Monday, November 09, 2009

McSweeney on Bataille, Bolano, Garland

[Joyelle gave this poetics statement at AWP last year. It was later reprinted in Fence. This is the first part of it and the final piece to keep it in more bloggish length. You'll have to seek out the Fence issue for the whole thing.]

Expenditure: Or, why I’m going to die trying
by Joyelle McSweeney

1)My non-realist writing is exhausting. It exhausts the sentences. It has no good measure. It starts out formal (interested in genre) but it distends form and makes it sag.

2)When Bataille analyzes society, he divides it into two parts: the productive part, and then “the second part, represented by so-called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity [...]—all these represent the activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves.”

3)Ladies and gentlemen, we live in primitive circumstances. There are wars of attrition going on all over this planet that have no end in sight, wars which regardless of their recent dates of inception seem immemorial. In place of ‘immemorial’, let’s try ‘expiration date’. It’s time for the show stopper that brings down the house.

3)Bataille says “the term poetry [...] can be considered synonymous with expenditure; it in fact signifies, in the most precise way, creation by means of loss. Its meaning is therefore closer to that of sacrifice.’ By sacrifice he means a loss unto extinction; Sacrifice produces sacred objects. Furthermore, “in particular, the success of Christianity must be explained by [...] the Son of God’s ignominious crucifixion, which carries human dread to a representation of loss and limitless degradