying with feigned nonchalance to be photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans, Nick says: "I watched them and did not once allow myself [to] slip into their time." Both fixate on the class differences between them and their more affluent lovers (Nick hates his boyfriend Simon's "moneyed affect"), though both protagonists are white and middle-class, hardly outliers.

Stella and Nick's desire to see themselves as exceptions to the rules of their lives is paired with a sense that they are powerless to change those rules. Stella laments that the circumstances of her life—her career, her relationships—feel beyond her control, even as she recognizes that she must bear some responsibility for them. Nick speaks of history grabbing and shoving us forward as if our role in it were passive. This echoes Stella's description of the "invisible hand" she feels guiding her during her boldest moments. Ultimately, Stella's most profound discovery in Impossible Views is not the origin of the map, but of that hand. Drunk at a friend's party, she cracks it: "When it feels like there is that weird hand. . . . That's you encountering yourself."

How Stella and Nick imagine themselves in their own communities is how many in the art world seem to imagine themselves in the world at large: as outsiders who know better, exceptions to the ugliest aspects of their time and country, but powerless to do anything but study works of art. Through these characters and their delusions, Ives and Durbin reveal the flaw, and danger, of such thinking: it's precisely at the moment we feel most helpless that we are exposed to our own potential power. Helplessness, as Nick says, is a mask. What that mask obscures is not our complicity—it helps us feel that, in fact—but our ability to hammer a better reality into existence. Knowing the mask is there opens the possibility of taking it off, which makes the difference between the meek administration of American objects and the self-determination of American subjects.


Knowing the mask is there.


Both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions.


As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."

NYT 10 New Books We Recommend 8-24-17

10 New Books We Recommend This Week

The year of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has seen a number of new works published on Russian history, and our list this week includes two of them: Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government,” about an apartment complex in Moscow built for the Bolshevik elite; and the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War,” about the Russian women who served in World War II, new in translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Laurent Binet remembers a time when literary theory was all the rage, in his fictional take on the death of Roland Barthes; Lucy Ives sets a smart mystery amid the office politics of an art museum; and the pioneering programmer Ellen Ullman offers some much-needed perspective on the tech world.

Radhika Jones
Editorial Director, Books

NEW PEOPLE, by Danzy Senna. (Riverhead Books, $26.) Senna’s sinister and charming new novel, about a married couple who are both biracial, riffs on themes she’s made her own — about what happens when races and cultures mingle in the home, and under the skin. “Senna’s aim is precise and devastating. She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy,” our critic Parul Sehgal wrote. “It’s a novel that reads us. It anticipates, and sidesteps, lazy reading and sentimental expectations.”

THE HOUSE OF GOVERNMENT: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University, $39.95.) This panoramic history plotted as an epic family tragedy describes the lives of Bolshevik revolutionaries who were swallowed up by the cause they believed in. The story is as intricate as any Russian novel, and the chapters on the Stalinist Terror are the most vivid.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Random House, $30.) This oral history, the first of a series that won Alexievich the literature Nobel in 2015, charts World War II as seen by the Russian women who experienced it, and disproves the assumption that war is “unwomanly.” Distilling her interviews into immersive monologues, Alexievich presents less a straightforward history than a literary excavation of memory itself.

A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT: Stories, by Akhil Sharma. (Norton, $24.95.) In eight haunting, revelatory stories about Indian characters, both in Delhi and in metropolitan New York, Sharma, the author of “Family Life” and “An Obedient Father,” offers a cultural exposé and a lacerating critique of a certain type of male ego.

FREUD: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews. (Metropolitan/Holt, $40.) Crews opens his study with the question of how Freud, whose scientific reputation has plummeted over the past decades, could retain so much cultural capital in the 21st century. In a single volume, he draws a portrait of Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester and all-around nasty nut job, bringing a new level of detail to these accounts.

THE SEVENTH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE, by Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Binet’s playful buddy-cop detective novel reimagines the historical event of the literary theorist Roland Barthes’s death. It’s a burlesque set in a time when literary theory was at its cultural zenith; knowing, antic, amusingly disrespectful and increasingly zany.

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines, by Judith Newman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Newman’s tender, boisterous memoir strips the usual zone of privacy to edge into the world her autistic son occupies. In freely speaking her mind, she raises provocative questions about the intersection of autism and the neurotypical.

IMPOSSIBLE VIEWS OF THE WORLD, by Lucy Ives. (Penguin Press, $25.) In this dark and funny first novel about a mystery in a museum, a young woman is stuck in an entry-level job as her private life unravels. Read it as the story of a young woman coming unglued, an art-world mystery or a museum-based episode of “The Office,” complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.

LIFE IN CODE: A Personal History of Technology, by Ellen Ullman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Twenty years after the publication of her classic of 20th-century digital-culture literature, “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents,” Ullman discusses her career in programming and the dangers the internet poses to privacy and civility. She knows how to decode her tech-world adventures for word people, and her essays explore gender relations and misogyny in the office, among other enduring issues.

THE DESTROYERS, by Christopher Bollen. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) The heir to a construction empire goes missing on the Greek island of Patmos in Bollen’s third novel, a seductive and richly atmospheric literary thriller with a sleek Patricia Highsmith surface. In this world of remote coves and beaches, wealth and luxury are inherent, but also inherently unstable.


Complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.

  • A version of this list appears in print on August 27, 2017, on Page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

Impossible Views Reviewed in NYT Book Review

Read this book on whichever level you choose.

Impossible Views in Sept 17 Vogue

An ultracharming debut.

Impossible Views in Sept 17 Cosmopolitan

Da Vinci Code fans die hard.

Impossible Views Reviewed in Kirkus (starred)

Kirkus Star

An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool.

In Ives’ scintillating debut novel, an up-and-coming young New York museum curator named Stella Krakus must solve the mystery of a co-worker’s disappearance, fend off her soon-to-be ex-husband, and retrieve her heart from an ill-conceived office dalliance. Stella, who is a 19th-century cartographic specialist, finds a photocopy of a meticulously detailed and illustrated old map titled “Elysia” folded up in her missing colleague’s pencil drawer. Her largely scholarly detective work on the matter also entails a bit of breaking and entering and lunch with her glamorous, secretive art-dealer mother. Ives’ writing derives much of its humor from a combination of high and low—arch formulations and mini-disquisitions studded with cussing, sex, and jokes about Reddit. Its delights include a description of Stella’s Williamsburg neighbors—“proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs propping up sobbing toddlers”—and this account of love: “the feeling…of it being spring for the first time, the face of a tiny kitten who is speaking fluent Spanish and is also a genie who can grant your wish, of being truly implied as the person I really was when another person spoke my name. My heart was a piece of paper. It was a paper fan. It was a dove.” Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!

A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.


Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!

  • Review Posted Online: May 15th, 2017

  • Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2017

Impossible Views Reviewed in Publisher's Wkly

Ives’s smart and singular debut novel chronicles what turns out to be a big week in the life of Stella Kraus, a petite and observant map expert for a Manhattan museum resembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the course of seven days, Stella works through the one-sided residual effects of an affair with an inscrutable colleague being groomed to run the museum. Stella also copes with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s inappropriate appearances at her work and work functions, eventually taking the matter into her own hands, so to speak. And what about the disappearance of a male colleague? The illustrated map Stella discovers while snooping in his office quickly becomes an obsession as she attempts to determine its provenance by embarking on a sort of scavenger hunt. Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor. Ives’s prose and storytelling feel deliberately obtuse at times, requiring readers to slow down to fully immerse themselves in the narrative’s nuances, but the result is an odd and thoroughly satisfying novel. (Aug.)


Odd and thoroughly satisfying.

The Hermit Reviewed in Publisher's Wkly

In her newest book of poetry, Ives (The Worldkillers), an editor and writer of many stripes, condenses what she calls “some kind of thinking about writing” into a cerebral collection replete with meditations on the writing process, dialogues concerning phenomenology, micro-stories, anxieties around a failed novel, lists, quotes, games, and notes to the self. Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery. There is some appeal in the variety of texts and in Ives’s insights into her life as a writer, and she succeeds most when she allows readers passage into this potential space: “One must possess only the ability to tolerate a given position long enough to make it intelligible to others.” (July)


Gorgeous passages of lush imagery.



A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A May 2019 Indie Next Great Read
A June 2019 MIBA Midwest Connections Pick
Los Angeles Times, 1 of 7 Novels Coming Out This Month That You Won't Want to Miss
Nylon's One of the Best New Books to Read This Month
Frieze, What We're Reading This Summer

It’s the end of summer, 2003. George W. Bush has recently declared the mission in Iraq accomplished, the unemployment rate is at its highest in years, and Martha Stewart has just been indicted for insider trading. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Midwest, Troy Augustus Loudermilk (fair-haired, statuesque, charismatic) and his companion Harry Rego (definitely none of those things) step out of a silver Land Cruiser and onto the campus of The Seminars, America’s most prestigious creative writing program, to which Loudermilk has recently been accepted for his excellence in poetry.

Loudermilk, however, has never written a poem in his life.

Wickedly entertaining, beguiling, layered, and sly, Loudermilk is a social novel for our time: a comedy of errors that deftly examines class, gender, and inheritance, and subverts our pieties about literature, authorship, art-making, and the institutions that sustain them.

Excerpt in Granta.

Excerpt at Lit Hub.


This clever satire of writing programs exhibits, with persuasive bitterness, the damage wreaked by the idea that literature is competition.

The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

Ives is either puncturing a myth about Iowa or advancing it; either option makes her book an indulgence . . . Ives’s interests point toward the philosophical, even the mystical. Loudermilk is not just funny; it becomes a layered exploration of the creative process . . . Ives approaches the students themselves with canny tenderness, and their work (which the novel excerpts, delightfully) with grave respect. Her own language is prickly and odd, with a distracted quality, as if she were trying to narrate while another voice is murmuring in her ear.

The New Yorker

The nuanced subversion of tropes and full-throttle self-indulgence of Ives’s writing lend a manic glee to this slyly funny and deeply intelligent novel.

Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

Ives’ satirical masterpiece follows poet Troy Augustus Loudermilk, a shallow Adonis recently admitted to the nation’s premiere creative-writing graduate program, located in the heart of America’s starchy middle . . . Laugh-out-loud funny and rife with keen cultural observations, Ives’ tale is a gloriously satisfying critique of education and creativity.

Booklist (starred review)

A book where profound poststructuralist meditations on language, chance and creativity are deftly spun through with a myriad of jokes about farting, sex and male anatomy . . . With the Bush presidency and invasion of Iraq playing out ambiently and calamitously in the background, Loudermilk perfectly captures the strange cultural ethos of the early 2000s . . . With razor-sharp prose and a plenitude of linguistic strangeness, Ives has written a novel about American college life that is both philosophically gripping and exceptionally hilarious.

Shelf Awareness (starred review)

Lucy Ives has created something special in Loudermilk. The early 2000s setting is unmistakable, and while all the characters are both familiar (in all the right ways) and written with at least some degree of love, none are spared by Ives’ razor-sharp satire. Unlike so many other satirical novels, Loudermilk is nuanced and feels like it has something to say.

— May 2019 Indie Next List

Hilarious, pointed, perfectly executed . . . Ives manages to subvert all expectations, and offers up one of the slyest, smartest looks at what it means to be a writer I've read; her every sentence sings, and they're songs I'll return to again and again.


Ives, who once described herself as "the author of some kind of thinking about writing," examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word . . . The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.


In a literary critical flourish, [Ives] combines elements of libertine novels, realist novels, social novels, inherited wealth lit, postmodern novels, period pieces, poetry, satire, and revenge plots . . . A funny and cutting novel whose critiques of inherited wealth and its effects on culture in the aughts will keep being true until a full redistribution of wealth, beginning with reparations, occurs.

The Nation

Readers expecting yet another referendum on the MFA will be pleasantly surprised to discover a much stranger and more ambitious book. In Loudermilk, Ives has taken a subject notoriously difficult to make interesting—the difficulty of writing itself—and narrativized it into an elaborate plot peopled by avatars of the types Sontag enumerated decades ago . . . Sontag says a good writer must be a fool and an obsessive, that the critic and the stylist are bonuses (so, inessential). But Ives—not just for her own erudition and syntactical artistry, remarkable as they are—counters that it is the critic and the stylist who are indispensable, for they are the ones who interface thought with language.

The Believer

Hilarious . . . A riotous success. Equal parts campus novel, buddy comedy and meditation on art-making under late capitalism, the novel is a hugely funny portrait of an egomaniac and his nebbish best friend.

The Washington Post

Loudermilk, a satire, explores a complex web of plot and episodes, thick descriptions, biting character arcs, poetic and philosophical precision, stylistically different stories/poems within stories, the nature of time, and the mirage of power (or the possibility of unveiling politics, and cracking open agency). By employing a classical theatrical technique of dramatis personae, rather than 'realistic' novel characters, perhaps Ives is able to move between so many registers that enable her unusual 'mash-up' to excel as at once philosophical and planted in the mud . . . Ives’s style of satire shatters the dichotomy between meta-narrative and human empathy. Breaking such a distinction requires rare observational skill, patience, and multi-genre flexibility and curiosity.

The Brooklyn Rail

Ives’s new novel is one of the funniest in recent memory, stuffed with jabs at writers and toxic masculinity, bluntly yonic allusions, and feuilleton-esque prose that prances on page . . . What Ives is playing with here is not just beautiful sentences and humorous situations, it’s the disharmony felt at the core of our experiences . . . Though the empirical distinctions between prose and poetry are often illusory, Ives finds a way to make her prose both a kind of communication—as is expected—as well as a construction of satire. Her words linger longer than normal trade, and find ways to avoid their disintegration, as if the must of a punchline is more lasting, more fragrant; words this eloquently framed and humorous imprint, and, often enough, hold us in their absurdity.

The Adroit Journal

This send-up of contemporary graduate writing programs and the characters they attract and create is sure to highly amuse any reader, especially those with a penchant for academia-set hijinks. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon, this highly original satiric novel is sharp-witted and adroit. Brava.

Addison County Independent

Lucy Ives mixes genres with unusual abandon in her second novel, Loudermilk. The narrative could be regarded as a campus novel, a portrait of the artist, a scam story, a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, or a farce . . . Loudermilk is a novel about the tension between art and life, and the conflict between labor and power.

On the Seawall

Lucy Ives is as deeply funny and ferocious a writer as they come. She's also humane and philosophical when it matters most. I love Loudermilk.

— Sam Lipsyte

With Loudermilk, Lucy Ives tears down the curtain to unveil the wizard—and here all of the characters are implicated in operating the clunky machinery that creates then lionizes the concept of merit or talent in the academic/literary world. The result is this wildly smart novel that hilariously exposes its characters as they try to vault or cement themselves into some literary canon and/or ivory tower, unaware that the canon/tower is an ever-vanishing mausoleum wherein living writers go to get stuck, or lost, or to scrawl their names and draw butts and boobs on the walls.

— Jen George


Date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Soft Skull Press

Format: Print

Genre: Fiction
Purchase here.


Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World


Reasons to go to school for writing.

Impossible Views Of The World


A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A witty, urbane, and sometimes shocking debut novel, set in a hallowed New York museum, in which a co-worker’s disappearance and a mysterious map change a life forever.

Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week in approximately ever. Her soon-to-be ex-husband (the perfectly awful Whit Ghiscolmbe) is stalking her, a workplace romance with “a fascinating, hyper-rational narcissist” is in freefall, and a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. Strange things are afoot: CeMArt’s current exhibit is sponsored by a Belgian multinational that wants to take over the world’s water supply, she unwittingly stars in a viral video that’s making the rounds, and her mother—the imperious, impossibly glamorous Caro—wants to have lunch. It’s almost more than she can overanalyze.

But the appearance of a mysterious map, depicting a 19th-century utopian settlement, sends Stella—a dogged expert in American graphics and fluidomanie (don’t ask)—on an all-consuming research mission. As she teases out the links between a haunting poem, several unusual novels, a counterfeiting scheme, and one of the museum’s colorful early benefactors, she discovers the unbearable secret that Paul’s been keeping, and charts a course out of the chaos of her own life. Pulsing with neurotic humor and dagger-sharp prose, Impossible Views of the World is a dazzling debut novel about how to make it through your early thirties with your brain and heart intact.

Excerpt in Granta.

Book page at Penguin Random House.

Recording of reading from the novel.


“[An] intricate, darkly funny debut…There is so much going on in this novel, so many sharp observations packed into sentences as sensual and jarring as a Mardi Gras parade, that it bears a second look…Ives, an accomplished poet, infuses even mundane actions with startling imagery…Read this book on whichever level you choose: young woman coming unglued, art world mystery or museum-based episode of ‘The Office,’ replete with petty workplace drama, aged PCs and the occasional colleague marching ‘up and down the hall, loudly, in quest of a staple remover.’ It’s a smart novel brimming with ideas about love, art, personal agency, a lack thereof.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An archival treasure hunt yields riches for the heart-worn young curator in Lucy Ives’s ultracharming fiction debut, Impossible Views of the World, though it’s the author’s tart observations of present-day social pretensions that sparkle brightest.”


“Cool and bracing…a perfect summer pleasure…An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted…Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting…It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection.”


“Diehard Da Vinci Code fans will find a new heroine in Stella, the code-cracking art curator at the center of this clever mystery.”


“An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool…Scintillating…A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“An original debut ringing with smart prose, engaging humor and cultivated taste…Ives’ genius is apparent in the intricate way she weaves ironic confession, romantic comedy and artful treatise with explorations into the historic art world…Full of intelligence and imagination, this relatable literary mystery will charm even the most apprentice art devotee.”


“Stella is like Hannah Horvath from Girls—smart, with an equal tendency toward snark and introspection—living in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The novel sends up the museum world, with pretentious art folks courting corporate dollars and the usual office politics, but maintains a sense of something larger, even magical, working in the background.”


“The charm and energy of Impossible Views of the World rest in Ives’s uncanny eye for the subtle tells of romance, the idiosyncrasies of the NYC young, and the details of 19th-century furniture and art…A clever curatorial mystery, a love-gone-wrong rom-com or a sharp-witted story of a young New York woman, Impossible Views of the World is way more fun than a rainy afternoon in the American Objects wing of a cavernous museum.”

Shelf Awareness

“[A] smart and singular debut novel…Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor…odd and thoroughly satisfying.”

Publishers Weekly

“I first knew Lucy Ives’s work as a poet, and to have her prose is a gift, too. The detailed novel she’s built with such authenticity, wit, and feeling is remarkable for its vitality, insights, and lyrical view of a changing world.”

— Hilton Als

“This book was written by a rampaging, mirthful genius. It stands before me like a runestone, magical, mysterious—an esoteric juggernaut masquerading as a ‘debut novel.’ During the days I spent reading it, I said goodbye to all else.”

— Elizabeth McKenzie

“There are abundant pleasures to be found in Lucy Ives’s debut novel about art curation, corporate control, and utopia (among many other subjects and digressions), but the best is the poetic, elegant intelligence of its narration, vocalized by Stella Krakus, whose every sentence wryly climbs from the ridiculous to the sublime.”

— Teddy Wayne

“Lucy Ives, a deeply smart and painstakingly elegant writer, wins the prize with this intricate, droll, stylish book—at once a mystery novel, a romantic comedy, a tricky essay on aesthetics, an exposé of art-world foibles, and a diary of emotional distress. With sharp phrases, uncanny plot-turns, and mise-en-abymes galore, this mesmerizing tale radiates the haute irreality of Last Year at Marienbad and the dreamy claustrophobia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this time for adults only.”

— Wayne Koestenbaum


Date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Press

Format: Print

Genre: Fiction

Purchase here.


In hardcover.

The Hermit


The Hermit is a catalog of thoughts concerning art and experience. Layering fragments of dreams, lists, games, conversations, poems, and notebooks, Lucy Ives offers an intimate look into one writer's practice—"The worst is my imagination: lushly underscoring everything."

Excerpt at BOMB.

Excerpts at The Poetry Foundation.


"Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery."

Publisher's Weekly

"'This is a poem about trying to write a novel,' Ives writes, daring us to read her poem The Hermit like a novel, or at least as a poet’s desire to write a novel. 'When I was 13 I swore to myself that I would become a novelist,' she continues. In fact she already has: Her impressive publications credits include both poetry (including her excellent collection Orange Roses) and even a novel, nineties, a bildungsroman focused on a young woman coming of age during that decade. She is an editor for Triple Canopy, a magazine and arts organization committed to 'resisting the atomization of culture' and who assembled an installation as part of the 2015 Whitney Biennial. Earlier this year it was announced she’d sold her second novel to Penguin, titled Impossible Views of the World. Ives hasn’t just fulfilled the promise to made by her 13-year-old self, she has documented what it took to get her there. In clumsier hands, this would come off as diaristic. In Ives’s, it’s art."

The Culture Trip

"Like the paintings of Agnes Martin or the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, the most important character in Ives’s prose is its reader. In the white space underneath these notes my own mind’s wanderings take on what is not exactly an importance, but a space for reading and thinking. I move around in this writing, and become aware of my moving around within it, and consider not only the shape of the writing, but my own shape as its reader. In other words, Ives’s writing encourages its readers to consider their own power and form among the reality they encounter."

MAKE Magazine

"Imagine if all you had was phenomenology, and then that faded, making every legibility left behind look like scare quotes around the word "thought." Lucy Ives is smart in that heart-breaking way that can make a spare, suspicious, elegant work of anti-poetry out of the silent treatment between ideas and those who have them. 'You cannot win,' says The Hermit, in that cognitive territory unoccupied by ease."

— Anne Boyer

"Stray thoughts are the protagonists of The Hermit—they might be the after effects of intense focus, yet come across as decidedly eccentric in their resistance to systems (i.e. genre) that might dull their prismatic luminescence. Here they deliver proof of parataxis's poiesis. Ives's exquisite take on ellipsis as realism is a dream, as both vision and something that fully satisfies a wish."

— Mónica de la Torre


Date: July 1, 2016

Publisher: The Song Cave

Format: Print

Genre: Mixed; prose poetry, aphorisms, games, memoir

Purchase here.


The Hermit.




Reading from The Hermit in fall 2015.

Human Events


Human Events is an essay pamphlet, published by Flying Object in 2016.

The essay concerns human events and how to write about them. It was composed during an iteration of Flying Object's ResidencyX, from January 2nd to January 18th, 2015. The title of the residency was "Real Allegory." The focus of the residency was described in the following way:

What can research contribute to writing not based in fact? How, more specifically, might we imagine the potential of historical documents and artifacts to teach us about what is not the case, what cannot be, what is excluded or merely (and perhaps eternally and enticingly) possible? And how does a literary construction such as narrative or a trope such as metonymy find its place in the writing of history?

Treating historiography as a poetics—as a discipline concerned with fabrication, contingent meaning, and aesthetic power, as much as objective analysis and proof—this iteration of ResidencyX will include a lecture, workshop, and exhibition. These events will address the question of how the writing of history can serve as a model for other kinds of writing, depiction, and creation, around and beyond the discipline of history. Also explored: the relationship between historical modes of American art making and artistic collaboration, and contemporary practice.

Installation views of the related exhibition.

View of related library.

Related workshop.

Related interview in The Believer.


Date: March 1, 2016

Publisher: Flying Object

Format: Print

Genre: Literary theory

Currently sold out.


The cover.


Reading from Human Events at The Poetry Project in winter 2017.



nineties is an unforgettable novella about credit-card fraud, the end of the 20th century, and the lives of young girls. A deceptively simple and clear-eyed look at adolescence at the dawn of American hypercapitalism, nineties is a cautionary tale, rendered in riveting, lucid prose; a narrative of innocence and experience and the intoxicating nature of first friendships.

Excerpt at Triple Canopy.


"Alien, canny, and alert... . So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation?"


"I couldn’t help thinking of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers while reading nineties. The adolescent shenanigans of the girls in that movie are definitely higher-stakes. They involve sticking up a restaurant (with fake guns) for money to go on spring break, ending up in jail, then falling in with a local thug, sticking up other spring breakers with him, and climatically using actual guns to take out an entire rival gang. These girls are older than the characters in nineties, but it’s a similar pattern of behavior in that there is no forethought or concern about potential repercussions. They are 'playing with fate' and are turned on by it. I think this is true of every generation, nineties or otherwise. Perhaps it’s just true of youth. The scary thing about this playing with fate is that said fate can be accessed in further and more nuanced ways aside from just credit fraud. The Internet and social media can inspire such cruel, desperate, and depressing behavior (think of all the stories of kids who kill themselves because they are bullied online, because of their sexuality or otherwise), and we are still learning how this behavior will be understood through the eyes of a generation of humans who have never experienced life without it."

The Rumpus


Date: June 1, 2013

Publisher: Tea Party Republicans (Little A, 2015 republication)

Format: Print

Genre: Fiction

Currently out of print.


The original cover design.


Second edition cover.


Reading from nineties in fall 2013.

The Worldkillers


The Worldkillers is a book including poems, a novella, and an essay.


"Ives ... is quickly developing into a poet of sentences on par with the poem-essays of Lisa Roberston and Phil Hall for their sharp blend of lyric, thought and wit."

— Rob McLennan

Poem. Novel. Essay. Here is a literary triptych whose panels swing from one another unfettered by geometry in wide and wild arcs. But there are hinges. Think of the upkeep of the minotaur at the center of what can only be the labyrinthine mind of Lucy Ives. This particular creature feeds on its own enclosure. Who said time is eternity turned into a moving image? How does this work on the page? As soon as Ives allows things focus, she pulls back, revealing a small component of a larger construct, but never anything objective and irreducibly whole. Thus, effectively her subject and obsession is not the demarcation of time, but the inability of time to be properly or comparatively enacted. What if Stein and Paul Éluard were a single poet? What if Wittgenstein, Elaine Scarry, and Charles and Ray Eames collaborated on a novelization of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits? What if Robbe-Grillet and Hélène Cixous were to re-write The Duino Elegies as an essay? Daedalus never built anything quite like this. Good luck getting out.

— Noah Eli Gordon

The Worldkillers is a strange and beautiful novel of numerology written in the course of a day; it is also a brilliant essay on description. But it begins with singing. Lucy Ives ushers us into her newest book via a series of mediations on repetition and transformation. “I saw” unfurls down the page, eventually becoming “I was,” but not before so many things turn in on, and thus into, themselves. This is not some simple reconfiguration of Decartes’ “cogito ergo sum” whereby vision replaces thinking. Neither thinking nor seeing are proof of being. Ives reminds us that language, image, and description are merely operations we perform, beautiful and useful as they may be. Nothing overrides “the physical world[’s]…indomitable reality,” try as we might to kill it. In the face of our love and disregard for this world, Ives gives us a book so unsettling and so stunning that we “either say no words or weep into” the worlds she so generously offers. These are worlds I gratefully receive.

— Sasha Steensen

Lucy Ives's The Worldkillers is so much fun. Like a sick-and-gorgeous dollhouse not-meant-for-kids and come-to-life. Or like a series of Daguerre's Dioramas with lights flickering in windows and pale blue smoke lifting out the chimneys. Anything might happen! Yet only one thing can, because this is a book. But will it be horrible? Gruesome? Grand?

— Danielle Dutton


Date: September 1, 2015

Publisher: SplitLevel Texts

Format: Print

Genre: Mixed

Purchase here.


From the book's interior.

Orange Roses


A The Believer Reader Survey Book of the Year for 2013.

An Entropy Magazine Best Poetry Book of 2014.

One of Flavorwire's 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade So Far.

Written over a 10-year timeframe, Orange Roses enacts a poet’s development: the process of her discovering what a poem might be. In this work, there is hardly a difference between dream and reality—the line between that which exists and that which is merely a construction of perspective is blurred in any attempt to portray a given experience. Ives questions not only what we can get away with, in attempting to add to or alter whatever “poetry” or “literature” might officially be—but, too, what will we be able to take away? Writing is less about choosing between worlds, she suggests in this exploratory book, than it is about existing in one where life and our perceptions thereof are complementary.

"Orange Roses" at Conjunctions.

"Beastgardens" at The Poetry Foundation.

"Early Poem" at The Poetry Foundation.

"On Imitation" at Triple Canopy.


“Though lyric in its form, Orange Roses is a coming-of-age narrative that unfolds against the backdrops of college, California, cityscapes, and an American art conference. Explicitly influenced by the work of George Oppen, Ives takes accretion as her lodestar, moving fluidly from analysis to aphorism, concept to sonnet, and paragraph to fragment. . . . Ives is a poet of aporia or lack, seeking to discover what exists by examining what is absent: poetry ‘is not a question of relating language to a person one is but rather of relating it to the exact person one is not.’ Orange Roses is autobiography composed of its omissions.”

Boston Review

"'Mind-blowing' is an overused phrase when describing books, but with Orange Roses, it fits the bill. 'Thought-provoking' would be an understatement."

Coe Review

"Ives’s raw material is the refreshing stuff of life, the mind and the body. The genuine is trickier territory, but I think for all her concerns with imitation and transference, this is a book about the wonder of discovering yourself as writer in language."

Constant Critic

"In which a maturing writer look[s] back on her younger self with a kind of wild surmise, amazing herself by where she has been, and amazing us by where she might go."


“Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses is a thrilling book. It is also brilliant, hard-earned and honest. In the acute materiality of its poems—part diary/travelogue, part theatrical event, part philosophy—fervently anti-chronological—it is an urgent (albeit always witty and wry) inquiry into the aesthetic set of mind and the act of making. One could say it is an undressing of the readerly act, of the eye itself and its habit of ‘tugging incessantly forward.’ In fact, Ives’ work contests that forwardness and, in its numerous sequences (most vividly in the stunning ‘Early Poem’ and ‘Orange Roses’) she undertakes to imagine alternatives to the no-longer-apparently-natural forces of progress and growth. In this it is also an urgently political book—but without a trace of polemic. Its politics are where they do the most work—in its form and in its poetics. Ives’ work is certain in its undoing of certainty; it has an unforgettable voice as it strips itself of voiced identity; it summons a deeply trusted narrator in a work which cunningly challenges that trust. What illusions are to be left standing? That you cannot improvise the truth. That you can go backwards. That you cannot start over. That you must. The erasures and reappearances of figure and ground—that hard drama—have rarely been so movingly undertaken. A heartbreakingly beautiful work.”

— Jorie Graham

“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Orange Roses. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. Especially do I marvel at ‘Early Poem,’ the prose poem sonnet sequence that counts its one hundred sentences with great delicacy, freshness, wit, surprise, and wisdom. Original in form and expression, it brings us to attention, thereby to the real, and the leap mid-sentence from one page to another is dazzling. I’m serious. Here we have objectivist vivacity and accuracy near the U-Haul headquarters in Emerson’s America. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the poems ‘Orange Roses’ and ‘On Imitation,’ is a sober certainty—read the latter as a prospectus for the new poetry. To quote an earlier work, ‘If one follows one’s understanding rather / than resisting: pleasure.’”

— Paul Hoover


Date: October 15, 2013

Publisher: Ahsahta Press, Boise State University

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry, essay

Purchase here.


The cover.


On the vine.



Novel is a poetry chapbook.


"I wonder at times what a genuinely philosophical poetry might look like; I know it wouldnt look like philosophy. I suspect it might bear real resemblance to the poems that Lucy Ives is writing in Novel. Such poems accept confusion without reveling in it. Such poems trouble themselves by working toward song in the very realm where thought and perception divide and grow quarrelsome. They forsake Truth with its capital T for truthfulness: an attention to consequence, a willingness to become complicated without false reverence thereof, 'the knot so language would have / mention // of what it later did.' These are poems remarkably without idols; and by that I simply mean that these poems seek to 'follow one's understanding rather / than resisting.' It just happens to be the truthful case that one doesn't always understand ones understanding, and the pleasure of the poem is inextricable from its necessity: an accompaniment into the world that refuses to be domesticated by thought, the very world in which one loves what she loves, the very world in which one makes her home."

— Dan Beachy-Quick


Date: February 1, 2012

Publisher: Projective Industries

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry

Out of print.


The cover.



Anamnesis is a long poem. It was the winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Book Prize.

It was also recorded and released as a 12" by Flying Object/Unicorn Evil, in 2011.

"The word 'anamnesis' relates to how a person arrives at knowledge. In the Platonic sense, it suggests the recollection of ideas which the soul knew in a previous life. In a clinical sense, it is the full medical history as told by a patient; in the Christian sense, it is a Eucharistic prayer; and in immunology, it is a strong immune response. All of these meanings relate to the central concept of this fine collection, how a writer 'finds' and/or 'makes' meaning and deals with the temporary nature of the act, how even our most vital life stories are provisional at best, and how erasure becomes part of the process itself. We are asked to reflect on what previous life brought these sentences to the page, what history of illness or wellness caused the words to form this way, what invisible prayer was erased even before meaning was posited."

— Maxine Chernoff, from the Introduction

Excerpt in Typo.

An excerpt included in UPD's 6x6 lent that particular issue of the periodical its title.

Audio at Triple Canopy.


"Powered by the refrain-directive 'write,' and 'cross out,' the content of Lucy Ives’ most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it."


"This is an important book: I’ll come back to it."

With Hidden Noise

"The simple concept Ives has chosen for her collection of poems is ingenious. Anamnesis belongs not among stacks of experimental poetry, but with the ambitions of conceptual visual artists who sought to replace the object with the assumptions and intentions behind it: Rauschenberg’s erasures of de Kooning or Ceci n’est pas une pipe are closer to the kind of infinite aesthetics of Anamnesis than those of contemporary poetry. Ives has replaced the book with the act of reading and response. The book does not become the book, does not become itself, until we engage with it. For the elegance of its iteration alone, it merits our attention."

Tarpaulin Sky

"By not holding to one thought, Ives triggers many; we become the writer and the reader of multiple poems. Anamnesis is a new reminder of the fluidity of our roles and our memories. The reader’s experience is not passive, and the stylistic choice to expose poems and the writing of them for what they truly are—decisions and regrets and half-truths—is refreshing."

The Colorado Review

"Ives highlights the poetic occupation of establishing comparative structures only to torment the linguistic foundations on which they are based. The text occludes the making of a manageable recollection, since the thing remembered is at once mutable and disposable. This effect both carries and calcifies content: the afterimages of words and meanings appear and disappear in real time, and are reminiscent of the erasures and alterations found in William Kentridge’s animated films. Like Kentridge, Ives performs a kind of mental trickery as the medium allows for the appearance of progressions. Kentridge’s drawings—when captured in succession—create the illusion of movement, much as Ives’ constructions collect meaning—jerking through affirmations and negations, reflecting the false starts and reboots of living."

Lana Turner


Date: December 30, 2009

Publisher: Slope Editions

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry

Purchase here.


The book cover.


The 12" album cover.

My Thousand Novel

My Thousand Novel is a poetry chapbook.

You can download it as a PDF at right.


Date: January 1, 2009

Publisher: Cosa Nostra Editions

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry

Out of print.

Marked Men

The novelist Lucy Ives considers guilt and fiction-making, and what it meant to survive a year – and a decade – of such dashed promise

During an elective stay at a psychiatric hospital, Billy Pilgrim, protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, meets a science-fiction fan. Eliot Rosewater – the fan – likes a certain (fictional) writer very much. This writer, one Kilgore Trout, has become obscure. No one reads Trout’s books anymore. Even Rosewater maintains that they aren’t very well written. The only thing is, they’re full of interesting ideas.

Pilgrim’s madness, his tendency to come ‘unstuck’ in time, to claim to have travelled to an extraterrestrial zone inhabited by five-dimensional beings and to have been compelled to mate with a beautiful former porn star, is variously chalked up to his readings in Trout’s oeuvre. The effects of near-deaths suffered during his service in World War II, including Pilgrim’s experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden, are seen as negligible. It’s not the trauma, it’s the science fiction, the fantasy, that’s keeping Pilgrim from grounding himself reliably in postwar reality. Rosewater, Pilgrim’s guide to the Troutian universe, is, in his own way, reluctant to diagnose the latter’s temporal homelessness, but he does offer a clue. Having informed Pilgrim that ‘everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Feodor Dostoevsky’, Rosewater concludes, ‘But that isn’t enough any more.’

That isn’t enough any more. There hardly seems a more apt sentence to describe the state of the US during the year Vonnegut’s book was published. ‘That’ – by which we must assume Rosewater means a story about inheritance that privileges national history in its interaction with parental pressures, money and god – is no longer enough. It can’t tell us everything and/or knowing ‘everything there [is] to know about life’ is no longer all that useful. What you need to know in order to survive now – and specifically in 1969 – is something more.

Whether you think novels can reliably act as guides for living (and perhaps that’s an outmoded, 19th-century notion in itself), Vonnegut is pointing to a certain gap that has inserted itself into narrative, by which he seems to intend humanity’s narrative. He indicates this gap through his fiction, but we might also consider it by way of the actual experience of Michael Collins, the somewhat lesser-known third astronaut who participated in the Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969. Collins, who remained behind in the Columbia command module, spent a day orbiting the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin cowboyed down. For 48 minutes of each rotation, the Moon’s mass blocked all radio contact between the Columbia and Earth. Although Collins has always maintained that he enjoyed these moments of unprecedented isolation from all humans, he wrote a series of notes during this time in which he described his ‘terror’ that Armstrong and Aldrin might not be able to ascend: ‘If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.’

Everyone made it back, mostly in one piece, and thus there was no marked man, no guilty survivor singled out by history, no one with cause to wonder why he had lived while others hadn’t. It was apparently enough. Here we might think, too, of the strange pronouncement Armstrong made – ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ – as he shuffled onto a landscape he and Aldrin compared to the North American ‘high desert’, as if they had been transported to a particularly desolate scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Wild Bunch. (Both films were, incidentally, extended narrative descriptions, also from 1969, of chummy suicide missions.) Later, no one mentioned the redundancy in the explorer’s valiant words. When I consider his language now, I’m only able to make sense of Armstrong’s sentence if I define ‘mankind’ not merely as a category of greater magnitude than ‘man’, but also as a category that exists in the future of ‘man’. Mankind is what man becomes, perhaps, through radical spatial and temporal re- and/or dis-location. In fact, a transmission glitch had removed an indefinite article from Armstrong’s sentence, so no one heard: ‘That’s one small step for a man …’ In other words, abetted by a minor telecommunicative failure, the astronaut produced a mysterious posthumanist aphorism instead of an obvious analogy. There was no solitary, marked man; mankind would go vastly, gigantically forward, together. Everyone stared up into the sky, which is to say, into their televisions and newspapers. They wore the latest sunglasses, which had recently proliferated in myriad space-age silhouettes and candy colours. Everyone, that is, who didn’t think the whole thing was a hoax enacted on a soundstage.

But that wasn’t enough.

Mick Jagger, lead singer of The Rolling Stones, would say, with unwitting irony, during a press conference held to announce the Altamont Speedway Free Festival of December 1969, at which a young man named Meredith Hunter would be stabbed to death: ‘It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.’ There was a hope inherent to such ill-fated and unavoidably commercial visions of mass presence – as witnessed earlier that year at the muddy, trippy music festival outside the small town of Woodstock in upstate New York – that through ecstatic gathering, through the shedding of temporal and spatial constraints associated with a repressive national history plus norms of nuclear family, via emancipatory chemical and rhythmic means, etc. (we have been told the story many times), something resembling ‘coming together’ might take place. The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t enough and, although the Altamont Speedway was just outside of San Francisco, the Summer of Love had been over for two years, the Haight’s narcotic well increasingly stocked with methamphetamines. This was the autumn when Jagger, a dropout of the London School of Economics, frequently appeared on stage dressed as Uncle Sam. He and his band were solidifying their share of the US market. Altamont was a scheme thrown together by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Rock Scully, the manager of the Grateful Dead. At Altamont, Jagger, at first flirtatious, complained about the state of his fly: ‘You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?’ And, later, with greater gravity, as the front rows of concertgoers brawled with a Hells Angels biker gang, he demanded: ‘Who’s fighting and what for?’ It was hardly the sort of rhetorical question on which a politics might be built and, in truth, attendees were about to witness the violent breakdown of the microcosmic society Jagger had heralded. The lifecycle of such utopias was becoming distressingly short and attendance, as in wider society, was safer for some than others. For those who disliked camping, mud and crowds, there was always the newly opened Gap store on San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, purveyor of ‘nitty-gritty blue jeans’ and ‘rugged cords’.

Charles Manson was a great fan of popular music and always a casual dresser in spite of his grandiose pretensions. He and his ‘Family’ came together around an eschatological myth of a race war derived from demented exegeses of the New Testament and The Beatles’ White Album (1968). A rock’n’roll visionary in his own mind, Manson devised a method for surviving the end of the 1960s that required the violent deaths of people tangentially related to individuals in the Los Angeles music scene whom Manson felt had snubbed him. If Manson’s music seemed not to give rise to the historically predetermined slaughter his messianic pastiche of British invasion plus Book of Revelation had disclosed, then surely these killings would be a catalyst. Having brutally done away with seven people on 8 and 9 August 1969 (Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Leno LaBianca, Rosemary LaBianca, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate), the Family retired to Death Valley. There, they believed that they were to discover a subterranean city where they would live out the apocalypse, during the course of which white people would be decimated. They would subsequently, marked men (and women), return to rule over the confused non-white victors, whom they would mercilessly exploit for profit, forming a new world-historical hegemony: a giant leap.

Thus, it really meant something to be a survivor in 1969; it meant something more than made sense. It felt like a species of space madness, a hope to become unstuck from all previously accepted narratives, which was at once terrifying and, allegedly, the only way out. It meant so much that it was enough for Senator Ted Kennedy to do just that. It didn’t matter that Democratic campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne had died on the evening of 18 July 1969, two days after the morning of the day when the three Apollo 11 astronauts had been launched overhead by means of a cone-like combination of skyscraper and bomb. Kennedy could not, in truth, have selected a better night to be the most prominent presidential hopeful in America committing vehicular manslaughter – if, of course, that is indeed what happened – so distracted was everyone on Earth. The Chappaquiddick Incident would dash this last surviving Kennedy brother’s ambitions to be the presumptive nominee in 1972 (George McGovern received the nod), but it did not fully incapacitate him. His continued liberty was, in no small part, due to a convincing performance involving a neck brace and other therapeutic props, along with a compliant local police force in Massachusetts, who ensured that there was no autopsy of Kopechne’s body. Indeed, Kennedy’s explanation of what did occur was so strange and obviously dependent on popular conceptions of the time-bending effects of compounded physical and psychological trauma – resulting from tragedies of both a personal and historical nature – as to resemble Pilgrim’s accounts of alien abduction to planet Tralfamadore: the world of beings who exist in all times at once, and who are thus always already privy to the form of future events. ‘My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all,’ Kennedy explained, reading from a script into a television camera. His face was weirdly flushed, but his voice was even and flawlessly authoritative. The account of the incident featured a nimble leap between a valiant watery rescue attempt that left the senator panting, concussed, thrown from the confines of standard space and time onto his back on a nighttime lawn. (The viewer could only imagine the stars he saw.) ‘Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion, as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical and emotional trauma brought on by the accident,’ he said, dropping the ‘T’ word in what was surely one of its highest-profile outings to date. Of course, this, ‘escap[ing] responsibility’, was exactly what he proceeded to do, just a few paragraphs later:

All kinds of scrambled thoughts – all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances – went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things I said and did, including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from my shoulders.

Kennedy time-travelled. He careened into a future in which he might, at last, become an unmarked man and then swam back again. In the present, he inquired about things that could not possibly be true. His delusion was offered up as proof of his status as a victim. His speechwriter had obviously read Slaughterhouse-Five when it had been released a few months earlier in March – and with a preternatural comprehension of the novel’s symbolic solution to the intertwined problems of guilt and inheritance. The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t enough these days; after all, you couldn’t escape to America, as Dostoevsky’s Dmitri plans to do at the novel’s close, if you were already living in it.

Kennedy’s survivor’s guilt could have come from any number of places and, in this sense, it was easy to believe him. All of his male siblings were dead and his father, Joe, had ordered his eldest sister, Rosemary, to be lobotomized in 1941, when she was just 23 years old. In 1972, National Lampoon printed a fake advert featuring a white Volkswagen Beetle buoyant in dark water to make the awful joke that, if only Ted Kennedy had been driving such a car – famously so non-dense that it would float – at the time of the Chappaquiddick Incident, he would have become president in that year’s election. It is not clear whether The National Lampoon knew that, while alive, Kopechne had driven an identical Volkswagen model. In any case, it was a strange, speculative repetition. Kopechne had been professionally successful, was unmarried at 28 and upwardly mobile. Her careful work strategy, connections and sobriety had not been enough to save her. What you needed to survive in 1969 was, apparently, not the straight and narrow. What you needed was fiction. And guilt.


Date: June 3, 2019

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, June–August 2019, issue 204, with the title "Marked Men."


In The National Lampoon.


1969 advertisement.

Orphans of Dickens


AFTER THE ELECTION of the forty-fifth president of the United States, something happened to fiction. Here I don’t mean, thank goodness and for once, the concept of fiction, as opposed to or distinguished from fact. While newspapers benefited (mildly) from a so-called Trump bump of new subscribers urgently wishing to be better informed about just what the hell was going on, the sales of novels—the once profitable form of fiction—continued to decrease in 2017. Information’s stock rose; artifice suffered. Or maybe artifice was taking on a new role in American public life—which is to say, a new old role, one it had for a while been playing in a none-too-fresh milieu, what we might have been inclined to think of as the already-outmoded narrative style of reality television. Artifice, fantasy, fiction, allegory, whatever you want to call it, was edited within an inch of its life, blown up to hysterical proportions, broadcast on an inane loop and unceasingly. This inauguration was the best attended of all time! This statement follows logically in no way from images you have seen and other narratives you have come to accept! You’ll believe me when I tell you because I (can) say it!

It’s now two years since. I have almost no ambition to rehash the disasters and debacles, but I do want to point out a little slip that will have some bearing on what I have to say here—which is, overall, about the state of American fiction, rather than the state of electoral politics. Here, in my opinion, is the slip: we tend to speak of the current executive’s maneuvers as “irrational,” claiming they emerge out of a lack of epistemic if not instrumental “rationality,” which is to say, a lack of respect for the efficacy of reason, but we speak less about their status in relation to narrative forms. Indeed, so much of the media we consume is non-narrative, in spite of the existence of presumably linear “timelines,” that it probably does not occur to us to note that what we mean by “rationality”—a concept that seems only vaguely word-like to me and might well be replaced by “reason”—is almost the same thing as narrative, the following-on of one event by another in an illuminating, usually causal way. His pronouncements are non-narrative, but then again, so is much of mediated social life these days. What journalists and other commentators frequently call “the narrative” (of politics, of values, of daily life, etc.) is a slot at the top of a recently refreshed feed, an instance of disjunction.

I mention these categorical slips—of reason for narrative, of narrative for widely read non-sequitur—because I think it has something to do with the rise of nonfiction as a category of profitable literary writing, a rise that began long before the 2016 election. There is, I would argue, a notable hunger in American society for the comforts of narrative. It’s a hunger for a species of meaning-making that is not specifically logical (though it may be that too) but which rather provides an account of how things, sometimes sentient, sometimes material, get organized across space and time and in relation to one another and sequentially, such that they become the way things are, after having been the way things were. Sure, narrative can be revelatory and informative, but it can also be reassuring, grounding. To attempt to understand and maintain one’s personal narrative is to be healthy, as the popular wisdom goes. Narrative can be incremental; it offers itself up to analysis. It promises to explain something about what human intention and agency are. It is attractively historical. The problem for the contemporary novelist—a problem less pressing for the author of a text on the history of codfish or the business practices of Uber—is that daily life, that classic subject and location of the novel, is, much like everyday consciousness, no longer narrative. I mean, it’s quite possible that human consciousness was never narrative (Thucydides for one seems to think so, particularly in his writings on pirates), but more and more people want narrative, a) because they want to know how we got here and, b) because they want to know what to do next. As the philosopher Galen Strawson has argued, a preference for diachronic, narrative description of human life predominates in contemporary culture, supported by “a vast chorus of assent . . . from the humanities—literary studies, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, religious studies, echoed back by psychotherapy, medicine, law, marketing, design.” As for Strawson, he’s happily “transient,” as he puts it, with a fundamentally shifting, episodic self. This position does not, I assume, automatically entail enthusiasm for social media, but there’s a sort of formal rhyme I can’t help pointing up.

In a way, I wish I lived in a time in which algorithms weren’t sowing chaos with respect to democracy and the public sphere, but given what I know of human history (another cherished narrative!), it’s likely there’d be some other largely invisible mechanism with a similar function. Meanwhile, as the idea that there is some counterintuitive explanation for the results of the 2016 election burns off and more and more narrativizing reports appear, it’s been interesting to observe fiction’s attempt to self-correct, to return to its former, if ambiguous, place of cultural relevance. It’s scrambling, but in a recognizable direction. This isn’t just a matter of markets, of course; it’s also personal, creative. Writers are citizens, too, and accordingly hold themselves accountable after the fashion of their times—sometimes presciently. Enter, therefore, what looks to be a resurgence of the social novel.

A Sentimental Education

We know a little of what the social novel was. At the very least, we know of Charles Dickens and what the literary historian Louis Cazamian calls that author’s “philosophy of Christmas.” I hope you will laugh a little here, as I think Cazamian is attempting to be at once ironic and precise. Dickens was arguably the first author to bring the urban lower middle class into the European novel as more than scenic decor; reflecting in various ways on his father’s time in debtor’s prison as well as his own stint as a factory laborer during that parent’s absence, Dickens described the precariousness produced by industrialization in generally moving detail—even if Americans are more apt to remember the amusing eccentricities of Tiny Tim and Miss Havisham than the sociological achievement of a work like 1854’s Hard Times, which stands as a sort of anatomy of the imaginary mill town of Coketown. Changes in the British political system and economy during the earlier part of the nineteenth century (expanded suffrage after 1832 and increasing readership of the press) meant that there was an eager audience for fiction that touched upon the organization of society. In the early 1830s, Harriet Martineau, a young, unmarried woman, became the author of a series of bestselling serial parables that explained basic economic concepts such as free trade, via “The Loom and the Lugger,” and unions, via “A Manchester Strike.” Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34) emerged out of her conviction that the economic and the personal were not separate spheres, and her more than slightly didactic bent was surely influential for the style of serialized novel Dickens would first produce in 1836 with the Pickwick Papers. Dickens’s work built on Romanticism’s convictions regarding the importance of national history to contemporary identity, with the difference that the influence of modern (i.e., mechanized) systems on the individual were explored. In addition, unlike Sir Walter Scott, he of the sweeping national-historical romance, Dickens dealt unabashedly in coincidence, cuteness, and sentimentality—apparently hoping to motivate readers to philanthropic attitudes and works through minor styles of depiction designed to inspire pity.

It is worth underlining the strategies Dickens used to depict the social world, because even as his novels are among the most familiar to us out of the nineteenth-century Anglophone pantheon (try Googling “Scrooge McDuck merchandise”), their style seems, the contemporary American liberal maintains, anathema to what is valuable and appropriate in politicized art. The cool methods of the French realist novel have somehow won out, and we are inclined to side with Gustave Flaubert when he criticizes the pious deaths of children in that problematic American novel of persuasion, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, itself surely a Dickensian attempt and also notable as the best-selling novel of its century. Americans have learned, perhaps through the rise of documentary technique in the interwar period, that vaguely objective points of view can be not only manufactured but also popularized—via imitation of the action of the camera or the hardboiled tone of the press. Such ambitions to objectivity dovetail nicely with the lessons of modernism, in that both suggest that all representation is inevitably mediated. And, according to the tenets of the New Journalism, which sees its forebears in James Agee and perhaps the George Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier, those desirous of socially relevant narrative can agree that the author is a mediator, a collector, a sociologist, a recording device well aware that “we tell ourselves [constructed] stories.” The culture, a collective invention, is out there to be absorbed. The culture is way more interesting than literature, as Tom Wolfe, for one, many times maintained.

I want to linger for a moment on the bizarre figure that is Tom Wolfe, who wrote so many interesting nonfiction books and then went on to write some of the worst novels of the late twentieth century. In November 1989, in a promotional push for the paperback edition of Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe published a modest summation of the state of affairs in Harper’s: “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel.” Here Wolfe establishes a position at once reactionary and revolutionary (his specialty, it seems). He argues that Philip Roth, standing in for general elitist aversion, steered the ship of the American novel away from realism, such that, “By the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that American life itself no longer deserved the term real. American life was chaotic, fragmented, random, discontinuous; in a word, absurd.” Fair enough, but what was the solution? A: Read Bonfire of the Vanities.

I wanted to fulfill a prediction I had made in the introduction to The New Journalism in 1973; namely, that the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him.

Wolfe goes on to excuse his rather unsympathetic attitude toward black Americans in Bonfire as prescient reporting and to saw endlessly away at that well-carved chestnut, POSTMODERNISM: RUINING EVERYTHING. But Wolfe would never wax so sentimental as to claim that he is an inheritor of the god-fearing orphans of Dickens. Don’t take him for some sort of Cold War puritan! Instead, he cites an earlier vein of the British novel: Richardson, Fielding, Smollett. These are Enlightenment coffeehouse thinkers, polite anthropologists of the figure of Modern Woman, pre-industrial wits. What Wolfe wants is detail, endless detail. And guess what, would-be novelists? All the complexity and detail of contemporary America is free. You just have to be prepared to go out and take it.

Mr. Contract

Wolfe’s Harper’s apologia of the awful late eighties would be more forgettable if it hadn’t been followed by Jonathan Franzen’s endlessly cited and diametrically opposed essay of the mid-nineties (1996, to be precise), published, of course, in the same magazine. Franzen’s splenetic “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” blames the information overload on television and the early internet rather than Philip Roth—overall, not a bad move—and concludes that if you want Americans to read your socially engaged books you will need to get maudlin. Although but a brief seven years had elapsed since Wolfe’s sales pitch, the takeaway is that white men are probably as irrelevant to American culture as, say, novels themselves. All the same, Franzen has much to say about both.

Franzen’s exemplars of social-novel success are less antique than Wolfe’s. He goes on a moderate tear about Paula Fox’s 1970 study of the vacuity and instability of white liberals, Desperate Characters. Fox wasn’t culturally successful, of course, according to Franzen. However, hers is the book to read. Culturally successful American social novelists—William Dean Howells, Upton Sinclair, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—are all dead and anyway wrote in a differently mediated age. Their research into the country’s social ills was universalizable. And if Franzen seems to flirt with the notion that novelists might not be omniscient, he eventually concludes that “a black lesbian from New York” and [insert default non-black person, not a lesbian] are cosmically united by their shared “guilty crush on Uma Thurman.” Part of me wants this to be some sort of shy three-way proposition, but I don’t think it is. Reading this now, it feels like an elaborate diversionary tactic—by which I mean, the whole essay. And although, like Wolfe, Franzen keeps his distance from Dickens (C.D. merits but a name-check), it seems safe to say that Dickens’s adaptation by Disney is at the embarrassing Midwestern heart of this matter. If you really want universal plus contemporary plus novel, Disney-fied Dickens is it: this synthesis is inoffensively Christian, magical, and also capitalist; it honors the self-abdicating poor, features race- and genitalia-free animals; kids can watch it. I’m not saying anyone should want this, by the way. I’m just saying, what is the point of an essay about abandoning the notion of an American social novel because of the ills of television plus civil rights that doesn’t address the neutering of Dickens by Disney? The closest Franzen comes to mentioning these cultural matters is a moment in which his imaginary lesbian is seen to be spiritually united with the default American through her shared propensity to buy Pocahontas-themed products at discount stores.

Weirdly, as we all know, Franzen won. He courted his suburbanites, the people he explicitly named as the first generation produced by white flight, and he got their attention. In 2001, 2010, and 2015 they bought his novels—even the creepily titled Purity, which features a nominally Dickensian heroine, a girl named Pip. In an essay on the impenetrable verbal plenitude of novelist William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” published in The New Yorker in 2002, a sort of poetics and apologia for The Corrections, Franzen explains how he cracked the relevance code: “ . . . a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” Put otherwise, don’t say anything your reader will not instantly comprehend. Keep it all familiar. (Don’t be like Gaddis!) Fascinating frankness aside, I don’t think Franzen’s brand of social novel—which leans hard on the coincidence line from Dickens while discarding serious sociological content—is holding up against the news and nonfiction, not with our desire for tenacious narratives of development and explanation, as opposed to semi-soft narratives of chance encounters and quirky detail. Indeed, Franzen has always been most interesting, ironically enough, when, far from pandering, he goes light-speed postmodern. His self-reflexive commentary on the author known as Jonathan Franzen is some of his best work.

If I seem to be falling into a Franzen hole, or what amounts to a secondary Dickens hole, let me recalibrate. What I’m trying to say is that when it comes to the Anglophone social novel, the Dickens hole is way, way bigger, and even monumental American social novelists studiously avoided by Franzen, like John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison, owe something to the Dickensian mode. So with Dickens prominently in the rearview, my question now is, given the contemporary hunger for narrative and fact—an obvious invitation for new social novels to proliferate—what will authors do?

Math and Sensibility

If you were reading the stories published in The New Yorker throughout 2018, the summer in particular, you have one answer. This answer is that topics pulled from headlines—extreme weather produced by climate change, the opioid crisis, #MeToo, the plight of migrants—make for worthy short social fiction. Although some friends rolled their eyes at these literalist tales, I had to admit I sort of liked them. Maybe I liked them for the same reason that I find Harriet Martineau’s parables interesting: they take a subject, work it through a narrative format, arrive at what seems like a necessary ending. In the ending is often contained a lesson—or, a reframing of the original social quandary. In Sana Krasikov’s narratologically flawless “Ways and Means,” set in an NPR-like milieu, the mechanisms and optics of workplace romance are explored. A female employee in her forties, a sound engineer, “dates” an older married show host; when the host ends the relationship abruptly, citing his wife’s cancer diagnosis, the sound engineer thinks little of it. Things become more complex, however, when the host is accused of harassment by an employee in her twenties and the sound engineer is asked to intervene. As the sound engineer learns more about the host’s activities, she realizes that she was not dumped because of the wife’s illness, but because the host preferred a more youthful work-paramour. How the tables turn! What emerges, through the revision of two apparently separate plotlines into a single causally linked series, is the host’s lack of regard for others. At the same time, Krasikov’s comparison of the two women, in their distinct reactions to similar events, reveals intergenerational difference. We can read the forty-year-old as thoughtful if naïve, the woman in her twenties as opportunistic; or, we can see the former as willfully blind to misogyny, the latter as brave and forthright—or perhaps some other permutation altogether.

I liked Krasikov’s story as a description of contemporary mores, but I liked it even more as a formal feat. It felt like a piece of math to me, and these days I’m finding I like math more and more. It’s that feeling that the numbers don’t lie, as the cliché goes. This is likely a species of the contemporary hunger for narrative I mentioned earlier: Krasikov’s story did something—something narrative—to explain how two women who might well be allies could as easily find themselves at personal and professional odds. “Ways and Means,” while not exactly an illustration of political economy, comes, as its title suggests, pretty damn close.

The New Yorker’s turn to topicality and didactic parables caused me to think more about the connection between not just the news and fiction, but social fact and (social) fiction. At the end of the day, even if the plot of Madame Bovary was once ripped from headlines, this, the ripping of material from headlines, is not a reliable means of selecting one’s fictional subjects (see my earlier contentions re: Tom Wolfe). The writer needs a descriptive thickness not necessarily or absolutely associated with sensationalism, if not a personal connection to events. Rachel Kushner and Gary Shteyngart’s recent social works, The Mars Room and Lake Success, respectively, go the thickness route. Carefully researched and lushly written, these two tales of a white woman serving multiple life sentences, inadvertently having abandoned her son, and a (white) finance bro avoiding prison while collecting watches and traveling the United States by bus, having intentionally abandoned his son, are largely concerned with the emotional experience of their subjects. While there is much to admire in each of these books, particularly stylistically speaking, there is a certain lightness with respect to information, in spite of what seems to be a non-negligible amount of research into how to describe the milieus in question. The books are extremely vivid, yet one does not come away from one’s reading better informed regarding either the American prison system or the American finance industry. One may learn more about human psychology, about fate and inheritance; the settings of these novels remain just that. These are not didactic works. They are portraits that discuss unique persons, not broader systems.

I can’t say I was altogether disappointed. After all, I had come to these novels in order to read novels. Shteyngart’s was particularly novel-y (in using this fake adjective, I recall an expressive redundancy once employed by a friend, “It’s a novel-y ass novel”). Lake Success features a despicable novelist as one antagonist of the finance bro, who himself, we learn, once harbored literary ambitions. I don’t want to say that Lake Success has zero sociological ambition; it’s just that most of this ambition seems to have been expended in the enumeration of appurtenances common to luxury condos in Manhattan, along with the particulars of very expensive watches, of which it seems the author is himself a collector. I know pathetically little about how trading works but learned nothing from this book about it. Given my renewed interest in the use of plots to explain other complex social systems, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sad. “Explain the money part to me!” I wanted to yell as Shteyngart sent his reader into yet another one-percenter’s domestic space, which, I knew, was to be described in obsessive detail, à la Émile Zola, via a close third. But all I gleaned was which expensive things were allegedly worth buying, not where the money came from.

Kushner’s book is the more complex and astute of the two. I think this is because Kushner is particularly good on questions of inheritance and trauma, how it is that we often do not and cannot fully know our own narratives. Her protagonists, much like Galen Strawson, are transients as opposed to endurers. We are apt to come upon them in the midst of piecing together a narrative that stubbornly refuses to cohere. And within this non-coherence of the self, other events, usually tragic, intervene. It’s a moving and convincing sort of paradigm, yet Kushner’s writing on sex work in The Mars Room is far more believable than her writing on prison politics, and I sometimes found myself confused about what I was meant to glean from scenes in which the incarcerated protagonist exhibits admirable behavior, refusing to scapegoat others or to participate in white supremacy. Why depict a white woman whose relationship to identity politics is one of such pure forbearance? I asked myself as I read. Romy, the protagonist and a first-person narrator, seemed not unrealistic, exactly, but an exception, a philosopher with no formal education—which was, I had to assume, part of the point.

In thinking about what Kushner does well in her book, which is to articulate the movements of human psychology in situations of extremity, I began thinking about another book, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted of 2016, which is not a novel but which, to great acclaim, accomplished what an idealized version of the contemporary social novel might do. Based on recordings and notes Desmond, a sociologist, made while living in poor mostly black neighborhoods and a mostly white trailer park in Milwaukee, Evicted, which has already received its due praise and does not need me to lionize it, explains the political economy of real estate in impoverished communities in the contemporary United States—from housing court, to eviction day, to shelter, to new apartment or trailer, and back again. The book also explains why it is profitable to provide substandard housing, unpacking the business of being a slumlord. There are deeply engrossing characters (their names changed) along with a tiny cat named Little who, like at least one infant, does not survive; the reader is moved, even as this remains a didactic text. I found, in reading it, that I could not tell if Desmond’s primary concern was to explain housing issues in Milwaukee or to think about the ways in which people talk and move around their homes, interacting with their neighbors. The book feels literary: people crack jokes, fall in love; coincidences occur. It is not that Desmond uses a convenient narrative form to illustrate his point, but that he finds narrative forms in social and economic relations (indeed, this seems to be a major part of the sort of analysis that interests him). As he writes of one of his subjects, “After being kicked out of her apartment with Vanetta, Crystal was admitted to a homeless shelter. Then through a weary, looping rhythm—make a friend, use a friend, lose a friend—Crystal found, for short bursts, dry and warm places to sleep.” The cycle of eviction is narrative, but unlike the sort of psychologically constituted narrative self Strawson, for one, has in mind, the self eviction shapes is constituted through geography and economic exchange, as well as interaction with others. As Tom Wolfe might contend, perhaps misguidedly, you don’t have to make this stuff up. Yet the way Evicted thinks about what analytic philosophers like to call the maintenance of personal identity is not novelistic. It is not drama; it is fact. In an important sense, we already know what happens.

To return to Shteyngart for a moment, I think about a certain scene early on in Lake Success, in which the protagonist Barry engages in a bit of interpretive thick description of a woman he sees in Port Authority,

“What do you want me to do?” the woman said. One of her mesh bunny ears drooped over her face. Her bottom teeth seemed to be where her top teeth should be and she had no bottom teeth. She was white. Just an hour into his journey, Barry was starting to get something about the Trump phenomenon. Like an idiot, he had thrown 1.7 million, almost two bucks, after Marco Rubio. What choice did he have? He had sat through a five-hour dinner with Ted Cruz in a private room at the Gramercy Tavern after which Joey Goldblatt had turned to him and whispered, “He’s a psychopath.” So they all bet their millions on Rubio. They should have met this woman first. There was nothing Rubio could do for her.

As I read this, I found myself wondering if metonymic details like this woman’s “mesh bunny ears” are effective. While they are clearly a symbol of extractive systems now inescapable in the United States, they remain symbolic. Harkening back to the Playboy bunny and indicating this woman’s simultaneous sexual availability and economic vulnerability, maybe even her status as a sort of permanent servant, the ears are probably made of unstable plastics and imported from China. I know Shteyngart wants to entertain his reader in this moment—and Barry’s flawed observations are meant to be fodder for the reader’s own criticism—yet this character, who prompts one of the more interesting moments of self-reflection in the novel, never reappears. She’s not much more than ears and teeth. The same could be said of a homeless man Barry gets high with and gives a blowjob to later on. These characters appear as bodies with interesting qualities, colorful extras; yet, their narratives are fundamentally separate from the central narrative of Lake Success. And maybe this is the point, that the finance bro really does have nothing to do with poor people and poverty. But if this is the case, why stage these sorts of interactions in a work of literature?

Life Sentences

In his recent novel, Moving Kings, Joshua Cohen describes movers. They’re part of the business of eviction, and though they wouldn’t show up in the Milwaukee-based Evicted, being New Yorkers and all, there’s something of Evicted’s understanding of the narrative nature of the cycle of eviction that occurs in Cohen’s prose, too.

Some houses they’d strike it rich, some would be busts—that was the gamble. That’s why there’d always be a guarantee of base fee from the landlord whose tenant they were tossing or the bank or whoever held the lien.

Around Thanksgiving, they’d tossed two houses with nobody home. In another residence they’d gutted, everyone was giddy and civil because mentally feeble. [ . . . ] Another woman had dandled her infant out a window. . . .

Moving Kings, I should emphasize, is a highly episodic work. We’re never entirely sure whose novel or story it is—and, because of this, it doesn’t leave us with the impression that we’ve witnessed a single event. Rather, the incoherence of the narrative of Moving Kings serves to emphasize the at once repetitive and disruptive nature of the temporal experience of kicking people out of their homes (as well as that of being kicked out), along with the sorts of personal disjunction associated with immigration to the United States. Rather than seek development and interrelationship, Cohen shows how the impulse to construct narrative survives, perhaps pointlessly, in an environment in which it is frustrated at every turn. I don’t know if Moving Kings is, given this tendency, totally successful as a novel, nor is it exactly a sociological work disguised as literature, but it is an impressive literary document about the experience of time and social life in this era. The hunger for narrative is dramatized in the thoughts and actions of the characters of Moving Kings via a contemporary emotional mode the critic Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism”; Cohen’s characters are themselves inventive, creative—we watch them tell themselves stories in order to survive.

The effective disorganization of Moving Kings thus furnishes one clue as to where fiction might go if it wishes to maintain its literary chops while also traveling further into the unfolding particulars of the current situation in the United States. And I think Kushner is embarking on such an exploration, too, though she perhaps remains excessively focused on first-person narrative—and one might well find Jackie Wang’s use of an autobiographical, critical first person in Carceral Capitalism, for example, more effective than this sort of speculative persona. Of course, The Mars Room is likely to have a broader audience than Wang’s theory, even though Carceral Capitalism is likely to be read for a longer time and perhaps more deeply, if at first by fewer people.

This leaves me with the thought that the problem and possibilities of the contemporary social novel are not exclusively tied to genre—i.e., they are not the classical problems of the novel, per se. They aren’t exactly the problems and possibilities offered by the familiar challenge of maintaining a balance between action and description (famously described by György Lukács in his rants on the political efficacy of realist prose). There’s something challenging in this unfamiliar territory but also something hopeful, not just because we seem still to like novels, but because it’s clear that literature can contribute, in a significant way, to contemporary events. And where literature can help is in its combinatory and experimental capacities. Novelists can do things and try things that academics and critics cannot. So I am advocating for that now. Let’s have more social novels that explore the disruption and near-impossibility of our cherished narrative forms. Let’s have more social novels that look for narrative—and even fail to find it. In their spectacular and detailed failure, such novels may more closely resemble us.


Date: March 1, 2019

Publisher: The Baffler

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of The Baffler, March–April 2019, issue 44, "Truth Decay."


© Lauren Nassef

Lynne Tillman and the Illusion of Realism


Realism disturbs me.

For indeed fiction, if realistic, is a manufactured veil through which we train our gaze in order to obtain a pattern that organizes dots and squiggles into something legible, “an image of a pork chop which looks exactly like a pork chop,” as Terry Eagleton writes in the London Review of Books. Realism is paradoxical: a lie that reads true. We take two pet rocks, name one “Reality,” the other “My (Mimetic) Attempts to Write About It,” and smash them enthusiastically together. What survives is combed into a neat pile, carefully labeled, set out as a sort of snack.

(see fig. 1)

Mimesis is imitation, and when Aristotle talks about it in his Poetics, he means for it to do one thing: Imitation isn’t a faculty poets deploy to represent the world solely for the sake of skillfully representing the world. Imitation is deployed with the specific aim of inspiring recognition—of evoking, in a somewhat distant audience, a feeling of pity. (Aristotle: “Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ ”) We are brought to tears when someone on stage pokes out his eyes; safe in our chairs, we’ve confused him with ourselves. We’re deceived, yet in awe. Perhaps we resolve not to kill or have sex with our parents (or, failing this, not to get married—regarding which topic, more later).

Ideas about imitating reality have spiraled up through Western civilization with different, though perhaps related, political ends. The realists of nineteenth-century France weren’t exactly Aristotelian in their outlook, but they definitely had ambitions re: mimesis. They wanted to understand the structure of society and, along with the Russians, took great pains to offer precise depictions of things and persons. Balzac may be the paradigmatic example, but I find myself unable to stop thinking about a certain bottle of oil to which a feather has become affixed in a scene in Madame Bovary: “In the corner behind the door, shining hobnailed shoes stood in a row under the slab of the washstand, near a bottle of oil with a feather stuck in its mouth.” (This old translation by Ferdinand Brunetière and Robert Arnot is interesting for the way in which it names old-fashioned things, e.g., hobnails. More recent translations tend to replace outmoded words with more familiar, if less specific, ones.) It’s less the elaboration of a world or a social system that fascinates me here than the skill in representing an item that seems purposeless, if classed. I do occasionally cling to this kind of seemingly pointless vivid materiality in prose. It produces not recognition, foremost—though that, too—but surprise. It makes me think for a moment, pace Aristotle, that it might be possible to have a world without psychology, maybe even, pace Hugo, without fate. (In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Greek term ananke, meaning “fate,” is, bizarrely, carved on the side of the cathedral. There seems to be no reason for this, other than that Hugo wanted to imply that fate is an indelible feature of human history. As you see, I find him to be an extremely annoying writer.)

But, of course, we don’t have that world, though Herman Melville’s head is famously turned by the enumerative ecstasy of whale facts. We have a pretty different world, despite materialist trends in certain nineteenth-century novels—and despite their resistance to wanton psychologizing. Although the behemoth twentieth-century psychological realist John Updike may have worshiped at the altar of Flaubert’s scrupulous style, he seems to have taken le réalisme’s lesson only in part, ever subordinating acts of description to the fluid angsts of his American subjects.


Lynne Tillman is a novelist who seems to me to have thought a lot about the above—and in a uniquely deliberate way. In certain of her stories, there is a character named Madame Realism who goes around living a fairly normal New York City life and who is always contemplating art and illusion everywhere she goes because, well, art and illusion are everywhere in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and in Manhattan, in particular. Madame Realism does not shrink from the scene. In the story “Madame Realism’s Imitation of Life,” spotted by fans in a women’s restroom, Madame Realism overhears one say, “I think that is Madame Realism, but do you think a fictional statement can ever be true?” Paradox abounds—for, in reading the story, one has flattered oneself that one is engaged in an intimate experience with a veiled version of Lynne Tillman, with Tillman’s very thoughts. Yet this is because of the presence of a character, a confection in the close third. Thus, there is Tillman IFF (“if and only if ”), the wry disguise of Madame Realism, at least for the purposes of this story, which in fact reads less like a story than a work of art criticism, which would seem to be part of the point. Normally, I suppose, we’d have the entailment the other way around: character IFF author. But Madame Realism doesn’t work that way. She is not here to imitate reality; she’s here to explain to us how the related fictional affordances of narrative and point of view function. That’s how real she is. (The reader is also advised that Madame Realism is playfully distinct from “Sir Realism,” a.k.a. surrealism, that twentieth-century movement in the visual arts and poetry famous for its modernist mystification of femininity.)

(see fig. 2)


No matter how many paradoxes, neat rock arrangements, and feathers stuck to bottles of oil I pile into this essay, none of these phantasmal objects comes close to the unreal, gonzo vividness of Tillman’s 2006 novel, her fifth, American Genius, A Comedy. At its most insanely, maddeningly banal and delightfully paratactic moments—the novel takes place, after all, in a vaguely defined asylum, artist residency, or spa, where the style of one’s breakfast eggs and memories of deceased childhood pets become major concerns—it remains, maddeningly and delightfully, a story about the impossibility of escaping illusion, even when one is doing almost nothing.

American Genius, A Comedy is also about the extremity of Americans. It’s about the violent movement westward, which seems, in the mind of the novel’s narrator, to culminate in the Manson slayings, along with the present-day inability to pardon the Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten, who participated in the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in her last year as a teenager and who was sentenced to death in 1971. Hannah Arendt once said that she was glad that Eichmann had been hanged, because the Israelis had “pushed the thing to its only logical conclusion.” Arendt felt that so-called justice can’t have it both ways; if someone cannot be forgiven, then, well, they cannot be forgiven, and it is another form of violence to leave the charge unmet. Though this line of reasoning seems a bit neat to me, the narrator’s obsession with Van Houten, who repeatedly returns to her thoughts throughout the novel, is related. Van Houten was at one time the youngest woman condemned to die in California; a special death row had to be constructed for her, as no women’s section existed. However, the invalidation of pre-1972 death sentences in 1972’s People v. Anderson (now overruled) meant that her sentence was commuted to life in prison. Though the verdict in a second retrial stressed her eligibility for parole, and though other members of the Manson Family were successful in parole requests, Van Houten’s applications for parole in California have been, as of June 2018, repeatedly denied. Protected, in theory, by her whiteness and physical beauty, like the charismatic Manson himself, Van Houten lives out her days in prison, unforgivable if ambiguously responsible for her crime, given her age and mental state at the time of its commission, as well as her gender, this last point being a qualification that must remain unspoken, as it at once exonerates her and leaves her open to endless fantasies of blame that are beyond the scope of the law, at least on paper, to name or know.

The narrator of American Genius, A Comedy, in limbo in her institutional retreat, latches on to this other, discursive limbo, a blank in which America refuses to know itself—as it seems relevant, if ambiguously, to her own identity. While it is probably, again, too neat to say that she, like Van Houten, is doing time, it’s part of the interest of the book that it doesn’t shy away from these sorts of bad analogies. It’s American, in this respect. And this narrator is a former historian, which may contribute to her reluctance to participate in storylines unfolding in present-day reality, so-called. While she seems to allow that the present, as a distinct moment, exists, she seems none too sure that it is more than a mushy amalgam of past temporalities—the history of chair design, for example—and timeless inevitabilities—the much-touted sensitivity of her own skin—lacking any true newness or uniqueness worth, as it were, writing home about.

But our retreating narrator, though withdrawn, is not alone, and this makes all the difference to the form and tenor of her refusal of plot in the present. As in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, others (“residents”) are interned, for a brief eternity, alongside Tillman’s genius/protagonist. The hope that utopia is to be found in retreat is held out. As readers, we occasionally let ourselves think of it. Indeed, it’s here that the question of the relationship between the novel and so-called realism comes most strongly into play. “Realism,” Terry Eagleton writes in the aforementioned LRB essay, “is calculated contingency.” In other words, realism can be a style of belief in the existence of others—since you need somebody, or somebodies, to whom things are represented, and asylums, artist residencies, and spas are famous for their captive audiences.

In the first chapter of The Blithedale Romance, a fictionalized account of the Brook Farm commune (1841–47), Hawthorne worries about something he calls “the privileges of privacy.” (The narrator is speaking here: “ ‘Zenobia, by the bye, as I suppose you know, is merely her public name; a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining all the privileges of privacy,—a contrivance, in short, like the white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent.’ ”) Hawthorne is a lover of gothic euphemism, not a realist writer, and his cloaked concepts often assume an intimacy between reader and narrator that feels forced, at least to me. So I’m not entirely sure what he means by this phrase, but his tale of intentional community is full of references to privacy, both literal and metaphorical: veils, secrets, false names, confused identity, performative utterances. There’s dissimulation and distancing—and also a fair amount of discussion of the role of women in American society, women who seem to be the origin of all social illusion, at least as far as Hawthorne is concerned. If American Genius, A Comedy (not a romance) is in some sense a rewriting of Hawthorne’s 1852 narrative, by 2006 the commune has become an institution and the narrator a woman (a “nineteenth-century woman in trousers,” as one character has it)—yet the privilege of privacy remains, along with an affection for unusual monikers (we meet the Count, Contesa, and Spike, et al., not their real names). Our narrator and her acquaintances take advantage of their middle-class privilege, in its collective form, to stage a hilariously god-awful dramatization of Kafka’s letters, as well as, in a seriocomic citation of the nineteenth century and its prized illusions, a séance or “ghost theater.” The narrator observes the workings of her own mind during the latter performance, as her tendency to compose speculative lists and bounce from topic to topic—from familial concerns to American history and back again—is overtaken by something more enigmatic and difficult to reconcile: a chilling realization of the possibility of the absence of thought as thought; the nullification of sentience as sentience.

I can’t halt these alien sensations. I place my hands over my eyes and press hard, scrunching my eyes closed again, so that their veins radiate bloody patterns, garishly colored shapes, pale ashes, the papers I burned this afternoon maybe, everything recognizable is ablaze, like my family’s Eames chairs. I can’t hold on to an image, so I tell myself, in a stately manner, Mark this now, fire burns complacent things, and in a flash it occurs to me why I take things apart, and I want to remember the reason but can’t. Another gust of arctic air makes me shiver, there’s nothing to think about, I open my eyes, it’s all gone, I shut them again.

Though what returns in the séance’s transformative and macabre course “with its bizarre seductions” is simple—the fact of death—the effects of this unbelievable fact on those assembled are richly varied, alarming, and enlightening. The narrator has a vision of her deceased father in his distinctive dark brown swimming trunks; others rant about sex addiction and betrayal, the shape of fate, the qualities of evil (“Let me say this about the devil: He exists,” maintains one transfixed party). All in all, it’s quite an event, as well as quite a convincing portrayal of what routinely goes unsaid, even or especially in privileged private. I think, too, that this has to be one of the great scenes of recent American fiction, on par with the unveiling of the P.G.O.A.T. in Infinite Jest, for example, speaking of metaphorically charged drapery. In it, we catch a glimpse of the structure of the contemporary social world, as well as the limitations of realist description. Because you can’t mimetically describe something that is simultaneously there and not there, which is to say, you can’t describe something unspeakable.


As I was beginning to write this essay, wanting to be thorough and a reasonably good historian, I traveled to the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University, where Tillman’s papers are kept, and went through all the manuscript drafts of American Genius, A Comedy. Because of this adventure of my own into seclusion, I happen to know that the novel had multiple working titles, including American Skin, and that the narrator originally spoke on the first page about writing a novel. (The first sentence of the draft reads: “The food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there’s a bathtub, which I don’t have at home, so I can have a bath every day if I can get from my studio, where I’m supposed to be writing a novel, to my room, before dinner, which is at 6:30pm.”) That novel, that fictional novel, has since been removed. It’s been replaced, I suppose, by our narrator’s oddball histories and catechisms, and by visits to an aesthetician who palpitates her face, producing emotion. The clarity of that early title and that fake novel has been smudged out, artfully distorted. However, far from ruining the book for me, knowledge of these initial scaffolds deepens its mystery. It’s not that the novel is just better without these tropes; it’s that the novel is about the fact that such tropes are illusory. A certain truism about the reality of novels (i.e., that in their obvious artificiality or autobiography, they presuppose a world in which fact and fiction are stable, easily distinguished categories) is missing here, can’t be reclaimed. This is not a semiautobiographical novel about a novelist, written by a novelist—what we now call autofiction—nor is it purely a work of invention. It’s something else.

(see fig. 3)

Tillman types, in her draft notes, that “the worst thing is that it’s not over yet—everything’s not safe yet—forest fire—desire to be safe—post 9/11.” She also quotes Freud: “One cannot overcome an enemy who is absent or not within range.” I think I’m starting to understand, more and more, what Tillman is getting at, how she is attempting to capture the complex narratological formats of her time, the interrelated and rather too-real chimeras of news, politics, and history. As you may have heard, Aristotle’s chapter on comedy has been lost; it’s mentioned in the Poetics, but no longer extant. I gesture to this fact from ancient literary history because I’d like to be able to say something definitive about the style of recognition American Genius, A Comedy sets up, being a comedy and all—what sort of mimesis Tillman is after, whether it makes sense to say she is an illusionist, an antirealist writer who has moonlighted as a fictional art writer whose last name is (funnily enough!) Realism; who, being fictional, doesn’t like to be recognized wandering at large in reality by her fans; who may be an anachronism, too, a nineteenth-century character in pants prone to fainting spells; who likes wild cats and also dogs, and also chairs, and so on; who may have put her hero, a modern woman, if of a vaguely Victorian stripe, in the awkward position of having to exist inside a postmodern novel. It may be, too, that Tillman is at once ahead of her time and living concertedly in it. She once wrote something similar of Andy Warhol, and I think that, as also for Warhol, one of her ways of being in and with her own time is to describe an imaginary future that infuses all the presents and the pasts enumerated in her fiction. (In this remark, from The Velvet Years, 1965–67: Warhol’s Factory, I’m inspired by Tillman’s description of Warhol’s relationship to time, both historical and not: “One of the mandates of the avant-garde, which Warhol broke from, was to be ahead of one’s time and to know in what way one was. Shifting into the postmodern, one is pressed to learn how to think, live, work, breathe the present—even if it’s inescapable, like inhaling an unrecuperable past. It’s harder to live in and think the present than be ahead of it; there’s no exit. It’s no aesthetic failing to be in time, with it. The imaginary future is always there and not there, to envision or make up, to wonder and worry about, to live into and even for.”) However, in spite of these chrononautical insights, fun though they may be, the only definition related to genre and imitation I seem to be able to muster—a deficiency entirely my own—is rather generic: At the end of a comedy, people are supposed to get married.

This (marriage) is no laughing matter, nor does Tillman’s comedy deal much in that sort of contract and/or denouement, except to note that American women are unfortunate, in that they often marry for love. Rather, American Genius, A Comedy, a sort of hypertext of recollection and ingenious displacement, a sort of postmodern nineteenth-century novel, ends on a Tuesday, with a facial.

(see fig. 4)


Date: February 19, 2019

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, The Paris Review online

Format: Book, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in a slightly different form and with the title, "Realism and Illusion," as the introduction to the 2019 edition of American Genius: A Comedy, published by Soft Skull Press.


Lynne Tillman. Photo: Craig Mod.


Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4

Bitter Tennis


I go to visit Jon on the A. It’s a straight shot but I’m late. I sit in one of the two-seat sections, between a door and the front of the train. I am reading Jon’s story on my phone. Occasionally, a text drops down, obscuring the top of the PDF. The messages are all from the same person. I will be meeting this person for dinner later this evening. We’ll be having sex after we have dinner. All this is certain. The person texting me is my closest friend. Jon is just a professional friend and I’m going to see him for work. I am his editor. I should have read his story earlier. I’m at the point where I’m so exhausted this spring I haven’t even bothered to dress in an appealing way. It’s so unseasonably cold and I know Jon wants to sit outside. I’m wearing a long black wool coat and bright blue running sneakers. The sneakers have orange treads. I am carrying the smallest bag I can get away with, which has a metal chain and leather strap, but not the kind you’re thinking of. It takes too much energy to describe the look I’m going for, but it has to do with trying to look like I do not care, which, in this rather unique instance, is even slightly true. I do not care much, although my heart is racing, and somehow I want everyone to know.

I live at the bottom of the ocean. I am capable of quick motion but do not warm. I cause my eyes to grasp each of Jon’s words. I live among the bristlemouths, the viperfish, the anglerfish, the cookiecutter sharks, the eelpouts. I don’t know why Jon and I can’t just have this conversation over the phone.

The A train is moving as efficiently as one could wish, but I know that I am going to be late. Across from me are two teenage girls who are rapidly becoming the heroes of this trip. They are tough and impeccably dressed. One of them causes a Fidget Spinner to spin. They are talking about alcohol. They do some work on their phones then conscientiously put the phones away. They focus on one another; the one girl, the taller, the prettier one, manipulates a black and gold Fidget Spinner. I swoon for them. I imagine they will move to Los Angeles at some point because there is nowhere in New York for them to live now. They cannot go to Prospect Heights with its Ivy-educated transplants, and they can’t stay home with their parents in Inwood. They can’t live in Bushwick – they might sublet there a few months but it won’t last – and they can’t join a Ridgewood commune. Chinatown is too expensive. Williamsburg overrun by Europeans. For these reasons, there is nowhere to go and they must become Angelinas. One of them will make a lot of money. One will have kids. They are placid and gorgeous and discussing how they will obtain what sounds like gin. It’s so innocent and here they are criticizing someone but it’s fair, I tell you. It is very fair. I can tell.

I move my eyes back onto Jon’s story. A text drops down. ‘Do you want to just meet there,’ my friend wants to know. Then my friend sends a link to something on Twitter. I will read these messages in situ later. I absolutely will not click on the Twitter link, I tell myself, as I click through to an image of a tiny black cat whose highly visible pink tongue extends from its all but invisible mouth. I try to think of what I will say in response to this vision. I often write, in response to such links from my friend, ‘It doesn’t like that,’ by which I indicate that the animal doesn’t want to be photographed and thereby rendered semi-humanoid as well as the punch line of somebody’s not particularly excellent joke. I also mean that the animal doesn’t like being conveyed to me as a Twitter link. The animal would ideally like to appear to me as its IRL self, corporeal and gleaming, speaking its own strange language. And what I therefore also mean is, much as the animal desires physical proximity to me, so does my friend. He cannot hide his desire, not with all the Twitter links in the world. I’m teasing, of course, when I send my set phrase, but at the same time I am not teasing, not at all. ‘It doesn’t like that,’ I type. Is there part of me that wants to shout, to yell uncontrollably, YOU CANNOT HIDE? Yes, there must be. Because, in fact, you cannot hide. Not from me. I’ll tell you that right now. I’m a very good reader. Although I seldom mention this to anyone I know.

I live at the bottom of the ocean and Jon wants to play tennis. It’s why I have to travel so far. I mean, Jon doesn’t actually want me to play tennis, but he wants me to meet him at the tennis center at the top of Manhattan where he takes his daughter for her tennis lessons and he wants to tell me, while I am there, that he would like me to play tennis with him.

Clearly, this means something.

There was a time when I myself was a daughter who took tennis lessons, and I’ve apprised Jon of this fact. Therefore Jon is trying, in some sense, to match up our respective familial situations. He’s thinking, you did that and I do this – therefore perhaps it’s a good idea for us to meet in the middle of this piece of coincidence, so we can both try to figure out if there’s any useful information in it. In other words, Jon thinks we have stuff in common. And since we work together and since Jon writes a lot of memoir, he’s multitasking. He’s doing research for a new piece – probably a whole book about tennis – at the same time as he is revising something he wrote three years ago.

He also doesn’t seem to mind that I’m forty minutes late.

‘You’re here!’ he cries.

We’re both surprised. I’m used to meeting him in the usual places where editors meet their writers. I encounter him over email, at parties, in fancy bars. I salute him in passing on social media. We’re privy to some of the same artisanal gossip mills.

But here we are beneath fluorescent lights in a reception area straight out of 1980-something. I have, suddenly, a memory of what it was like to be a child in the 1980s, when I was the small charge of upwardly mobile parents. What’s really strange is that this setting causes me to recall what it was like to be innocent – at least, for a second I think it does.

Jon, meanwhile, wants to know if I’d like to see the courts.

‘Sure,’ I tell him. I express some vague concern about being an unauthorized visitor, treading on hallowed athletic ground, but he brushes it off. ‘I did wear sneakers . . . ,’ I volunteer, as if this was clever of me.

‘Did you read the story?’ Jon asks. He’s leading me into the bubble. The sounds of tennis – pops and little cries – are apparent.

‘Yes,’ I both lie and do not lie. ‘It’s looking good,’ I say, which is a guess more than anything.

Jon doesn’t reply. He nods toward the court where his lanky daughter is demolishing a boy who looks to be a year or two older than she is.

At a pause in play, the daughter seeks Jon out. Her face is radiant. She waves enthusiastically.

‘I have some beer,’ Jon offers. ‘Let’s go outside.’ He is laughing and waving back at his daughter at the same time as he says this. The pairing is incongruous and therefore extremely impressive.

Jon, I think, has a full life.

Jon goes into a duffle he’s stashed in the bleachers and pulls out a pair of bottles. ‘OK,’ he says, laughing again. He’s leading me back out. ‘They’re warm.’

I have to rush to keep up with Jon. He’s more than twenty years my senior, but he does seem to have some kind of incredible physical advantage.


Or I mean, Open parenthesis. Or, Speak now, memory. I mean, I have to pause for a moment here because I want to tell you something about myself before we get to the matter of Jon and his prose and what we say to each other once we’re outside the tennis bubble. I’m somewhat repressed – or, ‘reserved’, as my friend Andrew once put it – and it does take a certain amount of energy to exit the gravitational field of the present. All I seem to be able to come up with at the moment isn’t even a memory but rather a story I once read in an extremely famous book, but if we pretend that it’s a story I myself made up, a story somehow about me, then we’ll get somewhere, I hope. By which I mean, to the bottom of the ocean. Where, as mentioned, I happen to live.

Here is the story: Imagine that you have died (weird), and after your death you awake into what is apparently another world. You aren’t sure if or how this world is connected to the world you inhabited while you were alive, but you are pretty sure that you can’t return to the place you lived while you were living by simply walking around. Meanwhile, it turns out that you are no longer a body. You’re a soul. You find yourself on a shoreline made of clean, gray ash. There is water sitting hazily in a great expanse before you. You can barely hear anything.

You realize that you are not the only soul here. There are countless other souls hovering in this place, gazing out across the water.

Then you realize that there are lives here, too. Not just souls. You’re not going to be stuck here. All along the shoreline sit countless lives in the bank of clean ash. You’re not a life, you’re a soul, but you can see them, the lives, and you know something about what they are. It’s difficult to describe how the lives look, but maybe it’s enough to say they look like sticks of different sizes, cut from saplings, though there are no trees anywhere around.

You begin to examine the different lives. There are so many. The soul must choose. It has to live eventually, but it does not have to live a life it does not select. And so the soul searches, and it lands.

As this ancient story purports to show, everyone has, at some level, chosen the life they live. The story also claims – leaving out the reincarnation bit, which I care less about – that none of us could avoid choosing. And this is what I want you to understand, regarding me: I’m trying to figure out what to do in a scenario in which I have no choice but, at some bare minimum, to keep on existing.

I don’t feel free. Moreover, I feel kind of scared.

I think, by the way, returning to sports, that the way my father dealt with this problem was to play tennis. Because, to be clear, having chosen to be male does not exempt one from the difficulties! I know I’m getting ahead of myself and it’s just a conjecture, but let me keep going: I think that my father decided to teach himself tennis for a bunch of different reasons, in part to obscure his working-class origins and in part to have virtuous reasons to exit the house. But these are probably only the reasons he was conscious of. Much as, if the story about souls recounted here is plausible, if not actually true – and there are aspects of everything we do that we have not chosen for ourselves, not in so many words, even as we have chosen them – then my father’s choice of tennis as one of his main physical and creative outlets in life came at a cost. It was a form of leisure for him but, given his broader cosmological setup, did not mean that he was either free or having fun.

I don’t know much about the cosmos, but I know enough to avoid the game of tennis.

Close parenthesis.

Jon and I are sitting together outside the bubble. There’s a bench here, plus gravel. Below us, near the water, reeds and cattails grow. Jon has already freaked me out by insisting on going inside to the reception desk to ask for a bottle opener, an act I find brazen in the extreme, given that what we’re doing out here with our beers is almost certainly illegal.

Jon keeps laughing at me, but about some things he is deadly earnest. ‘So what did you think of the story?’ he persists. At this moment both of us happen to be staring at a giant blue word, columbia painted on a cliff. I realize that Jon plays his tennis here because he is an alumnus.

‘It’s good,’ I say. ‘I really like it.’

‘Right,’ Jon says, ‘but do you think it needs a little more, a little less? I think you were correct about the androids needing to go. I haven’t really done enough research on that. I got too excited when I saw that Times article.’

I try to reassure Jon that although I suggested cutting the android part, it was still pretty good. I tell him that maybe he should devote a whole story to androids.

‘A whole story on androids? I don’t know about that.’ Jon takes a sip from his beer. He clears his throat, and I can tell he is about to say something he considers important. ‘I really like writing about androids but more as a way to think about people, you know? I don’t care about the immortal soul but, you know, some of my readers do.’

Jon is laughing again.

‘Sure,’ I start to say. I’m about to explain to Jon that this was not what I meant, but he interrupts me:

‘It just wouldn’t work. I never want to have a story that’s about one thing.’

‘But you’re so good at description!’ I exclaim. I’m trying to say that I think Jon can write about whatever he wants. There’s a lot he can get away with.

‘Thank you. But I’m never going to write about androids. They have to be a side issue. You know, there was something else that seems relevant, I’m just trying to remember. Oh, yeah.’

And Jon tells me the following story:

When Jon was in grad school, he spent a lot of time observing people. He wasn’t a bad student, exactly, but he was studying literature and one of the things he knew about literature was that he himself could write it, and this fact troubled his relationship to scholarship, as such. Literature, as everyone knows, is a massive info leak, while scholarship mostly purports to reveal helpful stuff people really ought to know, and all Jon wanted to do while he was obtaining his degree was to give away destabilizing secrets regarding academia. This desire made it difficult to concentrate, among other difficulties. Jon got very interested in sociology, as well as cybernetics. He liked vaguely paranoid theories based on the schematization of the social sphere. He enjoyed thinking about what computing had to do with anything, partly perversely, because in spite of Apple’s bombastic presence on the home electronics scene since that 1984 Super Bowl commercial, few people in the humanities were bothering to think about what effect their word-processing and emailing was having on their knowledge. Jon, by contrast, was brilliant and somewhat young.

But these, as Jon might say, are side issues. They’re just here to give us some sense of what Jon was like. In fact, he was pretty similar then to the person he is now, except that he was unmarried and did not have a daughter.

Also Jon had to take classes for a few years, and because of this he came into contact with other students. Among these people was a certain young woman, who is the person of interest as far as Jon’s story is concerned.

This young woman had a problem. It was a problem that interested Jon, given his social-scientific explorations, because it both was and was not her problem. The young woman’s problem was that she was not recognizable. It wasn’t, for example, that she was invisible or that she shrank from human contact – far from it. In Jon’s account, she was more than reasonably attractive, always simply and elegantly dressed. She had a nice face, nice hair. She spoke with an amount of self-assurance that was neither excessive nor too puny. No, the young woman was perfectly visible and in no particular way repulsive, but nevertheless this did not prevent her from being largely unrecognizable in the eyes of others.

Graduate school, it seems, is an interesting setting in which to observe such a problem play out. The reason for this is that graduate school, particularly in the humanities, is where people go to learn how to introduce themselves. This is perhaps the main skill taught to students of the humanities. The lesson was long and particularly difficult for the young woman who was not recognizable, because she was constantly having to reintroduce herself everywhere she went. For Jon it became a kind of private running joke, although one he did not dare to share with the woman herself. Whenever they were in class together, he would wait for the inevitable moment at which the professor would squint or point and ask, ‘And who are you?’ only to be reminded that the student in question had already been known to him or her for multiple weeks, months, and even years.

Somehow, the reminding did not serve to reinforce memory regarding the unrecognizable student. It was as if she suffered from a detachable aphasia, an amnesia she herself did not possess. It interested Jon for, as he put it, two main reasons: One, this was a psychosocial malady affecting a single organism that seemed to have come into being outside that organism’s body (and truly it was difficult to say if the problem originated with the woman or with others). Two, this was a malady to which Jon seemed, among all his peers and overlords, to be the sole person who was immune.

Jon could recognize the woman.

It was surprising and even semi-miraculous.

At first Jon could barely believe it.

Months went by, maybe a full semester, and at last Jon got up the courage to speak to the woman, with whom, if this is not already obvious, he had managed to fall deeply in love. It was not at all a difficult thing to speak to her. They went out together to a late lunch of desserts and talked a long time.

It was also surprisingly easy to avoid the ‘recognition issue’. There was a nearly otherworldly quality to the woman, in that she herself seemed completely unaware that most other people never had any idea who she was. She lived, oblivious to the problem, and she was even happy.

Jon courted her carefully. In spite of their mutual penury, they went out to many meals with desserts and talked many long talks. Jon believed that he had discovered a previously unknown plane of existence. His studies took on new meaning.

But when summer came again, the woman departed for the West Coast. This was years before the tech bubble burst, a fact that dates Jon a bit, and it seemed like someone had made the woman an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Jon wanted to go with her, but the woman wasn’t interested. She said something incomprehensible – to Jon, at least – about how her decision had to do with wanting to live a different sort of life. She told Jon that he knew her too well.

‘You should write that down,’ I tell Jon, when he is done.

‘Maybe I will.’ He barely pauses, ‘When do you think the current story is going to come out?’

‘Soon,’ I say. I mention that there are two other editors who are reading it, who are perhaps a little less attentive to Jon than I am. I tell Jon I’ll bug them, and that he should bug them, too.

‘OK,’ Jon says. Then, ‘Don’t you have any questions?’


‘About the story.’

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I thought the whole point of this meeting was to come to a consensus about that.’

‘No,’ says Jon. ‘I mean the story I just told you.’ He finishes his beer. ‘Don’t you have any questions about that?’

I have to think for a minute. I’m fighting to be polite. I say, ‘Well, do you know what happened to her?’

‘So you assume the story is true.’

‘Isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know if that matters,’ Jon says. ‘But yeah. I’ve been looking for her on Facebook. My sense is she’s been rather successful.’

‘Oh,’ I say.

‘She was kind of a writer. Maybe half a writer? I don’t know. The one really strange thing about her, aside from the unrecognizability thing, of course, was how much she liked puns. If I’d been thinking about it more clearly I could have seen the end coming.’

‘The lowest form of humor,’ I say, skirting Jon’s reference to pain.

‘Obviously I couldn’t take the joke.’

It’s beginning to get dark and I find myself staring extra hard at the Columbia insignia on the cliff across from us. It stays clear and distinct, even as everything else around us dims to a blue mush. For a while, both Jon and I stop making an effort to speak.

Then Jon says, ‘You know there’s a reason I’m telling you this story.’

‘There always is.’ I mean it in a nice way.

Jon is not listening. He says, ‘It’s a circumstantial reason. It’s because of tennis. I was in the bookstore the other day, browsing for things about your tennis game, you know, as one does, and, I mean, it’s not a thing I would do, read a tennis book, but I was down there in Sports, and I swear, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something called Bitter Tennis, which is a great title, right?’

‘A fantastic title,’ I say.

‘I know. But of course it was a misreading. But this was when, after all these years, I think I understood.’

I don’t say anything.

‘This was why she had to leave. Everyone was just taking things so psychotically literally!’ Jon chuckles. He tugs at the lobe of his right ear.

I say, ‘Is this a real person?’

‘Let’s go indoors,’ Jon tells me. ‘I have to check if the match is done.’

‘You remembered that,’ I say, as I attempt to hide my mostly empty beer bottle in the pocket of my coat. The bottle protrudes but not, I think, too alarmingly.

‘Remembered what?’ Jon is climbing the small hill of the patio.

For a second I’m confused and don’t know what to say. For a second I genuinely feel as if I don’t know or can’t remember what I’m referring to. The reception area before us is brightly lit, and through the large window I can perceive a huddle of youngish professional men who have arrived to play tennis together. A few of them are wearing white terrycloth headbands in an un-ironic way. They stand around the sofas, stretching, fiddling with racquet strings and expensive leather attachés.

But I recover. I sense a sort of infinite laugh rising in me, and instead of laughing I keep talking. I say, ‘The pun. Bitter Tennis. You remembered.’

‘Memory is funny, too,’ says Jon. ‘Here,’ he says, when we are indoors. ‘Give me your beer,’ and he throws the bottle away for me, indicating, unexpectedly, that he understands how uncomfortable I feel.

I have the impression that all the tennis players in the reception area are staring at us. I want to keep things brief. ‘It was nice talking,’ I tell Jon.


‘I’m just going to use the restroom.’

‘Do you feel like a quick game? I noticed that you’re wearing sneakers. I have extra rackets. We can find your size.’

‘I can’t,’ I say. ‘I have to meet someone for dinner.’

Jon laughs. He really seems to be in a great mood, in spite of the story. Or maybe it’s the story that’s making him happy, who knows. It clearly means something to him that I’ve come all the way up here.

‘I guess you’re going, then?’

‘I am.’

‘Well, let me know about the story?’

I think he means the one that he’s already written, and I tell Jon that I will. Jon is a fantastic human. I feel less afraid of the wealthy tennis players and their irony deficiency and go to use the women’s restroom.

My phone, meanwhile, makes a noise. It’s my friend.

‘It does like that,’ he writes.

A gray thought bubble with an animated ellipsis indicates that he is, wherever he is, continuing to type.

I silence the phone and take my time urinating. I wash my hands and examine my hair. Everything about me seems reasonable. It’s spring and my freckles are coming out.

On the way to the subway, I look at my phone again. A new message has appeared.

‘It likes that very much,’ my friend confidently opines.

I switch the sound on but then turn the phone off. I feel weak but satisfied. It has been a good meeting.

I can remember there was – and this is a true story – one afternoon when, freshly returned from his habitual tennis game and having consumed half a beer, my father threatened to kill me. I was possibly twenty on the day in question and this time he was serious, though I suppose that hardly matters. I used to lock my door whenever I was alone in the house with him. Mentally, I’d call it dehydration. My mother would begin laughing wildly if I tried to recount these sorts of events. ‘Your father loves you,’ she liked to say, but she didn’t need to be out of earshot for my father to begin talking about which random women in the news it was he presently wanted to assault, whose voices were the most whiny, the most beset by vocal fry.

This is why I moved to the bottom of the ocean. I packed a suitcase long ago. You might think this is a sad thing, but I’ve come to enjoy the incoherent ministrations of the sub-photic beings of the hadal zone, their telescopic eyes and spiny or gelatinous skin. I like the suborder Ceratioidei. I have no idea what they’re saying when their fanged mouths move, but I can always use my phone if I get too hard up for fellowship.

The other nice thing about my current trench community is that it’s pretty dense. We are, speaking of puns, under a great deal of pressure, but here, and maybe only here, there’s no such thing as tennis.


Date: January 24, 2019

Publisher: Granta

Format: Web

Genre: Fiction

Link to the story.


JM in 1979.

Trust Survey 2018

What can we learn from Adrian Piper's search for ethical ways of being?

THE VIDEO CONCLUDED “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016,” Adrian Piper’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.[1] Two friends had recommended it in high terms, and so I went, on a Tuesday in late May of 2018, and was treating it—the video, that is—incorrectly, as the beginning of the show.

In Adrian Moves to Berlin, Piper dances to “selected Berlin house music of the early 2000s.”[2] She’s in Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s storied central pedestrian zone, site of a weird, squat world time clock and the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft (Fountain of Friendship among Peoples), along with the former GDR’s prize television tower. The square’s Stalinist desolation has been updated since reunification—notably with a shopping mall. However, save for the clock, the shot is too tight for us to make out these monuments to globalized space and time. We hear house music and see Piper in motion in jeans, blazer, pink scarf, sunglasses. It’s possible that Piper, dancing, is not listening to a recording—though from time to time we see her touch her ear, as if adjusting small headphones. She may have memorized the composition, as she did for her 1971–72 performance, Aretha Franklin Catalysis, in which she danced to Franklin’s “Respect” without playing a (publicly) audible track.

Adrian Moves to Berlin, as I later learned by reading a text on Piper’s website, was shot on a Monday in late March 2007 at lunchtime. The video’s title points up a related logistical matter: Piper has relocated to Berlin from the United States, and Piper is “moving to the beat of Berlin,” if we can suffer that expression. She’s at once displaced and attentive to location and time. Piper’s lack of constraint regarding passersby, some of whom seem to shift to acknowledge and even stiffly celebrate her, is a demonstration of autonomy—in particular, freedom of movement—even as we understand that this is an artwork about interpersonal relations in public space.

On MoMA’s sixth floor, meanwhile, in spring of 2018, there were at least two popular ways of engaging with the video, which was projected onto a wall beside the exhibition’s exit. Some people would come up to it and begin dancing along, sometimes so that their friends could photograph them or make a video. Others would assume an attitude similar to those passing through Alexanderplatz on March 26, 2007: they drifted by, commenting on the anomaly of the spectacle. Look at her, they said, sometimes appreciatively, sometimes with an air of confusion. I studied these responses, enjoying them as if they were works of art in themselves—an echo that seemed part of the point. I wanted to dance too, and maybe I did, shyly, standing off to the side. I began to be subject to fantasies about personal agency and started walking through the exhibition in reverse.

“A Synthesis of Intuitions” (now at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as “Concepts and Intuitions”) is a comprehensive show, painstakingly organized in strict chronological order. It was also, as size-conscious individuals noted at the time, the largest exhibition of work by a living artist held at MoMA, filling the entire floor. Traveling backward thus had consequences. I experienced trepidation before The Humming Room (2012), a small room I had to pass through in order to access the rest of the exhibition. Above the entrance was a sign: in order to enter the room, you must hum a tune. any tune will do. OK, I thought. Within the room stood a security guard, who, although currently distracted, was probably empowered to enforce the imperative. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to hum recognizably in public and was concerned, however ridiculously, that if I did not manifest the correct behavior I would be asked to leave. Some of my disorientation probably had to do with the fact that I was coming early, as far as the show’s narrative was concerned, to The Humming Room. Piper explains in an interview, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, that this space is intended as a “kind of pressure valve that allows viewers to let off steam, to release [their] anger and tension and anxiety” after they have passed through the “Corridor of Pain,” her works of the 1990s treating racism and misogyny, trauma, and America’s history of violence and police brutality.[3] But the “Corridor of Pain” was still on the other side of the room for me. I procrastinated, hovering at what was properly the exit of The Humming Room, studying Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, a self-portrait from September 2012 that combines text in white typewriter font with a photographic image of Piper’s smiling face that has been printed in an artificial gray. The text announces her decision to “change my racial and nationality designations” to “6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage” and “Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry.” I lingered on the exclamation point at the end of the declaration: “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” Nearby was a photolithograph, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013), with Martin’s face on a white field printed in an extremely faint, pale gray overlaid with prominent red crosshairs. Beneath Martin’s chin, a sentence rendered in purple typewriter font reads, “Imagine what it was like to be me.” There is no punctuation. With this ellipsis in mind, I ducked into The Humming Room. My humming was literal. It went, “Hum, hum, hum.” The guard had a non-reaction and I stepped to the other side.

I reflected that before entering The Humming Room, speaking of “institutional control,” I had failed, in an important sense. I had been so focused on the directive (you must hum a tune) and, relatedly, on the task of acquitting myself faultlessly as a normal museumgoer, that I had lost track of what was at stake. I had perceived the letter of the law (you must hum) without intuiting its spirit, its ironies, its will to distinguish. I’d striven, ludicrously, to behave correctly, to enter into the law’s good graces, even as Piper’s recent works had already impressed upon me the incontrovertible historical and contemporary fact that the letter of American law is infernal and subtle, its clarity a dissimulation.

Though I had focused on Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment and Imagine [Trayvon Martin], there were other works—and other words—to read on the subject of institutional control. howdy says an unapologetic no-entry symbol Piper projects onto a locked door, for example, in her 2015 Howdy #6 [Second Series]. And Never Forget (2016) appropriates the nationalist slogan of September 11, 2001, as the title of a graphic exploration of Piper’s family tree. The genealogical diagram at the lower left of the print montage reveals that her white, formerly slave-holding great-great-grandfather became “colored” in his legal death record, through his marriage to Piper’s great-great-grandmother, who, “[paid him] a thousand dollars in order to obtain her freedom and the freedom of her four children.” Piper couples this detailed elaboration of the administrative workings of America’s racial caste system with another archival revelation and appropriation, an image of the official 2008 letter she received, summarily revoking her appointment as a professor of philosophy and dismissing her from Wellesley College.

Piper’s 2015 Golden Lion–winning Venice Biennale installation, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, on the other hand, allows visitors entrée into an apparently more livable bureaucratically managed community, under the auspices of which, at a series of three reception desks staffed by attentive young people, they may pledge always to “be too expensive to buy,” “say what I mean,” and “do what I say I am going to do.” The plain language associated with these and other artworks gave me opportunity to contemplate my own decision-making process, along with the sorts of prompts I was most receptive to. I noted that sometimes I wanted to be independent and sometimes to imitate or join. Sometimes I was thrown back into the problem of not knowing what to do or how to understand the environment, and sometimes problems beyond my own individual actions or experience loomed larger, pointing me out as a subject of history. Overall, I found that the present—present time, present action, present thought—was getting thicker, more specific, more challenging in its detail.

As I continued my walk backward, back into Piper’s work of the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, and late ’60s, I considered her recent imperatives (“Please join,” “Imagine,” “Never forget,” etc.), along with my own inability to trust either the contract offered by The Humming Room or my own actions within that room, though I had decided to enter. I reflected that—no great epiphany this—contracts, social and otherwise, are tricky. Subject to spontaneous revision, reinterpretation, and disintegration, among other forms of unwanted variance, they tend to function one way in theory and another in practice. I reflected, too, that the author of these works was a professor of meta-ethics and, therefore, in some non-negligible sense, an expert on trust.

BEING AN ANALYTIC philosopher isn’t easy. I know because I made brief attempts at the close of the last century, as an eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old. Most memorable was a course on Kant’s ethics taught by Christine Korsgaard. The Harvard University lecture hall was packed, largely with young men who wore shorts in winter and claimed math courses were a leisure activity. It provoked in me a feeling of extreme discomfort. Though I was at the time unaware that anything related to my identity could determine which disciplines I could and could not pursue, and though Korsgaard herself was female, there was a definite chill. I chose to believe that the chill was mostly due to the way in which the discipline treated language. The notion that a paragraph could be converted—clarified—into a formal grammar, a raft of specific propositions, felt artificial and alien, at least to me, who was unused to words being valued for the stability of their meanings. I was otherwise spending most of my time being a comparative literature major who had just discovered German poetry (Celan, Novalis) and, in a stroke of genius and desperation, had convinced my teaching assistant to let me write a final paper for Korsgaard on a single word in The Metaphysics of Morals. I said nothing all semester, save in the T.A.’s office hours, where I struggled to put in a relevant (to the field, at least) thought.

Thus, it may not be specific enough, particularly in the context of contemporary visual art, to say that Adrian Piper is “a philosopher.” The everyday valence of this term, given the existence, for example, of Slavoj Žižek, who is also, yes, “a philosopher,” can obscure the rigor and technical specificity of what those who work in the analytic tradition do, particularly since it is a method that embraces not just conceptual clarity but empiricism. Given the tendency on the part of art institutions to casually solicit the tidings of adjacent disciplines, particularly those concerned with language, we are accustomed to encountering professional philosophers in galleries and museums. Usually these philosophers, phenomenologists and ideologues (I use the latter term without pejorative intent), offer broad humanistic themes, not unambiguous logical forms. Piper, in her role as an analytic philosopher, works with logic, deploying specific techniques to address discrete problems with identifiable results, though more popular notions such as value(s) and history also come in for consideration.

Piper has taken care to explain that her work in philosophy, her “day job,” as she writes, is not a mirror image, in another guise, of her work in visual art—or, for that matter, an uncomplicated extension of her study and practice of yoga—and vice versa.[4] Though there was a craze among Conceptual artists and others for the analytic tradition’s linguistic turn during the heyday of the so-called dematerialization of the art object, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (“All philosophy is a ‘critique of language.’”) has persisted as a figure of fascination in the American humanities, there has been little cross-pollination between the fields of visual art and analytic philosophy, generally speaking.[5]

I am not proposing to initiate the process of cross-pollination here.[6] I don’t have the skills necessary to the task; moreover, I’m not sure that one career need be deployed to interpret another. But it does seem worth clarifying that Piper is a distinguished philosopher. She is the first woman of African descent to receive academic tenure in a field notoriously lacking in diversity in the United States, and among her many achievements is the inclusion of her 1984 paper, “Two Conceptions of the Self,” in the Philosophers’ Annual, a selection of the top ten papers from a given year, among the highest honors a paper can receive. This paper in turn forms the basis for Rationality and the Structure of the Self, Piper’s two-volume magnum opus, a work some three decades in the making, which Piper describes as the fullest expression of her engagement with Kant, ongoing since the 1960s.

As a philosopher, Piper points up her interest in employing means and ends that are congruent. As she writes in the first chapter of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, philosophers do philosophy in no small part because philosophy requires the exercise of the “buoyant device” of reason, and exercising reason suggests a respect for the rational capacity of others, as well as the existence of something called “transpersonal rationality,” i.e., “principled rational dispositions—to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection, and self-control—that enable us to transcend the overwhelming attractions of comfort, convenience, profit, gratification . . . and self-deception.”[7] Most if not all of Rationality and the Structure of the Self is about showing how this account of the self, a Kantian account, is not only superior to David Hume’s account of the self as primarily egocentric, but in fact the account of the self that already undergirds Humean descriptions. According to Piper, it’s essentially a revision of the entire contemporary analytic field, which she suggests is necessary on practical as well as empirical grounds, as:

When teachers fail to impart a love of philosophy to their undergraduate students, or drive graduate students, traumatized, out of their classes and out of the field, it is often because these elemental guidelines for conducting the enterprise—guidelines that express the simple truth that a love of philosophy is incompatible with feeling humiliated or trounced or arrogant or self-congratulatory for one’s contributions to it—have been ignored.[8]

I can’t judge whether Piper is entirely successful in her enterprise in this book, but I was interested enough to read its thousand-plus pages in PDF form, having downloaded it from her website. A technical work to be sure, it is also beautifully written, full of humor and broadly applicable wisdom. I found, in reading it, that I wished that as a graduate student I had had such a professor. Indeed, my reaction and Piper’s own references to the state of the academy in this text and elsewhere, along with her accounts of her professional and personal experiences there, indicate another wrinkle in the circulation and reception of her work: She repeatedly maintains that the field of analytic philosophy is beset by unethical, prejudicial practices; that it can no longer reproduce itself with integrity. Rationality and the Structure of the Self is launched as a theoretical and practical corrective.

If I go to, I can view a video and other materials that explain why Piper elected to publish her masterwork with her own nonprofit, the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation (APRA) in Berlin, even though it was accepted by Cambridge University Press.[9] Piper rejected the prestigious press’s offer, in part because its publicity department asked for cuts to her text. Her refusal to alter her work in any way in order that it might appear with a certifying imprint is an example of a decision to think of images and texts as more than “mere” representations of reality, to reconcile ends and means. Piper has taken care to treat Rationality and the Structure of the Self as an act with practical and ethical consequences, as well as an object or series of messages.

WE MIGHT SAY something similar of the publications that accompany “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Though we have the predictable oversize catalogue, with its luscious full-color reproductions, there are two additional hefty tomes, Adrian Piper: A Reader, published by MoMA, and Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, published by the APRA Foundation. These two publications serve, if differently, as useful gestures in relation to the show. Cornelia Butler and David Platzker write, in their introductory “Adrian Piper: Reading the Work,” in the MoMA reader, that they “encourage readers to consider this book as a kind of communal interpretive mural project.”[10] Though the collection has the standard exegetical function of a grouping of catalogue essays, it also functions like a Festschrift and consolidates, deepens, and expands previous accounts of Piper’s career; it likely replaces earlier tomes as the definitive critical compendium, given the various writers’ wide-ranging research interests and areas of expertise. Escape to Berlin, meanwhile, is at once a more and less complex story.

Readers of Piper’s writings in what she has termed “meta-art,” know that she is capable of trenchant analysis and rigorous style.[11] But Escape to Berlin is a different sort of writing, tonally distinct: it is concerned with autobiography, and although Piper repeatedly states that she cannot be concerned with what the reader thinks, the book sounds and feels intimate. It is a first-person narrative about Piper’s childhood, her experiences with family, and her professional life as a philosopher. The book mentions Piper’s career as an artist, but it is not primarily about this aspect of her work. Rather, the memoir focuses on Piper’s loving relationship with her parents and extended family, how she came to have awareness of the world, the ways in which “the American caste system, based on the imagined binary opposition between ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘races’” affected Piper’s family and Piper herself—particularly through her father’s abandonment by his own white father—and the ways in which Piper’s experience of familial love and societal corruption played out in her work as a professor of analytic philosophy, a field from which she would eventually need, as the title suggests, to escape.[12]

Piper describes a dangerous “dissociation of theory from practice” in contemporary analytic philosophy and throughout the academy, the reign of the “popular rule derived from Socrates’ [sic] execution.”[13] Her adviser, the moral and political philosopher John Rawls, was supportive only when it was convenient for him to be so and, as Piper maintains, effectively wrote her out of the canon by neglecting to cite her work in his own. Others were devious and competitive, when not openly racist and sexist: There is, and this is a beautiful string of descriptors, the “most subterranean, efficient, and easily angered among [Piper’s] colleagues,” who at her first job contrived to create a climate that made it impossible for Piper to receive tenure.[14] I’m giving just one example, but what is clear in this account is the hostility of the academy in general to those who are not male and white and who speak their minds, as well as the particularly closed and conformist nature of the field of philosophy. These are not new complaints, but what is unusual is to see someone lay out the sequence of events in such detail, how it is possible to progress from the happy moment at which one is a desirable prospective graduate student, courted by faculty, to the state of being a threat and serious inconvenience, in spite of, or perhaps because of, one’s achievements. As we have recently seen powerful tenured academics publicly attribute “malicious” intent to a student, it is quite illuminating to see an individual with tenure—who was in theory in a protected position in the academy—describe an environment in which viciousness and paranoia reign, to the detriment of thoughtful pedagogy.[15] And, in this case, it is Piper’s description—which is to say, a description offered by someone whose embrace of the Socratic imperative to align theory and practice, word and deed, means and ends, has given her not just a logical rationale to protest but a professional obligation to do so.

A metaphorical image appears throughout the account, of “a sprout, a tiny sapling slowly and laboriously pushing its way above ground and emerging into the air.” For Piper, this sprout is an analogy for “the self you really are.”[16] Now a doctor of comparative literature and definitely not an analytic philosopher, I find it striking, for literary reasons, that this sounds a lot like a central metaphor of Platonic and Aristotelian poetics, in which personal action (including artistic creation) is thought through using the coming-into-being of nature as a model. Presumably, this sprout also has to do with Kant’s epigenetic conception of pure reason, in which innate mental capacities, Erkenntnisvermögen, or “faculties of cognition,” synthesize external experiential data, along with representational processes that are fundamentally prior to experience. However, and perhaps most importantly, the image of this sprout is a place in Piper’s writing in which her “three hats” come together for a moment, and we can understand the larger project; the kind of self and cultivation of self that is at stake.

Commentators have been perplexed by Piper’s narrative of her clashes with philosophy departments and with Wellesley College, in particular.[17] Can it be true that a smallish women’s liberal arts institution aggressively attacked an artist and scholar of Piper’s standing, who—and this is perhaps the kicker—stands for the sorts of values of inclusion, reasoned critique, and historical reflection that the college is presumably desirous of fostering? Can it be accurate that Piper’s complaints feel only vaguely substantiated (as Piper maintains, she was able to fully identify and address many harmful actions only years after the fact)? Is it reasonable for Piper to have left the United States, to have claimed she did so under mortal threat?[18] And, why didn’t she come to the opening of her own show? Is there not something missing here, some part of the story withheld from us, some simple written fact or other piece of evidence that might drop from the sky to clarify what has gone on? Yet it is also the case that Piper’s protest does not begin with Escape to Berlin or the opening of “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Piper has been writing about these matters for years.[19] The renewed exploration of the truth status of her claims in Escape to Berlin feels like an extension of considerations that have long been a feature of critics’ and others’ responses: We are not analytic philosophers; can we “trust” Piper’s philosophical texts? We are not appreciators of art (in fact, we are analytic philosophers); can we “trust” Piper’s celebrated art? And there is the matter of art criticism itself: can critics be trusted not to misrepresent Piper’s work? And, conversely, can critics trust Piper not to dismantle their assertions in public, or, rather, trust that she will do exactly that?[20]

TO RETURN TO THAT past version of me, the one who was walking backward through “A Synthesis of Intuitions” on a Tuesday afternoon in May of 2018, I reflected that the present now frequently takes the form of an online survey or option to “like” or re-blog some chad of content, and Piper’s long-standing practice of employing, altering, and criticizing news media in her work feels particularly compelling and relevant. I considered the “Vanilla Nightmares” series of the late 1980s, in which Piper annotated the New York Times with muscular dark-skinned figures, some of whom are equipped with sleek erect penises, along with the ambiguous Mythic Being’s meme-like iteration in the early 1970s as a series of ads in the Village Voice. These works speak to the state of media in our time, and, notably, to the isolating condition of digitally born “bubbles” of sentiment and resentment, under the discursive regime of which we now suffer. Piper’s works from her 1990s “Corridor of Pain” identify a hunger for sameness, depicting how the insecurity of white identity expresses itself through a combination of spectacular pity and fear, alongside tacit acquiescence to the ongoing reproduction of a discriminatory system. The “Vanilla Nightmares” series, just previous to this period, suggests that blank passages in newspaper advertisements and fields of article text are surfaces onto which readers project illusory images generated by racist anxiety and desire. Piper’s illustrations make these fantasies visible—revealing the New York Times as a locus of violent, divisive, and irrational feeling, in spite of its ambition to deal in fairness and trustworthy information. Meanwhile, the Mythic Being is a means of inserting a complex persona—a face and accompanying speech bubble that inspire sustained and careful examination—into the everyday circulatory space of an advertising section. Rescuing text and images of the public sphere of the news from a fate as mere representations, Piper turns them into sites for action, discursively “reflective” surfaces that can’t be fully stabilized, stilled, or assimilated to preexisting categories.

“A Synthesis of Intuitions” asks what role the faculty of reason has to play in an increasingly, if you will forgive the clichés, mediated and automated world: what are we doing with our capacity to represent, and what is it that our representations do? If soon it will be possible to employ artificial intelligence to counterfeit a unique voice, appearance, movement, email style, and so forth, what will it mean for us to consistently or believably “be ourselves,” and what sorts of expressions of identity will come to challenge algorithmic sorting and machine learning, among other increasingly pervasive acts of choice and mimicry accomplished on our behalf by software?

One answer to these questions is to be found in Piper’s emphasis in her philosophy on the crucial importance of transpersonal rationality, the exercise of reason with the presupposition of the rational capacity of others, along with the conviction that the flourishing of others’ reason, their logical perspicacity and ability to argue, is fundamental to one’s own flourishing. Transpersonal rationality renders disingenuous manipulation of others undesirable, from both objective and subjective points of view, as one’s own ability to exercise reason is dependent on the existence of undeceived others who seek to do the same.

Yet what are we to make of the apparently disingenuous Mythic Being, a male version of Piper in Afro wig and mustache, accessorized with mirrored sunglasses and cigarillo, who appeared as both a performance persona and in a series of images? The Mythic Being was, on the one hand, a disguise and, on the other, a tool for exploring interpersonal perception and behavior, along with the functioning of categories related to identity. Though a work of mimicry, the perfection of the Mythic Being’s drag/counterfeit was curiously limited by Piper’s use of passages from her childhood diary to supply much of his language, which appears most often as speech bubbles drawn on photographs. In one filmed performance from 1973, the Mythic Being strolls down a Manhattan street while reciting a fastidious mantra: “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying crackers, cookies, and things, she does anyway and says they’re for her, even if I always eat them, so I’ve decided to fast.”[21] Though it’s not clear to me what phrases would be properly congruent with the Mythic Being’s appearance, this sentence about aggressive self-control in relation to a solicitous mother seems stereotypically girlish to me. Thus, I don’t think that the point of the Mythic Being was to fool people into thinking that they were seeing a man, at least, not exclusively—I think that the point was to create an entity that did not physically resemble Piper but had Piper’s history, “an alternative of myself,” as Piper explains in her preparatory notes for the project. “A mythic being is timeless with reference to the actual history of the world. His own narrated personal history is either prior to the history of the world or unspecified in relation to that history,” she writes.[22]

In another image series, of 1974, The Mythic Being: I/You (Her), his characteristics progressively take over a photograph of Piper with a female friend from school who had betrayed Piper by secretly dating Piper’s boyfriend. Here the Mythic Being delivers an account of Piper’s pain at her friend’s deception and offers a warning: not to expect emotional closeness or mutual acknowledgment, that Piper will no longer be subject to this young woman’s predations. By 1975, the Mythic Being had become “a static emblem of alien confrontation . . . the personification of our subliminal hatreds and dissatisfactions,” present not just in Manhattan or in print, but also making embodied appearances in Harvard Square, sometimes to cruise white women and sometimes to mug Piper’s white male friend.[23] “I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear” reads his speech bubble in The Mythic Being: I Embody (1975).

THE VERSION OF me who was walking backward through the MoMA show in May 2018, and who therefore saw the 1975 Mythic Being image before the images from 1974 or 1973, had the experience of gazing at the full metamorphosis before the early stages. However, even before this, I saw the Mythic Being’s farewell tour, the vestiges of his visage in the form of a pencil mustache and sunglasses on Piper’s face made up in white makeup, 1975–76, when she performed Some Reflective Surfaces at the Whitney Museum. Some Reflective Surfaces was an exploration of her work as a go-go dancer and seems to have been the Mythic Being’s last public appearance, although by this time he was already a shadow of his former self. The Mythic Being was shifting, contingent; in other words, he was not the static image of a man, not a counterfeit person or false identity, but rather (“being”) a real verb.


Date: December 1, 2018

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, December 2018.


Video still.


Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, 2012, digital image, dimensions variable.


The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, 1975, oil crayon on gelatin silver print, 8 by 10 inches.

    1. The title of this essay refers to Facebook’s multiple-choice “Trust Survey,” released in January 2018, which consists of just two questions: “Do you recognize the following websites?” (Yes, No) and “How much do you trust each of these domains?” (Entirely, A lot, Somewhat, Barely, Not at all). This poll used respondents’ reactions to determine newsfeed rankings for publishers, effectively reducing traffic from Facebook to news publishers, overall, given the tendency of all news publishers to be untrustworthy in the eyes of some readers.
    1. Adrian Piper’s website features descriptive texts about most of her artworks, including Adrian Moves to Berlin,
    1. Adrian Piper quoted in Christophe Cherix, “Who Calls the Tune?,” in Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, p. 16.
    1. See Adrian Piper, “On Wearing Three Hats,” 1996, In this essay/interview she gives an account of the reception of her work in philosophy by her colleagues in the visual arts, many of whom reason that “since they are generally well-read and intelligent individuals, and since philosophy is a discursive discipline (rather than technical and symbolic like mathematics or physics), they should be able to grasp a specialized philosophical argument or text simply by reading it carefully. Given the turgid impenetrability of the deconstructionist texts in art theory they are expected to master, this is not an unrealistic expectation. But when they approach my work in philosophy with this attitude and discover that it is not that easy, they often react antagonistically or disparagingly, or simply withdraw.”
    1. The paradigmatic quotation of Wittgenstein is taken from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 4.0031. For one example of this philosopher as fantasy object for later twentieth-century art, see the telling title of David Markson’s 1988, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. An exception to the trend of bifurcation of analytic work and visual art are neo-Kantian efforts in the UK, in part influenced by the work of Art and Language, a Conceptual art collective in turn influenced by the natural language philosophy of Wittgenstein and other British practitioners.
    1. For a convincing account of links between Piper’s work as a philosopher and as a visual artist, see Diarmuid Costello’s “Xenophobia, Stereotypes and Empirical Acculturation: Neo-Kantianism in Adrian Piper’s Performative Conceptual Art,” in Adrian Piper: A Reader, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, pp. 166–215.
    1. Adrian Piper, Rationality and the Structure of the Self. Volume 1: The Humean Conception, Berlin, APRA Foundation, 2013, p. 1.
    1. Ibid., p. 9.
    1. For an account of the development and self-publication of this book, see Robert Del Principe, Adrian Piper Interview: Rationality and the Structure of Self, 2007–10, video interview, See also Lauren O’Neill-Butler, “Adrian Piper Speaks! (for Herself),” New York Times, July 5, 2018. Here Piper maintains that after she was asked to cut one hundred pages from the text, she withdrew it from consideration by Cambridge University Press.
    1. Cornelia Butler and David Platzker, “Adrian Piper: Reading the Work,” in Adrian Piper: A Reader, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, p. 7.
    1. Piper says that her writings on meta-art “focus on the presuppositions and conditions of particular works I did that I needed to explicate in order to clarify what I was doing and why, at times when the preoccupations of contemporary art criticism offered no fertile insights.” Adrian Piper, “Introduction: Some Very FORWARD Remarks,” Out of Order, Out of Sight, Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968–1992, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1999, p. xxix.
    1. Adrian Piper, Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, Berlin, APRA Foundation, 2018, p. 233.
    1. Ibid., pp. 127, 99.
    1. Ibid., p. 115.
    1. I cite a now infamous letter written in support of Avital Ronell, a professor of comparative literature, in May 2018. When Ronell was accused of sexual harassment, a number of colleagues came to her defense, claiming privileged knowledge that “malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare,” in spite of the fact that “we have no access to the confidential dossier,” which described the charges. See:
    1. Piper, Escape to Berlin, p. 9.
    1. Thomas Chatterton Williams meditates on Piper’s accounts in “Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA Is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?,” New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2018.
    1. Piper writes in Escape to Berlin, “I knew in my gut (The College) wanted me dead. . . . I still think The College wants me dead; that it will want this even more once this memoir is published; and that, with its powerful international political and corporate connections, it will find a way to make this happen. I believe it will feel once again compelled to make an example of me, as a warning to others to keep their mouths shut,” pp. 223–225.
    1. See, for example, “On Wearing Three Hats,” which includes a detailed account of harassment she experienced in academia.
    1. See, for example, Adrian Piper, “Art Criticism Essay Suggested Guidelines,” 2016,
    1. Piper writes that she was never revealed to be a woman during the course of her performance as the Mythic Being. It was also a scenario in which she was, as she maintains, unable to pass as white. Thus, she experienced constraints related to racism but the liberty of being male. See Piper, “Notes on the Mythic Being I–III,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, pp. 116–139.
    1. Adrian Piper, “Preparatory Notes for The Mythic Being,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, p. 109.
    1. Piper, “Notes on the Mythic Being I–III,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, p. 138.
After the Afterlife of Theory


WHEN IT COMES TO THEORY, my own reading habits might encompass something as specific as “literary theory,” or “critical theory,” or, perhaps, to make things awkward through excessive specificity, “French theory,” but usually I just say (and think) I like to read theory. “I’m reading theory.” I also think: I am reading this for pleasure and in order to attempt to understand the world. I’m reading this to have better ideas, to be more alert, to—and this part is key—comprehend the invisible machinations of the system—a paranoid thought, but one which I’m not too proud to admit I’ve, more than once, had.

I learned about theory in college, where I also met someone whose parents had explained Lacanian psychoanalysis to him when he was thirteen, a fact that impressed me no end. For me, however, there was a clear demarcation, a dividing line. There was the time before theory, and there was the time after it. In high school, I had read Hannah Arendt; now I read all the names: the two D’s, the two L’s, gentle B, obtuse K, worrisome A, their predecessors H and N, and, above all, F—F with his masterful sentences. Indeed, these names were like swear words, like drugs, like magnetized tokens in a game played by mildly sadistic immortals. This had nothing to do with literature (which I studied). This was where all of the secrets concerning human culture lay. Once I began to read I couldn’t stop, for the simple reason that I had to find out—by which I mean, what had happened.

Part of me also assumed, because I was nineteen and a college sophomore, that this was a sophomoric phase. I would soon get over theory, and so would everyone else. In this I was, as everyone knows, wrong. Anyway, I’m talking about the early aughts here, by which time (and by all rights) theory should have been, and even was, definitively over. Except that it wasn’t. I could barely wrap my mind around the notion that I hadn’t even been alive during theory’s American heyday, the 1970s, so relevant and necessary did theory seem to me.

Theory was becoming then what it is now. Or, it already was what it now is: something that people write and read, and also a kind of ectoplasm or mood, revelatory and/or offensive and/or self-indulgent. Some have gone so far as to characterize Bill Clinton’s 1998 musings on the significance of the copula (“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”) as directly derived from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. There is the longstanding charge of pernicious cultural and moral relativism, probably more correctly understood as narrative relativism—in other words, the practice of treating any form of discourse, knowledge, or information as a kind of constructed narrative. We’re familiar enough with this line of complaint that I won’t rehearse it here.

What I do think is worth adding to the list of theory’s cultural effects is a general deskilling related to the task of criticism, literary criticism in particular. In the extended afterlife of theory, in and around the American academy, it has become common to favor accessibility in critical thought, along with conceptual keywords, whose valence is either usefully transdisciplinary or a little vague, depending on whom you ask and, sometimes, when. In the United States, theory has become a utopian experiment and experience: it exists alongside increasingly historicist literary studies as a site of mixture and reprieve; it promises, for example, to help literary scholars moonlight as media theorists and art historians, while reminding them to consider the horrors of colonialism and the errors of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, it makes the rounds online, on social media, in popular music, in art world press releases, and in the New York Times, decontextualized and meme-like, sometimes the stuff of conspiracy and outrage and at others the balm of empathy.

Through theory we seem to tarry briefly with the notion of history; at least, this is my opinion. I happen to think that part of the reason for theory’s dramatic success in America is its ability to confirm the existence of history, particularly as a construction that is also, and significantly, real. Theory is not, as some have suggested, post-historical; it expressly addresses the existence of past times and events, though it is not always concerned with historiographic gestures, such as naming and narrating. A more interesting kind of question to ask about theory might be, “How is theory historiographic, i.e., a form for writing history?” Related is another common “how” question: How is theory political?

Given that remarks regarding the post-political nature of the contemporary era—as a time so epistemologically balkanized that debate and compromise are impossible (a style of description itself derived from dear F)—are increasingly widespread, one might well be curious about what aspects of theory tend to accord with a movement away from the possibility of politics, and which tend to resist the shrinking of the public sphere. I can’t, for reasons of time as well as ability, describe all of these tensions, important though they are. Instead, I’ve decided to focus on a certain potted history, which even in its limited scope has something to offer. I think it’s worth thinking about the relationship between institutions and criticism. Or, to refashion my earlier phrase about politics, the possibility of a generative relationship between academic institutions and public conversation.

The Micro Durée

Anyway, everyone knows where theory comes from. It comes from France. It traveled to the United States at some point in the mid 1960s, metamorphosing into something called postmodernism, which might or might not have already begun coming into being directly after the war, even before theory got here.

I joke, but my serious explanation is not much better. The intellectual historian François Cusset has written a fantastic book about this, and most of my knowledge comes from him, along with gleanings derived from the classwork I did as a part of my doctorate. There’s something about the high school-college divide that allegorizes this process of importation, too. So, Camus and Sartre are the starter texts; the world-weary teen absorbs existentialist disillusionment before moving on to purer anti-humanist heights with an excerpt from The Order of Things in a freshman survey of the history of the West.

Or, as it went with the French intellectuals, 1940–45 saw the arrival of surrealists, existentialists, and the work of Annales School historians on American shores. This varied avant-garde, with its taste for rich general interest writing and weird art, may have given some signal of what was to come. Then, in fall of 1966, at a Ford Foundation-funded conference at Johns Hopkins titled “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Paul de Man met in person for the first time; Roland Barthes delivered a superb talk, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”; and Derrida described “a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin.” Some American Marxists found the affair decadent and apolitical, while local literary critics, who largely ignored the English translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist apotheosis, La pensée sauvage, which had appeared that very year, fast-forwarded into poststructuralism without so much as a backward glance at Ferdinand de Saussure.

If the enthusiastic Americans, with their grants and soft power, had read Lévi-Strauss’s book, originally published in 1962, they would have seen his then-unusual claim within the context of the humanities that “the final goal of the human sciences is not to constitute man, but to dissolve him.” This might have given a different political valence to the language of criticism disseminated at Johns Hopkins, for the thoroughgoing dependence on the linguistic theory of Saussure—a nineteenth-century Swiss linguist who maintained that regularities exist in language only by reference to internal, structural differences in the language itself—might have been more readily apparent. Saussure sought not laws but relations of differences; his descriptions were influential not only for Lévi-Strauss but for Lacan’s revolutionary description of the unconscious, as well as Derrida’s discussion of the instability of meaning. I don’t mean to imply that there was some naïve adoption of infernal, anti-humanist values here, just a year after Ken Kesey’s first Acid Test, but rather that America was home to many formalist critics, who rapidly became structuralists and poststructuralists, particularly once the 1970s rolled around and the early days of neoliberalism in the university got under way.

Indeed, the difference between formalism and structuralism is worth pausing on for a moment, because the former had become the pride of modernist literary studies in the United States and was only somewhat awkwardly supplanted by the latter (a graft that haunts English departments to this day). New Criticism privileged knowledge of language and its function, but not to dismantle the assumptions held by elites. Rather, after the G.I. Bill of Rights, the New Critics had explicitly designed their poetics to be both accessible and constructive. They offered a literary history and a system of values stripped of classical allusion and baroque allegory in the service of transmission to all. New Criticism had little to say about history, but not because its adherents suspected the constructed-ness of fact and philology. John Crowe Ransom, et al. seemed to have doubted historical memory and political thought as inherently divisive and held high hopes for the redemptive power literature’s special formal affordances might bring to their nation. However, the innovative political speech found on 1960s campuses revealed the New Criticism’s excessively mannered indifference to the politics of reading and writing, which began to seem a toolkit of idealist devices for the repression of history.

In the liberal academy, theory could do something more: it could critique disciplinary boundaries and propose new terms for dialogue. Having borrowed from the spirit of the Annales School, a movement that had coalesced around the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale and which considered long-term social histories as well as nonacademic information, theory reflected on everyday life and questioned hierarchies of knowledge. The articles published by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, though serious works of historical analysis, were at the same time pithy, relatively free of footnotes, and legible to non-specialists. It was in this singular journal, for example, that Lucie Varga published her 1937 ethnography of National Socialism, a prescient document that was also unusual for its combination of rigorous method and elucidation of contemporary politics. Systematic philosophical reflection on the role of history and the humanities in general, as distinct from the sciences, had been underway since the polymathic Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) strove to describe the division of the faculties of the German university, and it was to these questions that a thinker like Michel Foucault, partly influenced by his teacher Georges Canguilhem, turned his attention.

If the Annales had demonstrated the political worth of a literary approach to history that validated all possible sources, Foucault expanded this initiative, treating not just the historical text but also the scientific text as a text like any other, in a supreme act of narrative relativism that sought to show how scientific knowledge might be contingent upon conceptual elaboration. This sort of critical cross-research is of course also relevant to Roland Barthes’s intermedial readings—which propose a transdisciplinary rhetoric permitting images and other apparently non-linguistic items and processes to be systematically interpreted as text—along with the work of many other poststructuralist thinkers, who rejected philological approaches along with other forms of disciplinary silo-ing in favor of methodologies claiming forms of critical authority applicable beyond the halls of academe. These methodological choices are related to an ongoing turn from from rhetoric and philology in contemporary literary studies—what might be termed either a long process of deskilling or a search for new units of analysis and keywords, or, more complexly, both at once.

Thus, for all we have heard of theory’s much-alleged impenetrability, it seems always to have been involved with the category of the everyday, if not with popular culture itself. Thus it could permit American adopters to gesture toward the context of the society of which they were members without speaking about history or politics in so many words, and this quality of its critical voice proved extremely powerful. It was made for the American campus of the 1970s, which, while still galvanized by the insurgent rhetoric of the 1960s, was at the same time rapidly becoming a space of bureaucratic commerce, as graduate studies grew at a faster rate than the rest of the university and the humanities began to falter and lose funding. Literature departments, activated in progressive quarters by an ongoing golden age of experimental writing (Beats et al.) and elsewhere hoping to make good on the New Critical promise of a pure and universalist literary value, seized the moment—and the moment was Deconstruction.

In 1976 Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Of Grammatology appeared; it gradually defined the moment and, according to Cusset, went on to sell some eighty thousand copies. In the text, Derrida proposes studying the ideological underpinnings of Western society through what he identifies as philosophers’ systematic denigration of knowledge’s articulation as embodied writing—rather than simply as idealized speech. This was a challenging science to grasp but, once you got it, broadly useful and a lot of fun. This critical approach permitted a playful relationship to power; it represented an entry into an adventure, a detective story. Though it spawned a million imitators, adherents, and cottage industries, and was perhaps destined to seem ridiculous due to its ornate performativity, theory went everywhere. In a post–Civil Rights Movement era, it seemed to offer the possibility of education without indoctrination, displacing political struggles onto the terrain of discourse and increasing the prestige and relevance of the literary text. It laughed silently in the face of the American “simple man” and patriot; it circulated freely in the social bubbles of prestigious campuses, in seminars, and even got into the sciences and the art world.

As time went on, it was lampooned by detractors like Alan Sokal, who in 1996 successfully published a dummy article in Social Text lampooning what he saw as deconstructive jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” (A professor of mathematics and physics, Sokal boasted serious hard-science cred that made the stunt hard to ignore.) The New York Times reported on “Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly,” somewhat glibly terming Social Text a “journal that helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural studies.” NPR did an interview. There were numerous rancorous transatlantic exchanges.

But theory went on. And on. And on and on.

They Go Low, You Go High Twaddle

And now, approaching the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are here. We still have theory. We also have the Internet, as well as various entities on the right who, perhaps taking inspiration from Benito Mussolini as much as Michel Foucault, have explored narrative relativism as well. (“From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fiction, the modern relativism infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable,” maintained Il Duce.) Though I don’t want to bore anyone with elaborate parsings of supposed instrumentalization of the writings of Foucault by members of Steve Bannon’s staff, or libertarian tech mogul Peter Thiel’s affection for René Girard’s theory of mimesis, one has to admit that there is an interesting relationship between postmodern apocalypticism and managerial rationality.

While I don’t necessarily believe that the relativism that pervades contemporary discourse, from Poe’s Law down (or up, depending on where you stand), has a causal relationship with the series of figures and writings that constitute theory, as such, there is cause to examine the correlation here. Certainly, given the things that get into movies, you’ve probably at least once or twice imagined a technocratic dictator reverse-engineering Discipline and Punish, but have you imagined an online retailer reverse-engineering Foucault’s late theory of biopolitics? If not, you may not have to! By way of which cryptic joke I want to mention that the French have long been aware of the possibility of a good reader of theory making reactionary administrative moves. See the case of Foucault’s mentee and literary executor, François Ewald, whose entrepreneurial interpretations of his master’s teachings led him to write a dissertation on social risk and the welfare state, which was followed by a successful career in the insurance industry and then various interventions into politics with the ends of reforming the French system by getting rid of cradle-to-grave entitlements. I doubt that, though Ewald credits Foucault with having introduced him to the notion that we are living in a “postrevolutionary” age, Ewald’s politics are entirely entailed by those of his teacher.

Indeed, this is my point. Theory has begun, more and more, to look like an allegedly value-agnostic way of thinking through the circulation of power and the formation of value—which is to say that it looks vaguely formal and vaguely cybernetic and like a lot of other contemporary communication styles in their relationship to contemporary bureaucracy. Certainly, the art gallery press release, one of the prime sites at which the keywords of theory are offered up to contemporary readers anew, epitomizes this trend: a given artist explores and reveals our preconceptions, suggesting that what we thought was the case, a veritable truth, is in fact a context-dependent construction designed to shelter us from an inconvenient view into history and the horrors and disparities of contemporary social life. I mean, I don’t believe that this sort of description is inaccurate. It’s fair to make such claims. This is indeed what a lot of contemporary art does, and I myself have from time to time described it in exactly these sorts of terms and without irony.

But popular culture’s lack of resistance to the circulation of theory tends to publicly obscure something that is happening to the humanities in general, and to literary studies, in particular. These entities are, I’m afraid, failing again. If there is a forty-year cycle on which American academic literary criticism tends to renew itself, we were due for a new installment in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when Sianne Ngai’s glorious work of Marxian affect-theory, Ugly Feelings, a description of neoliberalism’s cruel shaping of contemporary emotion and social experience, might have changed the debate had just a few more members of the old guard gotten onboard. Or, perhaps we would have been successfully carried away by Franco Moretti’s quantification of the novel (alas, everyone has remained quite unconvinced!). Thus, we are left in a situation in which questions like “What is literature for?” and “How do we read literature?” are being most aggressively answered by recent works of autofiction and the lyric essay—not a bad thing in itself, but, then, people are still getting undergraduate educations, and this, I fear, is where the problem lies.

Until recently, I had a contingent position at a private college where a number of my undergraduate students had either been homeless or faced homelessness, and almost all were going into staggering amounts of debt. Many were involved in gig work; some were sex workers. While no one found this particularly sensational, it being New York City, I was confronted by my inability to do anything other than reassure these teenagers (for this is what they were) that they would persevere in spite of the enormous setbacks they were accruing by choosing to get college educations in literary studies at a private institution in the nation’s most expensive city.

I was participating in this doubtful project as recently as November of 2017, at which time the novelist and retired professor of writing, Marilynne Robinson, published two strange articles in The New York Review of Books: “What Are We Doing Here?” and “Year One: Rhetoric and Responsibility.” (The former furnishes the title for her recent essay collection). I’m still not entirely sure what she was getting at in these two wide-ranging essays on writing and American pedagogy, but I was particularly struck by what she had to say about why individuals should get educations in the humanities and why, pursuantly, people should continue to provide said education. Robinson writes, “If I seem to have conceded an important point in saying that the humanities do not prepare ideal helots, economically speaking, I do not at all mean to imply that they are less than ideal for preparing capable citizens, imaginative . . . and largely unmonetizable.” I think, without indulging in a deeper exploration of the metaphorical “helots” (i.e. an enslaved caste in ancient Sparta), the general sentiment here is that an education in the humanities makes one independent and that is good for the nation. So, for Robinson, the humanities are good, but something she refers to as “higher twaddle” or “post-deconstructionism” (another name for the contemporary era, I think) is bad. High-twaddling post-deconstructionism is particularly bad, as Robinson contends, because “we have grave public issues to debate.” I think I almost stood up and cheered with sardonic glee when I first read this.

Robinson is, of course, far from the first to use these late mid-century trends in continental theory to explain why American undergraduates aren’t getting the inexpensive pragmatic educations in the humanities they deserve. Indeed, she’s pretty late to this party. But it is telling to see this notion arise again here, around the question of what is due to an undergraduate who wants to study art rather than, as Sokal wisely framed it, what is due in a peer-reviewed journal. It suggests someone deeply out of touch with the state of contemporary discourse in general and upsettingly in the humanities particularly, in that she has no idea where theory currently makes its living—which is hardly in undergraduate curricula.

To test that theory out, I decided to ask my students at the private college (some seniors) if they knew who Jacques Derrida was.

They, to a person, did not.

The thoughts that have accrued here, about the joys and strangeness of theory, are, therefore, dedicated to them. For they are, as students have always been, the ones who will determine whether academic institutions can contribute anything to the public conversation. This has nothing to do with whether students are “well educated,” meeting standards, or acing tests (or whether they know anything about Derrida, for that matter). Rather, it is about whether they have the tools and material support they need to see connections between their studies and the world, a cliché but not less true for that. Theory clearly continues to play a role in various political and intellectual networks outside the university; perhaps it’s useful for undergrads, too. While I remain a bit agnostic on the “Theory, Ruining Everything or Not?” issue, there are two points on which I am clear: 1., it is a mistake to think that you can replace theory’s strong descriptions of colonialism and late capitalism with vague allusions to said descriptions; and 2., the cost of a B.A. is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism, narrative or otherwise.


Date: May 1, 2018

Publisher: The Baffler

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of The Baffler, May 2018, issue 39, "The Organization of Hatreds."


© Brandon Celi


© Brandon Celi

Visionary Cybernetics

An exhibition of the work of the late Madeline Gins reveals an artist, architect and poet who pushed language into intensely imaginative and speculative realms

In the spring of 1969, the poet and artist Madeline Gins, then in her late 20s, joined a collaborative effort to make artworks and writing on the streets of Manhattan. With John Giorno, Lucy Lippard, Adrian Piper and Hannah Weiner, among others, she contributed to the final issue of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s legendary magazine 0 to 9, which took the form of a supplement titled Street Works. Gins’s submission was a ‘group novel’ for which she asked the reader to ‘Please finish these sentences and return this paper,’ with the ultimate goal of creating ‘a group novel, an historical novel, an exploration of the nature of consciousness’. Also included in Street Works were photographs by Gins and her husband and collaborator, the painter Shusaku Arakawa, of a stylized house floor plan, laid out on a plastic sheet that could be unfolded on the sidewalk. This floor plan also appears in the endpapers of Gins’s first book, WORD RAIN: Or, a Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says (1969), suggesting a connection between the exploration undertaken in Street Works and WORD RAIN’s ecstatic experimental prose.

If you don’t already know who Gins is, the above may sound somewhat academic. It’s another account of fascinating, if minor, permutations in the history of conceptualism in the US, adding some small complexity to the narrative surrounding the anti-lyric poetry of Acconci, along with that of the likes of Dan Graham and Douglas Huebler. Gins was barely better known in US poetry circles than she was in the realms of contemporary art, and her brilliant reimaginings of the American novel and poem have largely been ignored. WORD RAIN – one of the most important works of experimental prose of the later 20th century – is at once refreshingly and depressingly spared academic commentary. Gins’s books are out of print and she has few champions. Though this spring’s ‘Eternal Gradient’ – an exhibition at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery – revisits collaborative sketches by Arakawa and Gins from the 1980s and, though Arakawa is now represented by Gagosian Gallery, Gins herself is not widely noted or remembered.

The reasons for this amnesia are manifold. It’s pointless to linger on the obvious: Gins was female, straight and seems to have taken the exigencies of marriage fairly seriously. Secondly, many histories of poetry’s relationship with conceptualism have tended to focus on the static materiality of language, to the detriment of descriptions of interactivity. Though there are exceptions, conceptualism’s role as critical capstone to trajectories of US art, including modernism and minimalism, has entailed the reduction of language to ‘a kind of object’, as critic Liz Kotz has written. Accounts of language-based conceptualism emphasizing what the artist Roy Ascott, in his 1966 essay ‘Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision’, termed ‘the field of behaviour’, are rarer.

Unlike the ‘group novels’ of Huebler and Andy Warhol, Gins’s project was not a site for the confession of secrets and gossip. It was concerned with getting the reader to act. Like Acconci’s poetry, which played with the instructive nature of writing and punctuation marks to explore their possibilities, or Graham’s Poem (1966), a schema and list of ‘materials’ for the creation of a poem, Gins’s early writing was self-reflexive but also did something more. In WORD RAIN, she directly engaged the cybernetic qualities of conceptualism by deploying sentences and prose fragments as means for holistic control of discourse, the human body and social relations, confusing the agency of the writer with that of the reader. This occurred in a manner that reflected Gins’s literary and transdisciplinary concerns, resulting in what might be termed a ‘visionary cybernetics’: her interest in systems and communication often went beyond descriptions of what is merely possible into intensely imaginative and speculative realms. Gins treated the slow dawning of the computer age as an incitement to produce art.

Throughout WORD RAIN, there are references to both the act of reading and the act of writing. But the speaker of the sentences is not quite the writer, nor is she quite the reader. ‘She’ is someone who exists in relation to words and who is aware of the possibility of reading as well as the possibility of writing. ‘She’ is aware of the possibility of sensing writing – whether looking at it, touching it, dwelling in it or even, at times, smelling or tasting it:

Read this with me, read that with me, read me with me, read objects (tables, toes, toads, tails, tin, trains, type, tears, throat) read write read right. This is still life. Only I write and read. If you’ve misplaced me on your own, bring me up again from off this page […] I give you this book for a present. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence.

Whereas much late-20th-century US experimental writing is myopically concerned with the linguistic turn (a recognition of the arbitrary and systematic nature of the shapes of letters, as well as the sounds and forms of words), Gins’s narration in WORD RAIN places unusual emphasis on the experience of being, simultaneously, a producer and receiver of writing. Experience – tactile, olfactory, temporal, visual, etc. – is folded into Gins’s sentences; the sentences, in turn, produce such experience, which must be (re)described in a sort of feedback loop. WORD RAIN might thus be a memoir of the present, of the very instant of writing, a sort of homeostatic temporality occasionally difficult to differentiate from a biochemical mix that includes the body of the reader/writer as well as the interface of the page.

WORD RAIN has no direct American literary antecedents. Though it superficially recalls various forms of stream-of-consciousness writing or Gertrude Stein’s bristling syntax, its strategies are specific to its phenomenological obsession with the reception of writing that occurs even, and especially, in the very midst of writing. This interest in what Gins describes as the flickering, oozing ‘Chaplinesque persistence of consciousness’, as recorded in and affected by the work of art, is not easily reconciled with modernism’s obsession with literary form and the dramatic upending of academic categories. Nor does Gins’s work dovetail neatly with postwar late-modernist and postmodern literary experimentation. One can’t quite group her with John Cage or Jackson Mac Low, who were so deeply concerned with chance operations and collage; Yoko Ono’s fluxus tasks are, meanwhile, more meticulous in their articulation. Though there are some resemblances between WORD RAIN’s complex sentences and those of poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer and Leslie Scalapino, perhaps the most convincing analogue is Gins’s friend, the poet Hannah Weiner. A cybernetically inclined writer and performer, Weiner has, of late, had her work translated from the page to the gallery, notably in a 2015 retrospective at Kunsthalle Zürich. In a piece titled ‘Transspace Communication’ (1969, written to accompany performances of her ‘Code Poems’), Weiner cogently observes: ‘The amount of information available has more than doubled since World War II. In the next ten years, it will double again. How do we deal with it?’ She continues: ‘At the moment, I am interested in exploring methods of communication through space; considering space as space fields or space solids; through great distances of space; through small distance, such as the space between the nucleus and the electrons of an atom; through distances not ordinarily related to the form of communication used.’

Weiner treats the poem as a tactical event, an act of communication that occurs ‘through great distances of space’. The ‘Code Poems’ themselves, which were published in 1982, contain lists of flag signals, typically used to transmit messages at sea. Her appropriation of maritime technology reimagines the flag hoist as a noisy, lyric gesture; previously precise code becomes the seed of a form of address that cannot be assigned a single interpretation. One excellent short poem, ‘CHW Pirates’, runs:

CDJ I was plundered by a pirate
CJF Describe the pirate
CJN She is armed
CJP How is she armed?
CJS She has long guns
CJW I have no long guns
BLD I am a complete wreck

Here, the colloquialism ‘to be an emotional wreck’ receives a rough etymological (and romantic) reading. This string of signals is to be imagined as performable – indeed, even potentially performed – as the poem is read. While Gins’s sentences in WORD RAIN are more concerned with the time of writing in domestic space, they make similar claims regarding the significance of spaces and technologies of communication and the ever-increasing amounts of information available. WORD RAIN’s sentences are complexes of signals that transmit and confuse sensation, allowing the reader to become an energetic receiver, an accumulator, a transformer – even and, most visionary of all, the avatar of the writer.

Given her somatic and cybernetic obsessions – trans-disciplinary concerns if ever there were such – it is additionally difficult to categorize Gins in a professional sense, whether as poet, writer or artist. Though she went on to include lineated poetry in her 1984 collection, What the President Will Say and Do!!, she returned to prose for 1994’s Helen Keller or Arakawa: a book that, like WORD RAIN, stretches the category of ‘novel’ in highly original directions. In each of these works, Gins blends keen observations about the activity of consciousness, language and syntax – as well as her own body and environment – with wry humour regarding the oddness of the very existence of meaning. As we see from the title of her second novel, Gins’s collaborative relationship with Arakawa became increasingly central to her work; poetry was a space in which she devoted herself to depicting the interrelationship of consciousness with physical and biochemical processes. Indeed, if readers of this piece know of Gins, it is likely that they know her through her collaboration with Arakawa. Together, they founded the Reversible Destiny Foundation and produced the well-known installation piece and publication series ‘The Mechanism of Meaning’ (1963–73/1978/1988/1997). Though Gins was a prescient thinker – who foresaw ways in which changes in popular media and technologies would collapse traditional disciplinary and social boundaries, transforming everyday life – her role at the centre of an architectural firm devoted to creating environments that were conceived to prevent inhabitants and visitors from dying has sometimes overshadowed her other achievements. Belief in the possibility of immortality seems hubristic, if not delusional, to many – even in the age of research and development companies such as Calico, who are actively seeking solutions to ‘combat ageing and associated diseases’.

Yet, Gins’s achievement as an experimental writer was enormous. Distinct from her artistic and architectural collaborations with Arakawa, her writings provide a vital terminological and metaphysical influence, particularly as they comment relentlessly upon acts of perception. It is not possible to state with certainty whether some or all of the words that appear in Arakawa’s paintings were contributed by Gins, but it makes sense to open the door to such an interpretation. WORD RAIN introduces notions about the interrelation between language and sensation that are taken up again in Helen Keller or Arakawa with new emphasis on the possibility of mapping experience by means other than hearing and sight. This transition – from exploring the interrelated acts of writing and reading in WORD RAIN to asserting how the world can be differently perceived and, therefore, inhabited, in Helen Keller or Arakawa – is key to Gins’s participation in the Reversible Destiny project, as well as to her earlier collaboration with Arakawa on ‘The Mechanism of Meaning’. Gins reimagined the English sentence to enact a way of perceiving the world that would challenge the perceiver, helping them to evade the enervating sensory and spatial habits of contemporary life. She saw the sentence as at once spatial, temporal and shot through with servers (i.e. words).

Madeline Gins (1941–2014) was born in New York, USA. ‘Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Eternal Gradient’ is on view at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, New York, until 16 June. Gins’s final work, Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator (2013), is on permanent view at Dover Street Market, New York.


Date: April 18, 2018

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the article.

This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title "Visionary Cybernetics."


Madeline Gins


Madeline Gins, Title page of WORD RAIN, 1969, Grossman Publishers, New York


Madeline Gins, What the President Will Say and Do!!, 1984, Station Hill Press, New York



I meet the artist, who does x, for a snack one afternoon. We have the kind of conversation it was more necessary to have previous to the existence of the Internet. We exchange general info about the world.

I am attempting to experience a feeling of warmth. It’s general, too. The artist who does x is commenting on the method by which thermostat fixtures have been incorporated into the bakery’s wall décor. She expresses amazement. Possibly she’s struggling.

I cannot remember if the artist who does x says that we should do this again. She offers a few tips for improved existence, evidently intending that I remember and deploy these in a eulogy, should I, at her expiration, have acquired sufficient cultural capital to merit a speaker’s invitation to the funeral.

In this fantasy, she is buried in state.

Why, I ask myself, are so many of the artist who does x’s thoughts about what will happen after one, or both, of us goes away? Why do I understand this so well?

It’s true I’ve been thinking about writing out a list of all my enemies, including brief descriptions of their unique powers and weaknesses. The artist who does x would not appear on this list—and is very unlikely to appear on any subsequent lists of this type—but her behavior suggests that she is concerned about the possibility of a public airing of such a document. For in her mind, she may well have made it. In this fantasy, she lives forever and suffers eternally under the tip of my poison pen. I see she wants to be ready, should it come to pass that my list is aired and she is at the top, number one, where permanent marker forms an escutcheon of loathing. Arrows point! Emphatic asterisks! Random flowers! Stars. “She is the worst!” my list might say.

And yet it doesn’t.

How can the artist who does x not know? How can she not tell that I have no intention of putting her on the list of “Folks I’d Like to KILL” today, next week, or ever, really? We’re just meeting at a mediocre bakery in Chelsea. I’m listening to her talk about her life.

It should, by the way, be obvious that I am not an artist. And it would be nice if everyone I know recognized this, yet no one does. I have the opposite problem of almost everybody in this industry. Everyone has been calling me a closet conceptualist and “mail artist” and performance artist of institutional critique and a post-Internet artworker since day one of my career in gallery admin, but really what I am is a person who, for various complex and private reasons, mainly feels comfortable with menial tasks and who is, meanwhile, of above-average intelligence. If these facts alone make me an artist then, fine, so be it, I am an artist, but I kindly request that somebody for once concede that this is probably not the case. I do not make art. I do not have a personal website. I do keep my desk neat, which some passersby term art. I use adjectives in email. I don’t own many clothes. I am tall and thin and speak softly.

I’m also significantly younger than the artist who does x, though I’ve already aged out of my current position at the gallery. Indeed, my current position is not a career and is not intended for individuals of my advanced age (31). Luckily, as I have no dependents or other prospects, I’m allowed to stay on. I’ve been told I save them the trouble of training a third intern. But since I’m the one who does said training and spends a great deal of her time emailing with, and identifying the clerical errors of, said interns, I’m not sure what this means. I like to think it means that I’ve been fully absorbed, that I’m irreplaceably part of the gallery’s vital human architecture, but I know that come the next financial crisis, the first pink slip, written haltingly out in shaky Japanese felt tip and not without tears, shall be mine.

In this sense, my friendship with the artist who does x, who is represented by the gallery, is either a piece of professional security with which I am padding my impending fall, or it is emotional labor the gallery farms out to me because it can reasonably be assumed that I am someone for whom a friendship with the artist who does x has its advantages.

I don’t love these alternatives.

Meanwhile, the artist who does x and I exit the bakery.

We’re done snacking.

She looks elated that we’ve made it out of confined quarters and are soon to be free of one another. I study this in her, along with her expensive hat. She has begun telling a story I realize, with a sharp slide into nausea, is inappropriately long given the impending leaving-taking, the timing of cross-walk signals, not to mention her already apparent wish to be out of my presence.

“Years ago,” begins the artist who does x, “I was working on a poster installation. It was during my minimal era when I was trying not to do anything, when I was trying not to make art, you know? I wanted to be something else, then. I wanted to be anything but an artist, and I was under the impression that if I did little enough, if I did barely enough, the world would just let me go. And maybe I was even a little angry about that possibility? Of being disposable? And so I had these posters, and they weren’t even of anything, they were these bad images I had taken of other posters, at the movies, or the hairdressers, for shows and things. But of course you know what I am talking about already, you know this was ‘Limelight,’ and actually when you look back this was what made me, not in that sense of some blue-chip fantasy of fame, but this was the time I did the thing that was me, that said me, more than anything before, that wasn’t an imitation of some hero of mine and wasn’t me attempting to do what I thought everyone else wanted and it only happened because I did it, and I was so angry at that time, and so fed up, and so, or so I thought, beyond anything at all, I was feeling, what was the point? However this was what I did and it worked so fucking well I was able to work for the rest of my life, which, as you know, I have. It’s a miracle. It’s so funny that it came out of this moment of truly intense self-loathing. I wonder if you can understand that. But the other night I was lying in bed at home, in my country home, it’s quite quiet there, you know, you can really hear things, and I have this skylight. It’s not directly above the bed, but I can see it, and I can see whatever light comes through, and I like to think about, well, what might be going on in the sky, and I thought about what might be located there because others have seen it, what could possibly be there just because others have seen it, you know? Others who have lain awake looking? Oh, it’s impossible, of course; of course there’s nothing. It’s just an idea I’m having and probably you’re late, Justine, yes? You need to get back? No? You have a minute? Well, I was lying there, looking at this sky I could not see, or thinking about actually looking at a kind of sky that does not exist, one that bears, in itself, all the insignificant marks, the ashes and the contrails, the frothy little wakes, the flecks and pits, from the looking, you know, all that looking that’s got to be so impure! And that’s what I’ve always been thinking about in my work, I realized, the way a thing looks because it’s been looked at, the way a place looks, how it’s changed—and that’s, you know, that’s what’s got me thinking about the sky. Is there anything else in the world that’s been, you know, so looked at?

“I didn’t want to get out of bed. It wasn’t that I wanted to go see the sky. I just wanted to be able to hold it in my mind, this idea, of this sky, this version of the sky—that there was something that was so obviously there, but that you couldn’t see—that I couldn’t see. It was, if you’ll forgive me saying this—I don’t know what this even means these days—it was like trust—not feeling it, you know, because actually I seldom feel it? But it was like the notion of trust, which has always been in my life if somewhat out of reach—and for me it is, and perhaps this is part of the problem if not the simple strangeness of it. Trust is like an image and I am forever trying to see it. I can feel the outlines of it, you know, really can feel imaginatively that there is such a thing as trust, that fixedness of it? But I can’t ever see it, at least, not in real life. Maybe I’ve dreamed about it? I’m not sure. Maybe I haven’t, probably not. I don’t think so. There are lots of worlds in my dreams, but not one of them ever contained trust. And so I think that is why, that must be why I so enjoy conversations with you, Justine. I think a lot of people might find you scary, because there is so much to risk, so much at stake for you, and not even because you really mean it. I imagine you don’t mean to risk so much. I feel a kind of responsibility toward you, and not one that I would really have sought out for myself, given the choice. But somehow we’ve just come to start meeting in this way, haven’t we? I remember when I saw you, that time we met, how terrifying that was. You really told me everything. And I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t trust in that way, because it should be beautiful, it could—”

The artist trails off. The light advising us as to the advisedness of crossing the street has transitioned between foreboding and denial, denial and continuous permission, perhaps ten times during the course of her speech. My face is tight. Probably I want to pee, but I have to make sure that she is done.

I have to let the artist who does x continue speaking because this is what she expects. She expects not only to say these things, but to have them absorbed as tidings of great value, which, in some universe they probably are, since what she means is that I clearly do not know how to act. And never will.

I calmly thank the artist. I begin to bid her farewell.

Anyway, she is right. I recall how an acquaintance, another toady of the gallery system, was recently sitting with me in an overpriced vegan deli, talking about how people don’t care about the artist who does x’s work.

“She’s obsessed with how uninterested people are in her work,” the toady was insisting. Then the toady was describing her own impending marriage to another toady also employed by the gallery system. They were plotting their escape. They would move to the countryside and start a nonprofit and cease to be toadies (except, of course, in memory). They would be moving shortly after the wedding, which would take place on the country estate of one of the toadies’ childless relatives, not a parent.

“She is very, very honest about it,” the toady was saying, of the artist who does x. “She’s just like everyone else, except she’s so totally honest. It’s amazing you can make a career out of that.”

It is true, I think, the artist who does x is honest.

And, as we are kissing the air in front of one another’s faces on the corner of 18th Street, I recall another meeting with the artist who does x, one which took place a year earlier, one which the artist herself clearly has not forgotten. During the course of this meeting, the artist who does x acknowledged that she was aware that I was in the midst of becoming divorced from someone I had married when I was in my early twenties, a thing not really done in these parts—the child marriage, I mean.

We were in a bar and restaurant, farther downtown. The artist who does x was comfortably ensconced on an upholstered item. I knew her less well, then.

“He wasn’t,” I remember telling her, “very nice to me.” I meant my former husband.

It was a euphemism.

I watched changes transpiring on the face of the artist who does x. If I had known the artist who does x better at this time, I would have known that the artist who does x was attempting to gauge the required amount of remorse. I did not know then that she is like a paid griever, a mourner for hire. She will exchange the favor of sadness with you, but you must offer something in return.

Because I am poor and essentially useless to the artist who does x’s career, what I had to give in this moment was information.

“He didn’t,” the artist who does x wanted to know, “hit you?”

I remember that time became slushy and dim. I looked at the artist who does x’s eyes, which were like two lacquered raisins, merciless and slightly too small for her face. I knew that if I said no, the artist who does x would turn away from me, and that this turning away would be for all time. I knew that the artist who does x did not wish to discuss with me the politics of domestic economies, various forms of entitlement. She was not interested in my identity or gender, any more than she was interested in the identity or gender of anyone else. These were mere representations, and representations were not her concern.

The artist who does x wanted to know what had happened. And I saw that in this moment she was giving me an out. She was letting me know that if I could demonstrate to her satisfaction that my current lamentable status in the world was not a predicament of my own devising, she would be willing to withhold at least 15% of the judgment she was otherwise planning to level in my direction.

Oh, how I wanted that 15% mercy. And oh how I wanted her to share a bit of sadness with me.

So I paid.


Date: March 2, 2018

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Web

Genre: Fiction

Link to the story.


A skylight.


On site.

Ersatz Panda



A woman frequents a certain store. In the store there is a small black cat with white markings. The cat is very round, the kind of cat that will expand concentrically when she (delicately) gains weight. Everything about the cat is small and round, from her round feet to her round eyes and small, round snout. Even her tail is perennially looped. The cat’s roundness is perhaps partially the reason for her name, Panda, which the woman learns from the owner of the store. Panda’s coloring is the inverse of panda coloring, white circles on black fur.

Panda discreetly guards the store and expands roundly over the course of a winter. The owner of the store tells the woman, when she asks, that Panda is not pregnant, merely gaining weight. The woman occasionally makes videos of Panda standing on boxes of dishwashing detergent, preening herself against the corners of a rack displaying sacks of circus peanuts. These videos are sent, via MMS, to friends.

A summer passes, another fall, and then, during the course of the second winter of acquaintance with Panda, something happens. The woman enters the store to discover, on the floor of the store near the cash register, a large black cat with a white face and a surprising, bright pink nose, like a nub of chewing gum. This cat’s black fur hangs in grayish clumps, as if he has on a coat of dust over his regular black coat. He lets out a braying meow.

Another customer advises the owner of the store that it would be better to put ‘your lion’ elsewhere.

The new cat resembles Panda in that they are both cats. He also resembles Panda in that he is a black cat with white markings. But he is not Panda.

The woman asks the owner of the store where Panda is.

The owner of the store tells the woman that someone ‘took’ her. He says that this cat was left in Panda’s place. He knows nothing about the reasons for this event.

For many weeks, the woman, now avoiding the store, ponders the disappearance and replacement of Panda. The woman tells the story, up to this point, to a few friends, some of whom are already familiar with Panda, due to the MMSs. One friend begins referring to the replacement cat, the large cat with a pink nose and clumps of ungroomed fur, as Ersatz Panda. Other friends do not comment on the story or refer to the incident. The one friend continues, from time to time, to refer to Ersatz Panda. The woman thinks that this may have something to do with the fact that he, like the woman, was born and raised in the city.

At a second store the woman has begun frequenting, due to the need not to frequent the first store and in so doing be confronted by Panda’s replacement, there is a large orange cat. It drapes itself across a counter and stares dreamily into the ceiling.

The woman asks the person at the second store about the orange cat. The orange cat is a girl. She is called KC, short for ‘Kitty Cat’, which is not her real name.

The woman begins telling the story of Panda, ending on the encounter with Ersatz Panda.

The person at the second store says that this is very strange. She says that KC does not in fact belong to the second store but has for a long time been visiting it. Then last summer, the person at the second store says, a man began coming into the store, pointing at KC and saying, ‘That’s my cat!’

The person at the second store found this very strange. She was sure that KC was not the man’s cat. Subsequently, KC disappeared.

The person at the second store believed that the man who claimed that KC was his cat had taken her, but then, after several months, KC reappeared. And she has continued to appear at the second store. ‘There she is,’ the person at the second store says, pointing.

The woman observes that KC seems to know she is being discussed. ‘She won’t look at us,’ she says.

But now, as winter coasts into a long, slow spring, the woman becomes willing to return to the first store. Ersatz Panda’s fur clumps have disappeared and he appears smaller, if better nourished. He adopts a beatific hen pose.

Here the story ends.


Narration is the act of organizing discrete events into a series. Narration could simply be the act of juxtaposition, repeated, doubled and tripled. Narrative could be merely decorative, I sometimes think.

In the above story, Ersatz Panda is the name given to a cat of mysterious origins. Of course, we understand that the cat has no true name – at least, no proper, given name. In fact, the referent of the name, ‘Ersatz Panda’, is not even really the cat of mysterious origins. Rather, the referent of ‘Ersatz Panda’ is a tangle of social, economic and geographic relations. Some of these relations are mediated by MMS.

This story is interesting mostly because we know so little about what has happened. The story is also interesting because people in the story have so little to say about what occurs.

I think ‘ersatz’ is a beautiful word. And I think, at some level, I relate this story simply – and only – because it includes this word. ‘Ersatz’ first entered the English language, from the German, in the midst of the Victorian era, in the 1870s, a time of a craze for industrial substitutes, from so-called French jet (i.e., black glass) to photography. However, the word was apparently not much used by English speakers until scarcities of the First World War led to the advent of ‘ersatz coffee’, made from acorns, and ‘ersatz flour’, made from potatoes. These examples euphemize grimmer transpositions of mostly inedible materials (soil, paste). The ‘er’, of ‘ersatz’, is in fact an unaccented version of the more familiar prefix, ‘ur–’, meaning, ‘original, earliest, primitive’. The German verb, ersetzen, ‘to replace’, combines this prefix with a Proto-Indo-European root, sed–, which means ‘to sit/set’. There is a cruel element in this etymology, a sign of competition; a secondary thing is placed ‘originally’, in an ‘ur’ sense, belatedly obviating the first thing’s claim to be itself. (Why, we may ask, must the first thing ‘claim’ to be itself? It seems so unfair.) To return briefly to the story, which, in spite of its already having ended here, may be continuing elsewhere, the woman finds herself returning to the first store, warming to the somewhat retiring Ersatz Panda, a black tuxedo cat with a broad face and very pink nose.


I had to stop going to Ersatz Panda’s store for a little while because it all happened so quickly and I didn’t know what it meant. It was even difficult to write about. I mean, consider the situation: A beloved cat is replaced by a terrifying phony. An analogy with the severed horse’s head in your bed (Puzo) didn’t seem that far off. But I should be precise: I wasn’t thinking about retribution or criminal warnings. I was thinking about fate. Ersatz P. scared me, not because he seemed strange to me, but because I already knew him.

Someone once said that fate is ‘the reflection of the world in a raindrop’. This rings true to me but I have to unpack it. What I think this means is that everything that will happen is already determined. But everything is not determined from some future point of origin/view. This is why fate is weird. It is a pattern. It’s everything about your life flattened into an image and foretold in reverse, from this very moment on. Es rever nid loterofd na ega mina ot nide nettal fefil ru oyt u obag nih tyre vesti. That’s why you can’t understand it now.

Ersatz P. would always arrive at the corner store. Panda herself was just a delay, an adverb attached to the arrival of her replacement, since her replacement was her truer self. She was an image I sent to people without knowing the extent to which she already was an image. Ersatz P., on the other hand, is the kind of cat I would never photograph. When he showed up, at first I worried there was something wrong with the store. Later, I worried there was something wrong with me.

I am trying to stop worrying.

The truth is, a year and a half ago, I started making videos of this bodega cat. I made these videos from a swamp of loneliness and fear. I wanted to die but I absolutely wasn’t going to. I had already made up my mind. I refused to die, because dying would mean I had capitulated.

I tried to imagine a human being who was not cowed by failure. Since this was impossible for me at the time, I instead imagined a person who couldn’t really exist and endeavored to think of activities for this ‘person’. I imagined a person whose consciousness was a happy bobbing speck of fluff, a haze of light shimmering above the hood of a recent midsize vehicle. I did want this person to be, if not stupid, then mildly lacking in imagination. It was necessary that the person have no imagination. It’s counterintuitive, given that we’re prone to thinking about feeling as the result of what ‘really’ happens, and what ‘really’ happens is supposedly the opposite of what we imagine, but I’m convinced it’s people with no imagination who have the least idea of what’s going on and therefore live in bliss.

I have these smartphone videos I took of a cat.

The strangest thing was, it worked. Not that I lived in bliss, per se, but that I began to live among some other people.


Voiceover: Panda! Paaaaan Daaaaaa!

A very small black cat with white circles around her eyes walks along the top of a green box of dish detergent. The cat lowers her head and furiously grooms her cheek.

Voiceover: Panda! What are you doing?

The cat looks up. Her eyes are an impetuous dark yellow. They are the color of the petals of black-eyed Susans. The yellow of pre-Bloomberg taxicabs.


After Panda disappeared and the videos stopped, there came the period during which, as I mentioned, I stopped going to the first store at all. During this time, there were several miracles.

The first of these miracles was the painting of my downstairs neighbor’s door. From what I have been able to ascertain, my downstairs neighbor is retired. He does not seem to be entirely single, but he lives alone. He moved into the building last summer while I was away and occupies the smallest unit, whose footprint is partially eaten up by the building’s mailbox area. The first thing I noticed about him was a laminated sign he put on his mailbox. The sign had a bright red border. ‘Just Chillin’’ the sign said. Later, an identical but slightly larger sign appeared on the door of his apartment. This sign included additional information, that it was possible to obtain CD mixes and some sort of spiritual advising (I forget the exact wording) at this location. Sometimes, when I left the building in the morning, the door to the apartment was ajar and my neighbor could be seen working at his computer, his back to the door. The apartment was filled with boxes, stacked floor to ceiling.

Over the next six months, more signs were added to the door. I didn’t look very closely at them, partly, I think, because the door of the apartment was often open when I went by. The new signs included numbers indicating passages in the New Testament. Sometimes a brief portion of the passage in question was also included. There came to be many of these signs.

Then one day I came downstairs to find the building’s super and a younger relative of his painting the front door. They were also painting the door of my neighbor’s apartment, from which all the signs had been removed. They painted the door of my neighbor’s apartment brick red. The front door was painted white. For some reason, my neighbor never put his signs up again after this. It was an unusual (miraculous!) gesture on the part of the management company who collects our rent: In the three years I have been living in this building, I have never seen any attempt to improve it. All the windows are cracked and the floor tiles are coming up in the hallway. The place sways when a truck goes by.

Another sequence of events that seemed to result in something one could call a miracle was an interaction I had with the FedEx guy. When the FedEx guy comes to deliver things, he always calls me. This seems like a fairly recent change in procedure, but perhaps FedEx people have been calling cellphones instead of ringing doorbells for years, I don’t know. The FedEx guy always seems to call when I’m a few blocks away from the house. Sometimes I’m coming, sometimes going. If it’s coming, we chat while I sprint toward him. On the day in question I happened to be going so we agreed he’d leave the package downstairs. The problem was that when I returned home, the package wasn’t there. I did all the things you might expect, running around and checking behind corners and whatnot. I went outside and looked down the stairs leading to the basement. I left a sign in Sharpie for my neighbors on the back of the front door, advising anyone who’d picked up a package ‘by accident’ to please return it. I added that it contained nothing but ‘school supplies’ and other value-free crap. Thirty minutes elapsed. I remembered I had the FedEx guy’s number on my phone. ‘Hey,’ I said, calling him. ‘It’s me.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Hi. Did you get your package?’

‘See, that’s the thing.’

‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘Thought I hid it. I put it on those stairs, you know? The downstairs ones? And there were people walking by, so I pretended I was looking for a buzzer, you know? And I found this old part of a broom and I put it on there? Did you see?’

I was running outside to the basement staircase. There was indeed the head of a yellow plastic broom sitting on something.

‘Got it!’ I yelled.

‘Oh good,’ said the FedEx guy.

This was the second miracle.

The third miracle I won’t explain at length, but something I figured out via YouTube is that you can cut your own hair and it does look pretty good. I’m not sure if you know how much a haircut costs in NYC.

The final miracle is more complex. It was a Sunday and I was walking in my neighborhood with my friend, the person who named Ersatz Panda. He and I had just had a big breakfast and were moving slowly. We went past a row of garbage cans and on one can was a black and white cat. It was a mostly white cat, with a black ear. It was sunning itself, panting lightly.

My friend reached out to engage this cat. Anticipating his touch, it inclined its large, flat head.

I reminded my friend about cat parasites.

We walked on.

Behind us the cat flopped off its can. It followed us to the end of the block.

My friend said, ‘Thank you for reminding me not to pet Garbage Cat.’

I’m not sure why he said ‘reminding’, but the thing about this statement was it indicated I am part of the process by means of which he constructs his narrative. I exist for him.


The other thing you need to know about me is that I have been the victim of some pretty extreme forms of deceit. Not scams or frauds but romantic infidelity. This is why I feel reasonably comfortable with the notion that narrative could be merely decorative. It’s how I try to feel OK with what has occurred. A narrative might just be something you casually attach to your real, lived life – a tail made out of a necktie or an unattractive paper hat. It might be an enormous joke to you, but it’s not an enormous joke to me. And now I know this. My greatest desire has always been to take people literally. It’s not the same as wanting to trust them, but it’s related.

The miracles I mention above take their form(s) as miracles, as such, from the fact that some negative expectation of mine was not fulfilled. So: insignificant improvements were made to the apartment building; I found my package; I saved $100 last month; someone knows me. Other people might have less tenuous relationships with the notion that events like these could come to pass. Admittedly, they’re no big deal. But to me they are extraordinary. They indicate that my life will not be an unremitting disaster.

Also my friend: how do I explain. I don’t know if I even sent those videos of Panda to anyone else. He is my closest friend. But I’m a creature of this century and it’s no longer entirely clear what human friendship is.


A woman frequents a certain store. It is a repetitive action and therefore non-narrative. However, inside the repetition, something has changed.

I used to think that what disrupts repetitive living is fate. Now I think that what disrupts living is other people.

Maybe Panda was sitting outside her store, contemplating the seductive greenness of an overturned Heineken bottle. Maybe this contemplation was interrupted by the seductive approach of some eligible cat. Maybe Panda, vacating her post for love, sent out word via local cat networks and a viable replacement (a needy case) was found.

But this doesn’t account for that ‘someone’. It also depends on forms of agency that make no sense, regarding cats. There’s a whole body of literature, not just children’s literature, by the way, about this. Cats make concerted choices; they go adventuring; they know how to read; they return; they give themselves complex names pertaining to their ancestors; they enjoy dancing; they sniff flowers; they cross-country ski; they live forever. The weirdest thing is that while we know many of the above activities aren’t possible, it doesn’t seem entirely true – i.e., faithful to reality – to say that they are, conversely, impossible.

By the same token, every explanation I can give of why ‘someone’ would replace an adorable cat with a weird, obviously abused cat with similar markings is pretty bizarre. In most of these scenarios, this happens because ‘someone’ for some reason wants either to abuse the adorable cat in turn or to threaten the adorable cat’s owners. Maybe it is a combination of the two. But we don’t really have access to these motives. They’re lost to us and to livable time, and now the world we do have access to contains only Ersatz Panda, along with KC and Garbage Cat, all of whom are merely tangential, alas.

Someday I’ll pet Ersatz Panda. Or, given the parasites known to dwell in cat feces, parasites allegedly capable of migrating into the human brain, maybe not. Someday I’ll take a smartphone photo of Ersatz Panda. And I will send it to my friend. And he’ll reply.


Date: February 19, 2018

Publisher: Granta

Format: Web

Genre: Fiction

Link to the story.

One of Granta's 2018 Top Reads.


Romy Schneider's chin with kittens in Boccaccio ’70, 1962, dir. Luchino Visconti.


On site.

The Repatriation of F$


NEITHER FRANZ KAFKA nor Louis-Ferdinand Céline had extensive experience in the United States, yet both wrote novels set wholly or in part in the land of opportunity. In 1932’s Journey to the End of the Night, Céline limns New York’s “gold district,” aka Manhattan, which the narrator-hero, Bardamu, fancifully maintains can be entered only on foot, “like a church.” “It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.”[1] This eerie concatenation of capitalism, architecture, and human ambition resembles the earlier surreal landscapes of Kafka’s Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), written 1911–14 and published posthumously in 1927. Yet, there is a haunted and perhaps more vicious mood circulating in Amerika’s bizarro USA: The Statue of Liberty, for example, holds a sword instead of a torch, and “unchained winds” blow around her. “One couldn’t look for pity here,” the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, reflects of this port city of “haste, precision, clarity of representation.”[2]

While hyperbolic and rife with allegory, these portrayals of pre-World War II New York are weirdly accurate. Or, rather, it is their use of hyperbole and allegory that makes them accurate. Modern New York is a place one can see even without seeing it with one’s own two eyes, given the long-range power of media. The city really is the dream of skyscrapers, big bucks, and mobility dangled before the exploitable immigrant, which also makes it something of a nightmare. And these novelizations, dreamed and fantasized and pasted together from others’ accounts, resemble, tonally and rhetorically, nothing in the visual arts of their time so much as the paintings of Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), who, as a Jazz Age socialite and actual resident of the US, would seem to have little in common with either the clerklike Kafka or war veteran and later anti-Semite Céline. Yet both authors are uncharacteristically comic, even zany, when it comes to American tableaux. It is, for example, possible to compare Amerika’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a massive imaginary entertainment operation that ostensibly hires all comers, to Stettheimer’s canvases, which are likewise anomalous sites of performance, often depicting large casts of figures. In their detail, excess, and carefully deployed allegorical systems, Stettheimer’s paintings depict an era of conservative nationalism and roaring decadence, a contradictory cultural and political amalgam that looks ever more familiar.

STETTHEIMER BECAME an American late. Though she was born in Rochester, New York, she lived somewhat less than half her life within her country of origin. In an early instance of the mix of extreme privilege and social uncertainty that would define her life, Florine, along with her four siblings, was whisked off to Germany as a young child after her father abandoned the family. It is not known whether her mother, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, was aiming to save face or cash, or both.[3] The result was a childhood like an extended vacation. Florine briefly returned to the US in the 1890s, to study at the Art Students League, the first school in New York to permit female students to make drawings from nude models. She was otherwise in Vienna and Paris and other places European, often in the company of her chic sisters, Ettie and Carrie. There were performances of the Ballets Russes, discussions of the vitalism of Henri Bergson, careful examinations of canonical Continental paintings. Then, with the outbreak of the Great War, the Stettheimers decamped to New York, which became a permanent home. Florine Stettheimer would leave the US only once thereafter, to vacation in Canada. In 1914 she was forty-three, with an impressive education but no career.

Most critics of Stettheimer’s multiform body of work—which includes poetry, furniture, and stage sets, along with her complex paintings—have a tendency to cast their essays as close readings of the artist’s social calendar.[4] These treatments have mainly taken the paintings as portrayals of, and decorative backdrops for, Stettheimer’s interactions with Marcel Duchamp (who may have modeled Rrose Sélavy on her), Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elie Nadelman, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, among other celebrities, some of whom, like best-selling author Joseph Hergesheimer, were more renowned in their own day than they are now. With recourse to her archives at Columbia and Yale, Stettheimer’s careful readers have disclosed her uptown avant-garde coterie. She is understood to have led a life of comfort and leisure, if of questionable romantic and professional fulfillment. The contradictions were many, but increasing quantities of family money seem to have made them more interesting than tragic. (By the time Florine, Ettie, Carrie, and Rosetta Stettheimer resettled in New York, they were apparently quite financially secure.)

Starting around 1918, Stettheimer entered her mature period. She stopped painting post-Impressionist mediocrities and got weird. She festooned her studio with cellophane and Victorian lace. She gilded liberally, filling her canvases with lithe little bodies en pointe. She was at once a consummate Continental decadent and a patriotic American modern—a hyper-feminine late bloomer and visionary, the ultimate outsider-insider. She became a satirist of artistically inclined upper classes, as well as a depicter of nationalist pageantry. She was not a bad poet. She showed infrequently and was nearly forgotten after her death.[5] Andy Warhol got a private viewing of her work in 1961 from a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though professing his “love” in his memoir POPism, Warhol was not above dubbing his forebear a “wealthy primitive painter.”[6]

There is, to be frank, often something of a letdown when it comes to Stettheimer’s reception. Wanda Corn and Michael Leja—two art historians who have, to their credit, shown a greater tolerance than most for the minutiae of the interwar period in the US—have little to say about her. Yet, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith observes in her review of the current one-woman show at the Jewish Museum, “Every 20 years or so an exhibition devoted to Florine Stettheimer . . . shakes up modernism’s orderly hierarchies.”[7] This latest survey, “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” suffers somewhat from a cramped, windowless setting. Stettheimer’s four late masterpieces, her “Cathedrals” series of 1929–42, in the permanent collection of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, are not included, meaning that it is all but impossible to comprehend Stettheimer’s enormous achievement as a painter by way of the show. Without the “Cathedrals” as zenith, the exhibition culminates uncertainly in maquettes, publicity headshots, and barely legible snippets of film related to Four Saints in Three Acts, a 1934 avant-garde opera, featuring an entirely African American cast, with libretto by Gertrude Stein and score by Virgil Thomson. Stettheimer designed iridescent cellophane scenery and feathered and sequined costumes for the show, making something of a splash.[8]

The catalogue for “Painting Poetry” hardly mitigates the disappointment. Even given the dearth of popular writing on Stettheimer that is not a rehashing of Linda Nochlin’s 1980 tour de force in this magazine, the two workmanlike essays by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik are lamentable. (Uhlyarik, for example, resorts to such platitudes as, “Stettheimer painted herself into an art history of her own making, informed by a long classical tradition and activated by a vanguard attitude.”[9]) A subsequent coda-like transcript of a roundtable discussion among contemporary painters rehearses the usual terms in which Stettheimer is praised.[10] Overall, this lackluster if jauntily packaged retrospective, with its anodyne title and incomplete trajectory, deviates little from the boom-bust cycle Smith describes.

IF WE WANT TO grapple more seriously with Florine Stettheimer, it is worth returning to Kafka and Céline’s unreal depictions of the US. We could well think of Stettheimer on similar terms: as an artist who treated America as an exotic, largely unknowable locale and who used the space of fantasy and escapism this orientation opened up as a source of inspiration, improvising at will. This way of looking at Stettheimer may not endear her to contemporary American audiences, who seem to enjoy her work mainly for its flowers, stars, large-eyed maidens, and ubiquitous crystalline frills. However, highlighting Stettheimer’s interest in allegory and appropriation helps to explain such apparently contradictory impulses as her life-long fascination with the figure of the faun as portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky in his famous choreography for L’Après-midi d’un faune, a ballet based on a Stéphane Mallarmé poem with a score by Claude Debussy, and her equally powerful obsession with the far less sensuous George Washington, to whom she dedicated an entire shrinelike room in her Bryant Park studio and who repeatedly appears in her paintings.[11] From the intently researched exoticism of contemporary designers Léon Bakst, who created sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and Paul Poiret, the celebrity couturier who in 1911 held a “Thousand and Second Night” fancy-dress soirée, Stettheimer learned the power of orientalist pastiche.

Critics often note the impact Nijinsky’s June 8, 1912, Paris performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune made on Stettheimer. She immediately began sketching costumes and scenery for her own ballet, the story of a well-heeled father-daughter duo who are accosted by art students and compelled to don Bakstian/Poiretian garb and begin dancing. Though the ballet, L’Orphée des Quat-z-arts, whose title cites an annual Parisian ball, was never staged, Stettheimer’s mock-ups evidence rapt work, including collaged fabric and beading. This early undertaking is usually seen as a sign of the talent that would be more concretely manifested in Stettheimer’s designs for Four Saints in Three Acts. L’Orphée might also be read as an indication of Stettheimer’s fashionable equation of personal liberation with the assumption of non-European dress; the clothing of the art students points to a generalized East, in which the constraints of Western society are imagined not to apply. Indeed, in one of the very few extant photographs of Stettheimer, taken ca. 1917–20 in her Bryant Park garden, she wears a matching set of billowing pantaloons and embroidered white tunic. Stettheimer’s garments are even more loosely cut than Poiret’s iconic “lampshade” tunic ensemble, but the association is unmistakable and incorporates another trend in which Poiret also participated: deliverance from the corset.

Stettheimer thus favored an eccentric exoticism—one in which fauns, George Washingtons, and other stock figures were caricatured and fetishized—over related contemporaneous avant-garde movements, even as she maintained a rather straightforward relationship to the sensuality of paint. The academically trained and always elaborately decorative Stettheimer was, for example, never fully taken with Dada’s sardonic anti-art. The Stettheimer sisters’ liking for puckish Duchamp, aka “Duche,” their sometime French teacher, occasionally took a turn for the patronizing, as when Ettie Stettheimer referred to him as a “charming garçon” or the “queer but charming French boy who painted ‘Nude Descending the Stairs’ and other cubistic creations.”[12] Meanwhile, the uncanny imagery and narrative ruptures of Surrealism never caught on with Florine, nor did the movement engage the materiality of paint as much as she might have liked, though comparisons to Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are hardly out of place. For Stettheimer did not just daub, she built her faux-naive pictures with an artfully wielded palette knife (which is why it is remarkable that her substantial canvases sometimes look like finely delineated New Yorker covers in reproduction). Stettheimer has also been said to have roots in the European Symbolist tradition, and there are clear parallels between her work and the oneiric images of Odilon Redon, for example. However, to the synthesis of the symbol she clearly preferred the ambivalence and deferral associated with allegory, the effect produced when a thing in a picture does not represent that thing, purely or exclusively, but rather points to something else.[13] This current runs so strongly through her work that the very fact that it has not been clearly elaborated by Stettheimer’s critics suggests that the artist’s failure to fully “appear” within either the canon or major American museums may be due as much to this omission as to the artist’s gender. For it is difficult to understand or, for that matter, see Florine Stettheimer, without examining her allegorical depictions of America.

An important political fact of the era during which Stettheimer resettled in New York was the increasing prevalence of attempts to define American identity, as well as domestic policy, with recourse to types and categorization. The use of statistics by the government during the Progressive Era, while ostensibly indicative of a turn to objectivity, was also linked to attempts to limit access to US citizenship and the protections it entails, as well as to jobs, reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and so on. The rise of “race science” in mainstream academia in the teens drove a wave of popular white supremacist publications that claimed empiricist authority, including books like amateur anthropologist and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race of 1916. While the US had maintained a policy of relatively open borders until the late nineteenth century, in 1917 the Asiatic Barred Zone Act expanded California’s anti-Chinese restrictions of the 1870s and national anti-Chinese restrictions of 1882, identifying a large portion of Asia as the source of unwanted immigrants, who were to be banned along with idiots, illiterates, anarchists, et al. This was followed by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from most parts of the world. Though Stettheimer was born in America, she was raised a European. Her status as a native daughter who had to become American in middle age was, in itself, a challenge to the essentialism of nativist views. However, Stettheimer brought with her a European eye for Asian and Middle Eastern art and design. Painted in the midst of the developments enumerated above, her first mature works recognize the racial and ethnic divisions of American society with an outsider’s clarity, even as they participate in the reduction of nonwhites to stock types. At times her use of cliché and stereotypes can appear merely fey or decorative, since these types are obviously not intended to be realistic; yet it is worth examining how her work both resists and conforms to conservative currents of her day.

STETTHEIMER'S New York/Liberty (1918–19) is an early example of the technique for superimposing diverse historical and personal events that Duchamp later termed multiplication virtuelle, a technique that inscribes multiple, discrete meanings into a single image.[14] Depicting battleships in New York harbor, New York/Liberty layers manifold times, tacitly commemorating Stettheimer’s 1914 repatriation into the port of New York, even as it more overtly indicates America’s late May 1917 entry into WWI and President Wilson’s subsequent voyage to the 1919 the International Peace Conference.[15] Though ostensibly about victory and American exceptionalism, Stettheimer’s composition seems designed to be read as an allegory for immigration and assimilation under the American flag (clearly pivotal processes for Stettheimer) as its vantage point is from on board a ship that, as indicated by a thickly gilded Statue of Liberty, is located near Ellis Island.

The Manhattan cityscape that dominates the top half of the canvas functions as a painting within a painting. A bit like a birthday cake, parade float, or theatrical backdrop, this seductively vulnerable skyline justifies the guns mustered to protect it. Like the red, white, and blue banners employed throughout the scene, it signifies both power and peace. Despite its consummate charm, the city appears secondary to the enlarged seal of New York City occupying the bottom margin. Featuring a pair of allegorical figures, this doubly significant seal is a supposedly collective image, an icon for the municipality. But it has been personalized and privately “stamped” by Citizen Stettheimer, who as a woman did not have the right to vote in 1918. The Dutchman, no hardened colonist, possibly an early twentieth-century Dutch naval officer, is jaunty with ribbons. Meanwhile, the Native American employs a union shield as a bizarre breechcloth, while wearing a flag-themed headdress. Stettheimer’s revision of New York City’s social compact suggests, in a strange softening of the US’s new 1917 exclusivity, that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp for all those who resemble Broadway extras. As do Kafka and Céline’s novels, New York/Liberty complicates the utopian fantasy of a newly arrived immigrant. It presents an Oz-like America seen, gleefully and somewhat ignorantly, from the exterior, an advertisement for a theatrical production full of esoteric, and perhaps ultimately inaccessible, cheer.

In the late 1910s and early ’20s, Stettheimer’s paintings become increasingly social, and the miniaturization of compositional elements explored in New York/Liberty and other paintings like Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918) predominates. Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924) shows a more complex and less ambivalent response to the question of American identity, filtering its visible forms through a beauty contest reimagined as a hybrid event incorporating a circus. Stettheimer presents a pageant of human types watched over by recognizable individuals, including herself at upper left, smiling and well made up, next to writer Edna Kenton and photographer Edward Steichen. At lower right, an impresario who may or may not be a slenderized Barnum oversees bathing beauties tanned and pale, as well as, at center, children in feathered headdresses, a Rudolph Valentino–like figure leading a horse that may or may not be a Lipizzaner, and, at left, an all-black band in elaborate uniforms over which the painter has obviously lingered.

The beauty contest is a pretext for various kinds of showmanship, which Stettheimer organizes according to genre, race, and gender. A seemingly endless supply of palm fronds and dripping red, white, and blue crystals mediate the carefully divided scene, in which everyone stays in his or her corner, as the show goes on. With the exception of Stettheimer and her artist friends, who are legible as themselves, everyone plays (and represents) a role, a mere type, suggesting that their identities within this convocation are at least partly performative. Identity’s fungibility is additionally figured, for example, by the labels (“Miss Atlantic City,” etc.) held by the beauties. Read allegorically, the painting offers a retort to American nativism, since it implies that much national belonging is merely “put on,” contingent and assumed for public occasions. Yet, here Stettheimer also limited herself to satirically depicting contemporary norms rather than upending or abandoning these norms for something else. Though the painting presents a quasi-democratic social sphere in which Americans ostensibly gather to have fun, there remain real divisions and inequalities within the collective setting. Indeed, so many shows go on simultaneously that it is difficult to determine the actual nature of the contest or what is at stake, and for which participants. The scene is, additionally, unrelentingly festive and self-congratulatory, though there is something unsettling about the many knowing smiles exchanged: some smile because they observe an amusing scene, others because they are on display. The painting’s commentary on these dynamics is uneven, whimsical, never quite attaining irony or critique.

Stettheimer’s unusual semi-realist, semi-allegorical mode in her mature paintings, combining both stylized stock figures and portraits of individuals known to her, of which Asbury Park South (1920), depicting a segregated New Jersey beach, is also an example, reaches its zenith with the late “Cathedrals” series, four large-scale compositions devoted to Broadway (1929), Fifth Avenue (1931), Wall Street (1939), and Art (1942). Though Stettheimer’s work was not commercially successful during her lifetime, in the “Cathedrals” series she explicitly appropriates commercial styles only hinted at elsewhere, exploring billboards, industrial lighting, illustration, entertainment industry publicity, and contemporary fashion. The costumes and sets she designed to great acclaim for Four Saints in Three Acts clearly influenced these late paintings, which are setlike in their composition and contain lacy elements recalling the cellophane she used in these designs.

There is a certain seamlessness between this light and purposely vapid work and actual advertising, as one clipping in Stettheimer’s papers at Yale indicates: an East Coast department store advertised its latest cellophane raincoat collection, imitating Stein’s prose style in the copy and including illustrations of Stettheimer’s scenery, an image of one cellophane lion plus palm tree. Like Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, where “angels” on ladders play trumpets all day to publicize the performances, Stettheimer’s late works devote themselves strenuously to the American cult of celebrity, perhaps reveling in the emptiness of this endeavor. Even their satirical elements feel resigned to the vapidity of glamor, and recognition of a certain emptiness in New York social life may be as close as Stettheimer came to openly acknowledging the divisions of her new-old homeland.

AT THE END of her life, Stettheimer was working on a ballet about the life of Pocahontas, which, like her 1912 effort, was never to be staged. This patriotic work—celebrating the foundational myth in which Pocahontas rescues John Smith—had a number of strange features: Stettheimer and her collaborator, Virgil Thomson, had decided that Smith and his countrymen would wear Scottish highland garb rather than the expected British costume, and the ballet’s Native American characters were to be dressed in cellophane, gold foil, and feathers. The curators of the Jewish Museum show chose not to include the twenty-two maquettes Stettheimer produced, instead devoting space only to the two earlier stage design projects.[16] Yet the designs for this unfinished epic are worth mentioning because they demonstrate Stettheimer’s enthusiasm for styles of appropriation germane to period popular culture, along with her use of the trope of the noble savage, a stock character embodying the concept of the uncorrupted outsider and therefore allegorizing humanity’s innate goodness, a figure not unlike the faun. This choice of subject additionally implies Stettheimer’s acquiescence to increasingly fervent nationalism leading up to the US’s 1941 entry into WWII, suggesting not only that she viewed indigenous identity as yet another performance, available to a modern update via musical theater, but that she believed, or was willing to pretend that she believed, in an excessively cheerful national origin story.

It is possible that Stettheimer, an unmarried and childless Jewish woman, played down her own anomalousness in mainstream Protestant America, while also answering her family’s polite rejection of her ambitions to be an artist, by exoticizing and feminizing nearly everyone and everything in turn. However, such speculation verges on armchair psychology and almost certainly misses the point, which is that Stettheimer struggled with questions regarding power and assimilation throughout her American career. Oil painting, an economically and culturally dominant art form, became reconciled to minor decorative styles in Stettheimer’s hands, even as she took on major themes, including the nature of American identity. Stettheimer’s ever-changing signatures reflect the fact that she deliberated a great deal about her own authority as an artist. Until about 1920, while she still painted in a derivative European style, she favored her initials, “FS,” superimposed in such a way that the “F” appears to be impaling the “S,” transforming the first letter of Stettheimer’s surname into a certifying dollar sign, as if to say, “Look at me, I am a rich American!”[17] But in later paintings she more confidently offers her full name, often trompe l’oeil-style, trickily “written” on a depicted object. She additionally abbreviated, sometimes becoming the saintly “Florine St.,” a moniker that may have had something to do with Stein’s opera.

Wealth allowed Stettheimer to be at once candid, utopian, hermetic, escapist, appropriative, and in violation of good taste, and she grew into this fact from 1914 on. She assumed an American identity of a kind, as a woman who could, at least in theory, buy whatever she desired. Whereas staunchly middle-class William Carlos Williams in a 1923 poem railed against the lack of “peasant traditions to give them / character,” which made average Americans fools for “gauds,” Stettheimer embraced artificial forms of pleasure and liberty, for she could afford them.[18] The mature Stettheimer made no secret of her affection for luxury. No longer using the hermetically crest-like “F$,” she proudly provided, usually in white, a full, or nearly full, name on her decadent, gilded, and frosted canvases—at least until The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), where her old “F$” does double duty as the mark on a luxury car. Yet, in spite of her wealth, Stettheimer depicts herself in her final, unfinished painting of 1942, The Cathedrals of Art, standing on the side of folk culture. In the painting, icons of modernism such as MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and a painting by Picasso appear on one side of a templelike structure, while signifiers of vernacular aesthetics, a stylized bald eagle and Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum, occupy the other. Stettheimer is standing on the side of folk-influenced American Art, as the right-hand column reads, rather than on that of the more lucrative high-modernist Art in America, on the left. Florine Stettheimer, formerly F$, had become extraordinarily, surreally American, as only someone who adopts her nationality as a decorative style can.


Date: September 1, 2017

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, September 2017.

    1. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, trans. Ralph Manheim, New York, New Directions, 2006, p. 166.
    1. Franz Kafka, Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), trans. Michael Hoffman, New York, New Directions, 2002, pp. 3, 28, and 13.
    1. Rosetta Walter Stettheimer possessed “an inheritance,” according to a wall label at the current Jewish Museum show, that permitted her to support her five children. In her 1994 dissertation, Florine Stettheimer: Alternative Modernist, Barbara J. Bloemink speculates that the move to Europe might have allowed Rosetta to escape the censure of her even wealthier relatives in the US while also living more cheaply.
    1. Such works follow in the footsteps of Barbara J. Bloemink’s Friends and Family: Portraiture in the World of Florine Strttheimer, Katonah, N.Y., Katonah Museum of Art, 1993.
    1. Stettheimer’s first and only solo show during her lifetime, which opened in October 1916 at M. Knoedler & Co., “Exhibition of Paintings by Miss Florine Stettheimer,” was not a success, in that no paintings sold. As others have indicated, though Stettheimer never again consented to a solo exhibition, in spite of pleading invitations from Alfred Stieglitz among others, she contributed individual works to group shows. Stettheimer asked that her paintings be destroyed upon her death, and though her wish was not carried out by her survivors, her legacy was somewhat loosely managed, leading to further obscurity for an artist who had in fact established herself as a major painter with those who knew her work, including such critics as Henry McBride and Paul Rosenfeld.
    1. The Met curator in question was Henry Geldzahler. After a visit to Warhol’s studio, during which, as Warhol writes, Geldzahler “scanned all the things I collected—from the American folk pieces to the Carmen Miranda platform shoe,” the curator extended an invitation to view Stettheimer’s “Cathedrals” series, then in storage. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, Harcourt, 1980, p. 16.
    1. Roberta Smith, “A Case for the Greatness of Florine Stettheimer,” New York Times, May 18, 2017,
    1. “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” supplies sparse interpretive text regarding Four Saints in Three Acts. For more analysis, see Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 2009, p. 168. Brown writes: “The cast members, in all the ontological presence accorded the African American, appeared in relief against the modern and deeply compelling absence of the set (and against the disembodied absence of the ‘civilized’ and thus white modern subject who did not appear at all on the Four Saints stage). The modern script that accepted the civilized/primitive binary held true, then, even on the avant-garde stage. Modernity, represented by the manufactured plastic sky, is here aligned with death or stasis, in contradistinction to the life force of the African American cast on stage.”
    1. Georgiana Uhlyarik, “4 St.s Seen by Florine: A Case Study,” in Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, ed. Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik, New York and New Haven, Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2017, p. 56.
    1. The roundtable, with Cecily Brown, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Jutta Koether, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Valentina Liernur, Silke Otto-Knapp, and Katharina Wulff in conversation with Jens Hoffmann, praises Stettheimer’s use of color, her style of figuration, and her feminism, noting the queer and/or “trans” aspects of her work. Painter and installation artist Karen Kilimnik, one of Stettheimer’s most obvious living artistic heirs, is not included; see Florine Stettheimer, pp. 143–159.
    1. In a letter to Carl Van Vechten, as Bloemink notes in several publications, Stettheimer quipped of Washington, “He is the only man I collect.” Her 1939 painting The Cathedrals of Wall Street contains the dedication, written along two flowing ribbons securing a red, white, and blue bouquet offered to a massive gilded statue of the first president, TO GEORGE WASHINGTON FROM FLORINE ST 1939.
    1. Letters of 1916 and 1917 from Ettie Stettheimer to her friend “Gans.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.
    1. To clarify: A symbol is combinatory and imprecise, bringing together many meanings and suggesting that they coexist, also in the object’s real instantiation. Allegory, by contrast, severs the allegorical object from the context in which it occurs, deploying it as the representative of some hidden or secondary meaning. This is why allegorical depictions are more strongly associated with religious encoding, as well as conspiracy theories and other forms of paranoid reading.
    1. The painting’s point of view is that of an individual aboard a ship approaching Ellis Island. It would seem to include Stettheimer’s own return to the city along with larger, distinct events related to WWI. New York/Liberty is thus a history painting imbued with Proust’s modern, synthetic sense of time.
    1. Included in the current Jewish Museum show, this painting also had the interesting distinction of being the only artwork borrowed from a private collection for the Whitney’s 2015 reopening exhibition, “America Is Hard to See,” which was otherwise drawn entirely from the museum’s permanent collection.
    1. Another reason for not including the Pocahontas ballet maquettes may be their fragility.
    1. The “$” created by Stettheimer’s early initialing of her paintings was pointed out by scholar Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen in a talk at the Jewish Museum on May 11, 2017. Butterfield-Rosen did not speculate on the meaning of this visual pun; the interpretation offered here (for better or for worse) is the author’s own.
    1. Williams’s poem “The pure products of America / go crazy,” later titled “For Elsie,” was included in his 1923 collection, Spring and All, reprinted in Imaginations, New York, New Directions, 1971, p. 131
My Mother, the Metropolitan Museum, and I


I recall, as a girl of eight or nine, discovering a photograph of my mother taken a few years before I was born. In the image, my mother stands in a white room. She is laughing as I had never seen her laugh in life, completely taken by elation. Surrounding her are large-format photographs, presumably waiting to be hung on the walls. Some are still wrapped in paper, but two—showing beautiful women—are visible. One of the women is also laughing, almost as much as my mother. I later learned that this long-haired, gently disheveled, smoking and ring-wearing figure was the singer Janis Joplin—though for now she was just an anonymous subject who reminded me a little of myself. When I brought the picture to my mom, she told me that the photographs were by a man named Richard Avedon. In 1978 Avedon, a.k.a.“Dick,” had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where my mother worked as a curator.

This was a standard mother-daughter conversation. There were many unusual objects in our Upper East Side apartment, and I was a wily sleuth. I was even beginning to believe—knowing nothing of the cost of child care—that my mother’s reason for sometimes bringing me with her to her office after school was that she wanted my assistance. We traveled, hand in hand, from the neighborhood’s upper reaches to Fifth Avenue and the Met’s imposing neoclassical façade. As we ascended the steps together, I believed that the building belonged to us. Only we knew about the unfinished blocks at the tops of the grand columns—meant to become figures personifying the four great periods of art, from Ancient to Modern, but never carved. This was the power of the museum: It could hide a flaw in plain sight and look magnificent while doing so.

My mother and I proudly entered, making our way to my mother’s department. She was a specialist in European drawings and prints, and her office was accessible via a secret door in the wall of one of the galleries, which she opened using a key, often in full sight of gawking tourists. We’d pass through a study room, into the haven of my mother’s private work space.

The smell was of ancient papers, leather, inks, and resins. I did homework or looked through my mother’s collection of antique doorknobs, keys, and keyhole covers. She liked to purchase these odds and ends at European flea markets. I had no idea what they meant to her.

Later, museum closed and workday done, we exited the departmental warren and descended through the empty, darkened building. We passed shadowy busts and portraits, obscure arms and armor, sacred objects visible only in outline. These walks, sometimes up or down staircases inaccessible to the public, would reappear in my dreams. Sometimes it would be impossible to find my way out of the museum; or a work of art might come, disconcertingly and messily, to life. In reality, we always reached an exit without incident. In one subterranean storage hall, passing a giant two-dimensional reproduction of a blue hippopotamus sculpture from ancient Egypt nicknamed “William” by the staff, we’d even salute. My mother’s heels clicked reassuringly. This was her place.

These are my most vivid childhood memories. Of course, there were privileges: an early viewing of the immense Christmas tree along with the intricate, miniature crèche, put out every year without fail in the medieval hall; my mother’s ability to give the occasional tour to my grade-school class, an event that filled me with pride. However, it was the incidental things I cherished: eating lunch in the staff cafeteria, looking through my mother’s suitcase after she’d come home from a business trip. These moments impressed upon me the dignity and solace of work. The institution encompassed my mother; it seemed to support her at every turn.

Dinner conversation with my father revealed a different side of the job: other people. There was the macho curator who always had to get his way, flaunting the economic superiority of his specialty and mocking my mother’s lowly prints and illustrated books. There were also regular updates on Brooke Astor, the late heiress, with whom my mother lunched from time to time—and here the tone of the report shifted. Mrs. Astor was extraordinary; the chauvinist was forgotten amid reflections about Mrs. Astor’s palatial apartment, the pleasantness of her conversation. Sometimes celebrities appeared, requesting tours. There was the week of Brad Pitt. Despite repeated entreaties, all my mother would say was that he seemed “attentive.”

I knew from the Avedon installation picture that my mother’s life at the museum had been different before my time, maybe more surprising. It was, after all, her first big job. She’d fled a difficult family situation in San Diego and taken a master’s in art history at Columbia. Here she’d met my father, who was studying law and had previously worked construction on the side. They’d made a go of it. My mother changed her first name as well as her last in marriage, and my father left behind Yonkers and his working-class roots. My mother had the physical gifts that permit self-transformation: She was slender, with sweet, symmetrical features and beguiling brown eyes. She made powerful friends, including the philanthropist Lincoln Kir­stein, and rose quickly through the ranks at the Met, becoming the director of her department. She met Andy Warhol.

“But what was Andy like?” I demanded to know. I was a teenager now, and the 1990s had brought renewed hunger for Warhol’s commodified irony. Even Kurt Cobain seemed to be modeling himself on the Factory magus.

“Weird,” my mother said. “Quiet.”

By this time, my mother and I disagreed on many topics. Not least among these was my appearance. All my clothing was deemed too tight. My eye makeup was eternally inappropriate, what my mother termed “your Cleopatra eyes,” a mild dig I tried to take as a compliment, given the Met’s spectacular Egyptian collection. Meanwhile, I was athletic, verging on Amazonian, or so I felt. By age twelve, I was already passing my mother in height. I played three sports. My face came from my father. His Assyrian-Iranian and Polish features—dark hair, broad face, pronounced nose—had won out over Mom’s German-WASP blend. In spite of my apparently British last name—in fact an Ellis Island corruption of my paternal grandfather’s Ivas—everyone assumed I was of Eastern European descent and Jewish. Among friends’ families I usually smoothed over any confusion by preemptively proclaiming that I had no religious education at all, which was true.

Only later did I understand how fully one can reinvent oneself in New York City, particularly with a good partner in metamorphosis, as it were. In my mother’s case, I was never entirely sure if that partner was my father or the museum itself, which during certain periods seemed to consume her whole each morning, spitting her out again, mysteriously transformed, at nightfall. I continued to grow away from her, at first physically, then creatively. I became obsessed with drawing, a pursuit my mother discouraged vehemently when a high school teacher suggested I apply to art school. I would go often to the museum on Friday afternoons to work on my sketches. I no longer bothered to venture up to my mother’s office; I came alone and sat alone and left without her.

After I was accepted at Harvard, the polar opposite of art school, my mother began taking me with her on research trips, perhaps because I was a good sounding board or perhaps to keep an eye on me. We went to London, Paris, Australia, and French Polynesia. Our last trip, an inquiry into Paul Gauguin’s final days on the remote island of Hiva Oa, was challenging. I was tailed by wild dogs when I foolishly attempted to visit the artist’s grave alone, and my mother came close to drowning. This episode took place on a volcanic beach, where we were walking. I don’t know why my mother decided to swim, but swim she did, and was caught in a rip current. Our host, Monsieur Gaby, and I stood on the shore, watching with mounting horror. “Swim to the side!” Gaby yelled, probably in French. Eventually all was well, but in that petrifying moment I saw clearly and for the first time the distance between my mother and me. It wasn’t just the fast-moving ocean.

Later, after my mother had staggered back to land, we all stood staring at one another. I felt as if I was meeting her for the first time. Gaby, meanwhile, seemed ready to depart. We piled into his SUV. As the vehicle bounded up the lush mountainside, I reflected on what an odd couple we must appear: the brooding daughter wandering off into an overgrown cemetery; the sociable mother nearly swept out to sea. Or perhaps we were not so much “odd” as inverses, I thought, mirror images.

But what a strange and difficult mirror it was.


Date: June 1, 2017

Publisher: Vogue

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of Vogue, June 2017, with the title "Her Brilliant Career."
See PDF below.


Model Ingrid Boulting in Grès, photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue, 1970.


The author’s mother, Colta Ives (second from left), installing Avedon portraits at the Met, 1978.

On Nick Mauss


Il est surnaturel d’arrêter le temps.
– Simone Weil, Notes for Venise sauvée

At her 1943 death, the philosopher Simone Weil left unfinished a ‘tragedy in three acts’, Venise sauvée, or Venice Saved. This play about an averted coup is gorgeously, strangely formal and slow—a dramatic rendition of an actual early seventeenth-century incursion. Short on dialogue, Weil’s draft is studded throughout with plans for future writing, including description of the exact number of syllables of blank verse to be assigned to various characters. At the play’s close—one relatively complete section—the naïve heroine Violetta declaims a poem. Ignorant of the plot to destroy Venice as well as the role of her own beauty in the collapse of this nefarious design, she murmurs, ‘Qu’il sont beaux sur la mer, / Les rayons du jour!’ (How beautiful they are on the sea, / These bands of daylight!) Offstage, revenge killings ensue, but neither Violetta nor the vast majority of the Venetians know anything of this. The denouement of Venise sauvée envisions a mostly static and unreal scene in which nothing happens save that some light travels. Venice is unaware that it has been saved. And any appreciation of light at the end of this drama does not come with added symbolism. The light is simply present. As critic Anne-Lise François wryly describes this moment, ‘Venice awakens to a beauty it has not lost the power to take for granted’.

In François’s reading of Venise sauvée, Simone Weil has created a play that fails to conform to the rules of Aristotelian tragedy, lacking a convulsive final moment of reversal and recognition. Weil’s play is ‘the (non)record of events that failed to transpire’. In other words, it records non-existent events of a plot that does not unfold. It displays the trace of a transformative will that in fact recedes curiously from the stage, rather than setting narrative in motion. The tragic hero Jaffier, who might have ruined Venice, hesitates to enact Venice’s destruction for no particular reason other than that the city actually exists—and he notices this. After he is betrayed by those to whom he has confessed, Jaffier makes a desperate petition to the sun, sky, ocean, Venetian canals, and blocks of marble. He describes these inanimate things, calls their names and curses them, but to no avail. The historical event collapses inexorably, quietly and mechanically, on his head.

If not strictly speaking a play in which nothing happens, Venise sauvée is a play in which the mystery of the physical existence of the world—one’s surprise, for example, that there is a world at all—has the power to interrupt the history of mankind. Lest this be understood as some form of primal ontological surprise, Weil uses the term ‘surnaturel’ to describe Jaffier’s decision not to act; his choice to instead, as she puts it, ‘stop time’. ‘Il est surnaturel d’arrêter le temps’, Weil writes in a contemporary notebook, regarding Jaffier’s retreat. And she repeats the term, instructing herself, ‘Faire sentir que le recul de Jaffier est surnaturel’. (Give the impression that Jaffier’s retreat is supernatural.) This, according to Weil, is a moment at which eternity enters human time.

Begun in 1940, Venise sauvée is also a complex comment on Paris’s fate under the Vichy state. The play is now infrequently staged, not least because of its incompleteness. And it is indeed difficult to think of a proper theatre and audience for its arabesques of meditative avoidance of action, leading to a non-event including lovely light. Yet, if there is such a theatre and such a setting, it might well be the Serralves Villa, as reimagined in the 2017 exhibition of artist Nick Mauss. With long bands of daylight striping the walls and floors, accompanied by equally expressive passages of shadow, the Villa lushly affirms its own existence. Its citations of classical architecture, along with its modern styling, suggest a complex and highly civilized relationship to the notion of history. Mauss’s sculptural and pictorial arrangements in the space at once reflect the aesthetic lineages in which the Villa’s design participates and challenge its claims to orthodoxy. Mauss’s work—like the sight of Venice imagined in Venice sauvée—and like the tragic hero’s miraculous recognition of the bare and actual existence of the great city—is a supernatural incision in everyday time and space. It permits the visitor access, if not to eternity, then to other planes of vision. Additional pictures, patterns, and outlines now appear within the Serralves Villa. These might underlie or be implicit within the Villa’s rooms. They may be excavations of form dormant in the Villa’s design. They may also simply be possible.

Mauss’s work plays with our expectations regarding surface. The image of what appears to be a pencil sketch has been enlarged in steel. It rests solidly against a wall. One feels a foolish urge to rush over and attempt to fold it in half. Surely it will resist. And yet one now feels an identical urge, with respect to the immaterial shadow cast by this sculptural form. The act in question is equally impossible.

Elsewhere, Mauss’s lines skitter across the speckled surface of a mirror. Intimate figures form. We must place ourselves conscientiously, depending on our willingness or unwillingness to be included, to have our own bodies potentially interrupt (or join) this scene.

The use of printed fabric, too, is a way of disrupting commonplace relationships to the surface on which a picture rests. Patterning, repetition; these gestures trouble the primacy of a single image. Indeed, the print on fabric threatens to become merely decorative, a drape or unrealized garment. It refuses the high seriousness of portraiture. It will not ‘look back’ at the viewer.

Everywhere there is a tension with, if not outright opposition to, lyrical treatment of history. Indeed, this is a tension Weil herself certainly felt. The various rooms and passageways are not explained with recourse to personal histories of the Villa’s creators or owners; no masterful design history stuns us into awed attention with its authoritative detail. Rather, the Villa is engaged as a varied surface, a permeable given. (How beautiful they are…, / These bands of daylight!) Everything we notice here, we are asked to notice as if we have already been looking at it. Everything is new, because we had not yet recognized that we had already been seeing it. The power to take this extraordinary home for granted (a power we never knew we possessed) is returned to us. The question that remains is, what will we do with this weightless liberty?

I do not pose the above question idly. For of course this art making is also occurring in the present of 2017, a historical moment of so outlandish a form that it begs for reconciliation with some era or event of the past. But my citation of Simone Weil’s citation of a 1618 intrigue in Venice as a citation of 1940s occupied France is not intended to serve as a complex analogue for the contemporary. Rather, I cite Weil because she seems to have observed something about the nature of the claims we make about the meaning of history, and I find her observation not merely relevant in a general contemporary sense, but relevant to Nick Mauss’s work, in particular.

The Serralves Villa contains numerous images of itself, numerous reflections, within it. These change with the changing time of day and the passage of visitors. These images are visual and kinetic, created by the elaborations of the sun, moon, and other external and internal sources of light; they are sonic, as when the Villa’s rooms reverberate with voices and footfalls. Clearly there are numerous examples of the way in which the Villa multiplies itself internally, by way of images produced by the coincidence of society and the physical world. (How beautiful they are…!)

Mauss’s response to these images is to admit their existence. But he does not reproduce them, holding them up so that we may step into a romantic dioramic recreation of the scene we already inhabit. He does not elaborate images in such a way that we are shocked or amazed by the accuracy of his gesture. Rather, his drawing—for much of his work, even the work that is not explicitly drawing, is drawing, and he is a person who can draw anything—favours a recessive articulation. To the viewer he offers a line that takes the form of a beautiful event that the viewer does not know he or she has not lost the power to take for granted.

One example of this mode of articulation are the dance figures Mauss has also included in the exhibition. What could be more artificial than these representations, with their unusual, typographically performative arrangements of text? And yet they are participatory images; they show and tell us what will happen, should we dance. They are not representations of dances, they are dances. In this sense, they recede from the eye as drawings and come to seem more like speech or gestures, i.e., the dances that they are. Of course, these dance figures are not original drawings by Mauss; they are reproductions. Their status as reproductions of historical texts intensifies our experience of Mauss’s line as one in retreat. He has not quite written these words, although he has also not quite not written them.

Similarly, the shifting locations and material statuses of the surfaces on which Mauss writes and draws contribute to our sense of his mode of drawing as a deliberate retreat from a kind of drawing that could be claimed or exploited, as such. In spite of this retreat, his drawings hardly cease to appear. They become ever more durable, more multiple, more fascinating, and more ubiquitous. The non-existent white ground of the so-called pencil sketch enlarged in steel I whimsically pretended to wish to bend earlier causes the viewer to attempt to compose a picture using a support that flickers in and out of view. One focuses, erroneously and even a little hilariously, on a white “page” that is in fact a wall. The act of perceiving the steel sketch itself may even become lost in this flickering deliberation.

To return to my earlier contentions regarding Weil’s treatment of history, her personal dedication to participation and empathy, along with her extraordinary capacity for study, suggest that the recessive action of Venise sauvée stands in deliberate contrast to hasty heroic and/or violent solutions to political crisis. Yet, this does not mean that the play ignores the existence of political crises or their seriousness and insolubility. Without idealizing human nature, the play imagines a place and a role in the material world for human nature—and ties this place and role to human politics. The play imagines that one way human consciousness and creativity can function is as a labour of ensuring that the ongoing human appreciation of beauty—a sometimes unconscious appreciation we all hope to have the luck of not needing to be reminded of by way of crushing deprivation, harm, or disaster—can merely continue.

I imagine that a staging of Venise sauvée among the rooms and passageways of the Serralves Villa in which Nick Mauss has staged his various modes of drawing (and withdrawing) would be an echoing, choral affair. I wonder if Mauss would consider contributing a setting for the play’s final poem. Perhaps there is some way of indicating what Weil has conceived of as nearly un-representable events: those sunbeams on water that turn out not to be anything more or less than sunbeams on water. Or perhaps the entire play could be revised to consist in the enactment of that single sentence of appreciative pleasure. I should say that this, at any rate, is what I think of Nick Mauss’s work as already accomplishing.


NB: Discussion of Simone Weil’s unfinished play, Venise sauvée, in this essay is deeply indebted to Anne-Lise François’s brilliant writing in Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience.


Date: June 22, 2017

Publisher: Museu de Arte Contemporâneo de Serralves

Format: Print

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the catalogue.


Intricate Others.


Intricate Others.

Narrative After Nature


To the extent that the world is made up of narrative discourse these days, it seems to have two fundamental ingredients or axes: plausibility and syntax. I write, “To the extent..,” because I am unsure how great the influence of narrative on current existence really is—or, for that matter, where narrative is. But to the extent that narrative is still with us, it seems to manifest itself via plausibility, a quality, and syntax, a quantity. In other words, narrative has to have some persuasive valence and it has to put things in an order; these are the minimums. We are also apparently living in a time that flatters and elevates the minimum, a curious aesthetic point in itself.

Take, for example, the news, a narrative form. It has lately taken one of the more dramatic turns in our newest era of turns, implosions, inflations, and drops. And we could talk, in particular, about a turn, in style and tone, of one of the most read organs of narrative discourse in the English language, the New York Times. Uncertain mental paging backward suggests one signpost of the shift to a buoyant new reportorial voice and enthusiasm for visual media, i.e., video, occurred in mid-2016. In May of last year the Times’s Executive Editor Dean Baquet delivered a memo outlining a coming transformation of the time-honored publication of record, long the haven of “All the News…,” etc. No more would the Gray Lady focus myopically on incremental, event-based coverage; up-to-the-minute announcements, Baquet noted, are available all over the Web. Rather, the Times would focus on “authoritative journalism and information readers can use to navigate their lives.” Stories would “relax in tone.” Editors and reporters would develop pleasing new “story forms” attuned to the continually changing ways in which readers consume information and, I guess, live. Baquet’s memo of May 2016 is of a piece with March 2014’s Innovation Report, a document that begins with the Sheenian—and now, I suppose, Trumpian—assertion that, “The New York Times is winning at journalism.” This report admitted the newspaper’s urgent need to seduce new readers, along with an ambition to become more “nimble” and fluent in the ways of the digital age. More recently, in January of this year, the 2020 Report appeared. Things look a bit more sanguine (particularly following the so-called “Trump-bump” of increased subscriptions during the harrowing miasma of post-election days and the interregnum). Baquet’s May 2016 memo on the ubiquity of free up-to-the-minute information is expanded, in the 2020 Report, into a thesis about why certain sorts of journalism are less read, “The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most ‘dutiful’—incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.” The Times must now dedicate itself to “All the News That’s Worth Paying For,” if it is to survive.

To return to my original contention, the Times now deals in plausibility, not fact. And it arranges this plausibility, employing a fun, multimedia syntax. These two gestures suffice, at a minimum, to give it a new narrative style. All this is particularly keenly clear to me because, from time to time, I read microfilm versions of the Times of yore in the basement of NYU’s Bobst Library. I awkwardly manipulate the little film reels and the required viewer for research purposes (this isn’t a case of nostalgia!). Though I do not doubt a single one of the eminently reasonable rationales for change supplied in either one of the Times reports or the memo above, I’ve lately been struck, as I scroll through old articles, zooming in and out, by the loss of the former fibrous, drab, newsy tone. On my way home from the library, I’ll take a look at the current paper, or, rather, update. My daily New York Times “Evening Briefing” appears in my inbox, concluding with a cheery image of some squad of adorable animals or a salute to a counterintuitive and amusing statistic. A sea lion has been rescued in a fuzzy sling! Losing your house keys is, paradoxically, healthful! In spite of myself, I often tremble as I come to the end of the briefing email. I know I’m being courted, entertained, if not pulled back from some imagined psychological brink. In someone’s eyes, I may be a bad reader. I may be distracted. I may not know what’s going on. And at this moment, as I am reading and recognizing a general plausibility overtaking fact, I often miss that former carelessness and professionalism, the hardboiled voice of the mean, old, strict, and somehow trusting paper, the one that talked about “unabashedly savvy real estate” and people who were “stalking a job” (this was the early 2000s, when the table was being set for another implosion), and so on.

If we are readers of realist novels, struggling with the gooey concept of the merely plausible, we might take a long view. We might indulge in some soft epochal categories. We might say that if the West’s 19th century was The Century of the Clerk, and the 20th century The Century of the Teenager, it has already begun to appear, if always prematurely, that the 21st century is The Century of the Troll. Each of the aforementioned figures has its own peculiar relationship to the act of narration. And another obvious tendency allies them: Each labors to reproduce culture. Bartleby, Bob Cratchit, and Bouvard and Pécuchet either did something repetitive or nothing at all; cinema and novels from The Magic Mountain to Lolita, from Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar to Infinite Jest, addressed themselves to individuals on the verge, exploited, ridden with angst, destined to embody whatever culture was, just before they became irrelevant adults; online expressions are relentlessly dissected, distorted, redistributed, but are there any good novels about this yet? Or is it that everything now is about this, including elections? We know well the clerk’s superannuated affect, either nonexistent or mystifyingly attuned to minutia. The teenager longs, weeps, rages, and ironizes, as the curtain of the most American of centuries falls on a pharmacologically managed excess of anxiety and deficit of attention. And now we seem to wonder if we should bother awakening into the next hundred years (who, anyway, is in charge of narrating it?).

The troll, broadly defined, is not a critic or satirist, so much as a weird method actor. The troll has traditionally participated by defining participation itself in an ambiguous if not absolutely negative light. The troll establishes the terms of others’ commitment to truth (which is to say, to any idealized and apparently unmediated entity) and reflects these back as image and/or text, and incessantly. But the troll’s either antisocial or paradoxically altruistic (or, both) interventions have already been extensively analyzed by individuals more qualified than I, and I would merely like to draw from this somewhat hastily defined category a general sense of why the plausible is so important—and how we can possibly give this category a more active, if not positive, valence.

Looking into a series of fragments I’ve jotted down in a notebook, I come across the following vague question, “Given the variety of temporalities that exist, solutions?” I’ve also written a phrase, “Lack of a preexisting commons.” And another strange question, “Does what we cannot forget take the form of an event?” In my own thinking around narrative, I’m familiar with discontinuity. It’s taken me years to learn to write a legible paragraph, and I still approach prose with trepidation, as it’s a highly artificial undertaking for me. (The way I think feels nothing like what I am doing here.) All the same, I am interested in the aspects of narrative that occur at the intersection of technique and reflection, and in prose, though of course not all narration occurs in prose.

Plausibility probably seems, at face value, like an extremely, even depressingly, insignificant quality of narrative. Indeed, it is. But plausibility, as a mere or minor way of addressing what is the case, of reducing the copula from hard-and-fast equivalency to a dotted line, offers us something by way of method that should not be ignored. Much as the troll proceeds from categories in which truth and the sublime are not merely under erasure but the tortured disillusionment leading to said erasure itself constitutes a risible piety, those who manipulate the plausible begin from an analogous point of liberty—a liberty that may also double as disaffection, alienation, boredom, despair. Yet those who play upon plausibility rather than actuality rescue contemplation from foolhardy ideals as well as from paranoid excoriation and embarrassingly principled condemnation. Or, rather, in the weird light of the subjunctive, such writers might, under the right conditions, permit contemplation to occur. (Plausibility need not, for example, be a species of pandering….)

I am not really much on optimism these days, but I did want to say something about why I think it’s particularly worth paying attention to weirder forms of narrative prose right now. I interviewed the writer Dodie Bellamy over the summer, and she said something to me that stuck. She said that there are reasons not to throw out narrative, and I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve thought about this in relation to Renee Gladman’s great new book of short prose, Calamities, in which refrain, repetition, and digression are treated as significant narrative forms—or, they become narrative forms, at least in the sense in which I find myself coming to understand narrative. Narrative does not have to be about moving things forward. It can be about going farther into what one has wanted a word or a sentence to be able to do, describing that wish. One could narrate writing itself, though of course the act of writing has a tendency to become a bit different from what is being talked about. Gladman opens each of her short “essays” (her term) with the incipit, “I began the day….” From here, a variety of things can occur; we might learn about a language game some academics are desultorily running their hands over, or we might hear about the effects of recent reading on the present, about the proximity of old loves. Plausibility is a gentle mist that squires us around. Someone is talking in these essays. Or, rather, someone is writing. I struggle here to express to you the elegance of the thought that is presented in Calamities. I think of the staircase, that fantastic human invention. I guess I would like to ask you to think of a staircase that has some sunlight on it. There is no anxiety in this writing about conviction. A step is offered; you go down. Syntax rises to the occasion, as style.

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I see the lightness of such plausibility and gracefully proffered syntax as becoming realer than the labored references of realist prose, but maybe you will understand what I mean. There is something that I want narrative to do now, which is, simply, to believe that I am here and will read, that my presence as a reader is a plausible one. The writer and artist Madeline Gins, for one, often worked with a fantastic sense of obviousness in this vein, so clear and energetic. In her first book of prose, of 1969, WORD RAIN or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), Gins writes, “I give you this book for a present. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence.” This will never happen, but I might like it very much if tomorrow’s “Evening Briefing” concluded with this such a series of sentence-based announcements. And if the New York Times began exploring this sort of story form.


Date: April 6, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Pages from WORD RAIN or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says) by Madeline Gins.

A Note on Vanitas


The driver exited his vehicle to take a selfie with the animals.
—Wikipedia, “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths"

Is all still vanity? Four hundred years ago, Dutch and Flemish painters produced hyperrealist still lifes of flowers, food, and luxury goods, seemingly fixing these gauds beyond time. So-called Vanitas images symbolize the brevity of human life, as well as the ephemerality and essential emptiness of earthly pursuits. Paradoxically, the Vanitas image also boastfully advertises the artist’s “ability to give permanence to the ephemeral and thereby overcome death,” according to historian Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. This tantalizing tension between human mortality and human ambition maintains today: High-net-worth individuals spend ever more in hopes of liberating their physical selves from senescence and death, while the rest of us obsessively save our memories to the cloud, convinced that the digital records that compose us will act as viable substitutes after we are dead. Meanwhile, the online graveyard grows. For example, the number of deceased individuals with Facebook profiles increases by an estimated 8,000 “users” per day, suggesting that our attempts to memorialize everyone and everything may mainly recall the fragility and brevity of life. Just as the Vanitas—also known as the pronkstilleven, or luxury still life, for its shiny and expensive contents—reminded wealthy patrons of their own earthly impermanence, we now negotiate a world of images that confusingly express our time’s extreme finitude (global warming, resource wars, economic stratification) even as they promise escape and immortality (life extension, quantum computing, planetary colonization).

In its earliest appearances in the English language, “vanity” flags the transitory nature of the human body, as well as the essential bootlessness of corporeal whim. Derived from a Latin root meaning “empty, void,” vanity is a paradoxical and sometimes dangerous way of relating to the self: To be vain is to mistake the changeable for the permanent, to love an image in the place of embodied presence, as the drowning victim Narcissus did in myth. Vanity is a conceptual error at once semantic and ontological, in which an item belonging to one category (the body) is presented as if it belongs to another (the numinous). Vanity may be the category mistake to end all category mistakes, a tragic misapprehension that is, all the same, associated with a non-negligible supply of pleasure and fun. Indeed, vanity often assists in crucial ways in our identification and interpretation of value, particularly when it comes to those endlessly seductive, sometimes troubling, sometimes anodyne items: art objects and luxury goods. Though we should perhaps know better, we hope that new purchases and proximity to beautiful, costly things will bring us increased vitality.

In this sense, little has changed since the 1600s, when opulent still-life paintings repurposed the failure to fully recognize our mortality as subject matter. Roland Barthes remarks on the seductive “sheen” of these meticulous and costly renderings of tables piled with wet grapes, split peaches, and shimmering oysters, which symbolize pleasures of fleshly existence; and the occasional leering skull or recently snuffed candle, which symbolize frailty and death. He reads the precise detail of these images as not merely allegorical, but expressive of a drive on the part of the artist to imprint one’s mark “upon the inert by shaping and manipulating it.” The art historian Svetlana Alpers, meanwhile, observes the remarkable “attentiveness” shown to the things of the pronkstilleven, whose astonishing realism suggests that they may also be visual documents of a new and modern style of looking, proofs of an emerging empiricism; soon artists might not merely paint nature but influence it.

As Barthes and Alpers note, the author of the Vanitas painting always seems just about to step into the image, to seize an oyster or disturb a precarious table setting. In Jacques de Gheyn II’s 1603 Vanitas Still Life, a massive hovering bubble threatens either to burst, ruining the composition, or to reflect the curved image of the artist himself, thereby interrupting the illusion of this apparently perfectly impersonal representation. The skill necessary to convey this opposition—between the ephemerality of experience and the overwhelming sensual presence of the physical world—ups the ante: The effort lavished on the delicate, shining surfaces implies that the painter may not believe in his own fleeting nature so much as his vicarious immortality, as guaranteed by the liveliness of the very work he was engaged in painting. The eternal present of the Vanitas image is animated not merely by the voluptuous objects it contains but by the illusion of an eternally living artist, who forever seems to hover just beyond the frame.

What is vanity now, and does it equate with mere selfishness or indicate a more complex balance of rational belief and carnal experience? Cryogenics labs offer to reanimate us into a future of improved technology. Luxury spas promise the approximation of youth. Google’s (a.k.a. Alphabet’s) Calico biotechnology arm will leverage the power of nature to extend life. These endeavors—often described in terms of service, even obligation, to the entire life-loving species—are buttressed by antiaging researchers who seem driven to prove that the more privileged among us are in fact no longer absolutely mortal. At the same time, we must reckon with the fact that, for the foreseeable future, we’ll all age and eventually pass away, particularly since senescence and death are not just emotionally but monetarily involved processes. The populations of many countries are disproportionately aged and aging, which poses challenges to the configuration of cities and economies (as well as questions about representation and inclusion); collective resources are already being strained, even as wealth is distributed with an unevenness that rivals the early nineteenth century—a statistic that becomes more disturbing the longer one ponders it.

The ways in which we recognize and deny death are embodied in the material things with which we surround ourselves. The drive to collect, categorize, and archive is one response to the uncertainty of mortality, and today’s ever-expanding capacities for digital storage encourage the endless memorialization of oneself and loved ones. The permanence or impermanence of such traces, which depend on the viability of servers and compatibility of files, software, and hardware, is debatable; indeed, the update could be the double-edged sword upon which our digital identities fall. Yet perhaps posterity is of lesser consequence to us than it once was. We are able to document our lives with unprecedented speed and medial diversity and produce endless streams of selfies and video testimonies for the “here” and “now.” If most of our content is addressed exclusively to the immediate present, perhaps we have begun to dispense with the notion of posterity at the very moment at which we are, at least in theory, able to save everything. In this case, it is not merely our conception of mortality that has been destabilized, but also our sense of time, in that we have begun to favor ephemerality and inhabit the present—on Snapchat and beyond—in new ways.

This issue of Triple Canopy features artists, writers, and critics who are thinking and working in the midst of these paradoxes. They reflect on a wide range of topics, from the unstable glamour of K-pop to the collective process of aging in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), from the deadly force deployed by the American police to the consolations of the recovery of one Los Angeles artist’s cenotaph-like home, from the antideath architecture of Arakawa and Gins to multiple contemporary interpretations of the Vanitas image tradition, from the much-heralded “end of death” to the pursuit of impossible—or nearly impossible—forms of beauty. The futility of human striving meets the plenitude of digital memory, and acts of self-representation contrast with attempts to comprehend the situation of the human species, prompting us to ask: Does death still define life as the “vanity of all vanities,” as Ecclesiastes has it, if death is also a highly remunerative field of scientific research and product development? How will solutions to the perceived problem of mortality be shared out, fairly or otherwise? What framing device will replace the all-comprehending selfie stick?


Date: September 15, 2016

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Otto Marseus Van Schrieck, detail of Still-Life with Insects and Amphibians, 1662, oil on canvas.


On site.


Sodom, LLC

The Marquis de Sade and the office novel.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the term bureaucracy entered the world by way of French literature. The neologism was originally forged as a nonsense term to describe what its creator, political economist Vincent de Gournay, considered the ridiculous possibility of “rule by office,” or, more literally, “rule by a desk.” Gournay’s model followed the form of more serious governmental terms indicating “rule by the best” (aristocracy) and “rule by the people” (democracy). Yet bureaucracy quickly developed a nonsatirical life of its own once the French Revolution got under way. The Terror was, of course, infamously bureaucratic, with dossiers the way to denunciation, condemnation, and execution.

On July 2, 1789, as legend has it, a voice rang out from the interior of the Bastille into the street below: “They are killing prisoners in here!” Two weeks later, citizens stormed the Bastille, inaugurating the long and complex series of events that would constitute the French Revolution. The alleged yeller, one Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, had been removed to the insane asylum at Charenton ten days before the siege, thus having miraculously galvanized his potential liberators or murderers and evaded them. It is a singular piece of luck that Sade was not present for the storming, for it is likely that, descending upon the marquis’ luxuriously appointed cell, the sansculottes would have had some difficulty differentiating Sade from his oppressors, much less from their own.

As this series of apocryphal events intimates, the Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters. He is at once the paradigmatic aesthete to end all aesthetes, a supreme materialist and spendthrift, an aristocrat determined to organize his life around complexly choreographed orgies (and the eccentrically appointed locations necessary for these performances), and an iconoclast, if not a revolutionary. Though the paper trail that emerges from his early life includes at least three accusations of flaying, stabbing, poisoning, and other unusual forms of physical and emotional abuse—leveled by prostitutes and other women poorly protected by the law—Sade has been held up as a beacon of sexual liberation during an era benighted by Christian repression and hypocrisy. Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva have praised the freedom of his writing and thought. As the myth of his cry to action from within the Bastille indicates, Sade’s readers are willing, in spite of his title, to receive him as an anarchist hell-bent on upending the feudal order of his day.

But for all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.

Like the word bureaucracy, sadism is a neologism that has taken on a life of its own. Today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sadism is an “enthusiasm for inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.” Yet Sade’s notion of dispassionate intimacy is quite particular. His sadism is less concerned with pleasure in the pain of others than with a lack of feeling regarding the pain of others. Though many of Sade’s writings describe characters who engage in cruel and murderous acts of sexual congress, few if any seem to enjoy the pain of others, no matter how necessary the mutilation of flesh to the act in question. Sade’s embodied economic processes, his sometimes rather less than mutually consenting coworkers, labor to produce orgasm—which is really just a route to apathy. After orgasm, Sade’s libertines are briefly freed from the confusing sensation of need. The libertine looks dispassionately down upon the flayed corpse in which he has just succeeded in ejaculating and experiences clarity. The corpse cannot, reasonably, be the object of affections or emotion; it holds no spell of either generosity or dependency over the Sadean character who has just made use of it. A corpse, even if nominally endowed with life, can inspire nothing other than apathy in the libertine. And apathy is the aesthetic mode that, for Sade, correlates with the best forms of agency, since it demonstrates the libertine’s freedom from Christian sympathy and its attendant hypocrisies. An absolutely liberated, absolutely impersonal pleasure testifies to the libertine’s refusal of insincere social bonds. “Virtue suffers the punishment of crime,” wrote Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet in 1771, “even as crime enjoys with impunity the pleasures that should be the rewards of virtue.” Sadean sex is, to inject a contemporary term, the fuck of the spreadsheet, in which all markers of identity and sentimentality are like the footlong dildo the eponymous libertine heroine of The History of Juliette uses to impale a nine-year-old girl: detachable, iterable, and sortable by size. Anyone can be a libertine, provided she or he is willing to be systematic.

The most famous of Sade’s narratives, 120 Days of Sodom, is also the most explicit about the Sadean protagonist or sadist. Here again liberation through apathy, rather than through cruelty or enjoyment, is key. The four friends who convene at Château de Silling for a four-month debauch are not so much interested in harming others as they are in orchestrating an experience that will be beyond anything they have previously enacted. This experience will, therefore, culminate in their absolute liberation from moral order. Drafted during Sade’s incarceration at the Bastille in microscript on a forty-foot roll of paper pieced together from smuggled scraps, 120 Days was a physical labor of desperation, passion, and personal and political rage, the composition of which was apparently accompanied by elaborate masturbation rituals. Sade never completed the manuscript, so we do not know what will happen to the libertines on day 120—but it seems to be a matter of little difference if they were to walk away from their fortress of horrors with plans to reconvene the following year or if the secluded castle were spontaneously engulfed in flames, taking all occupants to their deaths. (Manuscript notes suggest that sixteen people will survive the events at Silling and return to Paris, but who knows what, in a final draft, might have occurred.) Our own ambivalence regarding the book’s actual ending, which Sade sketches out in his notes as a series of coordinated imprisonments and executions, is not accidental. It results from Sade’s skillful cultivation of simultaneous prurient interest and utter apathy in the reader of 120 Days of Sodom. We are fascinated by the four libertine friends’ stats, by their personal deterioration or fortitude, by their ability to orgasm repeatedly or not at all, by the revolting details of body hair and the shapes of their buttocks. But beyond their appetites, appearances, and aristocratic titles, we know little of the friends save what they do in the fortress. And because what they do in the fortress is determined by a set of laws drawn up at the outset of their macabre vacation, plus narratives supplied by ancient procuresses invited expressly to narrate acts of debauchery, our psychological understanding of the four friends remains limited. We know that they are very rich, highly sexed, extraordinarily well organized, and thoroughly apathetic. Of the victims we know significantly less: they are young, beautiful, soft-skinned.

Within this desert of spiritual detail, one piece of familial backstory is supplied. At the opening of 120 Days, we learn that each of the friends has raped his own daughter and that each has married the unfortunate daughter of another one of the four friends. This arrangement guarantees that Christian marriage has been reimagined as an enterprise of debauchery. Yet this brief peek at a previous arrangement among the four provides a key to the meaning of other relentlessly formal coital permutations set up later on: 120 Days of Sodom is not a novel about the apathy of institutions and how they dehumanize and anonymize their members. It is not about marriage, unless we understand the four friends’ relationship as a kind of marriage. It is, rather, a novel about the apathy of coworking, a description of how individuals collaboratively create codes for behavior and imagine actionable scenarios in an enclosed space—i.e., office, another relative neologism derived from the Latin word for “obligation”—all the while guaranteeing that their actions will be impersonal. This is the sense in which 120 Days of Sodom can be considered an “office novel.” It is also, bizarrely, a comedy; it is the story of a highly successful office and how it works.

If, as in Tolstoy’s formulation, all successful offices are the same, what are the universal qualities of Sodom, LLC? What does this happy office have that other offices also share?

Hierarchy. The four friends form an executive committee, which is overseen by the four procuresses, four duennas, and four storytellers, who operate like a toothless board of directors. Beneath the four friends and their advisers are eight individuals titled “fuckers” whose professional function is not mysterious. Forming the ranks of junior staff are the four friends’ four unlucky daughter-wives and a group of sixteen children who are essentially sacrificial victims, aka interns—or, in a more perverse reading, the very 8½-x-11 multiuse acid-free paper on which the workplace discourse is pitilessly inscribed. There is no mobility within this hierarchy. A kitchen staff of three is exempt from the orgies so that it may concentrate on preparing food. There is also a scullery staff of three, all apparently murdered at the novel’s close according to Sade’s final notes.

Accounting. Sade’s own hand appears throughout the manuscript to count characters, particularly if any have been killed off, and to tally activities. At the close of the manuscript, he instructs himself to keep an account of the particular passions of his four central protagonists, “as, for example, the hell libertine,” though what he means by this is not entirely clear; it appears that he was separated from the manuscript before he was able to make good on this plan. This dispassionate accounting seems to require that the author catalogue the preferences of the four libertines so that each friend is scientifically differentiated. Elsewhere in his notes, Sade complains of his own tendency toward confusion and repetition, an imperfection he planned to correct with a more stringent accounting.

Purpose-built office space. The Château de Silling has numerous chambers with diverse designated functions. For example, everyone is required to defecate in the castle’s chapel. There are bedrooms for sleeping, a dungeon for torturing and murdering, a stage for communicating tales of debauchery. There are no exits; these have been walled off at the novel’s start, accessibility being a liability rather than an asset as far as the libertines’ place of business is concerned.

Production schedule. Each day at the Château de Silling unspools in a regular way. All present arise at ten AM, and debauchery and dining occur at fixed intervals until two AM. There are designated months for certain activities, as well as designated apparel. All present are made aware of their hourly tasks, but only the libertines know of the torture and slaughter with which the four-month fiscal year will end.

Catering. Delicious meals are provided in a timely fashion by dedicated cooks.

Bonuses. There is an unusual amount of eating of shit. In some psychoanalytic readings of the practice of coprophilia, excrement represents money. Certainly scat functions as a rarity in everyday sexual economies. At Château de Silling it is plentiful.

Dispassionate intimacy. All sex acts are preordained and coordinated by statutory schedule. The victims of the libertines cannot choose whether or not to have sex, but even the libertines are not free to choose when, whom, or how they fuck. The only emotional reaction manifested by the libertines is that of impatience, inspired by delays in sexual activity worked into the schedule set at the beginning of the novel. These delays have a speculative function. They increase the libertines’ passion through denial, which increases the yield on passion’s principal, as it were. Such delays are not directed at any particular libertine. They are impersonal, general, and purely pragmatic.

Office work sets into tension, in close quarters, the ambitions of the individual and the destiny of the group. Office workers rub elbows with one another and gather at the water (or kombucha) cooler, rolling chairs collide and become entangled, sweaty softball tournaments are organized. It is possible that the success of the individual can become the success of the group, but it is more likely that in order for an office to succeed, individuality must be undermined, in that it must always directly serve the plural. Here is a rationale for the current vogue for open-plan work spaces, in which one has little privacy unless urinating, defecating, or making coffee. The open-plan-office worker must progress from a state of hyperconsciousness of the effect of her fleshly presence on her coworkers to total numbness in order to get any work done. In such work spaces, the sensitive are likely to spend their days endeavoring to stop unconsciously fidgeting or touching their faces or hair. Open-plan offices also stymie the unusually creative and independent, reducing them into collaborators. Management likes this. Accountability and credit can circulate in offices and even temporarily land, but there should be no authors in offices, only positions. Meanwhile, offices are not just places. Offices are not merely locations, nor are they particularly egalitarian. There are “office politics.” The office has a will of its own, yet, paradoxically, it is not exactly collective.

Setting aside for a moment the annoying behavior to which we must become inured if we are to survive the office (inane chats, baffling email communications, multipage budgets), we must also learn to cherish less our personal specificity. This soft injunction to conform often has a funny way of meaning that we must also become inured to our colleagues’ specific personalities. We do not fully choose or even desire our coworkers, no matter how intentional or progressive the workplace. At the office, we need one another to fulfill certain tasks by means of certain skills. We have less need, inevitably, of our coworkers’ personal histories, the deep reasons why they are the way they are or need whatever is needed. Nor do we have much use for our coworkers’ bodies, in all their ample particularity. We must, with our coworkers, develop forms of dependency and attachment that are risible and fungible, but not too risible and not too fungible. The legend emblazoned above most office doors should be “Try Not to Harm One Another When Convenient but, Above All, Don’t Love One Another.” Far worse than insulting one’s office mate or stepping on a colleague’s toe would be to recognize her or him as one’s soul mate. In such a scenario, all work would cease. We, like Sade’s libertines, require a modicum of impersonality, if not an actual series of statutes or rotating cast of narrating hags, in order to interact effectively with our coworkers. We tersely sign our emails “Best,” but what does this really mean? How can we wish for the best on behalf of someone we—purposefully—barely know? And yet there is no more appropriate or versatile send-off. The polite, efficient apathy implied by “Best” is one of the greatest office supplies known to the contemporary world; it should be bottled and sold in bulk at Staples—which, perhaps, in some sense it already is.

Did Sade know he was writing about office life? Did he intuit that the neoclassic return of republican forms of government to the West would also bring new administrative cultures, new ways of dispersing agency within groups, new levels of mediation and organization of bodies by form and file not even imagined by the church? For Sade, the project of “being with” is a notion not as fraught as it is aggressively simplified. His erotic project, like Kant’s ethical project, is a reasonable means of removing hypocrisy and contingency from social interactions—or, perhaps, of removing hypocrisy by way of removing contingency. (Jacques Lacan, for one, was so taken by the marquis’ infallible logic that he placed Sade’s texts in dialogue with Kant’s writings on reason and ethics to contextualize modernity’s path to Freud.) Sade seems to dream of a sexual relationship in which choice, chance, personal dependency, and the existence of a consenting other have been removed. As things stand, there is too much contingency and complexity in sex for Sade’s taste. Indeed, according to Sade, sex can never be too orderly or too public. It is this valence of his thought that seems overwhelmingly applicable to the contemporary office, if not to contemporary social life overall. We suffer still from an excess of contingency when it comes to others. Too much is possible, particularly in light of the “death” of the Catholic god against whom Sade railed. In major metropolitan areas—hives of office life—everything is permitted, and too many bodies are way too near to hand.

The German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann wrote a lecture on love in the summer of 1969 in which he argues that love is an important form of mediation, a solution to the problem of excessive contingency in republican social life. According to Luhmann, love allows us to simplify our social lives in a way that is, counterintuitively, not reductionist, since love depends on our individuality in order to function. Luhmann argues for the exceptionality of love, maintaining that “other media of communication can take the place of love to only a very limited extent, just as love can not take the place of truth or power or money without limitations.” Compare Luhmann’s solution to Sade’s: the latter removes love altogether while the former describes love as a logical necessity. Perhaps this is why Sade’s descriptions of human interactions seem so much more applicable to office work than to personal life. While the personal continues to dominate contemporary culture, it is difficult for those of us who cherish our individuality, as well as our privacy, to take Sade entirely seriously. We should also be just a bit afraid of him.

It is crucial to mention that 120 Days of Sodom is, in spite of the copious violence and elaborate intercourse, one of the most boring novels of all time, particularly if read from beginning to end. One might, at some point in its pages, prefer to take up with an ATM receipt or an end-user license agreement. The novel expresses apathetic joys that are less reminiscent of the aesthetics of the snuff film—a genre that, pace ISIS, is almost always determined to have been faked—than the horrors of petty administrative perfections, callous email exchanges, and endless insurance forms. The faint pleasure of office culture is merely the anodyne pleasure of any coworker, scrolling through email before she heads out to the next meeting. It might seem like perversity to describe it as such, but take a closer look: herein lies your pleasure. For today, everyone is a libertine.


Date: September 1, 2016

Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.

This article appears in the print edition of Lapham's Quarterly, fall 2016, "Flesh."


The "Flesh" Issue.





The Many Ways & Reasons to Mix Poetry + Prose

Contributing to a Long-Standing and Very Various Tradition

All I often knew was that I did not only want to write poems. This was a theme through my adolescence (I was an early writer, in some ways) and then later. A bizarre depression settled over the already strange young person that I was, for I had inherited a world that stringently divided prose from verse, that swore to the usefulness of prose and the mere tolerability—bemoaning a noxious lack of good, clear purpose—of poetry, as pop songs played in the background. And on this point I have mostly remained despondent. I have never wanted only to write poems or, for that matter, to write only prose.

But as luck and the lucky fact that it is nearly impossible for a human being to have an entirely unique desire would have it, I was not alone in my wish for literary combination. Though this form, practice, or, as it may be, genre is seldom taught in school (I have been to many), there exists a long-standing and various tradition of bringing together poems and prose into synthetic items of literature. In the classical West sometimes this is called prosimetrum. Elsewhere, I have liked terms like “miscellany,” “saga,” “postmodern novel.” There are, it turns out, not just many ways, but many reasons to write a work bringing together groups of sentences with groups of words that are measured out according to principles and patterns that are not merely grammatical. If your eyes can withstand another 1,500 words, you may gather what are, in my opinion, a few of the better reasons for engaging in this sort of mixture.

REASON ONE: you recognize that much distinction is arbitrary. I do not know if prose is the opposite of verse. This is like asking what the opposite of a cat is. Some may know that verse and prose have long had the strange if plausible function of designating, in writing, the difference between song and “plain” speech. It’s on these grounds, anyway, that much of the much-touted, as well as the much-debated, specialness of poetry, particularly lyric poetry, is, as far as I have been able to ascertain, based.

Let us jump to the 17th century in France. A character in Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme remarks (I paraphrase), “Very cool. I had no idea I’d been speaking prose my whole life.” Such limp delight at learning that one is already playing by timeworn rules suggests a rhyme between canonicity and complacency, of course, but could also hint at the radical irrelevance of the very category of prose—or, for that matter, speech. It is surely easier to maintain interest in these matters when writing has not lain down and died in the pit suggested by the verse-prose distinction. The German Romantics’—to jump again—idea of prose was pleasantly nonstandard. If aphoristic, it was endlessly so, like a staircase in a dream. Their poems were likewise dreamy; sometimes fragmentary, disordered. Their novels included folk songs and other lyric professions, suggesting that there was something particularly worthy about the combination of lineated language with the paragraph, the breaking of prose. The poet Novalis wrote about the sentence as a temporary “containment” of linguistic dynamism, maintaining that “A time will come when it no longer exists.” And Friedrich Schlegel, in his “Letter on the Novel,” composed at the dawning of the new (19th) century, insisted on a lapidary lineage of mixed genre dating back to the late middle ages: “I can hardly imagine a novel otherwise than as a mixture of narrative, song, and other forms. Cervantes never composed otherwise, and even Boccaccio, in other respects so prosaic, decorated his collection with inset songs.”

It seems, too, that within the apparently mongrel and/or pastiche environment of novels including songs, which is to say, songs surrounded by narrative prose, poets might act not only as convenient speakers or singers but also as more or less curious characters, bringing me to my second rationale, aka, REASON TWO: it is conceivable to you that the poet is as likely to be a character or other figment, as a genuine, living person. For Anglophone readers, the inevitable point of comparison is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, of 1962. And, as this novel points up, when the poet, here one John Shade, becomes a character, we find a literalized depiction of those aspects of personality and personal history that in America the professional critic was tasked with discovering and/or vivisecting on behalf of the lay reader. Whether or not Nabokov was aggressively satirizing New Critical leanings in American letters, Pale Fire, like Novalis’s The Novices of Sais, places a poet in a landscape, which is at once the prose of the book and a more-or-less everyday world. In this sense the novelist might be acting as a sort of historian, folklorist, or cultural critic; the song or poem does not appear free of charge but rather demands context, which is often a close cousin of interpretation. It hardly need be said that in the novel the poem can be deployed in an endless number of ways, ranging from artifact to spell.

Yet, the paradigmatic examples of books of poems combined with plot have to be a pair of works written by contemporaries in 11th-century Japan, The Pillowbook by Sei Shōnagon and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. In these two books, the first a diary, the second a novel, numerous characters within court society compose poetry. This is at once a pastime and a kind of networked system of communication and signification, permitting simultaneous epistolary address and reference back to the system, to its histories and commonplaces. Through the poems interspersed in The Pillowbook and The Tale of Genji we learn not merely the emotions and motivations of characters, but also how they deal with the problem of writing and how they deploy it, whether as lure, dissimulation, entreaty, or gift outright. For writing is not only unnatural, it is also and of course a means of obtaining and manipulating power. And the ambiguity of the poem permits kinds of meaning prose’s obviousness precludes. A description of a flower may be just that, yet it may also be sign or secret message; it will be read differently by different characters, just as by the reader herself, who reads over, as it were, characters’ putative shoulders.

The prismatic nature of the poem, its turning inability to remain “just text,” or “just address,” or “mere symbol,” or “absolute literal designation,” and on and on, is also exploited in exceedingly interesting ways in the American modernist context. The lack of (Romantic) mysticism or (medieval) intrigue is made up for in prosimetrical works that take the poem as an item capable of varying and destabilizing contemporary prose to ends at once aesthetic and political. Works by Jean Toomer and William Carlos Williams bring me to my third and final historical reason to combine, REASON THREE: you are bored with a certain (sad) status quo. Toomer’s Cane, of 1923, presents a combination of modernist poems, clear and vivid in their depictions of American landscapes and persons, with short prose vignettes employing vernacular language along with song-like refrains. This unique book’s intent seems to be to bring into dialogue the values of high modernism and the everyday speech and African American folk culture of the South; it seems to have ambitions at once ethnographic and loftily, exactingly stylistic. William Carlos Williams meanwhile locates an American identity through improvisation and excess, re-describing both prose style and the capacities of verse through various modes of excerption, appropriation, and apostrophe, after a fashion that belies his reputation as a rigorous reducer of words into machine-like things. Though Williams wrote many books of mixed genre, Spring and All, published in the same year as Cane and home to the famous minimal poem including a “wheel / barrow,” is the scene of a particularly powerful explosion of speed-fueled prose typewriting; it’s a book of leaps and lashings, a seeming attempt to prove that poetry can invade the syntax of the American sentence, ecstatically. If it does not exactly promote the joy of romantic love, then it demonstrates the power of an encounter of another kind, between precise syllabic poems and a tumbling, rushing onslaught of prose. Like Cane, Spring and All is a comparative text; it invents new terms and tastes by way of contrast and association.

Above I have supplied three reasons, and though I like them fairly well, they do not, in the end, as is probably to be expected, exhaust all my thinking and feeling about varying, combinatory writing styles. I may care most about a mixture of styles because it allows the paranoiac in me to comment on the conservative literary (not to mention educational) systems that I fear linger in our world, in spite of—and sometimes even paradoxically by way of—the iconoclasm of modernist heroes et al. Verse is not just, to my mind, a form with various technical appurtenances, since it has a long history and specific social functions (inputs, outputs); like prose, it seems to me at times a sort of system, with myriad institutional nodes. Though I am not so heroic myself as to believe that my contemporaries are in need of saving, I do often find that some perverse aspect of me would very much like to make things a little bit messier, throw a wrench in the engine, and otherwise, pick your frustratingly well-worn metaphor, cause to function less smoothly said system of literary production. Most of all, stubborn being that I am, I find myself drawn to various styles of silence, said silence being a possible ingredient in, or sign of, the still, at least to me, unaccountable distance between poetry and prose.

Anyway, could we remove a poem from its job as a poem? A sentence, from its job as a sentence? What would we need to contribute to writing to cause such odd dismissals to transpire in a believable manner? What is the very smallest unit that can indicate plot, as such? What occurs (to us) when we are not sure what we are reading? To the extent that these aberrant questions have answers, they indicate the direction toward which some, though certainly not all, of my writing tends, which is to say, not toward the invention of new reasons for writing between and around and among established literary modes, but toward the invention of instances of contrast, that can in turn stand in stark contrast to the abundant supply of similarities I am sure to have found, in my perverse search for fresh difference.


Date: August 3, 2016

Publisher: Literary Hub

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Blue and yellow make green.

Archival Fiction Upends Our View of History


Realist historical fictions, with the rustling demands of their costumes and their period-appropriate speech, often depend on painstakingly described physical veracity, sensory believability, to steep a reader in the past. While not necessarily factual, such works say: This really occurred, and now you, too, may experience it. As the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt enthused in a review of “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell—perhaps the paradigmatic contemporary example of such fiction—great historical novels “provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.”

But a handful of recent works of fiction have taken up history on radically different terms. Rather than presenting a single, definitive story—an ostensibly objective chronicle of events—these books offer a past of competing perspectives, of multiple voices. They are not so much historical as archival: instead of giving us the imagined experience of an event, they offer the ambiguous traces that such events leave behind. These fictions do not focus on fact but on fact’s record, the media by which we have any historical knowledge at all. In so doing, such books call the reader’s attention to both the problems and the pleasures of history’s linguistic remains.

The book that made this distinction clear to me is a new novel by Danielle Dutton, called “Margaret the First.” Dutton’s Margaret is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who lived from 1623 to 1673 and was one of the first British women to publish in print under her own name. Cavendish wrote numerous plays, poetry collections, memoirs, philosophical and scientific treatises, and one of the earliest works of utopian science fiction, a novel titled “The Blazing World.” Her marriage to the liberal and well-connected William Cavendish was significant not just for the title it afforded her but because of William’s acquaintance with such contemporary luminaries as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Marin Mersenne. Though Margaret’s interactions with these men were mostly indirect, their influence is felt throughout her oeuvre, including her unusual “Philosophical Letters,” of 1664, an imagined correspondence in which she debates many of their views and the mechanistic scientific tendencies of the time.

Cavendish’s life had enough drama to serve a more conventional historical novel; at least one or two of her illegitimate children, lost to history, could surely have been imagined in these pages. Or Dutton might have chronicled a love affair with, say, the cross-dressing Queen Christina of Sweden, whom Cavendish imitated in one of her own most audacious social stunts, baring her rouged breasts at the theatre. But Dutton’s Duchess mostly stays at home. And she exists, in this book, as a study in textual vestiges, as much palimpsest as person. She is first revealed to the reader via the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys. Dutton draws on quotations from Pepys’s diary to narrate an amusing interlude from his life: he was in a crowd when Cavendish’s carriage drove by, the mob shouting after it “Mad Madge! Mad Madge!” (The origins of that nickname are disputed, but Cavendish was well known for sartorial, as well as literary, eccentricity.) Dutton’s Pepys feels himself slightly above fandom, but he is struck by her nonetheless: “The whole story of this lady is a romance, and everything she does,” he writes.

That Cavendish’s contemporaries considered her a sort of fiction, even in the flesh, makes her a particularly appropriate subject for Dutton’s approach. The novel is told half in the first person, half in the third, and in some sense very little occurs. Dutton does not supplement the fascinating material details of Cavendish’s milieu with period intrigue; there are no poisonings, no clavichord-backed avowals of love. There are, instead, vivid, episodic bursts of narration, recounting a birthday party, the teasing of her by siblings, and Margaret’s time at court in Oxford, after the revolution interrupted her aristocratic family’s bucolic life. Dutton gives us brief, imaginative glimpses of the youthful Margaret, but as she becomes more famous and, therefore, more recorded, by herself and by others, what we get becomes less speculative, and more tied to those records. In this way, Dutton foregrounds the textual limitations of history, even if it means inventing less of Margaret’s later years.

Dutton’s previous novel, “Sprawl,” is an ekphrastic meditation on the aesthetics of American suburbs, and “Margaret the First,” like that book, is largely descriptive. So, for example, a section about Cavendish’s struggle to conceive a child consists largely of a list of the cures that were prescribed to her and her husband:

This time they tried, for him, crystals taken from wood ash and dissolved in wine each morning; for me, a tincture of herbs put into my womb at night with a long syringe. I submitted silently, William out in the hall. Come autumn I was to be injected in my rectum with a decoction of flowers one morning, followed by a day-long purge, using rhubarb and pepper, then a day of bleeding, then two days where I took nothing but a julep of ivory, hartshorn, and apple, followed by another purge—and on the seventh day I rested. After this came a week of the steel medicine (steel shavings steeped in wine with fern roots, nephritic wood, apples, and more ivory), described by a maid as "a drench that would poison a horse."

Throughout the novel, Dutton treats the reader to a variety of carefully researched objects: “a fine sugar cake with sprigs of candied rosemary like diamond,” “a transparent beehive from which the men extorted honey without disturbing the bees.” Cavendish believed that everything in the universe was fundamentally material, and that matter—including, for instance, books and letters—was capable of thought. It makes a kind of sense, then, that Dutton would reanimate her through textual and material sources—including Virginia Woolf’s essay about her, “The Duchess of Newcastle,” lines from which appear in “Margaret the First.” Dutton acknowledges this in an Author’s Note, and includes a list of more than twenty other books she drew on in her research. Reviewing the book in the Times, the writer Katharine Grant suggested that this reliance on other sources might make readers see the novel as “more a sewing together than an entirely original work,” as though that would be a bad thing. But this is a virtue, and the key to Dutton’s portrayal.

Dutton’s handling of history calls to mind other recent books set in the past, books that have, on the surface, little in common with “Margaret the First.” Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” from 2014, revolves around an attempt on Bob Marley’s life in the late seventies. But the book is full of contentious, unresolvable voices, and never gives us an objective spot to stand on. The role of narrator cycles among members of the police, both Jamaican and American C.I.A., and among agents of various syndicates; there are also relatively innocent bystanders. The story is constantly shifting, and no one seems entirely up to date on what has actually happened. One of James’s characters, Papa-Lo, a Jamaican gang leader of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, gives voice to this continual state of uncertainty. “Sometimes,” he says, “I don’t learn till too late, and to know something too late? Well is better you never know as my mother used to say. Worse, you all present tense and have to deal with sudden past tense all around you. It’s like realizing somebody rob you a year late.” The novel revels in the immediacy of oral history even as it points out, “Rashomon”-like, the difficulty of establishing a single, unified story via first-hand accounts. Perhaps, James seems to suggest, there is no such thing—no pure, stable, and eternally recognizable occurrence, against which all other occurrences can be measured.

John Keene’s short story and novella collection “Counternarratives,” published last year, does something similar, albeit in a very different style. Keene presents many of his stories in the official voice of history; they include maps and newspaper clippings and employ archaic prose styles, and they gradually reveal the ways in which histories lie. “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” opens with a news account of the discovery of a dead body in a favela. Then the story shifts to a historian-narrator, who chronicles a dynasty of slave-holding Brazilian oligarchs. Gradually it becomes clear that neither this historian nor the news report can be trusted. Elsewhere, Keene’s protagonists speak in the first person, at once revealing themselves and receding into attractive turns of phrase. Keene’s polyvocal narratives masquerade as “primary-source documents” and present convincing first-person testimony, while at the same time establishing undercurrents that undermine the victors’ tales—and any hope that we will ever fully settle on the truth.

These techniques are not entirely new, of course. Umberto Eco’s best-selling “The Name of the Rose,” published more than three decades ago, is a semi-archival fiction, which imagines that the pages of Aristotle’s writings on comedy were poisoned by a zealous medieval monk, then destroyed in a fire. But Eco’s murder mystery is a flagrantly fictionalized work of literary commentary; his novel wants us to meditate on the canonical prohibition of laughter via an obviously fanciful imbroglio. Though it’s not a work of fiction, a more interesting point of comparison might be Michel Foucault’s strange 1975 text, “I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother...: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century.” Foucault collects the dossier of the legal proceedings, including first-person testimony, along with Rivière’s own beatific autobiography. “Pierre Rivière” is, then, quite literally an archive, but it also functions like a novel, a quality not lost on Foucault.

Though she draws extensively on textual sources, Danielle Dutton does allow herself the freedom of a novelist. (Her author’s note begins, “This is a work of fiction.”) “I am much too,” Dutton’s Cavendish says at one point, unabashedly comparing herself to accomplished men of her day. Cavendish is much, but I have been unable to locate this boastful phrase in any of her published output. Of course, this does not mean that the Duchess could not have scribbled it somewhere or, perhaps, thought it. But clearly, in “Margaret the First,” there is plenty of room for play. Dutton’s work, like James’s and like Keene’s, serves to emphasize the ambiguities of archival proof, restoring historical narratives to what they have perhaps always already been: provoking and serious fantasies, convincing reconstructions, true fictions.


Date: May 6, 2016

Publisher: The New Yorker

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, seen here in an undated seventeenth-century illustration.


The Pink Trance Notebooks
By Wayne Koestenbaum

I THINK OF the aphorism as a sympathetic form. The aphorism is succinct, correct. It slinks shut, sometimes with a little snap or tone. Its brevity is a performance and thus requires skill, also a source of its sympathy. Something (even a great deal of something) has been left out, but the aphorism is not merely or only a fragment or piece, something bit haphazardly off from something else. The aphorism is careful, rather than abrupt, and frequently warm. It is, as they say, lively. “I am dynamite,” says Nietzsche. “I’m like the animals in the forest. They don’t touch what they cannot eat,” says Karl Lagerfeld. “In love, he who heals first, heals best,” says La Rochefoucauld. “My vagina hurts when I watch gymnastics,” says Chrissy Teigen.

Wayne Koestenbaum, poet, novelist, and critic, in his recent The Pink Trance Notebooks, says, “— don’t / keep saying ‘Stabat Mater’ / as if it meant anything —.” Also: “I wrote / down every word the / drunk jocks muttered.” “I am the love / child of Las Vegas / and Belarus.” “I made a film / (Warhol-style) of the child / psychologist and me / orally grappling.” And: “am I / squirrel-like?”

Aphorisms please us. Aphorisms are literary. They end quickly. However, their boundaries are somewhat trickier to establish than one might imagine at first glance, and it’s in this that their peculiar literariness inheres. Literature’s transgression of boundaries (legal, generic, national, stylistic, etc.) allegedly establishes its value and/or goodness. This is the reason we like writing that is literary rather than not, that is not, therefore, purely professional, scientific, didactic, legal, personal, academic, commercial, factual, or whatever else. As artist and critic John Kelsey noted a few years ago, one can hardly be blamed for thinking that literature, in all its liberation and excess, has already been obviated by something called the internet!

As it mobilizes and gains speed, art becomes a lot more like what literature once was (which is a strange thought now, when literature is itself being superseded by digital culture): in its time, literature was a massive info leak that eroded disciplinary hierarchies, overflowing national borders and property lines alike.

“In its time.” I think about the collaborative project of the Athenaeum, a literary magazine put together in 1798 by the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich, two key Romantics. Romanticism’s revolutionary republican, a subject by natural right, required a new mode of literary authority, with the result that the Romantic author styled himself “a massive info leak” — much as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy maintain in their work on “The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism,” The Literary Absolute. With the adoption of the aphoristic series, experimental writing becomes exciting to both writer and reader on account of this writing’s incompleteness, its interest in futurity, its individuality, and its allegiance with process rather than fixity. Or, as the poet Novalis informs the reader of an odd, aphoristic series published as “Blütenstaub” (Pollen) in the first issue of the Athenaeum, “The best of what the French won in their revolution is a piece of Germanity.” A magic genealogy imagined here, in which France’s revolutionary war at home wins it a piece of foreign spirit (if not soil), is made plausible through literary induction. Novalis maintains, “It is a matter of course, for we stand on exactly the road the Romans arose from.” Because Germans are aesthetically linked to Roman mores, republicanism is also German, as is — the reader triumphantly discovers — la République. Romantic literature permits a specialized and nearly nonsensical synthesis, i.e., “France is German,” that is also an overflow of other disciplines, of other criteria for truth — or, as Paul de Man fastidiously puts it, “the continuity of aesthetic with rational judgment […] is the main tenet and the major crux of […] ‘Romantic’ literatures.”

Whether or not it now makes sense to view the discursive syntheses of the World Wide Web in a similar light (i.e., as somehow like art, which is somehow like literature, which is basically Romantic), not least of all because of the existence of algorithmically generated hierarchies, the question of a link between literature’s abilities or ambitions and republicanism remains — as does the question of what literature may, more generally, do or say and for whom. Without taking Kelsey too much to task, it hardly needs to be said that definitions of literary value that depend upon Romanticism are probably incomplete.

Enter Wayne Koestenbaum. Or not, “Enter Wayne Koestenbaum,” because I’m not sure Koestenbaum shares my weird dread that literature may one, not exist, or two, be the inherited fever dreams of a bunch of second-rate philosophers, but enter Wayne Koestenbaum anyway, because Koestenbaum has some very interesting ideas about how to combine aesthetic and rational thought and has placed many of these thoughts in a book called The Pink Trance Notebooks, a series of poems that take the form of lineated aphorisms. These aphorisms are witty, have music if not rhyme, and are occasionally quite visually precise. They combine the sometimes painfully personal with erudition and wit. Re: my aforementioned dread(s), Koestenbaum seems to suggest that I could consider asking myself, “Why do straight men / want to hang out with me? / Why does the Iliad exist?” Good questions.

Like the fascinating rubbish tips that have collected on the ground in a brief metaphor in a certain dodgy English translation of Lacan’s essay on “The Mirror Stage,” in The Pink Trance Notebooks well-turned phrases of diverse origin have been let fall. Choice aphorisms seem to have dropped into a series of notebooks in the course of the writer’s approach to an image of himself. We do not know what the writer’s image looks like except in some screened, flickering, or otherwise transitory view. (Possibly there is no monolith, anyway.) Advice as to whom we’re dealing with, what sorts of men, women, art, and gestures he likes, is always partial; always displayed as non sequiturs, small flags, signals, lines. I would hesitate to call this code, since the rhetorical dynamic is not one of replacement of one thing by another but rather replacement of any feasible or conceivable whole by a sidelong glance, a flash, a sinew. Yet the synecdoche bears a “natural” affiliation with some environment. A whole social life, a whole life, flows on behind these glances. And there is a sense that the eye that beholds what is here also squeezes, flexes a bit, recombines, palpitates something that is, as in that cliché, fugitive. But like most clichés, it’s not just that.

A number of authorities have remarked that time may have two valences rather than three. In other words, that the division may not be between past, present, and future, but rather between the fixity or relative knowability (of course, debatable) of the past and the virtuality of just about everything else. The present is constantly unfolding and therefore impossible to freeze, still, or otherwise capture. The future, meanwhile, is an irrelevant puff of ether, a nightmare or fantasy toward which we are all, if the calendar is to be believed, inexorably drifting. Yet Koestenbaum’s poems seem to have felt, rather than everybody’s everyday speculative dread, a temporal split, and on a daily basis. They dispense with the dumb dream of the future and peruse the present’s extraordinarily limited depths. Smallish (though neatly organized into larger units via notebook), they seem to have been written in — or on, or with — a quite particular portion of the present’s inexhaustible not-quite-yet-ness, the side that kisses the past, and this is why, I believe, we see the word “trance” in this collection’s title, or, rather, why these are trance notebooks rather than notebook notebooks. One does not get to inhabit the queer aspect of the present, its virtual, glowing, ebbing outline, while making a rational spreadsheet at high noon, socialized in a budgetary meeting, sunlight roaring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, wide awake, and perhaps, because one is so conscious, enjoying some cold-pressed beet juice. (Of course, bright sun can produce its own delirium.) No, because no matter how awake one may be in this scenario, no matter how pink one’s juice, this is not where the present lives. The present is a nothing; it is also all there is (“preemptive / Kaddish for the not dead,” Koestenbaum begins one vignette). The present’s wildness, its unsuitability for codification as knowledge or fact, also suggests the need for trance, as well as the need for synthesis.

I like the notion that trance — being another German import, musically speaking — could displace the sublime. People have spanked the sublime pretty thoroughly of late and, from what I can tell, dispensed with it; but the German Romantics, those so deeply invested in the literary aphorism and that form’s bizarre borders, of course cherished sublimity, with its simultaneous pain and pleasure, its symmetries of annihilation and incontrovertible presence. And I think the Romantics’ desire for an aestheticized language of republicanism, one of magic synthesis, remains a significant object lesson. We have, at any rate, arrived at a moment in American poetry (apologies for the nationalism) at which certain long-cherished questions of address and form are no longer enough to help us out. So-called “conceptual poetry,” whatever this term means, which was apparently designed to give equal traction to all persons with browsers and word-processing software, a highly reasonable aesthetics if ever there was one, has devolved into an attempt on the part of the usual suspects to leverage the commons, if not history itself, during the course of yet another academic conference. Meanwhile, for all the reasons that the lyric has traditionally been disappointing, the reasons Adorno suspects that the lyric’s “own principle of individuation never guarantees the creation of compelling authenticity,” the lyric is still, like your sexy pizza slice costume, failing to impress universally and unequivocally this fall.

The trance state is one in which we are led; we slough off the limits of agency in favor of becoming not one, but n+1 (with apologies to the magazine, whom I don’t mean to invoke). Entranced, we are in the sway of some unknown — or, depending on the kind of trance, some known — other. Rimbaud, famously: “Je est un autre.” But Rimbaud was only drunk. The trance state is not a pronominal exchange; it’s an encounter, an ecstatic combination rather than a coma, renunciation, or switch. Speaking of the lyric, Koestenbaum asks, “Is Whitman pro-onanism / or anti-onanism?” He answers himself, “Obviously / both, Whitman is / pro-bowel.” One could call this a question of profundity, or one could read it as the announcement of a poetic mode that has always, for excellent reasons, been just a few steps ahead, as well as just out of reach, of the ideological quandaries Romanticism so agonizingly and so ecstatically thought to make us care about.


Date: December 2, 2015

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Wayne's world.


Definitions of literary value that depend upon Romanticism are probably incomplete.

  • The essay by John Kelsey cited in the text is "Next-Level Spleen," originally published in the November 2012 issue of Artforum.

Raymond Roussel

Galerie Buchholz

Difficult author; reclusive aesthete; visionary fabricator of fantastic objects literary, conceptual, and material: The reputation of Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) often precedes him. In photographs he is a pale, impeccably groomed man with a resplendent moustache. A shy smile pairs oddly with the wild energy in his gaze. His writings, allegedly incomprehensible to all but the most committed appreciators of his day still receive less attention than his biography or, what is perhaps more accurate, legend.

Galerie Buchholz’s recent exhibition is the latest view into the Roussel annals. It also functions as a housewarming: Previously exclusively a Berlin concern, Buchholz now has a foothold near the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Behind the robust façade of a townhouse of the sort normally occupied by foreign embassies, Buchholz’s three-room offering of Rousseliana is an extremely welcome addition to the neighborhood and feels, more generally, like a happy return to a fan favorite. Roussel’s work never gets old—partly because of how strange it is, and partly because so few people have actually read it.

Roussel wrote long, formally and conceptually complex poems, as well as novels. He is best known for 1910’s Impressions of Africa, a novel that he published at his own expense and later mounted as an elaborately costumed play. The structure of the novel is famously based on the punning difference between two otherwise identical, seemingly insignificant phrases: les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard (white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) and les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard (letters of a white man about the bands of the old pillager). Beginning with the first of these two arbitrary images, Roussel concludes 26 chapters later with the second; in the pages between, he describes the court of an imaginary African king at which, in a fantasy of colonialism reversed, a troupe of European entertainers are detained, forced to enact various impossible tableaux.

Like the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s oeuvre marks the encounter of Victorian representational styles and ideas about time with those that come to characterize modernism. Unlike the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s writings are not concerned with phenomenal reality. Instead, Roussel wants his readers to consider unreal visions already mediated by writing or other technologies, not experiences but rather images of experience; Roussel is a practitioner of the trope of ekphrasis, or description of another work of art in writing, par excellence. In Impressions of Africa, in what amounts to a displacement of lived time by performances and scientific experiments, unusual devices give rise to new images and texts. There are light-projecting plants; a glass-enclosed mechanical orchestra powered by the thermal sensitivity of bexium, an imaginary metal; a photo-mechanical painting machine. These “machines correspondantes,” as Gilles Deleuze called them, have the additional effect of rendering ornament essential rather than “removable,” as in Walter Pater’s formulation. For Pater—whose stylistic economy was influential for modernists from Proust to Ezra Pound—the “surplusage” of decorative language diminishes meaning. Pater’s rules are passionately flouted by Roussel, whose nearly nonsensical ekphrastic delays, or stoppages, produce exciting excursions into speculative artistic and scientific practice.

Galerie Buchholz helpfully parses Roussel’s relationship to Proust by means of the inclusion of two editions of Proust’s prose-poem collection, Les Plaisirs et les jours, published in 1896, the year before the appearance of Roussel’s first novel-in-verse, La Doublure. This juxtaposition is characteristic of what is most exciting about the show’s display of numerous books, which allows us to draw our own conclusions about the milieu in which one might have encountered these publications for the first time. Even more startling and immediate are enlargements of a series of Roussel family snapshots, some taken by Raymond, including a close-up of Madame Roussel and a pet dog with eyes that appear to be made of glass. Here we glimpse a largely unknown corner of the archive.

Yet far more space in this modest gallery is devoted to the better-known reception history: Roussel’s influence on artists from Marcel Duchamp (who attended a performance of Impressions of Africa) to Joseph Cornell to Marcel Broodthaers; the connection to Surrealism; the American poet John Ashbery’s oft-cited importation of Roussel’s work into American English; Michel Foucault’s early monograph. Such diverse adulation for the show’s subject is reassuring, but upon coming to the fourth vitrine stocked with untouchable publications, one begins to wonder what, in the age of, when bibliographies of obscure texts can be instantly formulated, one is looking at. The sheer quantity of materials included in the show, along with recent works by Cameron Rowland and Henrik Olesen, among others, feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Though for Roussel more was always more, he always advanced via carefully designed procedures. More and more we want narrative and arrangement, space to think about the overwhelming amounts of information we receive; it might have been nice to consider the ways in which Roussel’s miraculous inventions anticipate our desire.


Date: November 1, 2015

Publisher: Artforum

Format: Print

Genre: Nonfiction
Full text of review available as PDF, below at right.


November 2015 AF cover.

The Image of Genre


IT WOULD BE a very long list indeed if I were to name all of the visual artists dead and living whom I know to have written novels, commissioned novels to be written, or published other literary works. And such acts of publication have not been limited to the bound book. Artists have hung framed pages in galleries, installed (therefore unreadable) books and pamphlets in vitrines, photographed poems and novels and plays, performed poems and novels and plays, printed poems and other unclassifiable though apparently literary texts in vinyl on gallery walls, fabricated and displayed objects described in canonical poems and novels and plays, and even stopped being artists in order to become full-time writers. (Although, I personally know of no one who has done this last thing.) This is to say, it would be a very long and likely incomplete list! The phenomenon to which I refer, that of literary production for not just gallery space but also specific audiences of contemporary art, as opposed to concertedly “literary” audiences, is so broadly, variously, and at times ingeniously undertaken that I am doing no one a major intellectual favor by pointing out its existence.

But, having thought this phenomenon over a bit, and being a writer, it occurred to me that it might be worth discussing the persistence of not just the category of literature — in these intensely mediated days — but also and more significantly the categories of literature, especially by way of the appropriation of literary styles of authorship by visual artists. I should note that I am not angry at visual artists for becoming, or already being, literary authors. I would only like to offer a few observations about how this appropriation of certain semi-professional roles seems to occur, with these observations grouped under a title that indicates, by way of preview for those with limited time, what I am about to argue.

Since the turn of the century before last, literary experimentation has been good for creating readers fluent in the ways of literary experiment. Whether or not exclusively due to such efforts, we are now familiar enough with the diversity of literary genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that we no longer require written works to adhere to particular laws of form or content in order to be able to read them. The progressive pastiche of various literary heroes, both modernist and post-, has greatly expanded our conception of what and where a poem might be. Even so, radio and moving images quickly overtook (or, had already overtaken) our experimenting heroes, indicating new levels of fungibility of content. These media simultaneously overtook, in publicness and popularity, a genre-agnostic entity of even longer standing than modernism itself: the novel.

It is worth pausing a moment on the novel. I have called it a “genre-agnostic entity,” but it is, of course, also a literary genre. As its name suggests, the novel is a new or novel kind of work, and since its earliest appearances in various parts of the world previous even to the 11th century, with varying degrees of fictiveness and interest in something called a plot, it has been a kind of long-form commemorative and speculative writing that is also quite willing to absorb and depict other kinds of writing and styles of speech and thought, both literary and nonliterary. Fast-forward to the 19th century in France and the novel has become a multifariously designated space for the writing of history, of journalism and critique of journalism, of sociological and economic analysis, gossip, sex tips, table manners, poetry and song, political debate, satire, travelogue, fashion reporting, not to mention dictionary entries. (It is also worth noting that most of this mix can as easily be found in novels of the Renaissance and before.) The novel has survived on the merits of its engaging narrative structure and closeness to everyday life, but these qualities are possibly less significant than its willingness, even eagerness, to be other kinds of writing and forms of expression. As we have seen of late (with Cole, Heti, Knausgaard, Lerner, et al.), the novel, fiction’s grand unit, is also quite often documentary and/or true.

The brilliant omnivorousness — or content-agnostic composting, depending on how you understand literary evolution — of the novel has additionally meant that its diversion into an array of predictable subcategories or strictly defined, sometimes concertedly commercial types known as “genre fiction” is yet another opportunity for appropriation; here of a more fixed version of the novel by some less fixed one, or the other way around. The novel alters, specializes, divides, recombines. It plays on cultural and aesthetic dichotomy, portraying division as well as synthesis. The existence of so-called “genre” novels proves that a major part of the appeal of the novel is its ability to be other than itself: the quick read of the formulaic thriller or bodice-ripper is diametrically opposed to the slow-burning reveal of the literary masterpiece — or, at least, I think so.

I only think so, or know I only think so, because of what I know of the state of genre. I am familiar enough with the diversity of genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that I no longer require literary works to adhere to particular laws, in order to know how to read them. When I come to a lengthy insurance contract included verbatim in a novel, I know, for example, that I have permission to skim or skip this text and don’t need to read closely in order to discover key plot points and character motivations. It’s present merely for verisimilitude. I mean, I may believe this. On the other hand, I may believe that this insurance document is a painstakingly constructed scrim behind which lurks a secret architecture determining the course of all events occurring within the world of the novel. It’s up to me, the reader, to administrate the reading, to decide. The insurance document is a decorative accessory to the novel, or, in another scenario, the novel is a decorative, possibly interpretive accessory to the insurance document; either I am reading a novel with an insurance document attached or it’s an insurance document with a dependent novel. This is a plausible present of genre, genre as conventions of reading, as a series of decisions about which kinds of reading go where. (In the past, genre had been a succession of rules for composition, later it indicated different species of texts, and even later the kinds of textual patterns one saw in a given text.) Now genre may be in the eye of the beholder. Or, as an acquaintance recently remarked, the public sphere is built from genre. I think that what this acquaintance meant is that the public sphere is built from conventions of looking and reading, from publicly or mutually recognizable conventions for determining what kind of a thing something is and what we might be able to do with this thing.

This becomes clearer with a (mostly) literary example: I think that we are interested in the recent publication by Badlands Unlimited — a publishing concern run by artists Paul Chan, Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So — of a trio of romance novels because here a high-art brand is publishing a low, popular form, several works of literal “genre” writing. In its adherence to genre convention, this series, “New Lovers,” enacts a kind of image. And in this image is included our amusement at cheerful fulfillment, as well as gentle flouting, of conventions. These books, probably fun to read (I have not read them, though I have discussed them with friends who claim to have done so), are also designed to have a valid conceptual existence, even without being read or requiring our reading. (I don’t, for example, feel pressure to read them, though I like knowing about them.) Though books have been for some time trading on this fact about their existence — that it does not always matter whether or not we read them, that they look nice on a table and so on — here it seems that the physical container, the trim size, cover design (very generic!), etc., is less important than the very genre. It is not that the books are images of books — though they have circulated widely online as JPEGs — but that they are an image of genre, an image of a series of conventions for reading as well as for discussing books, an attitude toward what they may or may not contain.

Reviewers and critics hoping to demonstrate an earnest relationship to “New Lovers”’s first installment of three publications helpfully perform our reading for us, summarizing plots, treating the writers like literary authors in interviews, adding exquisite detail to the image of genre. Indeed, here there may even be a kind of good-natured pun on the very term, as applied to painting (“genre painting”), in that scenes from art-centric everyday life, and perhaps less sex itself than the consumption of porn and images in general, are reproduced for us as the species of these novels. (For example, God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, by Andrea McGinty, tells the tale of an “art career” as it devolves and/or improves into a series of sexual exploits.) Our ongoing interest in the image is reflected via the genre of these novels; in this sense, they represent a kind of catachrestic portrait of everyday life, documenting nobody’s — which is to say, everybody’s — actual activities and reflecting an improved, possibly “tasteful” version of our (conventional, everyday) looking habits, tastes.

Anyway, artists write novels all the time. I think immediately of AA Bronson’s Lena, or Lana, and Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, and there is even a recent anthological publication devoted to artist’s novels to tell us more. Of course, I am not sure that the fictions of artists are inherently interesting. I am not sure if the fictions of novelists are inherently interesting! But there seems to be a special license associated with the literary enterprise when undertaken by a visual artist. The artist knows how to organize visual information. The artist manages the informational architecture of the novel, too. The artist makes available aspects of the novel that have to do with this work of management, questions of material format, discursive truth and artifice, means of distribution, intellectual property. The artist’s novel seems to celebrate the tactics of the studio, unsurprisingly, rather than the dynamics of nuclear families or other human genealogies. In this sense, the artist’s novel also seems linked with poetics, where this term refers to a set of strategies for making, especially in or with language. This is, then, not quite the private literature of the living room, bedroom, airplane, or poolside lounge. Reading an artist’s novel is often a kind of aesthetic or intellectual work rather than a leisure activity. And this is yet another perfect deployment of the novel, generically speaking: As we have already seen, the novel does not care which type of everyday life or habit or profession or other nonliterary thought or activity you want it to absorb. The novel is already (and always was) something other than, and in addition to, fiction. It is only too happy to become the discourse of art.

Institutions and businesses displaying visual art, which are related or adjacent though not identical to the public sphere, could also be built from genre. Certainly they have a tendency to cultivate particular conventions of looking. If they do not already enact certain generic conventions, they seem like plausible sites for human encounters with genre. A gallery wall becomes peculiarly useful when we think about it like a page. This wall, like the page of a book, is more or less public, though often only theoretically so. Like print and digital books, the wall of the gallery has a mixed relationship to privacy and propriety. Like print and digital books, the gallery show is usually a mix of singular authorship and shared, collective, and/or industrial production. The analogy is broad and not particularly compelling in itself, and it would probably not be worth drawing this comparison were it not already being drawn for me.

Recently, wandering the cubicles of a large art fair, I came upon some pieces of text by the artist Darren Bader. These were printed on a wall. I turned them over in my mind. In a space of constant potential social encounter, one needs a place to direct one’s eyes, so I read the text with care. I wondered if I should consider the text poetry. It was fragmentary, divided into smaller units. One unit mentioned Emily Apter, a professor of French and American literature with whom I had once studied. I felt a weird kind of gratitude. I also considered the fact — these “poems” were often about reading — that I should be reading more, more frequently, and also in larger quantities. I was spending, I mused, too much time in public.

A few months later, at MoMA’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” multiple rooms displayed books, ca. 1912–1948, behind glass. Cover art and design by Charles Alston, Margaret Bourke-White, E. Simms Campbell, Aaron Douglas, and Winold Reiss stood in metonymically for what I could not read inside. Elsewhere, books were displayed fastened open to a single spread. I photographed titles by Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Scott Nearing, Emmett J. Scott, Jean Toomer, Walter White, Carter Godwin Woodson, and Richard Wright, among others, creating a visual bibliography I later found for some reason to be more complete than the online checklist for the exhibition. I wasn’t sure what my impulse to collect or “read” these titles and authors in this way meant. In so doing, it is likely that I was mostly considering exhibition strategies and not really reading much at all. Yet, reading was being mentioned. The unit of the book — evidence of cultural production — was being mentioned. With my iPhone I dutifully (and privately) repeated this mentioning gesture.

There is a strange promise of privacy in many public displays of books. “You’ll read this later,” such displays seem to say. And when one is alone or, at least, at home, if one is not reading something else, one might indeed read. But the promise might also remain just that: a promise, and a kind of fantasy. Sometimes displays of books or book-like displays are also an image of a kind of reading, a kind of reading worth describing as an image precisely because it is so difficult to obtain in a time of ubiquity of text. The limits of the book are, perhaps, more porous than ever; sometimes, particularly if the book in question is a PDF, I find these limits nonsensically breeched by my email. The book could, in the context of an exhibition, be a metonym for a kind of historical knowledge or cultural production, but it might also be a metonym for a kind of attention, style of reading, or even a mode of consciousness. And in standing in for a kind or convention of reading, the book-as-image is a vague image of genre. (Such images become increasingly precise and focused when they bring us closer to acts, rather than fantasies, of reading — though fantasies of reading are also pretty interesting.) There is really a great deal of exhibition of reading these days. Reading is variously and frequently — via reading rooms, performances, and installed printed objects — purveyed as a notable and attractive habit of everyday life, which it also, to be clear, is; in this sense, displays of reading are a lot like genre paintings.

Not one to be left out of a market in which it is so clearly implied, the Bibliographical Society of America at last arrived at the party with the recent publication of an article addressing the strong showing by books in current visual art. This article, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art” by Michael Thompson, provides an exhaustive 50-page description of the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s book-related contents. For all the nerdy delight this extremely precise and engaging account of bookish stuff in the Biennial inspired in me, it let me down a bit by concluding with a sort of non-conclusion, that “books as an aggregated medium comprising many component parts, present few constraints for contemporary artists.” Thompson further observes:

The one component that all conceptual art needs is an idea, and a book, which can take the form of scroll, codex, score, patterned broadside, leporello, audio recording, manuscript sketchbook, and most recently electronic file, and which has long been viewed as the primary means by which to transmit ideas of any kind, whether scientific, philosophical, literary, or artistic, may therefore be the final irreducible essence of conceptual art: an idea without a fixed physical object. [i]

It is inevitably true that books and ideas go well together. However, it is a little odd to find a bibliographer turning to a canonical summary moment in the history of art, something called “the final irreducible essence of conceptual art,” in order to explain the invocation and discussion of the everyday activity of reading that the many displays in the Biennial including books undertook. Displays asked visitors not just to recognize the possibility of reading but to do it, with various necessary time commitments, levels of concentration, and access (many books were behind glass). I much prefer Thompson’s earlier claim that books have a lot of “parts,” and therefore artists like them. I’d go even broader and speculate that in addition to “parts,” books have a lot of kinds, and therefore artists know that people like books (that people even resemble books) — and that people like books so much that people want to experience their liking of them and experiencing of them, over and over again. And people want to talk about books and hear more and more, as Gertrude Stein might say, about how everyone likes them. Do people like books more than paintings? It’s a tough and perhaps silly call, but if you think about it: likely, yes.

What the final, irreducible essence of conceptual art, in all its majesty, may allow artists to do — as it broadcasts its expensive maxims into the present, out of the pit of the past — is to put things in galleries that are not works of art. Though context may do its darndest to turn these non-art things into art, it remains possible to say that what is being displayed, and therefore via visitors’ eyeballs as well as gallerists’ and curators’ efforts valued, isn’t art. I do not mean to suggest that such things aren’t valuable. Rather, their value is imperfectly symmetrical with, and imperfectly assimilable to, structures and conventions of value associated with artworks. What also becomes clear, which is to say, noticeable, is a plurality of modes of authorship; that professional artists aren’t the only individuals who make things and that everyone who makes things isn’t an artist (this last point being meant more as an economic and professional fact than an insult). Thus, if we come to look at a poem, or an essay, or a novella in a gallery — if we see a framed page from a novel by Jill Magid, for example, or a page photographed by Erica Baum —we are reminded of one of visual art’s closest outsides, the outside of reading-not-looking, even as we remain within the context of visual art. And this moment of exteriorization, this appearance of the anomalous if commonplace activity of reading along with the conventions of literary genre in the space of visual art, by way of a certain kind of image, reminds me of another moment in history, one that has little enough to do with conceptualism.

Classicist Gregory Nagy’s “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria” gives an account of the professionalization and inscription of lyric poetry — in other words, the way lyric poems came to be treated, once they were actually written down. According to Nagy, a “reenacting I” in written lyric poems reenacts an archaic form of public address that would at one time have occurred before a live audience, at a symposium. Here the written text represents a reality that, according to Nagy, is already generic; the live performance was in itself “a fictional occasion,” with pursuant compositional rules and necessity of adoption of a persona corresponding to group expectations. [ii] In this sense, once we get to the written lyric poem, what we are reading is a fiction of a fiction, a mise en abyme, as Jacques Derrida (with apologies for the name drop) might put it, a “thinking about its own possibility.” What is real or historical in the archaic, live format, in the expectations of a certain group of listeners, must be somehow reenacted in the written environment. Nagy reads anticipation usefully: Whoever fictionally “speaks” in the written lyric poem, formerly a singer, is the product of the interaction of a group and a conventional role, which interaction, in being written down, is also being reread at some historical distance. The lyric genre, even in its earliest written forms, is according to Nagy already historical, complexly fictive, and dramatically opposed to the private, whether or not we might read such poems privately.

I have to say that I think literature that occurs in art galleries is more interesting when it has done a bit of thinking about its own possibility, and when this thinking has included consideration not just of format and some broad idea of interdisciplinarity, but also consideration of readers — readers both past and present, many of whom may also be writers. (I am thinking about the inclusion, for example, of social histories.) A mention of genre that expresses various kinds of fictionalizing of social forms, and which even socializes fiction, is also a way to think about habit. In this sense, we get to keep our pun: images of genre are paintings of everyday life in which a day lasts a long, long time.


[i] Michael Thompson, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 2 (June 2015): 183. With thanks to Stuart Comer for bringing this important article to my attention.

[ii] Gregory Nagy, “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004): 46.


Date: September 13, 2015

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Hanne Darboven, Detail from Quartett >88<, 1988, 1989, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2000.

Years Ago Before the Nation Went Bankrupt

An introduction to the journals of David Wojnarowicz

Artist David Wojnarowicz’s thirty or so journals are stored in a pair of boxes in New York University’s Fales Library. Folders of loose photographs, tickets, and postcards are also included, as is an oversize wall calendar, sparsely annotated by Wojnarowicz, of the type one might find in the gift shop of the American Museum of Natural History (triceratops rooting in lush surrounds). “Series 1,” as this lot of the David Wojnarowicz Collection is designated, feels like a grouping of keepsakes: These are items in and by means of which Wojnarowicz marked, from 1970 to 1991, time’s passing. In 1992, he died at the age of thirty-seven.

The journals were also meant for publication and display. Composition books predominate, though there are larger spiral-bound notebooks and one three-ring binder. The covers are occasionally embellished with collage or a holographic sticker. Wojnarowicz interleaves clippings, print ads, band flyers. Pages are pasted over with typescript, newsprint, photocopies of photographs, handwritten notes, redacted poems. The journals were a location in which Wojnarowicz prepared—by means of plans, lists, sketches—work he would later execute in other media, and they were also a site for work. As they themselves self-consciously narrate, these books were a constant in the practice of a peripatetic artist who painted out of doors, who traveled, who regarded homelessness as inherent to humanity (what in one entry he refers to as “the matter of having no home”).

Wojnarowicz made extensive use of the text of his journals, excerpting and reworking sections to create essayistic pieces that appear in Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell like Gasoline. He wrote with his body as witness, vehicle, and recording device: For The Waterfront Journals, for instance, he conducted interviews with people he met on the streets of American cities before “transcribing” monologues from memory, perhaps fictionalizing. In this sense, the kinds of experience with which Wojnarowicz was concerned could not be rendered untrue by the embroidery of art; as the artist once said in an interview with Nan Goldin, “I grew up realizing and believing there’s no difference between fantasy and reality. I always believed that my fantasies were stored pieces of information.”[1]

This belief in fantasy as “stored … information” might inform our reading of the journals, for the writing here seems searingly honest and committed to the actual even as it is devoted to its own language and to the unreal concerns of literature—to symbolism, imagery, dream, erotic transport, and even a kind of lyric thought or philosophy of the self.

Of his diary accounts of sex at the West Side piers and elsewhere, Wojnarowicz told Sylvère Lotringer:

When I wrote them I was so excited to write them, to document them. I thought they were the most amazing things that I had ever seen. They were like films or they reminded me of Burroughs’s Wild Boys. I loved it. I loved the fact that it was outdoors, that it was by the river and in the wind. They were moments of incredible beauty to me.

I remember when I first started becoming more and more aware of AIDS. And here I am sitting with all these journals, looking at them in total disgust. … And now, years later, I realize I shifted again and want these things.[2]

It is with this in mind that one reads Wojnarowicz’s accounts of anonymous sex, his cinematic reflection of the encounter. Many of the selections I have made here, then, are graphic—perhaps more so than other previously published excerpts from the journals. There are also mundane episodes. We see a Manhattan that barely resembles our own. And we see Wojnarowicz at work, taking photos of hell in an alley (homelessness, refuse) or visiting an editor at the Soho Weekly News, the paper that would first publish his “Rimbaud in New York” series. I have wanted to show both the explicitness and the everydayness of Wojnarowicz’s writing practice, as it is in this meeting of the extraordinary and the routine that one finds the crucible of the artist’s personal myth.

I have also included “Dateline for Retrospective Catalog.” This sketch, written in list form, is a draft of a text that appeared in a catalogue of Wojnarowicz’s work from 1979 to 1990, Tongues of Flame. The published work, in paragraphs, is titled “Biographical Dateline,” and it expands the outline’s pithy notes. For example, what in the preparatory document is “Stabbed Steven: lizard tail in hand in police station” becomes, in “Biographical Dateline,”

Stabbed my brother in a fight back in n.y.c.—while waiting for the police to arrive at the apartment to take me away I played with my lizards. One of them dropped the tail off in a self-defense move. The tail continues wiggling for twenty minutes or so to confuse the predator. In the police station a cop asked me what I had in my hand. I replied, a lizard tail. Cops thought I’d gone over the edge.

If the draft “Dateline for Retrospective Catalog” lacks detail and standard syntax, it makes up for this in economy of expression, as a sort of episodic poem.

There is much that has been left out. Without mentioning the mass of writing and illustration that remains unpublished in the journals, it has also not been possible to preserve all of Wojnarowicz’s handwritten punctuation, his use of ellipses, spaces, and dashes of varying length. For this reason, one may look forward to Fales’s completion of a digitization project of the journals, at which time these will be viewable in their entirety online. (Additionally, from November 18 of this year until February 12, 2012, the Brooklyn Museum will host the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” formerly presented at the National Portrait Gallery, here emphatically including Wojnarowicz’s 1985–87 film A Fire in My Belly.)


Date: September 23, 2011

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction, biography
Link to the introduction.

This piece includes transcriptions and images from the journals of David Wojnarowicz, housed at Fales Library at NYU. The text at left serves as an introduction to the selection, made in summer of 2011 for issue 14 of Triple Canopy, "Counterfactuals."


Journal image.


Journal image.


Journal image.

    1. “Nan Goldin/David Wojnarowicz,” in David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, ed. Giancarlo Ambrosino (New York: Semiotext[e], 2006), 202.
    1. “Sylvère Lotringer/David Wojnarowicz,” in Ambrosino, 194.
Three Books by Lisa Robertson


Is it odd to begin liking a poet on the basis of a pair of lines? This happened to me with the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. And though I eventually found that I did my liking on a semierroneous basis, the affinity was secure. I loved these two lines, from a slim untitled poem out of Robertson’s 2001 collection, The Weather.

It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc

Are you aware that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc are both real people? I was not, at least until I came across Leduc’s 1964 memoir, La Bâtarde (The Lady Bastard), on the cover of which a pair of female profiles look ready to kiss. I just liked the sound of those names, “Jessica Grim,” “Violette Leduc”; one character arrives with a strange haircut and opinions, the author she recommends could wear boots that cover the thighs. It’s a Nabokovian limb you potentially like your poet to venture out on: a commonplace the site of an unexpected evocation.

We’ll leave aside for a moment the fact that Jessica Grim is an American poet who, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, has published several books and also works as a librarian, and that Violette Leduc (1907‑­1972), besides authoring an autobiography, composed some nine novels and was a friend of Simone de Beauvoir’s: Lisa Robertson’s oeuvre is dense, sonically resonant verse and combinations of verse and lyric prose, and often the result of collaboration or travel—with other artists and across countries, centuries, and literatures, both high and low. The list of her publications gives a clue to her pursuits, which are simultaneously pastoral and modernist: The Apothecary (1991), The Badge (1994), The Descent (1996), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1999), The Weather (2001), Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Rousseau’s Boat (2004), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006). What follows here treats three of these collections—The Weather, XEclogue, and Rousseau’s Boat—which show to great effect Robertson’s prized dilemma: how to stage obsolescence successfully, such that its strangeness, anachronism, and even its sometime illegibility, can be read intact. For whatever is obsolete is free for the taking. Which is to say, many abandoned styles have something (beauty) yet to offer; we need their insolvent otherness.

As I have explained, I am an innocent. I believed that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc were aliases, just as I believed in the legitimacy of an “Office for Soft Architecture,” who had sent, folded into my copy of The Weather, a sky-blue flyer printed with a quantity of text presumably referring to that book. The flyer began promisingly: “We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work.” But the text veered quickly into a territory I knew to be emphatically foreign to any authority worth its salt, with a nod in my direction, “What shall our new ornaments be? How should we adorn mortality now?” And, the author(s) insisted, now plaintive, “This is a serious political question.” The envoi finally convinced me of its impracticality as blurb:

Dear Reader—a lady speaking to humans from the motion of her own mind is always multiple. Enough of the least. We want to be believed.

Who were the authors of the flyer, this “Office for Soft Architecture”? None other than Robertson herself, writing to the reader from the pages of the book (Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture) which would follow The Weather.

But, to begin at the beginning of The Weather, even if Robertson is an author devoted to taking herself out of order, the book is divided into seven ‘days’ of the week, each section containing one long prose section and a shorter, more traditionally lineated poem. “Sunday” ‘s prose presents phrases commencing, “Here…,” with resultant residual anaphora as guide to their overall meaning: “Here is a church. Here is deep loam upon chalk. Here is a hill. Here is a house.” “Sunday” has, as its grander half, the strange untitled poem to which I first made reference:

It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc.
Lurid conditions are facts. This is no different
from daily protests and cashbars.
I now unknowingly speed towards
which of all acts, words, conditions—
I am troubled that I do not know.
When I feel depressed in broad daylight
depressed by the disappearance of names, the pollen
smearing the windowsill, I picture
the bending pages of
La Bâtarde
and I think of wind. The outspread world is
comparable to a large theatre
or to rending paper, and the noise it makes when it flaps
is riotous. Clothes swish through the air, rubbing
my ears. Promptly I am quenched. I’m talking
about a cheap paperback which fans and
slips to the floor with a shush. Skirt stretched
taut between new knees, head turned back, I
hold down a branch,

Here the poem ends, at a comma. It is a factual, even banal, report on the fortunes of one literary person’s room—and the entrance into it of news, of memories, and of the weather—and, then again, this is pure fiction, each thing an instance of contrived metonymy. Robertson’s is a realism of epistemological concerns: even “[l]urid conditions are facts.” “I,” reader, no longer hold metaphor and perception apart; “I” compare, “I” fail to perceive discretely, “I … speed” impetuously into a fantasy in which reading has become, by virtue of this extraordinary capacity for association, a physical event. Most surprisingly, “This is no different….” “Clothes swish through the air”: the phrases borne toward the reader are a carousel of styles, and the shuffling of these costumes, the “shush[ing]” and “fan[ning]” of their physical manifestation as pulpy pages of a novel, “quench[es].” Yes, the “outspread world is / comparable to a large theatre,” but its materiality has become analogous only “to rending paper, and the noise it makes,” just as mortality is a detail, “pollen / smearing the windowsill.” Here everything returns to the book, carried as if by an irresistible wind. Who knows where this weather originates; Chaucer invented a House of Fame to explain it.

“I think of wind,” writes Robertson, portraying herself in a janissary pose at the climax of her long stanza—legs open and “head turned back”—she makes way for whatever’s arriving. Which is to say, a lot of reading went into the composition of The Weather. Robertson writes in her appendix that the book resulted from “an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description.” Sources include BBC forecasts, and a number of rare, weather-related tracts: “Mr. Well’s Essay on Dew, Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds, Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena,” among many others. By way of these tracts, weather returns to the séance prop closet in The Weather, less phenomenon than diction—which diction is needed (a grant or two probably had to be written to give Robertson time enough to hunt it down) to describe a gorgeous and fleeting consciousness, one unharnessed by memory and receptive only to marks made by the immediate. This is the obvious consciousness of the long prose poems, but it is also the finely balanced syntax of their lineated partners and of a final poem, “Porchverse.” The stanzas of “Porchverse” are spare and beautifully broken and talk about transformation—how things “go”—as in this fine report on the necessity of stillness in a speaker who wishes to bear witness to flight:

Then refused so lucidly as when
I saw a dog
run a doe
to sea.

Robertson’s 1999 collection, XEclogue, was already hot on this theme. And, indeed, hotter, as Virgil’s shepherd Corydon observes in the second Eclogue,

torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,

Lion eats wolf eats goat eats flowering clover: we consume and are in turn consumed. Where The Weather sidesteps this chase and takes a position of third party observer, XEclogue takes enthusiastic part, in ten chapters each titled Eclogue. Robertson introduces her work here with the following excuse, “I needed a genre for the times that I go phantom.” By “go phantom,” Robertson means an inability to find herself reflected in the world around her, social or otherwise. This inability is often called Liberty, according to Robertson, and its symptoms include “illusions of historical innocence” and weird attempts to recognize oneself in “proud trees” and “the proud sky” (Robertson is less interested in flags and eagles). But Robertson has discovered that she has “an ancestress,” a woman of the landed class who is both dead and moving rapidly through the psychic woods, and who can offer advice about how to escape the numbing tropes of Nation and Nature:

Ontology is the luxury of the landed. Let’s pretend you “had” a land. Then you “lost” it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence. The garden gate shuts firmly. Yet Liberty must remain throned in her posh gazebo. What can the poor Lady do? Beauty, Pride, Envy, the Bounteous Land, the Romance of Citizenship: these mawkish paradigms flesh out the nation, fard its empty gaze. What if, for your new suit, you chose to parade obsolescence?

Political correctness has turned out not to be an entirely excellent exit-strategy for the twentieth century.
XEclogue is a discussion of this departure, among others. The book forms a basis for the work Robertson executes in her later collections, but it is also millennium-appropriate: full of richer language, speculation about the body politic, and contrived scenarios designed to help the reader entertain a more glamorous notion of self than “the Romance of Citizenship” normally affords.

XEclogue concerns a tripartite dramatis personae: a worried individual named Nancy, the brave and multifarious Lady M, and a gaggle of sex objects known as the Roaring Boys. What results is a series of letters, dialogues, complaints, and stage directions, which lead to the eventual reformation of Nancy, who initially proclaims: “I need to assume my dream of justice really does exist.” Just as Virgil simultaneously mourned alongside farmers who had lost their farmsteads to soldiers and poked fun at them in the Eclogues, Robertson shows she thinks psychology is a predicament and an opportunity. In this description of one of the Roaring Boys, it is difficult to tell when she is talking about the way he thinks and when she is referring to his looks:

Roaring Boy #1 is skinny and pure as the bitter white heel of a petal. Spent lupins could describe his sense of mind as a great dusky silky mass. Yet a feeling of being followed had taken his will away. In an age of repudiation he would exclude sullen indolence and reveal his lace. […] When he closes his eyes he asks: Shall I be sold up? Am I to become a beggar? Shall I take to flight? He is skinny and pure as a calling.

In passages like these, Robertson revitalizes prose and raises the question, if so much is possible in language, must it refer to a world at all? Robertson’s reply is that language must at least refer back to itself and, then, pointedly. She shares the literary conversation which nourished XEclogue at the book’s conclusion: eighteenth century “poet, traveler, and political critic,” Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Frank O’Hara, Virgil, anonymous fourth century ad Latin songs of the Pervigilium Veneris, Rousseau’s Social Contract, the Slits, the Raincoats, Patti Smith, Young Marble Giants, the Au Pairs, L7, Marguerite de Navarre, and many, many (it appears) others.

In spite of this careful acknowledgment of authorship, 2004’s Rousseau’s Boat finds Robertson toying with the remarkable notion that much of what makes the experience of writing powerful is her own lack of authority:

Here/ freedom has no referent. It is like/ an emotion. This is for/ them then. This is a passive narrative. I feel/ it could be useful. I’m forty-one. It/ gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.

The book is a short one. Its back cover bears a quote attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which that thinker describes the way in which the perception of moving water can replace thought: “I felt in myself so pleasurably and effortlessly the sensation of existing….” It’s also a pleasure to hear the poet mention her age, “I’m forty-one.” And then, the astonishing way she bears this statement out: “It / gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.” Robertson displays a talent for the sweeter side of generalization, for unknowingness. The two large poems in the book, “Face” and “Utopia,” are full of hauntingly general language, which is no oxymoron. The poems repeat lines, and much of their power stems from the subtle accrual of sense produced by freely appearing refrains. Thus the reader becomes a subject born along in Rousseau’s boat (these languid poems), batted by lines which softly suggest the fact of mortality.

The effect of the downflowing patter of shade on the wall
was liquid, so the wall became a slow fountain in afternoon.
Our fears opened inwards.
Must it be the future?
Yes, the future, which is a sewing motion.

And Robertson keeps coming up with dates (“It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year,” she writes, or “It was 1993”) which are proof of the simple effect of sadness that precision can give. For the facts are outside the poem, and the poem itself travels away from standard referentiality, teaching thought to refer to itself:

*This is one part of the history of a girl’s mind.

The unimaginably moist wind changed the scale of the morning,
Say the mind is not a point of origin, but a skin carrying
sensation into the midst of objects.
Now it branches and forks and coalesces.
In the centre, the fire pit and log seat, a frieze of salal and
foxglove, little cadmium berries.
At the periphery of the overgrown clearing, the skeleton of a
reading chair decaying beneath plastic.*

Lisa Robertson knows where she is headed, but this is not the only reason that she is a trustworthy writer. Her work results from a reading practice in which words continue to disturb the poet, who is always just beginning to accept that there is more justice in literature than outside it.


Date: January 3, 2007

Publisher: n+1

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the review.

"Lucy Ives by Tan Lin" in BOMB


I first met Lucy Ives when she edited a short novella of mine, The Patio and the Index, for Triple Canopy. I take a while finishing things up, so we worked on it for over a year and a half, then published in October 2011. Though she's since left Triple Canopy, I feel I've been in touch with her more or less continuously for quite some time. During this period I've read all her poetry—starting with her first book, Anamnesis—as well as her works in prose, including nineties: A Story with No Moral. Anyway, I was recently up in the northernmost part of Manhattan, playing tennis with my twelve-year-old daughter and asked Lucy to join us there, in a spot overlooking Spuyten Duyvil Creek, with the dog roses in bloom. It's one of the prettiest places in the city, and the flowers remind me of the Japanese roses my mother and father used to tend. And there's tennis. Although we met up to talk about Lucy's new novel, Impossible Views of the World, which deals with New York City and the art world, I also had a secret agenda: to get her to pick up a racquet again. She told me she had played as a child.

TAN LIN Are you doing anything autobiographical in Impossible Views of the World?

LUCY IVES Less and less. More and more, I have no life and have to make things up. I've found that to be a good solution to the problem of being a writer. (laughter)

TL I find that life sometimes offers itself up as one long description, rather than one long story, and it's sometimes useful, in fiction, to allow the idea of narrative to subside and description to take over. That's sometimes called the realm of "nonfiction" and it's associated, at least for me, with the use of a documentary apparatus or the bibliographic. How would you describe the relation between fictional and nonfictional elements in your novel?

LI Well, I'm not sure about "nonfiction." For me, nonfiction might not even exist. But that doesn't mean fiction exists in opposition or contrast to so-called real life. Fiction is a way of seeing around corners. It's a system of mirrors that isn't designed to catch my own image, but rather images of what I'm not able or permitted to see in my actual life. I'm not exactly sure how it is you can know something that you don't know, but fiction works like that for me. It's a device for collecting information.

TL What were you trying to collect or see exactly with this latest work?

LI I don't experience life as a narrative structure, so I was curious about that.

TL Life is amorphous and lacks such structure. On the other hand, it's extremely chronological. Can you comment on the distinction as you see it?

LI People talk all the time about the story of their lives, and I thought it might be useful to try to write such a story—except I didn't want to write about my own life, at least not in a straightforward way. I wanted to do something weirder. But, truly, my novel is about relationships. It's often difficult to see the limits of relationships when you're in them, so the book is a way to test those limits and learn more about what it means to exist with others, to be related to them, to be needed by them.

TL Is that essentially a narrative activity?

LI It might be a kind of solitary activity.

TL Stella Krakus, the novel's narrator, is a born observer. In one of the early chapters she's examining her boss's office and sees her "personal collection of bioephemera." And then Stella speaks of her own "wandering eye." I take this to be part of the story's varied inflections, where descriptive nooks and crannies seem to be hiding in the plot. And so, in a way, you have a plot submerged in extensive description and observation.

LI That's right. I really like to linger in description. Originally, there was a very detailed, massive artwork in the book, sort of at the heart of the story, but I cut it out for various reasons.

TL What was it? Can you talk about that artwork a little?

LI It was a large three-dimensional work—a massive cube of wood someone had carved with insane, painstaking detail on five sides, top included, cutting quite deeply, to the center. It showed various intricate landscapes on each side. If anyone were to try to make something like that in real life, it would certainly fall apart. It's not possible to fabricate, which was part of the point.

TL Why did you edit it out of the novel?

LI It didn't do what I needed it to do in the plot. It was at the end, and once I cut it, the thread I was tracing through different places in the book went somewhere else. And that made all the difference. It turned out it was actually a block, a figurative and literal block, even if it was pretty fascinating. There was something important about having a false lure that needed to be taken away in the end.

TL A lure for you?

LI Yes, I think so. It's very strange. In some sense, I must have needed to convince myself to write this novel. But I ended up putting this artwork in a little book of aphorisms and things, The Hermit, which was published last year. I'm very thrifty in that way. Waste not, want not—especially when you've gone to the trouble of creating a massive artwork that can't possibly exist.

TL There must be some residual traces of it.

LI Its residue in Impossible Views of the World relates to certain characters. It led me to create a pair of counterfeiters. I won't say more than that.

TL Is there an appendix that explains this missing artwork?

LI There is an appendix to the book, but it's a historical timeline—so not exactly an explanation. And I'm not sure it has to do with that artwork. It includes both real and fake things, and both real historical events and fictional historical events that only occur in the novel.

TL I noticed more than a few time stamps throughout. Like "8:05," the narrator waking up, the days of the week as chapter headings, the times when emails are sent, and so forth, which are all local and specific and serve to situate or arrange people and the feelings they are having. People are aware of time in the book, and its structure is cued to days of the week, much like a diary. Why is this chronology so important?

LI There is a lot of time.

TL I think about T. S. Eliot's footnotes at the end of The Waste Land, and they are, of course, partly a joke and partly a serious commentary on the failure to achieve coherence across a vast plane. How are we to take your timeline and your time—by which I mean, the time in the novel?

LI Much of the time in Impossible Views is filtered through email, as you note, and the narrator is always on her phone, even though the reader doesn't always know that. It's not always so in your face, but there is a sense of time as mediated and parceled out by email and the functionality of SMS messages, along with some selective web browsing.

TL Yes, Stella's world is highly mediated, certainly by filial and family relationships, and also by technology. I'm thinking of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who described love as a "symbolic media of communication." Certainly a number of semantic codes are at work in this novel, aligned with notions of class and social differentiation, and these are in turn connected to your use of description and observation. Your book is very funny, but also about class and the kinds of feelings mediated within specific social systems, including the museum world. Could you talk a little more about how this relates to the characters? Do they stand in as types that manifest as highly observed descriptions, or as something else?

LI They are types, but I've tried to show, at least with Stella and her parents, some of the complicated nuances of class in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Stella has one parent who is a first-generation American and has experienced a dramatic change in class during his lifetime, and another who is perhaps far more conscious of class but has mostly worked to maintain a certain middle-class position, which she pretends has been hers all along, even if it hasn't. Stella enters this scene with very different ambitions—at least, she thinks so—and proceeds to observe yet another narrative about class as it unfolds in her workplace, where there are members of the one percent, to give a quick thumbnail sketch. These observations play into Stella's descriptive work, as she is often attempting to understand how the institution relates to society at large, whether it's a reflection of society or something else. And it does seem to be truly something else—if not an extremely depressing reflection!

But, then, as you mention, there's also the way in which our networked culture makes its own intervention into these social and economic systems. You'll notice that through emailed articles, and the New York Times online appears as a sort of character in the novel. I think this publication has a lot to do with Stella's class-related interrogations. It provides a counterpoint to her descriptions—as do many of the other acts of communication she engages in on her phone.

TL That's interesting. Sometimes, I like to give my students a book and a set of colored markers. I ask them to mark all face-to-face conversations in blue, all SMS communications in pink, all phone conversations in orange, and all email conversations in green. Then we look at how all those things are tied together. That's part of what I thought about when I was reading your book. Is Stella's primary mode of communication electronic or face-to-face conversation? Or is it some other operational mode working beneath the level of plot? I find it fascinating. There's not a huge amount of dialogue in this book. Can you say something more about this notion of Stella's parceled-out time?

LI Stella is alone most of the time, and she has relatively brief interactions with people. But she's also concerned with a pretty elaborate landscape of the past. There's a personal past, but there's also a historical past, and, contrary to what one might expect, she would like to have a greater commitment to the historical past—and less of a commitment to her personal one. But the presence of her phone, among other factors, makes this difficult.

TL So on the one hand you have a historical—or art-historical—and panoramic scope, then you have details that function in the resolution of the plot, which are also employed to individualize the characters. Can you comment on this crossing between what seem like two different perspectives as they relate to satire and the narrative development of the piece? What does the historical past hold for Stella that the personal one somehow lacks?

LI There is some hope that the historical past, in all its myriad detail and complexity, will provide justice or explain everything. The novel repeatedly offers this up as a possible solution, only to suggest that history is actually at once insufficient and crucial. You're always left to contend with the present.

TL I wonder if there's some sort of criticism of narrative here. You were trained primarily as a poet. Writing a novel is a very different sort of exercise.

LI It took a really long time. This book is the product of six or seven years of work, and I learned a lot about how narrative functions during that time. I don't know if I'm critical of narrative here, but perhaps that's because I'm not entirely convinced that Impossible Views is concertedly narrative. It seems narrative, but it might be something else. Certainly a lot of my other work points to possibilities for structuring writing and working with characters in ways that are nonnarrative.

TL You wrote one novel prior to this one, nineties.

LI Right, but that's really more of a novella. It's almost a short story, though it's too long to be a short story. It's also different because it's primarily an exercise in style. It tries to turn a period style into prose, and characters into a period style. I get the sense that book has often been misunderstood as something it isn't. It's really an object without real people in it, whereas Impossible Views is more of an experiment in trying to think about actual subjectivity, different forms of time, and distinct forms mediating contemporary discourse and narrative.

TL Impossible Views is very character driven. Yet there's a lot of description and very little actual dialogue. Can you say something about how character emerges from description in this book?

LI The narrator is an expert in caricature and satire in drawings. She's also a caricature in some ways. She sees things in a satirical light. I'm very interested in the role of satire in our time because it seems to have taken over our cultural discourse in ways that are actually sluggish and ineffective. Satire doesn't have the kind of liberating force it may have once had, even a decade ago. I get worried when the New York Times rehashes some late-night comic's bit as an item of news in its daily email. It scares me when a newspaper doesn't seem to feel that satire is within its grasp somehow, that it needs to outsource. Maybe it's a deskilling thing in a period when newspapers seem to be in decline. I mean, where are your cartoonists? What is a newspaper, in this case? And what's satire?

TL Has satire become the way we do politics?

LI Of course it hasn't. Satire is a mode of writing and speaking related to irony, with the difference that it's supposed to be constructive. It has much to do with perception and little to do with political agency. But maybe it has become the way we do politics. It isn't that politics is satire, but that we no longer know how to talk about what we would like to be the case and what is the case without recourse to it. Nothing could be more obvious, and yet I think this illustrates the mode—and mood—we find ourselves in. It's good we still have some broad version of satire, because this means there's some possible connection between what we want and what is the case. If there is no longer such a connection, then satire will cease to have meaning—and the impossibility of satire is, to my mind, the impossibility of politics. We are getting close to such a state. Though I should say that there have been some great recent satirical works of fiction, by Paul Beatty and Jen George, among others.

TL If your novella, nineties, was an object and a stylistic experiment, and this new novel is about character, how did you get from one to the other?

LI I don't want to describe myself as being too eccentric, but it's just something that started to happen to me. About six or seven years ago, I was supposed to be doing an academic task when the first scene of this novel just popped into my head. I wrote it down, but I thought: This is not what I'm supposed to be doing right now, I'm not supposed to be narrating this scene. I had no idea what it was, but I just wrote it and this character appeared—the narrator. I somehow found this channel where I could switch into points of view that are coherent. They're like caricatures of subjectivity, but they're also more closely mapped onto language than my own experience of subjectivity as a human being is.

TL I don't understand that. How are they mapped more closely to language?

LI I mean that they exist in language, whereas I'm an embodied, organic thing. They're just there, and I started to encounter them in my academic work, for example. There are other figures who have presented themselves since then, and who I've begun writing about. Some are contemporary people, some are a bit more historical. I know you're not supposed to talk about things that just happen to you. You're supposed to be an expert and do things deliberately, with clear research goals and so on, but my experience of this character is that she just appeared as a kind of dead space within professional discourse, making it possible for me to talk about some things. It goes back to making a device that allows you to see around corners you can't see around in your real life.

TL You're saying that she's a highly mediated stylistic device rather than a character in the traditional sense.

LI Yes, that's exactly right.

TL When does a stylistic device become a character? Was that not desirable for you?

LI I resisted it. That was part of my editorial process, though at some points I did allow her to just be a character and experience certain kinds of contingent events in the story rather than have her just serve as a tool or a device. That part of allowing her to be a traditional character is more complicated for me, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable—deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

TL Why?

LI Because I don't want to suffer, and it bothers me to vicariously experience the suffering of others. I don't want to bring new beings into the world who might suffer, even if they aren't real and will never live and die. It seems irresponsible to me. It's something that I think about and believe about the world. But it's also a form of paranoia, I know. I had a conversation with my editor, Ed Park, about this. He helped me to better describe how people exist in time, instead of showing them as if they existed simultaneously all at once. That's actually how I see things. It's a more normal mode of perception for me.

TL I think that's how everyone thinks probably, with a lot of things occurring simultaneously. Just because thinking is mushy and laying things out in a sequence is—

LI Do you think that means we actually exist in a lot of different moments of time at once?

TL Yes.

LI I think that, too.

TL Narrative is an imposition on an amorphousness that people don't want to accept. Allowing that amorphousness to sit is just as interesting, and I think it results in a different kind of fiction.

LI That is one of the clearest descriptions of something that I've been aware of for a long time.

TL I'm curious about your editor. How did he work with the tension between time as a kind of simultaneity and narrative form as a progression? Was it important for you to have something like a beginning, middle, and end?

LI At some point, my editor encouraged me to stop the action and understand the difference between my descriptions and digressions, and the action itself—what was happening to the characters. He was almost encouraging me to have a more ethical relationship with the characters because in the first draft of the novel there were many more digressions about works of art, literature, and philosophy. There was a whole long passage about Gottfried Liebniz's Monadology as well as other really long descriptive passages. There were also several invented novels that, fortunately or unfortunately, I excerpted at length. (laughter) Those passages were much longer then and there were other elements that went on forever.

TL Was it right to cut those? I'm just playing devil's advocate.

LI I don't know! But you're better than I am at actually thinking and feeling in descriptions. I use them a bit sadomasochistically as a way to explore negative affect and the hell of other people, and to be like, "It's beautiful, you all have to stay here and look at this crap." I think maybe Ed was saying to me, "Do you really want that for yourself? Is that what you want for other people?" He called my attention to what normally I would think of as a sloppy humanist way of dealing with literary elements. He helped me to see that the event is interesting. My novel remains episodic, and it has a pattern, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as a classical plot. If you look at it closely, you'll see there are two patterns running parallel with one another. Together, they approximate something like a plot—or maybe they trick certain readers into thinking that they're reading something that has a resolution.

TL Is that part of the satirical element of the novel?

LI So, again, there are a couple of fake novels that I've included parts of in Impossible Views. The second one I excerpted, Phillip Crystal, is about a young man living in a small city in western New York that is being ravaged by the image industry, by fictional versions of Xerox and Kodak. The novel contains fictionalized accounts of groundwater contamination catastrophes that happened in the '80s. But this novel within the novel is really centered on a nuclear family, and the larger novel doesn't really deal with this matter. It's not an elucidation of family dynamics, really. This is my way of saying that there are unresolved plot elements disguised as artworks throughout the book. It doesn't matter that they're never resolved, because they are just works of art and/or objects. In my opinion, one of the major problems in real life is that many events tend not to be resolved, certainly not in the way that fictional plots are resolved. They're just left however they fall. So I was able to introduce those kinds of elements into my novel by using objects or texts that are incomplete or can't be excerpted in full because they would just completely take over the story.

TL You mentioned that some of the descriptive passages got trimmed or eliminated entirely after editing. What was the line that separated an acceptable description from an unacceptable one?

LI Are you looking for advice? (laughter)

TL Yes! When is too much too much? And how do you know?

LI You don't work on description that way. You're much better at it than I am. You don't have the problems I have.

TL Why don't I have those problems?

LI Because you're better adjusted and were better cared for as a child? I don't know if that's true.

TL I like this idea, but I think I'm quite maladjusted. That's why I prefer long and episodic works that don't go anywhere. But what problems get solved by means of description in Stella's life? She's a very good student of looking and thus of methodologies of description. Can we talk about the psychological dimensions of description for a moment?

LI No, we can't, because, though description might be psychological, I mainly experience it as work. I know you're not supposed to say these things—and though I have a mother who was a curator, I wrote this novel about someone who is trained to describe so that I could prove once and for all that describing things is a real job. I'm sending a message the best way I know how: writing is a real job, too.

Tan Lin is the author of over thirteen books, including Heath Course Pak, Insomnia and the Aunt, 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, and The Joy of Cooking. A show of his work opens at the Treize Gallery in Paris in October 2017.


Date: September 13, 2017

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Print and web

This interview is included in the fall 2017 issue of BOMB. Link to the interview online.


The magazine's website.


The author Tan Lin.


Leibniz's writing on the monad.

NYLON Interview with Kristin Iversen

Talking with author Lucy Ives about 'Loudermilk,' the weirdness of 2003, and the problem with Paris Hilton

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: It was 2003 in America, and the revolution was streaming online, comprising sex tapes filmed in phosphorescent-green night vision and starring the kind of people who wore trucker hats and extremely low-slung jeans. It was the year President George W. Bush started a war in Iraq and quickly declared his mission had been accomplished. It was a year of petty victories and history grinding into gear again. It was—it is—the year of Loudermilk.

This cutting, sparkling new novel from Lucy Ives is set in Crete, a fictitious Midwestern town that plays host to The Seminars, only the most esteemed MFA program in the country. Arriving there fresh from graduating SUNY Oswego are two unlikely best friends: the Adonis-like Troy Augustus Loudermilk, and his petite, saturnine friend, Harry Rego. Loudermilk is ostensibly at the program to study poetry, but his brilliant work is all written by Harry. This isn't to say that Loudermilk shouldn't be seen as an artist, more that his art is of a less literary nature: Loudermilk's is the art of the scam.

As Ives tells the story of Loudermilk and Harry, and the assorted people they encounter on campus (look out, especially, for a scammer of a different sort, Anton Beans), it becomes clear that she is telling the story of art, of self-invention, of libertines, of culture, of America. Needless to say, things get dark. And yet, it never gets so dark that you can't see what's right in front of you, in all of its tragic hilarity: the truth of what America is at its very worst and its very best—which, as it turns out, are pretty much the same thing.

Below, I talk with Ives about how she came up with the idea for Loudermilk, why 2003 was such a significant time, and why Paris Hilton is a harbinger of apocalypse.

What was the beginning of this novel?

With this novel and my last novel, it was something that was a little beyond my control, or at least my conscious mind was not saying, Let's write a novel. I became obsessed—in the case of Impossible Views of the World, with the first person narrator; and in the case of Loudermilk, with the relationship Harry and Loudermilk have.

Originally—probably in 2008—I wanted to write a novel about a guy who has a teaching position at a prestigious East Coast university. It doesn't matter which one. He's a terrible person, and he's a lowlife, and he sleeps with his students. He's writing a novel about these two idiots who scam their way into an MFA in the Midwest. I think I wrote about 40,000 words of this framing narrative; as I was writing it, I realized that I only cared about the novel that the character was writing. That's the weird place that this book comes from, from an attempt to make another work of fiction that I wasn't as invested in.

I was interested in the idea of someone who's an artist whose main way of doing their art is not to make art themselves, but to control other people. That's how I understand Loudermilk, as someone who is, in fact, an artist himself, but he's an artist without a medium. Or, his medium is social relationships. He's also, in some ways, a very crude practitioner, and in order to craft the kinds of social dynamics he desires, he needs to deceive other people.

Your last novel was set in a pseudo Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this is set in a pseudo writer's workshop, like the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What do you think it is about not actually dealing with a real place that allows you to get closer to a kind of truth?

It's easy to mistake me for some of the female characters in some of the things that I write, but I'm not really a person who writes autobiographically in fiction. I think that if I were trying to write about real institutions, I would get very bogged down in details. There's something about fiction that allows you to talk about what you know without having to make sure that it can be verified. I think that a claim like that sounds a little politically suspect, but there's a way in which we make up a lot of things when we remember what has happened to us.

I have a tendency to see these artificial places and know who's there when I'm writing fiction. I find that I know very little about real people. I don't know what made my professors or friends in school tick—I speculate, but I really don't know. With fictional characters, I do know. I know everything about their lives, which is really strange. The fiction is interesting to me because it is a space in which you can know what you can't know in so-called real life. With fiction, you can kind of say everything.

This is a very American novel; Loudermilk is essentially American in so many ways. And he enters an MFA program, which is an American invention. And the novel is set in the year 2003, which is a pivotal year in modern American history, the year that Bush said the Iraq War was a "mission accomplished." Loudermilk really had me confronting the idea of what it means to be successful, to get approval, to feel validated, and to produce anything meaningful in America, and how so many of these victories feel so petty and empty. What was it like, when writing, to constantly be interrogating this idea of America?

In a way, this goes back to your first question about where the novel comes from. I'm a nerd. I liked being a student when I was a young person, and I liked to have my stationery and do well on tests, make flash cards, things like that. When I graduated from high school, I had the sense that hard work pays off and the whole American Dream thing, and that if I continued to be a person who was attentive and oriented to details, then things would be great. Also, [I thought] that when I went to college, I would be going into a space where everyone else had the same kinds of values, that we would all be studious and earnest and in awe of the greatness of artists of the past and things like that.

And that's exactly what you found! [laughs]

That's exactly what I found! It was really beautiful and everything has been beautiful since. [laughs] Well, things didn't turn out like that. Without going into too much detail, essentially, the kinds of teaching that you encounter when you get into a university are different. The institution is a source of power. So, the ways that students and teachers behave are sometimes constrained by that, especially if they're trying to get more agency for themselves.

You mentioned the petty victory in Iraq, which is just… everything about that was false. To me, as a person who was just becoming an adult, there was September 11th, which was terrifying and destabilizing and changed my understanding of what history is and where we were in history. I had read Francis Fukuyama's book, I was coming to consciousness during Clinton's presidency, and I had a certain sense of what American imperialism was, and that changed really dramatically. The invasion of Iraq in Spring of 2003, was, I think… there are many disturbing things that have happened in history, but for me, as a young person, this was the most disturbing thing.

I was very disturbed by people's nonchalance about it. I was living in Boston at the time. The bombings in Baghdad would be broadcast on CNN at night, and there was a bank in Harvard Square that had a TV that would just play them over and over. People would stand there and watch them. It was so dystopian; I just couldn't believe that this was happening.

My personal experience of that time was of a time when things had really gone off the rails. There were many bad things that the U.S. government had done, but I just couldn't believe that this was happening. It made me look at what was happening with other institutions differently. I felt like, if the New York Times or the Washington Post or Vanity Fair, if these major publications can become sites for propaganda, what am I seeing in the classroom? What are the values we're working with? How are they advantageous to certain parties and disadvantageous to others?

At the time, I didn't really come to any conclusions, again, this is that problem of real life not lending itself to interpretation. In the context of a novel, I can go back and imagine that there's a way in which a style of poetry that is valued, privileged in a given classroom, tells us something about the way that public address is being imagined in the U.S. during this period of time. This has something to do with people's psychology and their experiences more generally, but also, seeing the institution as a kind of space that doesn't necessarily resist. It's a space that does something else.

This is what I wanted to talk about: How is the institution a kind of microcosm for other things? The seminars aren't a real place; Crete, which is the town in Iowa [where Loudermilk is set], isn't a real place. Even the U.S. that this takes place in isn't the real U.S. It's a version of the U.S. I wanted to try to nest all of these things together, even if it's fake or a guess, to try to show the connection—and how art is a way to see things being connected that so often appear not to be moving in concert with one another in a way that we can interpret.

That's kind of the best description that I can give of my orientation to the real time and real place in the fiction. I keep wanting to make clear that it's a kind of bizarro version, always. I want to keep it from being an attempt to speak about the real place because there's so much information that I'm missing. I only have my own point of view to work from, so I try to go to the strangest parts of that point of view, but it's still limited.

One of the other questions this novel grapples with is how we value art, and the selling of art and the artist, and what is art's role in driving capitalism. One way in which Loudermilk is actually an artist is because of how much he understands how he'll be able to sell himself. This book takes place in 2003, but now, in 2019, the role of the artist in adding value to their art by promoting themselves in a really transactional way, via likes and favorites, makes the whole system feel that much more transparent. What do you think about art in the time of social media? And this might be my way of asking: When are you going to write a novel about social media?

In a way, Loudermilk is a novel about social media. It's just social media before [it existed]. Loudermilk is so elastic, he's prescient, and I do have the sense that he understood what was coming; that he saw the author as an avatar way before the current iteration of that format.

What do I think about now? I feel people are engaged around writing in a way that I can't say is terrible. I am probably a little bit in denial about the quantification of approval. It's a style of metric that keeps changing and keeps evolving, and my own goal, or what I want to do during the time that I draw breath, is sort of different. I don't feel terribly engaged by that. My way of doing things is mainly about developing relationships with people.

I think something that's coincided with the ubiquity of social media is a desire to know what's real or not, and a stronger than ever fascination with the idea of the scam—particularly when people aren't really getting hurt, when it's institutions that are getting hurt. And that's probably because we're starting to understand that institutions are meaningless, but that they're all we have. And yet, people are so terrified of existing outside of the power structure; the people who really feel like they were set up to succeed within it, are the most terrified to exist outside of it. It's why this country is the way it is, and it was like this when Alexis de Tocqueville came here, and it was like this in 2003, and it's a really big mindfuck, and thank you for contributing to that narrative! [laughs]

But also, the scammer plays into the idea of the libertine, a concept you discuss at length in Loudermilk's afterword. In 2003, so much of what Americans were being told at that time was the idea that we were hated for our freedoms and liberalism, but that was so deceptive, and not really an accurate representation of what it was to be an American. In Loudermilk, that can be seen in something as simple as how the women are dressing, including exposing their "whittled hip bones."

When the kitten heel came back in late 2001-2002, I remember thinking, This is bad, this means something bad. At that time, I thought, Okay, here's an image of a woman where the woman is going to have more difficulty moving. And the whittled hip bones, it's like telling women: "You don't have to have a corset, you just can't have any flesh on your body, and also please expose those parts of your body so we know you don't have any." Paris Hilton was a real person, who had a body that somehow conformed to these very strange requirements. I did watch a bunch of The Simple Life, and I thought about that; plus, her and Nicole Richie's relationship is a little bit of a Loudermilk and Harry relationship. We won't read too much into that, even though we know who the brains of that operation is [laughs]! However, I did not watch One Night in Paris. Maybe that'll be for after the novel comes out, I'll treat myself to that, but I don't know if that's really something I want to see.

Well, not unlike the bombing in Baghdad, it was also filmed in night vision. It actually is sort of an interesting, horrific duality, which I'm thinking about right now… because I did watch One Night in Paris.

I think Paris Hilton is an interesting example of the female libertine.

And a Trump supporter, also.

Yeah, it's terrifying. I think there are different ideas about what the rebel is for; what the type of person who engages in this kind of socially unacceptable excess is for; what the function they're serving is. If you think about Paris Hilton in this way—what was she for, what was her role symbolically in culture at the time—she was a spectacle; she was something to look at. She was, in theory, a sexually liberated woman, but she was also awful. She was about the horror of a woman run amok, and there was entertainment value in it, but there was also a justification in it for a kind of reactionary social politics. And, if Loudermilk is a libertine, he is devaluing the idea of freedom a little bit. And I think that's what American libertines do. They don't exist to advance progressive politics, they essentially exist to say, freedom isn't that great, the only thing it's good for is sex or excessive spending or eating. And I don't know if we should be so drawn to those figures, really.


Date: May 21, 2019

Publisher: NYLON Magazine

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

It’s Not the Economy: An Interview with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Lucy Ives: In a piece of criticism you wrote, there’s a quotation from Susan Buck-Morss. She talks about the artwork in modernity as having “the power to interpret reality itself as an illusion.” In my own peculiar reading of the present, we’ve dispensed with reality. But I still see art as a form of critique. You often write about a “logic” associated with photographs; I wonder if you could say something about that, as well as how you understand photographs’ relationship to reality, so-called.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: I think the photograph has become an almost zero-level instrument of communication with which to reshape the real, with a rate of acceleration and diffusion that’s really hard to wrap one’s mind around. This has happened somewhat independently of society’s collective work of developing widespread visual literacy, so pictures are always acting on us in ways we’re not attuned to or willing to consider. “Logic” has been a term for me to clarify that there’s a calculus at play. By making a series of photographs for a book, I’m also trying to valorize and interrogate a certain logic, or way of approaching reality.

LI: I’m curious about the significance of the book as a vehicle for photographs. I think of Stéphane Mallarmé’s utopian idea that “everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book.”

SW-W: A photographic book is as close to the actual thing the photographer wants you to hold in your hands as they can get. A photobook affords a photographer more narrative control than an exhibition affords an artist. It’s also as close as we can get to giving people democratic access to a photographic experience, with the understanding that most people cannot go to the places where our work is shown. This is why I love writing about photobooks, because they represent what the photographer wanted to put into my hands, from first image to last, from the cover to the end papers. I fell in love with photography in book form long before I went to go see it in museums or galleries.

LI: I want to move beyond the material nature of publishing to the interpersonal. How do you interact with someone, in the course of making a portrait?

SW-W: I make photographs with a 4×5 view camera, which is a modestly transformed version of a 19th-century camera. Its design is almost as old as the earliest cameras we now think of as producing photographs. It sits on a tripod. The one I use is made of beautiful dark wood. A dark cloth snaps on the back, and I put my head underneath. It’s an odd spectacle to see me out on the streets making photographs, as there aren’t a lot of people who are both able and crazy enough to spend the kind of money it costs to make pictures this way, and who do it on a regular basis. I’m always aware that my decision to make an image out in public turns me into an image for others.

When I ask people if I can make their portrait, the question or approach is always the same. I say, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” and then explain that I’m working on a portrait project. I’ll say, “Would you have some time for me to photograph you?” Those are basically the only elements of the request. The whole thing is over in 10 seconds. I’ll walk directly toward the person I want to photograph. I don’t dawdle and flit around. I want to be straightforward. I also want to leave myself as few options to chicken out as possible.

Once someone says yes, I’m interested in everything that prevents them from becoming overly invested in the outcome. I don’t share cellphone pictures of the frame. I don’t carry Polaroid film. I try to dissuade anyone who might want to come gather around. I try to create a bubble in which there’s just myself, the person or people I’m photographing and the camera. One of the main ways I do that is by being quiet, and letting silence grow. I concentrate on how people move, and I think about light. I jealously defend the moment, but I don’t say what I want, because the truth is that I’m not sure. I’ll ask whomever I’m photographing to do things that seem like a variant of what I’ve seen them do before. Like, I would ask, how would you sit if you’re waiting for a friend to pick you up – or, if you’re leaning against this wall, what’s the most comfortable way for you to lean, is it on this side of your body or that. But I don’t say, “Sit here, move your leg, now think about your dead grandmother!” I worry that that would signal something that constructs an anticipation of the image.

Unless you know the weird optics of the view camera, which you can morph in profound ways by adjusting the relationship between the lens and film plane, you don’t really know what I’m seeing. And I don’t want you to obsess about it. When a person turns their gaze on the camera lens, a lot of these little inflections can change, but I’m still drawn to something that seems to belong to people before I even utter the question of whether I might photograph them. There’s a kind of accident that can happen, and it might be a fleeting half-expression utterly unrelated to the moment we’re experiencing together, but nevertheless resonant and compelling. I’m most invested in getting close to that. In a weird way, a person’s anticipatory sense of the image we’re making together gets in the way of me making images, at least in the way I’m trying to.

LI: If, as you say, images get in the way, how did that play into your decision to include archival photographs in One Wall a Web?

SW-W: The appropriated archival photographs turned up by accident. It began when I encountered photographs owned by a man who had lived in Richmond, Virginia, in the special collections at the Virginia Commonwealth University library. He was a member of the FBI who ended up being murdered with an axe in his own house. He had collected these mugshots of people who had been arrested. And there were candid portraits mixed in. It was apparent that these were photographs of people who were bound up in the criminal justice system in some way. I made enlargements of the portraits and mugshots and put them up in my studio. Then a friend urged me to look for found photographs on eBay, and I started looking for 4×5 negatives. I knew I didn’t want prints. That was one of the first things I determined, that I wanted to buy archival negatives that were materially equivalent to my contemporary ones.

But when I’m talking about images getting in the way of me making images, I’m thinking narrowly about not wanting people I’m making portraits of to respond to a pre-existing expectation; that’s the sense in which I try to keep images out. What I would say about the archival images is that as it became clearer to me what kind of work I was making, I understood that my own words or pictures were never going to cover all the terrain I was interested in. Other voices would be needed. The archival negatives immediately gave me a clear sense of a set of histories and genealogies by way of which contemporary conditions in which I was living and working had become normal and, in some sense, invisible. Maybe, in contradistinction to what I said earlier, this means other images also freed me to make images differently.

LI: How?

SW-W: I got more and more interested in describing the world in attenuated ways. The photographs became more oblique. Where I stood and how I made a picture shifted. And the way I made landscape photographs changed a lot. I have to add a caveat to this and say that I am an unreliable critic of my own work. However, I think the landscape photograph became a way for me to get at the pathological investment in violence that I understand to be central to American history and culture.

LI: I think about one archival photograph you include, of a white woman who has a neck wound, being treated in a hospital.

SW-W: The caption for that photograph is Armed Woman Shot by Police, Chicago, 1957. The woman is white, being attended to by an all-black staff. She’s framed centrally, looking out directly at the camera, on her back. Her face is plaintive, and wracked with pain. She’s surrounded by these black hands. They’re not exactly forceful, but what they’re helping to make happen is painful.

I think – to clarify what this image is doing in my book – that the kind of social encounter I’m interested in by way of photography approximates one that precedes or can precipitate violence. I’m interested in the fact that people believe they know things about a person on the basis of the body that person is carrying around and are often impelled to act on the basis of that “knowledge.” I think the bulk of what informs such violent acts is broader and deeper than individual bias. The kind of power we’re reckoning with here can’t be ratcheted down to the manageable abstraction of an individual. Anti-black violence is much bigger than that.

We’ve gone through this period in America where people were trying to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But it’s not the economy. It’s racism, which not only buttresses the capital economy but has its own economies of desire. These things are important in relation to portraiture because how we look at one another has enormous bearing on how we act.

So, if people travel to the image index in the back of my book and see the titles of the photographs there, they might discover Armed Woman Shot by Police, Chicago, 1957, and they might intuitively think they know what kind of guilty perpetrator will appear in that photograph. But it’s that particular elegant yet pained white woman. She’s being made to suffer by black excellence, being cared for by people who are structurally subordinate to her. What might those black nurses and doctors have been thinking about what would happen if they were doing the same thing as their patient, bearing firearms in front of the police? You have to work to understand what is going on in that room, which is about much more than just one person’s pain.

LI: Your inclusion of the archival photographs activates them as records of the society that produced them. I’m wondering how you see documentary photography’s relationship to the work of deploying images in an evidentiary way, and how you understand the term “documentary,” more generally.

SW-W: Documentary, at least etymologically, has to do with pedagogy. In the American history of photography, the Farm Security Administration photographs from the ’30s play a pivotal role. Documentary photography was used to re-adhere the public to the state, as a scaffold within which national recovery should occur. The images were meant to be transparent, their meanings stable. Of course, they aren’t and never were, as Armed Woman Shot by Police, Chicago, 1957 also shows.

When we get to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there’s this crop of new documentary photographers including Robert Frank, and in 1967 there’s this seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New Documents, that features Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus: a generation of photographers whose “aim has not been to reform life, but to know it, not to persuade but to understand,” as John Szarkowski said at the time.

Szarkowski’s commentary effects a clear ethical and artistic division between documentary practice in the ’30s and in 1967. At that point, individual creative genius was to be valorized over and against the public sphere or the national body. I have just as much criticism for that notion as I do the statist model. It’s an evasion to claim that rhetorical objects like photographs do not seek to persuade their viewers.

A lot of people in contemporary practice have rejected the term “documentary photographer.” I don’t have any problem with it. I’m willing to speak candidly about the ways in which my photographs are constructed fictions. I can speak to that person who’s invested in a statist model, who would look at a photograph and say, “This person = good, this circumstance = bad,” as though the photograph always only confirms its caption or my best intent. And I’m willing to have an argument with another person who claims that all my book contains is my own creative expression. It plainly does not. Both positions tend toward an anti-social absolutism – one by closing down interpretive responsibility, one by ignoring the politics of the material world.

What I’m trying to “document” isn’t reducible to the individual people who loaned their time to me so I could make their picture, nor is it reducible to the places where I made landscapes. It’s not reducible to singular images. I’m trying to photograph a non-figurable operation of power. I’m trying to photograph the literal fact of something evanescent: the violent operations of white power in a process of normalization and legitimation, which is experienced radically differently, depending on one’s race, class, gender or sexual identity.

Plainly, while the term documentary stays stable, what defines it as a practice varies over time. Sometimes a historically normative form of artistic expression is useful as a way to communicate, in part because of the limitations of its values and rules, as in Armed Woman Shot by Police, Chicago, 1957 for instance. I happen to agree with many critiques of humanist documentary photography, and I am also equally committed to describing what’s happening in the world because it’s fucked and we need to do something about it. I’m trying to work out a way as an artist of holding to both of these positions simultaneously, because they’re not contradictory. How we see and how we act have a history. The images I make or appropriate, and the texts I write or appropriate, are also working in relation to those histories, sometimes in sympathy, often by way of subversion. This is the material I have to work with and this is the best way I know how. I’m simultaneously marveling at the world, and being quite frank about terror.

LI: Do you think the people you photograph are aware of these goals? Can they be?

SW-W: It’s a lot to saddle somebody with. And this comes back to my concern about pre-empting an incident in which something else might occur. I know what I believe, but I don’t know what’s going to happen when I photograph. That not knowing is vitally important, because I can be right about a person and categorically wrong about the portrait that might ensue. If someone asks me what I’m doing, I’ll say I’m interested in how people are living in this particular moment. I’m interested in what it feels like and what it looks like. I’m interested in what it means. I’ll always be interested in that because I make portraits. I’m interested in complex moments of shared relation. I don’t outline my politics, because the risk is that then you’re not only asking that people collaborate, but also endorse your views. And they may not! In sharing my beliefs, I might also imply that the portrait we make will necessarily confirm my views, and that in that sense they will be willing accomplices to my politics. I’ve photographed people with whom I disagree profoundly. Whether that disagreement has anything to do with how they look in a given place and time is rarely, rarely relevant.

LI: How can it be that that’s not relevant?

SW-W: I made portraits of this young guy for a period of about a year when I was in Richmond. He harboured some deeply anti-Semitic beliefs and conspiracy theories about world governance. At certain points I was trying to find a way to photograph those beliefs, but they weren’t visible. Other things were visible – scorn, disdain, a kind of aloofness and insecurity – but, those might add up to something different in an image. So, what’s my responsibility? If this person isn’t covered in swastikas, how do I photograph his anti-Semitism? Is it enough to define him? I could use a caption. I could quote him. But then what am I asking you to bring to this photographic encounter except an excommunicative judgment? And what work does the portrait do to reckon with the complex structures of feeling from which views like this grow? Since the photographic portrait approximates and at the same time creates a certain social encounter, it’s important to deal with the uncertainty inherent in our relations with the unknown and to question how we think and act in that suspended potentiality.


Date: September 1, 2018

Publisher: C Magazine

Format: Print

Link to the interview (abridged).

Full text of interview with images by Wolukau-Wanambwa available as PDF, below at right.


C Magazine / Issue 139, "Trust"

Conversation with Andrew Durbin

Poet Novelist: An Interview between Andrew Durbin and Lucy Ives

Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat 2014). His work has also appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Frieze, Texte zur Kunst, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. He co-edits Wonder and lives in New York.

Lucy Ives's books include Anamnesis (Slope Editions, 2009), nineties (Tea Party Republicans Press, 2013; Little A, 2015), Orange Roses (Ahsahta Press, 2013), and The Hermit (Song Cave, 2016). Her writing has appeared in Art in America, Artforum, Lapham's Quarterly, and Vogue, among other publications. A former editor of Triple Canopy, she is currently editing a collection of writings by the artist Madeline Gins.

Both Durbin and Ives have published novels this year MacArthur Park (Nightboat, 2017) and Impossible Views of the World (Penguin, 2017), a New York Times Editors' Choice.


Poetry Society of America: The obvious question, but one that holds a certain fascination for poets: how did you think the process of writing a novel differed from the process of writing poetry?

Andrew Durbin: For me, writing a novel more closely resembled writing an essay and, in many ways, I think of MacArthur Park as a series of essayistic set pieces that I strung together using a loose and semi-autobiographical narrative. This wasn't totally unlike how I've written poetry in the past. My poems usually appear in prose, and they often self-consciously adopt various voices, forms, and styles of "non-poetic" writing, like the essay or the short story, so the distinction between these genres has been fuzzy for me from the start. I'm not sure I've ever thought of the differences between a fiction or a poem or an essay to be particularly meaningful to me, and I see my novel as a fiction stumbling into poetry and vice versa.

Lucy Ives: My novel, Impossible Views of the World, has the appearance of a traditional novel, in that elements such as "plot" and "character" are readily identifiable. I guess I'd say, perhaps too cannily since in retrospect, that many poems I've written have included these elements as well, though few people were likely to be looking for them in poetry. But I'm not really a poet; I'm a nonconformist writer who is interested in form and genre. Or maybe that's to say, I'm a poet, by which I merely mean, I'm a nonconformist writer who is interested in form and genre.

Andrew Durbin: Do you think of Impossible Views as a poet's novel? I don't quite see your new book as part of that odd genre (I cringe at the term since I've never been quite sure what it means, really), but I'm interested in the history of poets writing novels and those novels being called this specific-ish thing, the poet's novel. Did any of that come into play as you wrote?

Lucy Ives: Thank you for asking me this question. I feel a little embarrassed because I definitely have not succeeded in writing a poet's novel with Impossible Views. I've done other weird things that interest me, like making it very difficult to determine the novel's genre, but I haven't written something autobiographical or even really experimental—at least, not in the sense in which I believe that term is usually employed with respect to poet's novels, so called. I am very interested in mimicry and satire, in the ways in which the tropes of the realist novel can be warped and reworked to serve new ends. I'm always thinking about travesty, in a literary sense, and I guess you could say that Impossible Views is me writing my way into the field of the novel. It's an extremely silly book but I'm quite serious about what it does at the level of form. I should note that, in deference to the tradition of the poet's novel, I did include one character in Impossible Views who is a poet and who is writing a poet's novel—so that anyone looking for a poet's novel in my book would not be disappointed.

At risk of annoying you, I wanted to ask, would you ever write a poet's novel? Have you? What kind of novel are you writing with MacArthur Park if it is, as you note above, like "writing an essay"? Are there any important precedents for you, whether novels or other, here?

Andrew Durbin: You're incapable of annoying me! I'm not sure I have. If one tradition of the poet's novel is a text that dispenses with most of the straightforward aspects of fiction (like a plot or recognizably distinct characters), as in the novels of Leslie Scalapino and Renee Gladman, for example, then no, I haven't done that and probably won't. But following the New Narrative poets, many of whom wrote great novels (usually about narrative), then I could see MacArthur Park fitting in that lineage, since my book is, on some level, about writing a book. In the end, the novel is something of a happy accident. I initially wrote many of the parts—the chapter on Tom of Finland, the final section in London and Vienna—as separate from one another (I had originally imagined a more disjunctive book). But then, as I sat with them over the years, I found that these pieces belonged more tightly together than I had first realized, since they were each linked by a speaker (me, not-me) with like-minded concerns about art and community in the age of climate disaster. The book came in through the back door rather than the front.

A few observers have focused on your book's ample and brilliant use of secondary material, much of it invented, but, for me, I found Stella's voice to be one of the novel's oddest, most arresting features, partially because it's one that blends (like the book itself) so many tones and vocabularies. I loved Stella's moments of circumlocution, her office-administrative humor, her flashes of "intractable personality issues." It's an unexpected tone for a literary caper, and it's very different from your other work. She is hyper-intelligent, confused, driven, curious and—at times—a little melancholy. Can you talk about the prose of Impossible Views and how you developed Stella's unique voice?

Lucy Ives: I think your point about the novels of New Narrative being "about narrative" is a good one. I want to linger with that idea for a second before I start talking about Stella, because I think it's a good expression of the way in which a novel can also function as a work of criticism without becoming something other than a novel—or, while becoming something other than a novel, while also being a novel (I'm into these contradictions). Works of art are usually making arguments about various things, and I like to think of them as doing that at a level that is somehow previous to interpretation. In other words, we aren't required to look at them in agonized ways to understand them as having positions, political or otherwise; an argument might be built into the very choice to write in a certain way. This may also have something to do with ways you and I might both be influenced by non-literary forms of practice. I get the sense that you are interested in a broader field of art and performance; meanwhile, I like nerds. If I choose to write something that counts as "literature," part of that choice—for me, at least—is refusing other professional affiliations in favor of this sort of non affiliation. I didn't write this novel, or anything else I've written, because I can't write in any other way. Rather, I wrote in this way and wrote these things because I don't like writing that's too useful. Once an academic told me, "Your writing is so incredibly clear, which is amazing, because you never say anything!" This person was my teacher, and his preferred pedagogical tool was the insult (sadly common among boomers in the humanities). I took comfort in the knowledge that he had no idea how right he was.

But about Stella: There is a sense in which, as well as being human like, she is a stylistic tool, a way for me to synthesize various kinds of speech and writing and put them all in one place so that we can look at them together. It was important to me that she be able to curse and obsess over orthographic conventions. That she be able to talk about sex and clothing and class and the print revival, and so on.

OK, so here's a different sort of question: Can you tell me a little about the title of MacArthur Park? I find the rhyme in it fascinating—in this way that makes me feel weird about it also being the name of a real place. Can the title tell us something about how you think about places and names in the novel (and perhaps elsewhere)?

Andrew Durbin: My work is often concerned with the representation of place rather than the place itself, and the thicket of questions—political, aesthetic, social—that that divide reveals when we begin to venture into it. I like to get entangled in those questions because they inevitably raise a number of backend issues about my status as a viewer or listener or author. In the novel, the narrator drives past Echo Park, mistaking it for MacArthur Park, and tells his fellow travelers that Donna Summer recorded a song about the park that he loves. (Him being wrong matters in a way I won't discuss here.) Later, in that same chapter, the song acts as a Proustian madeleine of sorts. When he listens to it again, he is jolted into an extended memory of a night ride he took with a friend many years before in which they listened to Donna Summer and Frankie Knuckles. He is overcome by the memory of where he comes from (the South) and the awkwardness of his body (his friend attempts to take a photograph of him as Knuckles' "Your Love" plays, but he turns away in embarrassment). This is a long way of saying that I don't come to that kind of emotional material—another kind of thicket—so easily unless I begin somewhere else, whether it's a fiction or not. So, it is weird, that the title refers to a real place. But I think that's part of the strangeness of representation: that it is purports to stake a claim, in some way or another, about something or somewhere that belongs to people besides its author and is therefore subject to disagreement, to a mix of feelings, to a difference of opinion and experience.

It seems appropriate to bring up your title! It's lifted from a book within the book, of which there are many, and it concisely captures the "impossible view" your novel's protagonist attempts to take in her gumshoe research into her colleague's mysterious disappearance. Impossible Views is filled with such moments where viewing becomes a liberating, terrifying, and sometimes seemingly impossible moment of decision for Stella. Can you talk about some of the way your novel approaches seeing and being seen?

Lucy Ives: What a juicy question. My instinct is to say that my novel has a rather depressed or sunken relationship to the notion of seeing and being seen, in that the narrator feels she is constantly misapprehended by those she knows. But, on the other hand, this narrator, Stella, is an ecstatic seer and obsessive describer of the life and objects that surround her; the novel is packed with the work of description. Perhaps Stella is attempting to compensate for what she experiences as her own illegibility via this incessant description, these "impossible view[s]," as you call them. Or perhaps she's attempting to transform description—a field in which she excels and which is traditionally associated with stasis and decoration—into a mode of action. There's something, too, about the insoluble strangeness of being seen; it may not be possible to know how others see you, what they see, and so forth. That eerie and sometimes devastating feeling of being mistaken or misunderstood remains widely available, daily, even. And I think you're right that Stella relives, or attempts to recover and revise, these moments of misapprehension in her own acts of perception. It's part of why she's so driven to find out. She's doing that classic thing of giving to her environment what she wants for herself. Therefore, too, the impossibility. But I should also note that I'm not convinced that Stella is really as misunderstood as she believes she is—her mimetic theories are full of flaws, alas! She is, after all, an art historian.


Date: October 3, 2017

Publisher: Poetry Society of America

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Conversation with John Keene

True Fictions: Audio Documentation
With Lucy Ives & John Keene

The following readings and discussion were recorded at True Fictions on September 13, 2017. Writer Lucy Ives read an excerpt from her recently published novel Impossible Views of the World. She was joined by John Keene, who read from his 2015 short-story collection Counternarratives. The readings were followed by a conversation on the use of archival documents and art objects in fiction, writing against conventions in historical narratives, and the influence of reading and writing fiction on the experience of history.


Date: September 13, 2017

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Bookforum talks with Lucy Ives

Bookforum talks with Lucy Ives

Lucy Ives was supposed to be writing her dissertation when Stella Krakus, the main character in Ives’s debut novel, Impossible Views of the World, came into her mind. It would take six years for Stella to fully emerge, but when she did, she brought an unlikely triumvirate of irrepressible qualities: a nerd’s expertise in maps and early Americana, a kooky and misanthropic sense of self, and a gimlet eye for the art world in which she seems surprised to have found herself. Stella is a curator at the fictional Central Museum of Art in Manhattan, and when one of her colleagues disappears, she quickly decides to ignore her professional responsibilities in order to pursue his trace through the more obscure corners of the museum’s collection. Along the way, Stella confronts her soon-to-be-former husband, Whit Ghiscolmbe; her colleague and occasional lover, Fred Lu; and her steely mother, Caro. I recently corresponded with Ives to discuss the book’s brief glimpse into this young woman’s singular, sparkling mind, what Stella’s future might hold, and what it would be like to run into her protagonist on the street.

The entire book takes place over a week in the life of Stella Krakus, a curator at a major arts institution in New York City. She’s a native New Yorker and there’s no doubt that Stella is whip smart—a real intellectual and a keen observer of social life. Her character and its freshness are one of the book’s greatest strengths. How did you come up with her voice?

I was trying very hard to do something else when I started this novel. I was supposed to be working on an academic task—I was a PhD student at the time. I was probably formatting my footnotes or lurking on JSTOR when the novel’s first scene popped into my head. The five-hundred-odd words I wrote at this time subsequently became the first pages of the book. Given these events, I’m not sure if I can take all the credit for the creation of the character or her “freshness”! Though I am the one who wrote this book, I was not intending to write it. It remained insistent over about six years, and while, as I say, I am not always sure if I wrote it or just tried to avoid writing it and failed, I also could not seem not to write it. Stella is quite different from me, yet she seems to be part of who I am in some strange, unconscious, and perhaps uncontrollable way. I don’t know where she comes from.

Stella spends a lot of time devising a hierarchy of the art world: the elegant established curators; the gallerists, who “age magnificently and make a ton of bank” at the same time; the questing youngs who dress too well given their poor salaries and survive on their youth; the corporate types who hang around art events to garner status. There’s an overabundance of enthusiastic women occasionally interspersed by the solitary dashing man who ends up being the one to succeed. Are things really so mercenary and sexist? How or why does Stella feel bound to—or resigned to—her role?

Though many people reading this interview may have already guessed this, I am not a curator, nor am I a gallerist, visual artist, consultant, art handler, professional fundraiser, or any other sort of art worker, though I do occasionally write art criticism. In addition to these limitations, as far as truth is concerned, it’s also very difficult for me to make claims about how things transpire in real life in general; I think this is why I write novels and poems rather than something else. All the same, I am, to some extent, with you on this one, because I, too, often wonder what Stella would do “in real life,” or what would happen if I were to cross paths with her on the street one day or on the subway. It’s likely enough to happen, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live just the littlest bit in fear of it. I have no idea if she would have read the novel, and, moreover, I would not like to think that the world she lives in actually exists. All the same, it might exist. Or, the world we live in might contain mercenary and sexist features and/or milieus and maybe Stella Krakus is somewhere out there dealing with them.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m not sure that Stella really does feel so resigned to her role. When the novel opens, she is aware that things are not going well, and during the course of the novel certain events transpire that make it impossible for her to continue thinking and living as she has previously been thinking and living. To the extent that the novel has a plot, one of its major points or threads is the act of deciding to decide. That sounds a bit meta, but I think it’s one of the hardest things for people to do: to decide to act differently and then continue to decide to act differently, to act as they have never acted before in their lives.

Much of the book indulges in the enjoyments of an obscure, literary mystery. What was your research process like to concoct this crumb trail through historical Americana? I read somewhere that all the works in the book are fictional. How did you come up with all the charming details?

As a scholar, you are supposed to use objects and events of the past as examples to support a story you want to tell or argument you want to make. When the project of the researching professor is described in this simplified way, it’s easier to see some of the difficulties with it. Would you treat something that happened to you yesterday as an event typical of a broader historical trend? Are the objects in your home mere examples of the sorts of things a person like you (for there are many yous, historically speaking) would own? If you are answering “yes” to these questions, then perhaps you have a graduate degree or take a dispirited view of life more generally. But if you are neither of these things, and even if you do have a graduate degree, I think it’s clear how alienating the scholarly construction of reality can be. Having a strong sense of this alienating quality, along with the perhaps even more alienating process of creating texts that organize said research, I wanted to write a novel in which all the facts, as such, were fake. I wanted all these facts to be at once patently fake and very convincing. By proceeding in this way, it was possible for me to comment on the way in which historical and other kinds of facts “look” and “feel,” on how they relate to one another. The details in the novel, in all the imaginary works of art, emerge out of a desire, on my part, to think about how objects and texts from the past are presented to us in ways that convince us of their pastness. I am describing the distance between the past and the present by fictionalizing in this way and also describing the ways in which this distance is formed and mediated by contingent scholarly practices in the present.

Stella seems to approach artworks and historical research with much more vim and vigor than she does in her job’s requisite socializing. Indeed, compared to Stella’s views on her colleagues, her love of research and intellectual play is positively idealistic. Can you say more about that?

I think research is very safe. It is, in a sense, a highly mediated form of social life. It’s a little bit like email, which is a format Stella also loves. If I had to guess, I’d say that Stella is able to have relatively satisfying relationships with other people, not all of whom are alive, through the historical artworks and texts she encounters in her research. This research also gives her agency and a modicum of control over her fate: What she lacks in networking ability, Stella makes up for in information. She may be something of a misanthrope, but she is not a fool, and she realizes that she can get away with being a wallflower if she specializes correctly. Of course, this still leaves Stella at the mercy of the institution she works for, a problem our heroine must tackle before the novel’s close.

One of the pleasures of the book is getting a view into the interior world of an institution that resembles the Met. Some of this is mundane if accurate—Stella coming in late, not doing her actual work—but we also get a bit of the feeling of being in a museum after hours. There are moments when you have some of the world's great art all to yourself, or the privilege to rummage among the enormous collections that never even get displayed. I know your mom worked at the Met for a long time so I’m sure this gave you some insight, but there’s more to it than that. Can you say more about your personal experience of peeking behind the curtains of the art world, including those of its illustrious institutions?

There’s a lot of paperwork in there! More seriously, I think that jobs at art institutions are like many other jobs, although the scenery can be prettier. The present of art institutions interests me less than their pasts, which are inevitably more revealing and also strange. Part of what I hoped to do with Impossible Views of the World was to open up the institutional history of a fictional museum for (mostly gentle, fictional) scrutiny. In my fictional museum, the history of the acquisition of artworks both mirrors and becomes entwined with fictional present-day office haps. Which is to say, there’s a meaningful connection between the past and present in the novel; maybe the novel is even designed to allow that to occur. My own real-life observations of “illustrious institutions” are probably more banal, and don’t include plot twists or dramatic irony—or, for that matter, profound realizations about the meaning of institutional histories! I wish they did. I would probably have to start working at one of them for that to happen.

Stella doesn't seem to see herself as having many choices: she feels stuck at her job at CeMArt, in part because of her ill-conceived romance with one of her ascendant colleagues. That relationship and the end of her marriage occupy most of her social life. Otherwise, the person she appears closest to is her mother, whom she finds competitive and cagey. In fact, Stella feels that the biggest impact she makes is in a violent act that gets passed around YouTube. Why does Stella think her prospects are so grim? Are they really?

Stella spent six or seven years getting a degree and became a specialist in print ephemera. She’s a scholar of caricatures and political cartoons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She’s highly educated and in theory could do whatever she wants, and I think what you’re picking up on is her disappointment that her commitment to expertise doesn’t give her much of an edge in the institution where she works or, really, anywhere else. If she wants to do what she’s been trained to do in the context of the museum, she’s going to have to deal with the indignities of the pecking order and bide her time, for what might be a very long time. Perhaps unrealistically, Stella believed that being an expert in something esoteric would give her an interesting life and some small supply of power. She also thought that her friends and family would magically understand her commitment to weird, old things. But her life, if not uninteresting, isn’t what she thought it would be, nor does she have the sort of power that she had hoped she would have (what this power is, exactly, I am unsure). And no one around her, with the exception of her now-missing colleague Paul, has had much interest in her research. So, this is where things have gone wrong or askew—though I don’t think they’re grim, exactly, or Stella doesn’t see these things as grim so much as annoying. However, I do think we’d have to describe some of the novel’s characters’ actions as grim and reprehensible, and that’s a grimness that Stella can’t escape, no matter how amused YouTube users are by her antics or how well her latest microfiche foray goes. This is not a novel about revenge or redemptive, flamboyant success. The message is slighter than that. It’s about deciding not to look away from events, about confronting the simple grimness of apathy and deception in everyday life and realizing that one can choose to be different.

Anna Altman has written from the New Yorker, n+1, the New York Times, and other publications.


Date: September 13, 2017

Publisher: Bookforum

Format: Web

Link to the interview at Bookforum.

LARB Radio Hour on "Impossible Views ... "

Author Lucy Ives joins co-hosts Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher to discuss Impossible Views of the World, her first novel, which centers on the life of a curator working in New York’s greatest museum. The ensuing conversation revolves around the Ives’ inspiration for writing such a multi-faceted work: part character-driven social satire, part literary pastiche, it’s also an intellectual mystery novel rife with artistic and philosophical resonance. Plus, poet Imani Tolliver, author of Runaway: A Memoir in Verse, returns to recommend Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.


Date: September 7, 2017

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Audio

Link to the podcast at LARB.
Podcast at Soundcloud.

Interview in Vogue

Impossible Views of the World Is a Perfect Summer Pleasure

Lucy Ives’s cool and bracing new novel, Impossible Views of the World, is a perfect summer pleasure. Set at the fictional CeMArt, a museum on the Upper East Side that’s remarkably similar to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—where the author’s mother ran a department for many years, and about which Ives wrote an essay for Vogue—the book offers access to one of the world’s most well-oiled cultural institutions, functioning as something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups. An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted (hors d’oeuvres at a museum fundraiser are “micro-tizers”; the denizens of Williamsburg are “proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs”).

The narrative spans a single week, during which the cleverly named 30-something Stella Krakus (whose life is cracking up—get it?) contends with a harassing soon-to-be ex-husband, an ill-fated affair with one show pony of a colleague, and the mysterious death of another. Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting. “I am not tall. In fact I am short, with highly regular features,” our narrator relays in the opening pages. “I despise makeup, though I wear lipstick, and, to further frustrate my appearance, I smoke.” It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection. Below, an interview with Ives, 37, a poet and academic who teaches writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Why isn’t the book set at the Met? Did it start out there and then you changed the name for legal reasons?

It was never the Met. It’s really important that it’s not the Met. All unhappy families are different, and so are all unhappy institutions. This way the museum has its own concerns. Everything in the novel that is an artwork or text is completely made up. Dreaming up artworks and satirizing the discipline of research was fun for me; they’re two of the greatest pleasures I can think of.

What was the spark of the book?

I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation at NYU when this strange scenario popped into my head. It was the idea of a woman going up the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew she was having difficulty in her romantic life and there were men who were not treating her with respect. The voice of the narrator was just there, and just available to me. So I started writing things down about her and her life, trying to see the humor in the ridiculousness in the men’s behavior that contrasted with her determination, and it became this world.

What was your mother’s job at the Metropolitan Museum?

My mother was the illustrious director of a department whose purview has changed over time. It focused on works on paper—handmade things like drawings and prints and photographs. She is an expert in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist prints and drawings.

What was it like to be a pet of the Met as a child?

[Laughs.] A lot of the objects of the museum were like members of the family. We would go to visit them regularly. I spent a lot of time in museums and in galleries as a child. Over time it’s become clear to me how much I’ve learned from this. I don’t have the training but I learned a lot about how to think about and relate to art. And for that I am eternally grateful.

You write about your mother in your Vogue Nostalgia. Stella’s mother, Caro, is also a less-than-snuggly art-world professional. How would you compare the experiences of writing about your mother in fiction and nonfiction?

Stella’s mother, Caro, is probably a way I am dealing with some of the challenges in relating to a parent who you respect but is quite capable of tough love. Writing about my mother for Vogue was easier because I know who my mother is and I know what my experience being her daughter is like. The part that was difficult was I felt I needed to come to some kind of conclusion. My relationship with my mother is not going to end. Even after death we keep having relationships with our parents. In a novel you get to create endings that have meaning. In real life you don’t. That’s one of the hardest things about being a human.

Have you ever worked at a museum?

Not apart from one summer as a teenager when I was a tour guide at the Met. I learned that small children really like to touch art.

The book is extremely funny about the cohort of young women who work in the art world and wear high heels and excel at writing thank-you notes. This bit reminded me of that wonderful short-lived reality show Gallery Girls: “The ‘girl’ who works at the museum is very pretty and exceedingly neat. She is a fan of social networking in all its protean forms, and not in an ironic way.” Did you have real-life exposure to what they call “gallery girls”?

For five years I was an editor at Triple Canopy, an interdisciplinary magazine with a lovely website. One of our aims was to bring artwork into a digital realm in a more innovative way than simply presenting a JPEG. During that time I encountered curators and gallerists and gallery managers and interns and desk workers and fact checkers. So I’m going to say yes, I did.

The novel grapples with the seemingly impossible lot of being a woman, and balancing professional ambition and dreams of romantic love. Is this a tension you struggle with? Are you more of a worker or a lover?

I am a worker [laughs]. But I think I’m curious about this quandary because the workplace that I came to in my late 20s and early 30s—academia and publishing—was not the workplace I was promised when I was a child. It was a place that didn’t just see me as an intellect or a creative but saw me first as a woman, and then those things later. This was a huge surprise to me and I’m still reeling about that. I was at an art book fair a few years ago and I met a powerful man in the art world. We shook hands. When my companion, an older influential woman, looked away, he reached out and took my breast in his hand. I don’t know where we find ourselves—are women’s lives better than they once were? Or are they not?


Date: July 24, 2017

Publisher: Vogue

Format: Web

Link to interview.



Interview with Dodie Bellamy


THE SUMMER OF 2016 WAS FOR ME THE SUMMER OF DODIE BELLAMY. I am a New York resident, but by strange coincidence, when this interview was proposed to me by a WHITE REVIEW editor I happened to be living temporarily just outside San Francisco, Bellamy’s longtime purlieu. I also happened to be headed over to her house for a party later on that week. Thus I was able to secure a verbal ‘yes’ to the interview plan. Bellamy and I subsequently sat down mid-August in her SOMA apartment to discuss her work, particularly her recent essay collection, WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD (2015).

For those less familiar with San Francisco, SOMA stands for ‘South of Market.’ The area contains industrial structures and a few modest wood-clad apartment buildings, but has recently received liberal architectural additions in the form of luxury condominiums and corporate monoliths. Bellamy describes the ongoing gentrification of the neighbourhood where she has lived since 1990 with her partner, the poet Kevin Killian, in her essay ‘In the Shadow of the Twitter Towers’. The essay’s treatment of the present as a confluence of economic and cultural pressures, personal desire, paranoia, ambition, and, oh yes, real estate, is heady and affecting. It exemplifies Bellamy’s skilful attention to the welter of forces and dynamics shaping contemporary life and carries a trace of her schooling in the New Narrative literary movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. New Narrative writing, often associated with the writer Robert Glück, usually includes the author’s forthright acknowledgement of her or his own body and sexuality, as well as that of the reader, along with the actual time and place of writing. The author of at least eleven books of prose and poetry, including CUNT-UPS (2001) and THE TV SUTRAS (2014), Bellamy is additionally concerned with affect and precarity, and where desire can lead us once we forgive false notions of what humans need and deserve. Whether or not you find Bellamy’s work ‘experimental’ – in the interview she herself takes issue with this term – it seems clear that her work is engaged with questions about what and where daily life is, not to mention who is experiencing this life, so called. Bellamy doesn’t so much rail against traditional literary forms and genre as ignore them in favour of more exciting and enticing ways of proceeding.

On the afternoon of our August meeting, Bellamy fed me homemade date cookies and green tea. I met Sylvia the cat, one of two felines – the other is Ted, as in Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – with whom Bellamy and Killian share their home. Sylvia displayed a distinct lack of shyness, while Bellamy patiently and generously satisfied my curiosity about her life and writing. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

— Lucy Ives

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I was reading the essay ‘Phone Home’ from WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD, in which you write about your return to Indiana just before your mother passes away. In the hospital you’re with her; she’s not really conscious and you describe her mouth, her face. Reading it, I had a strange thought: ‘Now Dodie’s mother will get better, so that Dodie can be with her again before she dies.’

A DODIE BELLAMY — That fantasy actually makes an appearance elsewhere in that essay with E. T., because he does come back to life in the movie. That’s what Steven King is all about – in horror, people do come back, but they’re never the same. It’s a deep human fantasy. I sometimes want to squeeze my eyes shut and open them again, and find that my mother isn’t dead, though she’s been dead for eight or nine years now. In poetry classes in the 1980s I was taught Lacan’s theory that the separation from your mother marks your entry into the Symbolic Order. Language acts are about this tragic separation. Writing is always equally about loss and gaining. It gives you the world while you’re writing, but you’re writing about things that aren’t there. So it’s always about loss. I’m writing about my childhood now, and it’s like writing about death in the other direction, because that world is so unavailable.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It seems like we’re supposed to go back to childhood to figure out why we make errors, no?

A DODIE BELLAMY — That’s why I started writing about it, but now I’m more interested in class issues than personal error. Now I live a basically middle-class life, after having had a working-class childhood, so it’s like I grew up in another world, a foreign world I couldn’t survive in now. If I’d stayed in that world I would be married to a butcher. One of my girlfriends did marry a butcher. By the time I was 15 it was clear I wanted to be a writer – some people don’t totally have to change class to do it, such a hard thing to do – but I always knew I’d have to leave. I’m kind of judgemental about my inability to appreciate working-class life as a child, but there was no place of understanding. It was brutal. Most people I know now feel so uncertain because they don’t know where they stand with the people they know. My experience of the working-class Midwest was that you knew where you stood with everybody. It might not have been pleasant, but you knew. People were very clear about whether they liked you or not. I was kind of a freak, and I was teased a lot. I guess you’d call it bullying now. But a sense of otherness is not necessarily a bad thing. My sense of otherness – which I will try to create in any situation, no matter what the other person is trying to do – has been valuable in writing. You kind of step outside and look.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD deals with things that are quite painful. There’s a description of the hanging of a witch in ‘The Bandaged Lady’. The detail is horrifying, visceral; you write about how it takes fifteen minutes to die if you’re hanged. Unless, of course, you jump first in order to break your own neck.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Who knew, right? I took all this stuff from Silvia Federici’s CALIBAN AND THE WITCH (2004). I put in the idea of a ‘clever witch’ who jumps mostly for sarcasm, though Federici does say that some witches would jump before being hanged to break their own necks and die faster.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It seems like a fantasy on the part of the historian, that clever witch. As if someone could retrieve dignity from the experience of being executed.

A DODIE BELLAMY — That piece was commissioned as a catalogue essay for Tariq Alvi’s show at the gallery 2nd Floor Projects. Tariq sent these Xeroxed mockups that looked very different from the actual pieces in the show, but still they included the image of the hanged boys. It was challenging and exciting working with someone else’s imagery. On my own, I would never have thought to write about those hanged boys. I spent a lot of time looking at photos of them. I tried to open my heart to them, even though there was no way I could truly enter that experience. I keep coming across the theory that mirror neurons are the source of human empathy. For me, it’s about getting rid of the ego and just looking and seeing what happens. A lot of my writing is about looking. In my book THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER (1998) there’s a long letter about the death of Sam D’Allesandro in which I conclude that the act of looking is an expression of love. To really look at someone is how you love them.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Speaking of witches, I wanted to ask you about the ‘Rascal Guru’ essay in WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. There were some details that I thought were so precise, shocking and eerie. How was that essay written?

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s an outtake from THE TV SUTRAS. It’s all Google-search collage. I researched a zillion different gurus and some of them were Christian. It was unbelievable, what some of them were doing. And then the language! The gurus did the same dastardly deeds over and over until it started to feel redundant, and the language of the followers, to rationalise it, became much more interesting than the acts themselves. I included a lot of the rationalisations. At some point I decided to make it one guru. So he’s the Ur-guru.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I like accretion as a compositional principle. You organise facts rather than invent a plot.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Well, it does have a little arc, because he dies at the end. He has all these problems! And then he dies. So it has a narrative.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — How do you know if something is interesting?

A DODIE BELLAMY — That’s hard to tell. This issue’s coming up a lot now that I’m writing about my working-class childhood. I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is going to care about this?’ I’ve just had to presume that maybe nobody will. Usually, if I’m compelled by something, that means it’s interesting. Assignments usually aren’t interesting, so you have to sit with one until some kind of opening occurs and creates excitement. If I can generate excitement, the writing seems to be interesting. I don’t think about it in terms of subject matter. Anything can be interesting, and you can take the most interesting thing in the world and end up with the dullest piece of writing. It’s about engagement.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I’m interested that you say ‘engagement’ because other people who have spoken to you about your work often want to know why you use collage techniques. They seem a bit surprised.

A DODIE BELLAMY — I don’t understand that. I’m doing something that has a long history, going back to the likes of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But also I was raised on Kathy Acker’s writing and the whole notion of appropriation. That these things are being questioned now is beyond me.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It might trouble people that something coded as ‘weird’ could be exciting across generations.

A DODIE BELLAMY — There’s a weird hatred of conceptual writing. And people get suspicious of people who do anything procedural. My precedents have little to do with conceptual writing, but still, it’s like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I’m curious about your connection to nineteenth-century writing. In THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER Mina says, and I paraphrase, ‘Dodie’s always reading these books where people don’t do anything. But I don’t want writing to be a consolation for a life of inaction.’

A DODIE BELLAMY — I love nineteenth-century novels. They’re a wonderful antidote to the Internet. I’ve been reading Henry James’s THE AMBASSADORS. At first I couldn’t understand its wild syntax, but I found that when I stop trying with James, the text eventually opens and I’m there with it in all its glory. In the passage from MINA you refer to, I was talking about reading Barbara Pym, whose novels are so much about small, marginal lives. THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER is a tribute to DRACULA, it’s totally founded in the nineteenth-century. The romance novel ends when the protagonist couple gets together. So this is post-romance, in that the book begins with Dodie’s marriage to KK. But Mina never stops being in a romance novel even though she’s married. I was writing that novel when I was being schooled in New Narrative writing. Daily life was very important in New Narrative, breaking down the fourth wall between the writer and the work – without getting horribly meta about it, which I can’t suffer – questioning the boundary between the personal and the cultural. I’m this walking bag of culture. There’s no ‘me’ outside of culture. The boundaries get really messed up.

In my high school journal, which I’m rereading right now, I’m fascinated with the CHARLIE BROWN character Pig-Pen. Pig-Pen, with the swirl of dirt that surrounds him, has all this culture sort of stuck to him. In one cartoon strip, Charlie Brown asks Lucy, ‘Did it ever occur to you that Pig-Pen might be carrying the dirt and dust of some past civilisations?’ He goes on to muse, ‘He could have on him some of the soil of ancient Babylon.’ While my adult self is excited by the metaphorical possibilities of Pig-Pen, I have no idea what he meant to me in high school. At one point in my journal I’m reading Sartre and exchanging my Charlie Brown sweatshirt for a Pig-Pen sweatshirt – both in the same entry.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Is being a writer for you always about being with other people? When you narrate your youth it seems like your orientation to writing is often formed in relation to others.

A DODIE BELLAMY — When there’s another person to focus on, it’s easier to write about that than when there’s not another person. When I was writing THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER, I noticed that the only time Mina is sexual is when she’s with another person. At the time, I was reading Dennis Cooper and I saw that his characters never stopped being sexual. I came to the conclusion that Mina’s passive sexuality was sexist. She needs someone else to turn it on. So I started writing sexual passages where there wasn’t another person actively involved, to create a sense that this woman has a continuous sexuality that doesn’t have to be turned on by someone else. Is that what you’re asking about?

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Kevin Killian appears in your writing a lot, in different ways and guises. Is it ever hard to live with another writer?

A DODIE BELLAMY — Our writing is so different, so no. Including him when he’s commenting on my life is a part of New Narrative’s focus on community experience. He does critique my work though – I ask him to read everything I write because he’s such a good editor.

The question is, when does Kevin’s editing become a rewriting of the work into the way he would do it himself? Sometimes it’s a hard call. I do end up taking most of his edits. Kevin is in the writing workshop I teach in my living room during the summers and at times I disagree with his critiques of other students, and then I start to think, ‘But you take all his advice yourself!’ I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s got a great sense of comedy. He’s taught me how to rearrange sentences so you get your laugh. He’s also sharp about stripping those red flags of narcissism where people read the writing and groan, ‘Oh, she’s really bragging about herself.’ In terms of the writing, I think it’s wonderful to be with a writer. I’m Kevin’s biggest fan. I think he’s brilliant.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Often in your writing the narrator says she’s sick. She becomes ill or throws up. My immediate thought is that health is a tyrannical regime. And the term ‘sickness’ has at least two meanings: ‘illness’ and ‘perversion.’ Also, ‘very impressive,’ in slang, like, ‘That’s sick!’

A DODIE BELLAMY — The meaning I had in mind was cultural sickness. Take Trump, for example, but he’s just the start. I hate the word capitalism. I’m so tired of people using the word ‘capitalism’. Modern America, global capitalism, is sick. I watched this video last night called ‘Decolonising the Mind’, by Dr Michael Yellow Bird who teaches at Humboldt State University. He was talking about colonialism, saying that the only way anyone could engage in its horrors is through a lack of empathy. He was seeing colonialism as a state of mental illness. It’s obvious that we live in a sick culture.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Is there such a thing as resistant sickness, forms of sickness that allow you to escape or enter into altered states that might paradoxically turn out to be forms of health?

A DODIE BELLAMY — I’m reminded of Marion Woodman’s ADDICTION TO PERFECTION (1982), which I read in the late ’80s, when I still was into Jungian stuff. It was about these hyper-functioning women who would just fall apart, because they’re missing their souls or something. I didn’t realise there was a lot sickness in my writing. I have food sensitivities that are troublesome. Before my gluten sensitivity was discovered I worried I had some awful auto-immune disorder. I used to have a couple of days each week when I was stay-in-bed sick.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I thought about the title of WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD for months before I got round to reading the book.

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s a good title, right? The sick could also be the underdog, so it’s about revolution. The way things have been going lately, perhaps we should just remove the ‘when’.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — This makes me think about E. T. again, the part in ‘Phone Home’ where you talk about all the actors necessary to the production of the character E. T. I was very overwhelmed by those facts. How did you find that out?

A DODIE BELLAMY — That was all googling. The information is taken from a number of sources. I loved that I was even able to find the grave plots of the people who died. It’s amazing.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — You mean the people who died while portraying E. T.? You suggest that some people succumbed because of psychological or physical stress.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Or they were doomed. It was a kind of sickness, how oppressive the creation of E. T. was to all these different people. Using some woman who has a cancerous voice because it’s so gravelly, for example.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — E. T. was literally made of parts of people whom society marks as being insufficient or abnormal. And then that alien entity being becomes a perfect love-object in suburbia.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Drew Barrymore says E. T. was totally real to her, even though she knew about all the component parts. That’s a metaphor for what’s real to us in general. Things don’t have to be believable for them to be real to us, for them to move us. Something can be very abstracted and still have the power to movem, like an Eva Hesse sculpture. You look at those things and have such a strong response, with no idea why you’re feeling it.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — This is also a compelling aspect of your work, which I see as being a kind of research into affect. You show what’s behind E. T., all the different agents, subjectivities, positions.

A DODIE BELLAMY — I was surprised by how traumatic that movie was. I asked my students, and they were all traumatised as children watching that movie. Now it would have to come with a trigger warning!

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Do you often think about ways of getting at certain identifications and experiences that escape us, that slip away, maybe because they are traumatic?

A DODIE BELLAMY — There’s a real openness when I’m writing. I try to stay in a libidinal state. It’s like, ‘Wow this is interesting,’ or ‘Wow this connects.’ I try not to get too analytical with it. The way you’re talking about it is really beautiful, but if I were thinking about it that way it wouldn’t get written.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — What’s that libidinal state like?

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s encountering surprising connections, and the world starts feeling like a matrix. Everything starts feeling like it’s connecting, and I see this and I see that. I pull things in and move them around and see connections. It’s this fluid craziness and I feel like a wizard with a pot that I’m stirring. That’s what allows those surprising connections.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — When you begin to work on something, do you always know what you’re beginning?

A DODIE BELLAMY — Not necessarily. I mean, I do if I take something on as an assignment, which sometimes I do just to get myself to work on something. I just started a new book and I wasn’t planning to write it. And I wasn’t planning to write THE TV SUTRAS. And I wasn’t planning to write ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’ in WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. I don’t know how I started writing that, but I could not stop writing it. I liked the idea of having something in the book that was substantial and hadn’t been published elsewhere.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I was really interested in the character Trey in ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’, his insane love of gentrification.

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s hard to tell with Trey. He’s a composite of several real people in my neighbourhood. There’s one guy who’s always calling the cops on some homeless person on his cell phone. And someone else in the building wrote me those crazy letters. I don’t know how I found his Yelp reviews. I eventually cut them down and did a collage because he says the same things over and over again. Discovering those Yelp reviews was one of those gifts from the universe.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Certain structures related to traditional literary genres seem to be disappearing from contemporary life. Examples might be job security or reliable forms of intimacy, and how people struggle to approach both work and intimacy with trust. Critics like Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai have written about this. Do you see this instability as related to your own work with narrative?

A DODIE BELLAMY — The conventional, midlist novel that’s taught in MFA programmes doesn’t reflect the current reality at all. It’s not even a very satisfying fantasy. I have no problem with conventional narratives. They create this wonderful fantasy of everything resolving at the end. That’s what’s so frustrating in real life – there are so many things where you never know the end of the story. It can fucking drive you crazy. Like the story of this very handsome, vain guy downstairs who was here when we moved in that I mention in ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — He was a musician, right?

A DODIE BELLAMY — Yes, and he became a junkie. It was shocking how quickly somebody can disintegrate if they’re into heroin. He was very frail, walking with a cane, and he quit paying his rent. Creepy, creepy people started coming over – he eventually got evicted. And then somebody said he went back to L.A., but I cannot tell you how much over the years I’ve wanted to know what happened to this guy. I’m never going to know! There are stories you get invested in and then they just end. They’re not resolved.

A big topic of everyone’s conversation is how disjunctive their life is, how fragmented they feel. That’s why I read nineteenth-century novels at night, as a sort of antidote. Now I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, which have the sweep of a nineteenth-century novel. I’m on volume two. You can have a literary form that exists outside your experience, or you can try to create forms that somehow reflect your current experience. Those are your choices. But I find that a lot of fiction students don’t want to be shown that. I like Lidia Yuknavitch. I watch her videos online. She could get anyone to do anything. And she makes a good case about creating new forms. You know that quote by Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’? Form is political. It’s not a neutral. It carries baggage, all these assumptions about reality. Whose reality does this form correspond to? That’s what New Narrative addresses. The Language poets had basically thrown out narrative, and the point of New Narrative was that there are people who aren’t entitled enough to throw out narrative. Telling their stories is important to them. So how do we tell a story that honours our experience without falling back on all of this crap? I would say that the way fiction is taught in the MFA context would be like writing poetry and only doing sonnets. Or, as a friend of mine says, it would be like going to art school and only doing landscape painting.

There are other ways to write. The novel used to be an experimental form. Kevin says to me, ‘Dodie, you have to realise that the novel is no longer an experimental form.’ Whereas it was. When I was in high school you read Faulkner and it was just presented as good writing. Now you see grad students complaining that Faulkner is too hard for them. Or it’s taught in experimental writing classes – Faulkner, you know? The novel has become this really conservative form. Books like THE ARGONAUTS (2015) by Maggie Nelson should not have been published according to traditional models. It’s so encouraging that people don’t have any trouble reading it. In fact, I think we’re trained for disjunction. Early movies had inter-titles because people didn’t understand the language of film, or disjunction, but now we live and breathe the language of disjunction and fragmentation. To have writing that reflects that seems like it shouldn’t be a biggie.


Date: November 1, 2017

Publisher: The White Review

Format: Web

Link to the review.


Trying times.

Interview in The Believer


An Interview with Poet Lucy Ives

While Lucy Ives went out for a snack, I lay down on the couch, first checking my phone, then reading the first five pages of Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts: or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, in which she calls poetry “factual telepathy.” Howe sees poetics as a way of conjuring facts, that history isn’t the product of reliable sources, but a process of posing events, batting them around, dressing paper dolls in fact costumes, dragging an information magnet through the streets.

Ives had just finished teaching a companion class to her latest project and installation, Real Allegory, which ran this spring at Flying Object, in which she attempted to call into question commonplace distinctions between historical and literary description and interpretation. Below you’ll find a document of and about a ‘real’ historical event, a conversation between Ives and me on an April evening that became an audio recording, then a transcription, then an edited transcription, in which I chose what I deemed to be the ‘significant’ moments, in which I spruced up all the times I sounded like an idiot. Does this mean the facts are lost? Did I trace over the facts? The historical record inevitably rewrites the world, willingly or unwillingly imitating it, splintering it into fabrications, each one a script for multiple potential reenactments.

— Patrick Gaughan


PATRICK GAUGHAN: I was reading Tropics of Discourse this morning per your recommendation and could see why you were into it: Hayden White’s ideas of historical narrative as being composed of metaphor and other literary tropes, as opposed to successions of facts.

LUCY IVES: I think he’s coming out of a poetics tradition, and that’s a key term in my project: poetics. I wanted to be able to think about poetics outside of literary texts, to see if literary logic could exist in other kinds of environments. “Narrative” and “Description” can be literary, but they don’t have to be. I wanted to understand, “What would a non-literary poetics be?” Because I think when we talk about poetics, that’s actually what we mean. Or when you use that term, you mean something that isn’t exclusively literary. Sure, there’s poetry and there are certain conventions associated with it, but the notion of poetics can exist outside of a literary space.

PG: So you’re saying that literary tropes and styles are linked to not only art but also history?

LI: I think White’s enabled me to find ways to consider this idea. I’ll be in conversation with someone who isn’t a writer, let’s say a photographer, and they’ll be making claims about an image or a brand, they might be interpreting it, and I’ll find myself saying something like, “You’re engaging in literary analysis right now. The way you’re reading this is literary and it’s actually only literary, it’s not like there’s some special mode of interpretation that belongs to photography, it’s that photography is in some sense borrowing certain kinds of rhetorical analysis from literature,” and it’s interesting to see what people make of that, because they often feel excluded from literature!

PG: Who does?

LI: Certain people feel contemporary literature is not “for” them. That literature is a thing happening in another world and that it belongs to other people. And yet they use literary thought. Their suspicion and paranoia about images, for example, or certain modes of design, is a literary kind of suspicion, a literary paranoia.

PG: To whom does description belong? Is it purely a literary thing?

LI: Well, if you believe Levi-Strauss, it belongs to writing, and then there’s the question of to whom writing belongs, but I’m pretty sure on some significant level description has, for a long time, been most obsessed over by literature. I don’t think, for example, that description is the best friend of philosophy, because philosophy hasn’t taken very good care of writing. This is very gossipy sounding, but other disciplines pay lip service to concerns about what writing is or what it does, but inevitably they just want to be able to say the thing.

PG: That writing is just a vessel.

LI: Exactly. One synonym is as good as another.

PG: Or that writing is style-less, just a way of conveying. There’s this Bruce Hainley book I was reading about the artist Sturtevant. It’s two essays, but arranged such that one’s on the left and the other’s on the right. One’s about her reperformance of an Eric Satie piece, the other’s about her version of the store of Claes Oldenburg. Two essays, different subject matter, cross-cut for a hundred pages. It’s nonfiction, but fed through this bouncing back and forth device, which is a literary device.

LI: It also gives you license to think about a lot of things outside of her work, and also maybe to experience her work more fully. Speaking of Sturtevant, imitation is also interesting because literature may be the only space where imitation is basically free to develop as intensely or deeply as it might like to. In other kinds of writing, you’re not supposed to describe something too carefully because the description should always be in service to whatever professional point you’re supposed to be making. But in literature, you can spend all of your time imitating the world. (Of course, I’m not guaranteeing that anyone will read what you write if you do this!)

PG: Imitation not in the sense of imitating someone else’s style, but imitation of the world?

LI: Yeah, the world, so-called or whatever it may be. I’m indicating mimesis here. And in literature we can certainly imagine forms of imitation that might occur without our even defining what the specific objects of imitation are. These objects can be discovered in the process of imitating. This is, for example, what literary experiment sometimes is.


PG: Where’s this image from, US Weekly?

LI: Yes. It’s a bizarre ventriloquizing of Kim.

PG: Right, because it says, “My butt won’t stop growing” exclamation point.

LI: It seems like some kind of horror thing: “My butt won’t stop growing!” There’s some other agency there, apparently. But it’s also totally meaningless. Central to my project is the idea that there is literal speech, but unless we’re convinced of it, we won’t believe it. We can’t believe in the literality of speech unless we already believe it’s literal. And what will convince us that we already believe some speech or writing to be literal? Most often this has to do with genre, like if we read a book that says ‘Nonfiction’ on the back of it.

PG: And to some people, if it’s in a magazine, it’s true. Eh, is it more ‘true’ if it’s in a magazine? Maybe I’m not giving people enough credit.

LI: This image of Kim Kardashian is a totally stupid image, but it’s such a stupid, almost automatic or knee-jerk image that you can’t help but think you’re looking at something real, actual. It seems like an utterance that’s destined to be an index of our time, in some future; it will read as stylized, as symptomatic of our contemporary obsessions and errors. Conversely, I also have the sense that because we know the category of nonfiction exists, we often play with it for other ends. I’m really interested in thinking about how historical texts might, of course, have goals that are similar to literary texts, goals of persuasion, let’s say. And that literary texts might, at base, wish to be informative or critical, but they are troubled by seeming to have no referent.

PG: So, for example, literature is less trustworthy because it doesn’t have sources?

LI: In nonfiction, there’s always a referent. It’s what that genre is founded upon. But if I’m writing endless paragraphs about a cereal bowl that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t serve any particular purpose, and it becomes literature instead of something else.

PG: Since you’re not a Kardashian, no one cares.

LI: Yet I should also say that everybody has become obsessed with this idea that the incidental is where history really is. Because if you try to talk about monumental, huge things, you inevitably fail.


PG: So let’s get into this idea of what constitutes a historical event. I listened to an interview with this NPR reporter, Robert Smith, who’s been doing five-minute radio segments for twenty years, and he said, “There is no news.” There is no such thing as news. The earth is just going around and happening and when he shows up, he creates a story based on who he talks to, what information he gleans, and then he slaps an arbitrary beginning and ending on it, and then it becomes news. To me, history’s the same thing. History only happens when someone stops the world, picks up a few events and points-of-view, does a little Rubik’s cube action on them or polishes them up, and then it’s history.

LI: That certainly makes sense to me, but I also think that’s only one version of what happens when we make claims about what is the case. And as much as he’s saying that there’s no news until he gets there and presents a point of view, there are things that happen. There are crimes, these things really occur, and there are different ways in which they’re relayed. In any case, going back to gossip, people are going to talk no matter what. It’s not within one person’s, or even a government’s, power to determine how that will occur.

PG: I was thinking about events versus documents of events yesterday when a student of mine presented about 9/11 conspiracy theories, fourteen years after the event. She was probably six or so when it happened, so everything she’s ever heard about it could be classified as news, but seemed more like conspiracy or metaphor.

LI: An artist, Francis Alÿs, who is Belgian by birth, emigrated to Mexico and did a project for which he made little metal dogs; they don’t really look like dogs, but these little metal things with wheels and they’re magnetized, and had little cameras on them and the project was that he would walk around Mexico City pulling the dog on wheels by a string, taking video of the route and also collecting pieces of metal. He’d walk around all night.

PG: How big would it get as he’s accumulating these things?

LI: It got bigger, yeah.

PG: So big you couldn’t even pull it? Like this big?

LI: Maybe not that big. I saw an exhibition displaying the dogs on a shelf, as a little portable TV played the videos. And there were other types of ephemera tucked under plexiglass on an accompanying desk; some of them were tabloid pages about people who magnetized themselves, and there were also drawings of the routes he took around the city. He had immigrated to Mexico City.

PG: So it was as if he used the project as a way to familiarize himself with this new place.

LI: I think that’s true. And also to gather things, to learn more than you could learn just by walking around. Walking around wasn’t enough.

PG: It’s funny that he’s literally picking up pieces of everywhere he goes. Instead of me remembering what I do, the world is sticking to me as I move through it.

LI: You’re not always choosing what you take.


Date: July 14, 2015

Publisher: The Believer

Format: Web

Link to the interview.


Author photo.


The artist Francis Alÿs with one of his magnetized dogs.

Interview with Srikanth Reddy

Srikanth Reddy with Lucy Ives

Poet Srikanth Reddy speaks to Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives about the possible plurality of worlds, poets as “feeling machines,” and how to make an aesthetic object out of bureaucratic relics of the space race.

Lucy Ives: I want to ask about the talk you did as part of Triple Canopy’s Speculations (“The future is __”) at MoMA PS1 in 2013. You seemed so comfortable in this speculative mode of thinking! I’m curious what role speculative thinking might play in your work.

Srikanth Reddy: My main memory of putting together that talk was actually of its being an intensely uncomfortable mode of thinking! I felt as I was doing it that I was going against the grain of how my mind normally works, if it can be said to work at all these days. It was a useful exercise, however. In the process, I came to feel that there’s a kind of moral obligation to speculate in the way that the Triple Canopy event was inviting people to do. If you don’t think about the distant future of our contemporary historical moment—the longue durée, as it were—then it’s very easy for one’s political or aesthetic practice to be too circumscribed in the “now.” Or even in one’s domestic practice, for that matter. So the project was exciting to me even if it was a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t feel intuitively inclined to think this way. It was definitely work.

LI: In your second collection of poetry, Voyager (2011), there is certainly some interest in speculative thinking, since the book speaks to the possibility of a plurality of worlds. Interestingly, this happens through the erasure, appropriation, and rewriting of a memoir by Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations and, as was revealed during his (successful) run for the Austrian presidency in 1985, intelligence officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

SR: In a way, as I worked on Voyager I was interested in some cosmological questions—“How many worlds are there?” or “How many objects are there in the world?” or “Is the world a single object?”—that real philosophers might find somewhat boring. But in the book I’m trying to deal with these problems not so much speculatively as concretely, through a reading of Waldheim’s hopelessly partial and duplicitous account of the world, trying to retrieve other imaginative cosmologies from inside of that falsely totalizing technocratic text. So the cosmological project of Voyager is more about investigative reading than about speculation to a certain extent. When I say “investigative,” though, I don’t mean to imply that I feel there’s some core “Truth” to be excavated from within Waldheim’s language. Rather, I was trying to investigate a spectrum of plural, lowercase “truths” that I sensed resonating within this historical text. I wanted to see if I could make an aesthetic object out of a Cold War geopolitical document—that was the real literary investigation of the project, in retrospect. So I would differentiate what I do in Voyager from “Investigative Poetics,” which is a phrase I’ve heard here and there and which I think may be problematic in some ways.

LI: What is problematic about that phrase?

SR: I may be misunderstanding the project of investigative poetics, but I think one aspect of this sort of work involves foregrounding and manipulating research documents or archival material—civic documents, old periodicals, scientific literature, etc. But working in this mode, one could run the risk of simply reproducing academic forms of thought and methodology that are quite common in English departments today. This represents a limited notion of the full investigative capacity that might actually be available to a poet, I suspect. On the other hand, one could think of an investigative poetics as mirroring the kind of sociopolitical work that is otherwise performed by investigative journalists in our culture. That, too, runs the risk of somehow narrowing the field of effects and modes of inquiry available to the poet. But I say this with the full knowledge that much amazing work has been done under the sign of investigative poetics; it’s a subject I have to learn more about. The important thing is to keep the notion of investigation as open as possible, I think.

LI: What is that investigative capacity? I’d like to know, for example, how you think about the role of the poet or the “creative writer” within the academy. Is poetry ever a kind of knowledge, in an academic sense?

SR: I hear a lot of colleagues in the humanities self-describe as knowledge workers. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of describing what a poet is doing, even within an institutional context. This is an old-fashioned, probably romantic distinction, but I think of the poet more as a “feeling worker,” or an “affective worker.” Not that I’m hoping for a return to sentimentalism in the art. It’s just that I’m skeptical of any knowledge claim people make for poetry. I’ve never seen the art form as one that is epistemological in that sense. I find that it’s more of a technology of feeling than anything else, or at least, I feel that poetry helps me to orient myself affectively in the world—that this is the work it does for me in my experience, though naturally others will invariably find that it does other forms of work for them. It’s a hopelessly rough-hewn way of overstating the case, the way I’m making these distinctions, of course!

LI: And yet there are what one might call philosophic tendencies within your work—an interest in contemplation, for example.

SR: In the first book of Voyager there is a series of propositions about the world that very loosely echoes Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. I wasn’t really trying to do philosophy here; I was trying to feel my way toward a kind of philosophical music that was more “flattened out” than the lyric, tonally speaking. The philosophical premise of Book One of Voyager was just that: a kind of a premise for the construction of poetic language. I’m very drawn to conceptual work, since it has a kind of philosophical inflection. (I’m thinking of writers like Tan Lin or Lisa Robertson here, though they may not self-identify as “conceptualists” in a strict sense). But I think it would be a dangerous mistake to make the claim that my own poem—or, in a sense, any poem—is actually doing philosophy! Rather, one could say that the poem—my own poem, that is—is adopting the rhetorical and tonal, and even narratological, strategies of philosophy in order to achieve aesthetic effects. That’s what I like about conceptual work: how it makes me feel. Not that it gives me a new set of political or epistemological tools to make my way in the world. Rather, it allows me to feel my way to a proper stance toward these tools.

On one level, then, I agree with a critic like Keston Sutherland, who has maintained that conceptualism is essentially a form of antisubjectivist dogma—but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem for conceptualists, because many of them would happily embrace the label of antisubjectivism. What I find even more interesting is the way in which his criticism of conceptualism dovetails with ideological positions that are, on some level, anathema to what I would imagine his own politics to be. Keston’s assault on conceptualism is, obviously, a Marxist critique. He argues, if I’m getting things right, that conceptualism is indifferent toward literary craft; Keston’s defense of craft (or technique, or whatever you want to call it) occurs within a Marxist paradigm of labor. But the word “craft” is one of the most cherished pieties of neoliberal workshop culture that we know! This makes me feel like I don’t want to wholly subscribe to either the antisubjectivist aspect of conceptualism or the critiques of those aspects. For me, I’d like to preserve an individual and affective relationship to conceptual writing that might not be something that can be codified under the terms of the current debate.

LI: I’m confused about what exactly you mean by “feeling,” or an “affective relationship.” Normally these are terms we use to talk about relationships we have with other people, though of course not exclusively. Could you say a bit more about this?

SR: Well, I should begin addressing your confusion by confessing that I’m confused about these matters, too. In fact, I think there’s a certain negative capability, or a cultivated uncertainty, that one must maintain with regard to one’s affective labors as a poet—otherwise the work becomes a kind of emotional connect-the-dots. But to speculate further, I would say that I want to move away from an ideological orientation regarding what a poem or a poetic practice can do. The writers I admire most are involved in a kind of sensitive and sensual labor, rather than a self-consciously political practice. I worry sometimes that affect drops out of the conversation when we focus on the political aspects of the art. Or maybe the affect becomes flattened out into mere outrage, or melancholia. To maintain the full spectrum of feeling in one’s work, I think one has to think of the work of poetry as a kind of affective enterprise first and foremost—and doing that involves preserving one’s subjectivity as a resource for that work, against antisubjectivist or other political claims that would overdetermine one’s emotional cogito.

LI: How does appropriation of text fit in with what you are describing about being an affective worker? Is there a kind of feeling unique to rewriting or writing your way into a preexisting text?

SR: This is a great question, and I think it strikes to the heart of a lot of what we’ve been discussing. I think the interesting thing about working with appropriated texts—the great thing about “uncreative writing,” as it were—is that it offers new possibilities for exploring one’s inwardness and subjectivity, rather than ways of escaping one’s own identity under an antisubjectivist agenda. It’s easy to produce work that is empty of feeling when one is working with appropriation, erasure, collage, or any number of other textual operations. The really difficult—and, I think, important—thing to do is to unearth or excavate registers of feeling from within those textual operations.


Date: May 19, 2015

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview in BOMB 2014

Lucy Ives

Generalizing a decade's affect, the insubstantial magic of capital, and Ives's novel nineties.

In the novel nineties by Lucy Ives, three friends come-of-age by committing credit card fraud. Living in Manhattan at the end of the twentieth century, the girls are surrounded by the dark and contractual abundance of capital; by television, sex, celebrity, and consumerism. The plot—their crime and the subsequent police investigation—launches an inquiry into the nature of guilt, debt, credit, privilege, adolescence, feminism, and what these concepts mean to the daughters of the happy few who live on Park Ave.

Alien, canny, and alert, the unnamed narrator indexes her historical present (the 1990s) as she riddles her way through the compromised process of self-actualization in the age of capitalism. At the outset, her circle steals their friend’s (father’s) credit card, goes on a shopping spree at a local department store, and consoles the girl by threatening to “fuck up” the thieves. The secret crime fuels their sense of autonomy, but makes them vulnerable to a higher authority; namely, their parents and the police. The theft almost reads as an unintentional act of political transgression—not a cure but a rupture. The girls almost read as accidental radicals—their subjectivities shift; their actions author that shift. For an instant, they transcend their classification as “child-consumers” by using credit fraud as a means to outfox the mercenary circulation of money and stuff that makes up their world. They spot a loophole, slip through it, and end up in a psychologist’s office.

Ives says: “Oddly, I think they are all in a hurry to preempt any kind of victimhood that might be foisted upon them, by whom I have no idea. I think it’s this fear of becoming victims that makes them as vile and destructive as they are.”

So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation? Neither ethical tale nor enlightenment narrative, there is no moral; there is no reveal. Wrong-doing fails to present the girls (or the reader) with a chance to recover a workable idea of right-action. Instead, their heist produces a highly constructive form of critical anxiety that asks: Is this life? How should I live it? Will I be punished if I live it incorrectly? Lucy and I speak about these issues and more as nineties, published by Tea Party Republicans Press, enters its second print-run.

Kendra Sullivan You have told me you wrote nineties in response to your own desire to read nineties. What does that mean?

Lucy Ives It means that I wanted to read a book that contained clear, almost (to the extent that this is possible) objective description. I wanted to read something that didn’t contain instructions for how anyone should feel, in reading the book—that wouldn’t instruct one as to how the characters “really” feel, or even as to how the reader should react. I wanted that space to be open and ambiguous, as it is in life. So I wanted to read a fundamentally amoral but incredibly visually and perhaps even spatially precise book.

KS Why do the words on your pages feel so much like objects?

LI This is the style I write in in this book. It seems to fit, also, with the plot, which is about consumerism. This is a novel about an actual affective and aesthetic condition standard to the time in which it takes place, roughly 1992 to 1995. If affect can be generalized across a society and a historical time period, then this is the kind of affect I want to generate, depict, play with.

KS Roland Barthes writes, “Every biography is a novel that dares not speak its name.” Is the unnamed narrator of nineties actually called Lucy?

LI The narrator’s name could be Lucy, but her name is certainly not “Lucy Ives,” or at any rate she isn’t me. In nineties a narrator speaks in the present tense. We don’t know if what she describes has only just happened or if it happened in the past. But the narrator doesn’t have a life in the same way that you or I do, which is of course obvious, but all the same I want to say that I don’t intend for this narrator to have a life; I intend for her to tell this story.

KS The girls lie to their parents and lie to each other. They commit a crime. The police arrive. Multiple dialectics develop: between lies and fiction, fiction and truth, truth and fantasy, fantasy and lies.

LI Maybe something to be said here is that these girls may have little in common. Though they all live in New York City, their families have very different histories; this is the American situation, of course, but perhaps it’s in some way intensified in this particular competitive, privileged milieu. What do they share? Being female, being young, attending the same school, being rich. Are they rich enough? Will they stay that rich? You could say something like, these people have everything so what’s wrong with them, and I think that’s also right, but: they are living in an era of generous credit, in a time in which having is not the same as having the means to have. This is not a judgment, it’s just a fact. And I think you see this disconnection reflected in their way of relating to one another, which is, or was always going to be, extremely venal.

KS The girls remind me of a coven. They share a heretical subject-hood, though their bond feels sinister; their allegiances suspect. Do you think the friends in your book were empowered by their alliance with one another?

LI I hesitate to be too optimistic, but I have to say that I think that these characters are better off having committed their crime, having seen the consequences. Not because now they are reformed and won’t be “bad” anymore, but because they are more informed about how the world works. I think that they know more at the end of the novel than they did at its outset, and I can’t object to that. I’m sad that their friendships have to end, but honestly there are more important things in life.

KS nineties is inflected by atmospheric typographies: street signage, store and brand names, graffiti—and the writing of the girls themselves in the form of notes. When, in a novel, I read that someone is writing a letter, the letter is real even if the writer and the recipient are fictional.

LI I’m interested in the difference between the narrator-as-character and the narrator-as-narrator and how the presence of incidental writing in the book makes you think about this—and also think about the possibility that there is a third facet to this narrator, which is to say, the narrator-as-author.

I’ve imagined the narrator of nineties as someone who is, if not exactly a writer, then unusually interested in writing and the ways in which learning to read and write shape and alter our perceptions. I don’t think the narrator knows exactly how writing changes things, but I think she does feel fairly sure that it does. (Certainly she thinks a lot about brand names.) It seems like writing is a device that allegedly repeats or represents the world, yet it repeats or represents the world imperfectly. All the same, it’s a powerful device for representing, reflecting, and perhaps even understanding what is the case.

Then there is the fact, as you point out, that in the context of a novel a letter between two characters is a “real” letter, a real written thing, even if the characters have no corporeal existence. Maybe this matters to the narrator, too. Maybe written things—the notes, letters, and poems authored by the characters of nineties—get included in the novel because they seem like traces or proofs of real events, events that in themselves remain ambiguous and lacking in objectivity. It’s hard—and the narrator almost knows this—to think without writing. The narrator uses writing but is also still in the process of learning or coming to understand what writing is.

Maybe when we learn to write we also acquire a means of engaging privacy in a selective way. I’m pretty sure that the writing undertaken by characters in nineties is about trying to figure out who their allies are and what—or whose—language it is they speak. They really have no idea who they are, what they sound or seem like. Writing is a means to some kind of provisional resolution of these (inevitably unsolvable) quandaries.

KS While re-reading nineties I recall 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Shopping and browsing figure heavily in both. Clothes that freely cross state borders, where populations cannot, stand in as contact relics of sweatshop labor practices consumers never see. nineties dwells in the surface of excess. Without mention of “exploitation,” it is everywhere inferred.

LI There’s a lot of stuff in this novel. Why is all of it here? What should anyone do with it? I think part of the bad behavior you see in this book is an attempt, on the part of these not very moral young people, to manage this enormous quantity of stuff—stuff, recall, that they know very little about (re: its origins) and which they’re supposed to desire. It’s possible that these characters could have moved on to blowing things up or lighting things on fire and so on. Such actions might be a logical (illogical) step; such violence would seem, then, to stem from being overwhelmed by material things, by the nonsensical unmotivated presence of all this expensive and mostly useless stuff.

KS Kristeva writes of “consumerism that swallows up human life.” Consumerism inspires criminality in the girls; their crime initiates a kind of trial. It’s not totally clear if they survive its proceedings.

LI I think they survive in different ways. Which is to say, they manage. Their parents manage. Everyone seems to be on trial, in some sense, since credit fraud is easily in reach of everyone; so, in this sense, the question is not “Did you steal?” but “Will you?” Anyway, what would it mean to behave morally, or not amorally, in this environment? Is using a credit card legally, in one’s own name, a moral act?

We need suffering in order to have knowledge. It’s not just some stupid free-for-all of postmodern floating signifiers in life! I think this is the tragedy I’m trying to point out here. Debt may not be “real,” but other things you think, feel, see, and so forth are real. Other things (and people) supporting the insubstantial magic of capital are real. I know we all know this! Maybe this has something to do with the fact that suffering is never theoretical.

KS Sometimes, the young girls read like drones collaged from ads in sales catalogs. They slip into the apparatus of capitalism through “wanting” and “suffering.” Their “wanting” and “suffering” is different than the wanting and suffering of those laboring to produce all that stuff, but the girls are no more free to escape their affliction than the laborers are to escape theirs.

LI The characters in nineties are attempting to learn a livable idea of freedom. They’re trying to be free, to behave in the way that they believe people who are actually free would behave. However, their idea of freedom is mostly destructive—and false. It’s based on images they’ve gathered from entertainments of the day and is fundamentally apolitical, by which I mean it has zero to say about what it means to live together and share limited resources and so on. In fact, one of the major problems with the idea of freedom the characters in nineties subscribe to—which is to say, the three main characters, who commit the crime—is that it assumes that one lives in a society of literally limitless wealth and abundance, that there will always be more, and that therefore one is an idiot if one does not simply take whatever one wants. Here, freedom is recognition of this purported infinite abundance. It’s the willingness to look this terrifyingly massive abundance dead-on, to realize the implications and possibilities of a supposed infinite fungibility of money and debt. It probably seems strange to some people that adolescents could have such an idea about larger social and/or economic notions and even act accordingly, but I guess that is what this novel is about.


Date: March 13, 2014

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Web

Link to the review.



Interview with Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart with Lucy Ives

Poet and scholar Susan Stewart responds to questions from Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives on the difference between subjectivity and sensing, thinking for its own sake, and the poem as occurrence, instance, or object.

Lucy Ives: Though I am posing these questions in the context of an issue of Triple Canopy related to objects and objectivity, I want to begin with the notion of the subject and, more specifically, what you have termed, in your early book on nonsense, “our appurtenance to one another.” In reading your criticism, I am often struck by your attention to language as a social event—as well as to the role, or roles, of literature and works of art in the social production of meaning.

I’d like to ask you how notions of intersubjectivity may have changed in your criticism over time. Where did you begin, as a critic and scholar, in your thinking around the connections between ethics and aesthetics, and where are you now? What has the role of conversations within the academy been in shaping such notions? Of conversations held outside the academy?

Susan Stewart: The notions of “subjectivity” and “intersubjectivity” have indeed changed in scholarship during my lifetime, and these changes have had particular consequences. When intellectuals sustain a word like “subjectivity,” or use terms from the secret police and the military—“interrogate” a subject; or “deploy” a method—they produce effects in the “real world.” So far as I can tell, the concept of subjectivity originally had a perspectival and psychological valence, then acquired its political meaning within ideology critique, and later moved into literary study as a strange amalgam of psychological and political determination.

It’s a vivid historical fact that many people have been, and indeed remain, reduced to the status of a subject in nearly every sphere of their lives. But at least in Louis Althusser’s analysis of ideology, science and art are domains that can evade the totalizing determinations of what he calls ideological apparatuses. Here I have always thought Althusser follows Immanuel Kant’s distinction between reflective and determinative judgments. Determinative judgments are those efficient, necessarily unthinking decisions we make all the time in order to get through our days; because they are unthought they are most likely to be “subject” to the powers that be. But not every aspect of our lives and not every possibility of our wills is encompassed by such a “subject position.” In the case of science, reflective judgments are capable of creating new categories of understanding, and in the case of aesthetics, our judgments can move entirely beyond our categories of understanding. These are important openings that enable ideology critique and indicate the possibility of living beyond ideology.

As you mention, I have used the terms “subjective” and “intersubjective” in my own writing: “subjective” when I have felt that I wanted to distinguish, in the earlier sense, between individual and “objective” points of view; “intersubjective,” when I have wanted to underline the mutuality and sociality of being. Yet, influenced by the poetics of Allen Grossman and the philosophy of Derek Parfit, among others, I turn to the word “person” when I am accounting for actions that are intended, volitional, and creative.

My most sustained try at thinking through the relation between aesthetics and ethics is my essay “On the Art of the Future” [included in Stewart’s 2005 collection The Open Studio]. There I take up particularly the aesthetics of Kant and the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. My interest in this relation stems from my sense that both fields of action are prior to other cultural determinations. Because the practice of art involves hypothetical terms and reversible consequences, art can be a tentative, impermanent ground for exploring intersubjective relations. The ethical acknowledgment of the “in and for himself or herself” of other persons is in turn prior to any terms of aesthetic address, or of any other form of address.

The viewer or listener or audience of an artwork is a living, sensing being. The artist is communicating with, not shaping or forming, that being. For this reason I eschew the idea that art is “experimental,” for I do not believe in experimenting upon persons. Nor do I see any reason to seek to replicate the results of our actions as artists. Art forges, creates, moves ahead of the rest of the culture—some of it disappears and some of it “takes” (place, effect).

LI: I’m curious about how your doctoral studies in folklore may have shaped your work. What did this departmental affiliation permit you—as a critic, scholar, and writer—that other ways of proceeding in the humanities might not have? Do you have a sense of how this particular formation may have shaped your understanding of what constitutes a significant “unit of analysis” within literary studies?

SS: As an undergraduate, I was drawn to literature, anthropology, and visual art, and these were fields much influenced at the time by new methods in semiotics and structuralism. At the same time, the New Critics, and especially the tastes and judgments of T. S. Eliot, were also tremendously important. Every English major came to know the metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists very well, and our sense of modernism was heavily dependent upon French Symbolism.

Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss became particularly important to me, for I was drawn to his ideas about phenomena as “good for thinking” (rather than conceiving of thinking as a means to phenomena/reference). In other words, Levi-Strauss seemed to restore the priority of thinking for its own sake.

In graduate school I continued to study various issues in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature, eventually completing an MA in poetics at Johns Hopkins and a PhD in Folklore Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. At Johns Hopkins my studies coincided with the advent of poststructuralism; my teacher Richard Macksey organized and edited The Structuralist Controversy, the important collection of writings addressing this paradigm change. The Folklore Department at Penn was a deeply interdisciplinary program, and I was taken particularly with the microanalyses of the sociologist Erving Goffman and the kinesics of the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, as well as the Slavic Department’s work in Russian Formalism—especially the methods of the literary and cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

Folklore and the avant-garde were two poles of literary production that became quite close in that period (for example, the interest in folk and fairy tales on the part of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, and my later friend Kathy Acker). As folklorists, my classmates and I were trained as ethnographers, and we became deeply engaged by the connections between everyday aesthetic practices—stories, jokes, riddles, proverbs, mourning rituals, lullabies, ballads, ornaments—and their often archaic origins. A sense of the continuity of all art forms and a radical appreciation of the reach of their histories was an important legacy of that education.

I had written poetry since childhood. In graduate school I began to see how I could use my prose writing as a kind of ongoing notebook to address problems in art and aesthetics that interested me in my creative work. I wrote my dissertation on “nonsense” out of an intuition about the hyperrational systems on the border of rationality, and my study On Longing grew from consequent concerns with issues of scale, memory, and value.

LI: I wonder if you could say a bit about your early theoretical and critical allegiances.

SS: The questions and debates of the time have remained central to my thinking and writing: Is there a poetic language distinct from “ordinary” language? If so, what are its characteristics? If not, what is the role of metaphor in everyday language and the role of the imagination in culture? Are there universals of human consciousness and universal ethical values? Why are we both drawn to binary thinking and compelled to go beyond it? Is there a way to evade the traps of dialectic? What are the alternatives to materialism, to metaphysics? How are human beings the makers or creators of themselves?

LI: I wonder if you would maintain that many or all of your critical works are, at base, about poetics. It’s a category I find myself constantly unpacking and discussing, both in public and with colleagues and in more private moments. Do you have a working definition of this category and/or a sense of its particular significance for contemporary thought? What should one say to a person who understands the terms “poetics” and “poetry” to be synonymous (or who does not care that there might be a difference between the two)?

SS: Since my early studies in anthropology and literature, I’ve been much influenced by Giambattista Vico’s notion of verum factum—that the truth is made and that we can analyze its causes and effects. This is not a matter of relativism or “social construction”; we are bound by those truths, and their consequences are inescapable. Central to Vico’s philosophy is the notion that poetic making, particularly the work of metaphor, is vital to processes of thought and, at a later stage, to the formation of institutions. Metaphor remains a resource both to sustain and transform the world.

It seems to me problems of definition—What is poetry? What is poetics?—arise in specific contexts of translation or intelligibility. In all of the traditions I have come to know even superficially, poetry is characterized by certain formal features having to do with its relation to time and space. It is composed in patterned, often measured, lines that have distinct beginnings and endings; even when written, poetry thus has rhythm. What is measured can be stress, sound, or visual marks. The resulting work has an articulated form; it is an occurrence, an instance, or an object, and it is possible to refer to it. Because of the quality of attention we bring to it, poetry is endowed with intensity and value. Because it can be made or performed well, poetry accrues to individual makers and performers. Because it can be fictional, poetry carries us beyond lived experience. Because it is both governed by internal rules and beyond the force of external law, poetry is a source of speculation and freedom.

“Poetics” is a term that, like “poetry,” is derived from the Greek word for making, poiesis, yet it indicates the study of the production of forms, including the art form of poetry. Many poets, from Horace to Alexander Pope to contemporary L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, have explored poetics within the medium of poetry itself, but poetics is a matter of analyzing and considering the features of any made form and can be expressed just as easily—in fact much more easily!—in prose. Aristotle’s Poetics, with its concern for the defining features of tragedy and their rhetorical and somatic effects, remains the obvious template for all later work in poetics.
I would agree that my prose writing is largely concerned with poetics. Even so, my most concerted effort in this domain can be found in my paired recent books: Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which addresses the reception of poetry, and The Poet’s Freedom, which addresses its production.

LI: If there exists an ongoing tension between art and philosophy, or art and criticism—if, as you write in The Open Studio, “philosophy’s constantly renewed announcement of the death of art can be read as a response to art’s unstated assertion, by means of its animation of sense particulars, of the limits of philosophy”—how might you, personally and professionally, navigate this détente? Do you consider yourself a philosopher or a literary writer or both—or is the distinction unimportant? Is it possible that you see some significance in a refusal to remain in just one sphere?

SS: This is a question I’ve thought about a great deal, yet I’ve concluded it doesn’t seem especially vital on the level of practice. Philosophy in the United States is largely concerned with problems of the analysis of concepts and sentences—problems already central to every aspect of the poet’s work. My own training was not in this kind of analytical philosophy but rather in what used to be called “literary theory.” (My own children refer to it somewhat ironically as “’70s theory,” and by that they mean Continental philosophy.) Except for my endeavors in poetry as a scholar of the history of the form and as a poet, I often have worked at the margins of disciplines, including aesthetics. But the professional status of my orientation doesn’t preoccupy me so much as the question of whether or not I am “getting somewhere” in my thinking.
That said, it is true that the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, regardless of Plato’s motives in claiming it, has some genuine basis in the very means of production of each form. Metaphysics particularly must remove itself from the constraints of individual voice if its claims are to be universal, yet the central tenets of metaphysics remain authored and achieve much of their authority from institutional recognition. Even so, the central questions of metaphysics—questions of knowing, the problem of an exterior world, the question of materiality, the nature of life, the relation between the soul and the body, the possibility of liberty, the question of other minds, the origin of Being, the existence of God—have as well been central not only to the themes of poetry, but also to its methods. We could reframe this list readily from the perspective of poets, for poets, too, have been preoccupied with the subject/object problem; the representation of nature; the materiality of language; the organic sources of form; the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a practice of poetry; the bounds of traditions and the possibilities of free creation; the intelligibility of poetry for those who receive it; and a sense of ultimate purpose in creation.

In the end, poets and philosophers alike must take a stance against the mere “drawing of conclusions,” or they will betray what is made possible by their open practices. Creating poems and pursuing truth are human activities that are inseparable from our humanity itself—these actions separate us from other species that can make, but, so far as we know, cannot judge or contemplate their making.

Despite its roots in prophecy, lyric throughout its long history has rarely been written in the future tense or concerned with the future as a theme. Even so, perhaps this persistent absence indicates something deeper about the free practice of lyric; this very openness may indicate that futurity is nowhere in lyric deixis because it is everywhere. What Charles Baudelaire called “the spirit of the lyre” awakens us to our relation to nature, and to our own natures, and calls us to remember and consider and judge. The fact that our imaginations enable us to picture the future, and the future of our species, roots us more particularly in the sources of life and the possibility of its continuity.


Date: December 23, 2013

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview with Renee Gladman

Renee Gladman with Lucy Ives

In her suite of essays "Calamities," in Triple Canopy’s fourteenth issue, Renee Gladman asked, “Narrative—is anybody still interested?” Gladman speaks with Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives about essays, ditties, half words, partial masks, and being a sentence writer.

Lucy Ives: Have more “Calamities” transpired?

Renee Gladman: I’m on page 45 of Calamities, which means there are probably about thirty essays now.

LI: They’re about a page each?

RG: Yes, usually a page or a page and a half. I’m starting with a question or premise, like cleaning the espresso maker, allowing that to relate to a heavy topic, but treating it in a haphazard way, allowing that to change into something else or letting it fall off, because there’s really nothing you can say. I start from the idea of being in the day, then generate an idea from it, let it fall apart, and see what the shape is after that. And for some reason they end up having this ditty shape of a couple pages.

LI: Say a bit more about this “ditty shape”?

RG: I call them ditties because they feel less like they’re trying to travel; there is just one point that gets made in a quick circle. It’s funny to call them essays anyway, because they fail as essays. They don’t sustain an argument, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t conclude anything, and the half-paragraph ones seem even more so, kind of absurd. I mean, the whole thing is to allow me to have fun with some of my stresses, like teaching, being an academic, trying to get tenure, living in a sad, lonely city. It’s a way of getting out of a kind of rut, a question I couldn’t get past, what should I be doing with my writing.

LI: What should you be doing with your writing?

RG: If I were a really good drawer I would give up writing and just make beautiful line drawings, or at least for a while that would suffice, but I don’t draw well enough to abandon writing. Sometimes I go around and talk about the sentence and prose, and for a while I was really stuck on how thoughts exist in a preverbal way. I was thinking about how in our minds we have many things going on simultaneously, as images, half words, gestures, partial marks, and from that multiplicity we go into the single line of articulation, of expression. I kept trying to point back to that threshold moment, that translation or becoming. The linguistic selection process, what you decide to privilege, is fascinating to me, but it’s hard to know what to say about it. It makes writing a very interesting space. Writing is not a map, but something that comes after mapping.

LI: Do you think about a reader in that sense?

RG: It’s bewildering enough trying to grasp “the person” in space and time; imagine trying to think about the reader as you write. For me, writing is a kind of pursuit of company that never comes. That comes, but then leaves or gets taken away; a pursuit that, because I write fiction, is embedded in the narrative. It gets acted out in the events of a narrator and another character or group of characters. I guess it is possible to see something about the reader in here.

LI: In the Ravicka novels, the linguistic gesture is itself a character.

RG: It would be much easier to talk about this if we were talking about poetry. In Turkish, when you bring food out to people, the people who are receiving it say, “Health to your hands,” and the person who brought the food says in return, “Health to you.” An encounter could have a bigger sort of performance behind it, so you’re not just saying, “Thank you,” but, “May birds fly through your hair at night.” I wanted to embed in narrative these other symbolic possibilities. Somehow we get the idea that we can’t say what we want, maybe it will make us cry or be too big for our hearts to contain. So we say, “Hi,” but what we really mean is, “Will you pick me up and carry me across the street?”

LI: Ravic speakers say things like, “But could my body handle the three minutes of deep knee bends that I would have to deliver as my apology?” That seems like an unusual relationship to have with one’s language.

RG: My feeling about English is that the subject-verb-predicate order enforces a pattern. Having the body as an extra means of communication is one way of addressing that limitation, but the body still imposes another kind of order. You age and can’t communicate because you can’t spend three minutes in a backbend or whatever. I really wanted to place the sound of the language in an Eastern European space, that felt important, a heavy consonant presence, I’m really drawn to that. I also started speaking this language, before I called it Ravic, aloud with a friend, so I could only say what my voice would allow me to say. Because of English and because I studied Spanish there was a lot of vowel presence I had to get rid of. With a name like Luswage Amini, syllables get pronounced the way a black Southerner speaks. It’s like Lu-SWAGGE, kind of slow, drawn-out. I wanted that to be there. It’s still this black girl who’s writing about this place that’s far away and not necessarily in conversation with her culture. One of my “Calamity” essays is about how I think black people and Eastern Europeans should have a conversation about possible overlaps between their experience, and what if I were to call myself an African American Eastern European, or is it an Eastern European African American, because I think about that.

LI: How does that “Calamity” fall apart?

RG: It starts, “I began the day considering the possibility that the person I am before I set my eyes upon the page I’m about to read—in this case, page 79 of Herta Müller’s The Appointment—is entirely different than the person I am once I commence reading. I know this because I am not Eastern European in my real life.” That’s the entry point. The distraction is, “I can’t get anyone to understand how the black person is another kind of Eastern European, esp. the Eastern Europeans.… How eventful it would be for the Eastern Europeans to begin calling themselves black, or even black-Asian. How undermining of all that is the case for me to begin writing in my bios, 'Renee Gladman is an Eastern European African American.'” Then it says I would do this only to understand myself better as a reader.

LI: There’s the reader again.

RG: I think the reader is there more, in "Calamities." There’s this feeling that there is a community or interested parties who are reading these essays, because they are also junior faculty or are also living in lonely cities or also have a crazy idea, like that black people could be Eastern Europeans.

LI: It feels a little bit like an advice column that doesn’t have the format of an advice column.

RG: I don’t know how you would regard an advice column called “Calamities.”

LI: That makes it really good!

RG: Ultimately, it’s this performance of self. And this is why I don’t have to end them, because it’s an accumulation. If I wrote 120 pages of these essays, I would hope that through the accumulation of attempts to understand myself in particular experiences, maybe I would be something. That would be the self, an accumulation. We have these tiny moments, and it feels necessary in terms of surviving the day to put them together and see where we are.

LI: Why prose?

RG: I came up through poetry, but I am a sentence writer. I don’t know if it’s so much creating narratives as narrative space. I’m interested in time and experience and the sound of telling a story as opposed to the story itself. I have a love and deep interest in fiction, especially fiction in translation, so I teach that. But often in my workshops now I’ll bring in texts that are hybrid, cross-genre works. It’s useful as a way to get students to take more notice of language. I have students read poetry and then enter it from a sentence space.

LI: So the poem also contains the sentence?

RG: You can’t avoid narrative in any kind of language space. And poetry is interested in experience; time is there, and the day. There are places where it pushes toward documentation and begins to remind me of what you might do in prose. Maybe not fiction. But in prose, how you might build sentences around an abstraction or feeling rather than plot points. I think it can only benefit literature for fiction writers to employ various degrees of compression in their approach to narrative.

LI: At the risk of going backward, what’s the difference between fiction and prose?

RG: Fiction is interested in a certain kind of unfolding or sequence of events. Time is more intact in fiction. Prose, I think, introduces the element of the awareness of yourself in language as you are unfolding things in time and allowing yourself to be distracted or interrupted, allowing yourself to question the difficulty of what you’re doing and be stalled, not to move. I want more fiction to do this, because it changes the way we read and understand story. With fiction that repairs all doubt and interruption and experiment by being fluid, coherent; what we expect doesn’t leave much room for me as a reader. But I think the more you talk about these categories, their distinctions, the quicker they break down. Ultimately, what I want is for there to be a blur over everything.


Date: January 31, 2012

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview in BOMB 2010

Write/Cross-Out: Lucy Ives

Powered by the refrain-directive “write,” and “cross out,” the content of Lucy Ives’s most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it.

While Anamnesis proceeds, therefore, in a mode of deliberate uncertainty, releasing a content of memory and images in spurts over the course of numerous campaigns, her earlier chapbook, My Thousand Novel, seems to take the opposite approach, presenting instead a collection of poems that are immediate and dense in language and imagery. Overall, Ives displays considerable conceptual drive, but the work of this New York-based poet, who is also a dedicated scholar (she is completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at NYU), is neither dry nor academic. Her poetry, especially in Anamnesis, is dynamic, open and affecting, adhering to a line of inquiry and then moving beyond it.

Claire Wilcox Your most recent published work, your book Anamnesis, deals in part with recollection and memory. Where did you grow up? How was it?

Lucy Ives I grew up in New York City. I was born here. I really like living here now, but to be honest when I was younger I spent a lot of time indoors watching television. I was very superstitious as a child, which I think had to do with being alone a lot. My mother worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sometimes we would walk through it at night. I was an only child and very interested in visual culture, I would say. In looking at things.

CW I just read Hannah Weiner’s Country Girl, from 1971, which you write about in your essay on naming, “SH Where are you bound?” in gutcult. I think Weiner’s poem is very lyrical, but because in her schizophrenia she receives transmissions from an exterior world, there is little sense of introspection, invention and subjectivity. Your poems in My Thousand Novel seem able to observe both what is “real”—“I saw wind press a page to the building”—and elliptically real—“I saw the girl push the looks from her eye”—and then something dream-like or surreal—“I saw the room fold itself in half.” How do you move between these different states of mind and language?

LI I think what you’re picking up on here is just bad writing on my part, what academics sometimes (politely) term catachresis, a kind of a mixed metaphor, like the expression, “the leg of a table.” I will say, in my own defense, that I have often been interested in, or wanted to write, images. The more you work on this, or try to do this, the more you discover how difficult it is to ‘point’ precisely with a word. There is on the one hand the problem of specificity, like if I say, “table,” which or what table will you understand, and, on the other, the problem of trying your reader’s patience, like if I begin, “…the table three feet in length, four feet high, two feet wide, of blondish plywood, with clear varnish, its surface able to reflect a face but not able to reflect printed matter clearly…,” how long am I going to hold your attention?

CW Are there certain contexts that compel you to write more than others?

LI I use writing for some of the same things I might use speaking for but mostly I use it for something else. I value writing for its silence, its weird beyond. I suppose when I think about context I think that I might produce something that would be read, and thinking about a reader might compel me in an exceptional sense, but this destination for what I write, the context of the reader, can always be imagined by me, and probably is often imagined, so it’s tricky.

CW What do you think about being a poet and in academia? Is there a relationship between your graduate work in Comparative Literature and your poetry?

LI There are a lot of practical reasons to want to get an advanced degree. I won’t go into those except to say that I want to teach, or would like to in the future, in order to make a living. This is probably the easiest way for me to make a connection between what I do as a graduate student and what I do with other kinds of writing, though there are certainly other overlaps that would be difficult to point out (at least for me). I have a view of academia that would probably annoy some people in that I don’t see it as incompatible with art. In fact I have difficulty drawing a clear distinction between acts of criticism and what are, I suppose, creative acts. I want to put a question mark at the end of that sentence.

CW What do you think about living in New York City?

LI I think a lot of things about living in New York, some of them include being exhausted by doing it. I spend a lot of time on the subway. I like the cliché about the anonymity of the city, though the actual fact of seeing people everyday, possibly hundreds of people whom you’ll never see again or, even if you do, will not remember having seen…it’s difficult to know what to do with that. I’m probably very loyal to this place, unreasonably so.

CW Do you contemplate moving or traveling?

LI I lived in Paris for four months last year, and two years before that I lived for a year in the northernmost prefecture of Honshu, in Japan. I used to travel a lot when I was in college, but I’ve become more interested in staying in one place these days. When I was 22, I was sure that I would live outside of America for a significant portion of my life. I was kind of a Germanophile for a while and thought that I would move to Berlin after I graduated and probably stay there, but then this never happened. I went to Iowa instead.

CW There are eleven different sections in Anamnesis. How did you come to these divisions? There’s also a lot of physical space between sections; each is divided by a full page marked only by the symbol “+.” Why did you organize the poem this way, and why did you chose this symbol?

LI The poem was written using an Olivetti Praxis 48 (this is a typewriter with really fast action and extra small, raised keys, designed for women I think; they have one in the Centre Pompidou) over the course of two weeks. It was one long typescript, and I had showed it to my husband, Ben, who liked it. As I began typing it up on my computer, it became clear that there were places that contained (if contained is the right word) a pause, and it seemed like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if I were to put some visual space there. This was when I realized that it might be a complete book on its own.

The section breaks, “+,” are not specifically meant to echo the refrain in the book, “Cross this out,” but that doesn’t mean that they don’t. For me it was just a more attractive mark than an asterisk. And the full page is there to give the reader time, since you have to turn that page. I mean, it’s partially just a convention of books, part of the general book ‘time signature’ you can’t avoid—or that you have at your disposal—the whole page left blank as punctuation.

CW I’m struck by a sense that the anamnesis of Anamnesis, in other words, the recalling or recollection of things past, applies as much to language as to memories. Many of the lines that appear under deliberation in Anamnesis feel close to your writing in My Thousand Novel. But in this case, the poem is not allowed to fully emerge. In the beginning of Anamnesis the reader and writer can’t inhabit the poem, but later there are moments where we are clearly in a poem, and then the imperative is to leave that space. As in:

Wired to adore I lay out across

The snowy field

The green carpet

I picked messages up like

These were leaves

I was good at it

And ok

And in despair

And filled with hate

Cross this out

Write, “walk across the room”

Stop typing

Does your move to frame the process of making a poem mark a shift, or desired shift, in your writing? Are you, in some places, directly recalling language you know yourself to have used, spoken or written, perhaps a kind of writing you find yourself moving away from?

LI It’s probably better not to admit this sort of thing, but one of my main interests in writing, or the act of writing, has to do with the way it mimics, retroactively as it were, more precise recording devices we now have, digital et al. I’m curious about (as I think I suggested in another response) how exact written description can be, or what the powers or limits of written description are. Could I write like a tape recorder? (I know that’s outdated, but I used them so much as a kid, they’re kind of iconic for me.) Could I write a line that’s photographic? I mean, of course I can’t, but it’s difficult, on an intuitive level, to really know that you can’t do this, since it’s logical to feel that you can describe what is in the frame of a photograph, that you could transcribe your own thoughts, etc. So it’s this question of fidelity that is a great concern when it comes to what you call “[being] in a poem.” If I write a line, what exactly will I be repeating or saying? Is the content just the referent of the words, if I attempt to relate or reproduce an event? This is how, in writing Anamnesis, I got to an idea of what a good or appropriate sort of ‘content’ for the poem would be. I wanted to try to ask this kind of question, ‘What is the content of what I write?’ Or, ‘What do I even think I can accurately talk about or show?’

CW You have a lot of animals in your poems, what are they doing there?

LI Ha. Animals are generally thought to have a sort of subjectivity that is different from human subjectivity. I don’t really know if this is true in a biological sense, but it’s certainly true in literature. I think when I include animals in my writing I am thinking of this general tradition of making animals speak in stories, making them walk upright and hold tools, etc., but without doing that. Though it’s a commonplace to speak of the limitedness of animal behavior, I think there is an interesting way in which animals, by virtue of people’s general ignorance about what perception is like for them, point out limits inherent in human perception. I think most of the animals in my poems are sort of on the sidelines, in an illustration that a speaker sees, for example, or sitting at the side of the road.

CW You also make collages. Can you talk about these a bit? Is there a relationship between your collage and your poetry? I know sometimes you’ve published them together.

LI I like looking at images from the recent past, the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. I like thinking about the mix of earnestness and venality with which some of the commercial images I use were produced. It’s interesting to me that something can look dated that is at such a small remove from us, temporally speaking. But I’m not sure how much the collages have to do with my writing. I should probably stop publishing them together! Actually, recently I did a long collage piece for the journal Triple Canopy. They had asked me to include text, and it was extremely difficult. The writing just sort of asserts itself, like a caption, without your particularly wanting it to, and this makes it challenging to do anything interesting with it (for me this is a challenge, at least).

CW In a recent interview with Charles Bernstein for BOMB, Jay Sanders wrote: “In light of our discussion here, I can see how the emergence of what’s being labeled “conceptual poetry” points to the impatience of some poets for their work to be seen as art. It forces the issue more directly by aping the vernacular associated with appropriation art of the ’70s and ’80s and grafting it upon their poetry practice to see what might still be potent in these tactics.” Do you have anything to say about this comment, and/or the trend Jay Sanders references here?

LI I guess I don’t see conceptualism in contemporary American poetry as deriving exclusively from ’70s and ’80s appropriation art; I’d be interested in reading an essay that made a case for classing Raymond Roussel as a conceptual writer, for example. But there is something more specific Sanders is getting at here, which has to do with the professional contexts in which poetry is sometimes produced and received, and the proximity of the art world (and art market) to these contexts.

CW What about poetry readings? I listened to your recording, “100 Views” on Weird Deer, the Weird Deer Hotline. Your voice is mournful, accented, and coming through the veil of telephone static. I’m interested in this private/public forum, and found this reading much more compelling than many I’ve seen in public. Shouldn’t there be more things like this?

LI I think poetry readings could be more like parties, or more like anything other than poetry readings.

CW Having attended Harvard and Iowa, and currently NYU, do you find that the contemporary work you engage with tends to be from people you have known or know from these places?

LI When I was in college I read a lot of sort of preppy, East Coast poetry: Berryman, Bishop, Merrill, Ashbery, Stevens, among others. I was on the poetry board of a student journal called The Advocate, or sometimes, The Harvard Advocate, to distinguish it from the other magazine of the same name. The Advocate building was this rickety, two-story structure we leased from the university for $1 a year, it reeked of beer, and the people responsible for publishing poetry would meet every Sunday morning to pick through the submissions pile. Although it wasn’t that clear to me that we knew what we were doing, we had a good time, and I learned a lot about how to read—or, how to express what you think about what you’ve read so that other people will like what you like. Iowa was slightly different in that there it’s less about trying to decide what you like or why you like it and more about actually doing some writing and then not freaking out when other people tear it apart. I still see a lot of people I met there, am married to one of them, so I tend to think it was a good experience. Now, in school, I mainly identify as someone “who is interested in poetry.” I’ll just sort of leave it at that.

CW Do you listen to music?

LI Yes, but not while writing. It’s a hold-over from high school, but I’m still scared of this question.

CW When did you find your bearings as a writer. What happened?

LI I’ve just always liked doing this. When I was little, I would make recordings of short ’songs’ (i.e., me, singing) on a cassette player. Then, when I was eight, I wrote this poem for a contest at my school, we had to describe a cover of The New Yorker. It was this Magritte-like image, a man in a bowler hat, dogs and cats falling down through the sky behind him. I’m leaving in my favorite misspelling:

This gentle man must look about himself,

For pets are raining in the sky.

It may just be a change in the weather,

Or a sight for you and I.

But regard his look

For it is carzy.


Date: July 28, 2010

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Web

Link to the review.


A collage.


A collage.


A collage.


A collage.

"Maybelline" at Hyperallergic


I am clearing my mind again
I mean, “I think”
I am bad
I am good?
I am very very good laughing a lot in delight
As at the same time there are many cameras?
I am good
I try
My head
Is good
I am the one who is bad
Escaping when it is not time
Racing downstairs
I sleep for years
On a lawn
In Melbourne
In Australia
I am good
I am very good rising in greatness
People say my name not even to know me
I light a candle
I am that good
Animals I created during the 17th century
Could be brought back to life
A drowsy octopus blows its nose on my thigh
Ants lick me
I am wrong
I didn’t know this was happening
And that is so far worse
Than being incorrect
Darkening as it does all previously
Known sentiment
Fear is
Good or not good
Fear is the ultimate purview
Of the philosopher
It is the yoke
To harness bad to good
Fear shivering in excellent sunsets
Either I am bad or I am good
Witnesses have known me or
Truth in their
Responses was
Relative, local
And I dwelt
Or was dwelling
I did not share
Their commitment
To any type of certainty
I am good because
It is right here
What happened
A stacked result
That’s tight
And turns
Whatever face
Probably you
Regret my
You knock
Upon the desk
With one long finger
You take the time
That later
Will be needed
You put it
Very very
Not that I see all
But the point is I am looking
My official release
My redemption
Do not really matter
That I
Know always better than
Maybe I knew
Scholars of America
Here is what I want to do
Maybe born with it
As spring approaches
I discover Carl Jung
In a dream
He dips
Below the horizon
Your jealousy
Was less complex
Carl Jung making speeches
A simple sky
He does a lot for weather
A barrel
Pointed at the sky
But I don’t know
As you begin thinking and become one thing
The future is just yellow
How do you feel about gazes
Like an airplane we do not
The nearness of just one actual mile
Is specific
More or less true
An answer would “speak”
You would “turn”
I’d “speak”
I mean, no longer “legion”
I would turn
English is “myriad”
Keats remarked
A recession
In which clouds
Thump the sky
I’ve known this all morning
If someone doesn’t ask you
What you are doing
You shall
Be good
You shall be good for one more day
When I am good I know
What I am doing
I walk on a dais
I swarm ashore
Yes yes
I lie
A lot
This is why
I am not
In the essential
If you were to write something
Topical like
The story of a search
In which, “The Past…”
This would qualify
And I think it’s good
You have your mind
You use it to produce opinion
This is at least partially
The great and famous
You are more rational and therefore
The more
You speak
The more there is
The good
Lastingly I believe
For you whom humans
Imitate are good
Anyone would say
“I saw it beginning”
If I am bad it is because
I know no
Than to be this way
It is because I am wrong in
Not knowing
This is the effect
Much as
I am not good
I can
Only read
Its letter
I am good
If I am good
This sense
Science smiles
Teeth flickering
The infinite divisibility of distances
Does good
To one
Such as me
I am using words to point to other words and it’s
OK with readers
I live
I don’t do a single thing


Date: March 16, 2016

Publisher: Hyperallergic

Format: Web

Link to the poem here.


An image of writing.

"First Husband" at Poem-a-Day

First Husband

Here is a description of hundreds of years in which
I never comprehend it is hundreds of years, passing
“We lived together,” I write, but what does that mean
Last night A. convinced me you are a parasite
OK, you’re a parasite, that’s interesting
My blood mixes with the blood of the flea
And we’re having another poetry lesson
It always takes hundreds of years
You’ve interrupted us in the midst of our poetry lesson
I mean “you,” the reader, have interrupted “us”
By which I mean, the bad “you” and, of course, “me”
Out of which construction some American relativism
Meanwhile, the flea has returned to Iowa
Ah, flea, let’s look into your affairs!
You seem to have learned a lot from poetry
I truly admired that line about how
A phone charger has become entangled in a tree
And your love of leopards is a neat neoclassical reference
Dionysus animatedly squirting things
Here I’ll insert a description of ……
[plus provisional knowledge claim]
I wish I could say, “The bad ‘you’ stomps
Upon its hat,” or maybe its “hat”
Or perhaps “it” “gnashes” “its” soft “teeth”
But instead the bad “you” stalks me on email
It sends word to remind me that it is “here”
I mean, nonchalant, therefore
Because this is also poetry
Which is why it is part of the lesson
And reinforced during office hours
The sublime plum
The immortal peach
The slow death of the humanities
Due to pluralism and (?) expense
“If I can’t have them nobody can”
Is what I wished he’d said
Instead he asked me who the fuck
I think I am in the Foxhead
And the brown stick of the Iowa River
We didn’t know much but we knew the river
Things occurred and I can remember
What my body is, in the traditional manner
No politics, except in poems
No deeds, except figuratively
Here is a description of the pink color of heaven and in standing water
Heavens have fallen
I am 24
Here is a thread of ice
Penetrating the human sciences
Once you are here, there is only living
Once you were
And believed I was good until you no longer believed this
Of me


Date: March 26, 2018


Format: Web

Link to the poem here.

On site.

"Rue des Écoles" at OPR

Rue des Écoles

Now lighter I took a step somewhere I was going, the streets
parted by a building with a face, and it was 1, noontime, hills
I could remember were definitely in the distance, climbers
you could hear in conversation, the reflected thump of
soccerballs, guides with flags or umbrellas, I remember
that it is moving day, you must meet for lunch, muttering
now, you know, snaps, clapping, it is another
way of saying that what happens next can’t be
seen, whiskers of ironwork form ferns and ivy, cast a complex
shadow over lots of hours: Please say something more, I’m
asking, please tell what comes next, but in a dream it hums and
refuses; dream does nothing, it is either gray
or gleaming nights and someone comes forward in such a
suit, someone is a sparrow or the muse, and I retreat, I mean
in the face of knowledge you can only
feel very sorry. For happiness and unhappiness
are the two proverbial verbs that fly together
and there is such a thing as The Past, so I
may know it, I may be certain of a thing. If someone pretends to hurt
me, I look away into a mirror. “It’s called thinking,” I say and
wash my hands. If ever there were a reason to look up let’s
look down, I’d say. I’d talk into a handheld recording device, yes
that is one way I would do it if … if …
It is late afternoon, I walk where I am meant to go though
it is late, I used to hate being encouraged by others to use what little
talent I had because I thought this would ruin my chances at
being really great at anything, and the person who speaks first at my
appointment is a florist, and she sells
grasses and tulips, she is saying that if she were
a writer, which she is not, she would just speak into a microphone and
later transcribe whatever she felt like saying. She must have
said that, though, “whatever she felt like saying” for I was
glad for her, for I knew she would be a very great writer
but she chose not to be one at all, because of her understanding
that it’s all very well and good, even if all the while you
imagine someone might draw apart the blinds, his expression like a
wave cresting at the mouth, new flesh, and the promise not of
happiness but of attention, adoration, sense, like …
like, not long ago when I felt little or no fear and saw the outline, a
face in profile weirdly twirling on a dangling length of wire, yes, at
this time, not long ago, I became not a singer but someone
who could hear the songs that are misplaced in things, a burden
I guess, but my suburban routes were never good ones, like,
the broken pen in the dirt with its chant about
blue, was I imagining this, was I mad. But the sun was already up, so there
was no denying that time at least was passing, and elsewhere everyone
went on. I did not want to stop them from doing so
Please let me tell you, far be it from me. Thus I stood aside and let
the passerby pass me. I let whoever develop one’s career. This was not
merely right and fitting, it formed an integral part of the larger
story I was telling, an essay titled, NEW EARTH, and there where
you told me I was forgetful, I smiled. What could have led me to react in such
a fashion I don’t know. What I do know is it was summer,
always summer, whenever you felt brave and said a thing to me


Date: December 4, 2017

Publisher: Organism for Poetic Research

Format: Print and web

Link to the poem here.


Magazine containing poem.

"Beastgardens" at The Poetry Foundation


first garden


second garden

Bees go mad on late summer evenings, should
People stray from their jobs towards water


third garden

Who makes the rented red boat's
Oars turn

Who is the younger one always
Turning up

Who professes to be better because
He is just looking

Who says he is worse off as
He cannot look


fourth garden

The unicycle girl, thin
Like one with a sexual problem,
Goes through
The Schlosspark. This follows:
Father rolling his eyes


fifth garden

The man from Manchester
Has my breast in his hand

These are funny
They don't do anything do they

Being burnt by a fire I say


sixth garden

Similarly, if only
You grasped some
Titanic misery or a
Love like an old man's


seventh garden

Where were we

A ballroom competition goes on
A yellow satin bikini
A fuchsia floor-length are
Dancing; an audience is
Drinking, clapping 1 2 3 1 2 3



Date: December 19, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Link to the poem below.

"Early Poem" at the Poetry Foundation

Early Poem

The first sentence is a sentence about writing. The second sentence tells you it's alright to lose interest. You might be one of those people who sits back in his or her chair without interest, and this would have been the third sentence you would have read. The fourth sentence, what does that say, that says something about how I genuinely feel, even if it no longer matters how I genuinely feel, that has not even become the topic of another book. The fifth sentence says that that was left by the wayside because it was such a variable thing. That's what the sixth sentence said, and says, that it sits there still, varying, changing its colors, etc., the army of ancient Rome marches by, they think it is some sort of tomb and display their eagle insignia. The seventh sentence ill conceals its surprise that I should have tried to make it all look so far away. The eight sentence is therefore a meditation on something close at hand. The ninth sentence is a means of approach. In the tenth sentence I discover I am staring at a list of things I have done written in blue pencil on brown paper. In the eleventh sentence I draw a one-eyed duck on the paper beside the list. In the twelfth sentence I circle one of the numbers on the list and I start to feel nervous. In the thirteenth sentence I realize I have chosen something. In the fourteenth sentence I decide I will read my choice aloud. In the fifteenth sentence I stall by saying the words "I don't have a choice." In the sixteenth sentence I stall again by thinking about the obelisk on the Upper East Side in Central Park and how it is called "Cleopatra's Needle," and how around the base of the "needle" there are metal supports in the shape of crustaceans, I think they are crabs in fact but sometimes that word is slightly obscene so I consider not writing it. In the seventeenth sentence I think some more about the kinds of joke that employ that word and whether it is worth thinking about such jokes, as it does alter the genre of what you are writing if such things are allowed to be thought as a part of it. The lawns of the park were very green in summer, and it is early summer right now, right as I think to think this, and this is the first time I have lived in New York City for a full year in ten years, this is what I tell as the nineteenth sentence. In the twentieth sentence I recall the list and resolve again to look at it. In the twentifirst sentence I misspell twenty-first with two "i"s. In the twenty-second sentence I look down at the list, I have circled no. 18759351 on the list. In the twentisecond sentence I misspell twenty-second using an "i" again. In the twenty-third sentence I read what is written next to no. 18759351, it says, "He was sitting on a bench...," but at this moment a breeze enters in through the open window, lifting the page and you begin reading another line, the words, "And you hand in the application and it takes three months and...." In the twenty-fourth sentence you can see me set the page down as another person walks through the door. I turn off the electronic typewriter and scroll out the page and place it facedown on the desk and I cover it with a notebook you weren't aware was also there on the desk. Now you can see it, it is almost the exact same color as the surface of the desk and now you can see it. These were the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth sentences, respectively, it is the lot of the twenty-seventh sentence to have to announce that. In the twenty-eighth sentence a cloud passes over the apartment on its way into space. In the twenty-ninth sentence, I think, next year this will be the number of my age. The thirtieth sentence is all about the speed at which time is passing. In the thirty-first sentence I won't care anymore, I'll see that reality only accrues to itself and does not have to mean something. In the thirty-second sentence I want you to agree with me. Things happen by chance, and what Montaigne pleads with us to believe, in an essay, is that fortune makes herself known in the act of reading, there is much that I could not have intended which is yet here, I forget exactly how this goes, this being the thirty-third sentence. I sit down beside myself in the thirty-fourth sentence and say to myself, smiling, even small numbers are big. This is the working of time, the thirty-fifth sentence joins in saying this, too, once one has crossed the years their number does not matter. But what I was trying to get across was, I think in sentence thirty-six, that maybe you could not have done things earlier, maybe it just was not possible in those days for whichever reasons. You spend the thirty-seventh sentence attempting to spell those reasons out. You fall asleep, and in the thirty-eighth sentence you dream about a room. The room is a classroom in which you are alone, says sentence number thirty-nine, the windows have been left open and a sentence can be read on the blackboard. In the fortieth sentence you have to force yourself to go on. Descartes's dream, you remember, in sentence forty-one, provided a quote supposedly from Ausonius. This is the forty-second sentence, Est et non. Then I think it is safe to say that something begins to happen, sentence forty-three tells us. Sentence forty-four says that you should forgive. Sentence forty-five says that you remember this number as having been particularly beautiful when worn by your mother. Sentence forty-six says the figures move away. Sentence forty-seven is a sentence about what loneliness names itself in the paradoxical presence of others. Sentence forty-eight says it has a name. Sentence forty-nine says that I cannot remember this name. Sentence fifty says that I go back and try and live there in that moment when I was saying the name. I say, "Happiness." This was sentence fifty-one. That was sentence fifty-two. Sentence fifty-four is a sentence about how there is too much of so many things, there is too much of all the words, but the world runs on underneath them and I keep on imagining how you could have heard me, how you could not have heard me. Sentence fifty-five is a sentence about picking up the phone. Sentence fifty-six is a sentence about picking up a small cellular phone but not using it and willing the phone to ring on its own. The gray cotton of the sweatshirt I wear is a warm cotton in sentence fifty-seven. In sentence fifty-eight I decide to keep on saying the numbers. In sentence fifty-nine I hold the page up to the light and see the type on the other side show through. In sentence sixty you start to believe me. In sentence sixty-one I start to go back to the beginning. I wonder if I should worry. The world is full of pauses, the world is full with continuations, says sentence sixty-three. I let sentence sixty-four go. In sentence sixty-five it occurs to me that I concern myself here with something that ought not to be touched. Sentence sixty-six is a guess that this is the mystery of counting, that it goes on and means itself without having a meaning. I count the people in the distance I can see from my window in sentence sixty-seven. In sentence sixty-eight the breeze has a sweet smell. In sentence sixty-nine, it turns the last week of May in the year 2008. Sentence seventy concerns the lack of what I wanted, in my own mind, to be saying. In sentence seventy-one I'm going so far as to ask you if you can see this, how much of what I thought lay before me remained in the distance. In sentence seventy-two there is a hill there. In sentence seventy-three we see flowers open their faces and then black snakes slide down the face of the hill. In sentence seventy-four there is still nothing. In sentence seventy-five the moon changes place with the sun. In sentence seventy-six this takes place again, only now it is day. In sentence seventy-seven it is still day. In sentence seventy-eight it is still day. Why do you think about tragedy, sentence seventy-nine wants to know, since it is the least likely thing to happen. Sentence eighty will eventually come to me and want to know what I am doing with myself. Sentence eighty-one reminds me to expect this question. In sentence eighty-two something changes. I stay up two nights running and in the morning the sidewalk seems to rise up and meet my feet underneath my feet. Sentence eighty-four contains the question, didn't you already know that this would start to happen. Sentence eighty-five agrees. When I start to read sentence eighty-six I discover it contains the words, It is also true that what you said could be. For this reason, sentence eighty-seven is a sentence about why there are certainly points of correspondence between what we expect to be the case and what is. Sentence eighty-eight proclaims it feels the excitement and not the work. Sentence eighty-nine takes action without saying anything first. In sentence ninety I cover my eyes. In sentence ninety-one I uncover my eyes so that I can look again. In sentence ninety-two I cover them again. Now I am speaking to you. Now I am speaking to you. Say the words after me just as I say them. What it means to live is the subject of sentence ninety-six. You are moving out of earshot now. We are not going to miss each other. You have an excellent memory. Please never forget I was the one who told you that


Date: December 20, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Link to the poem below.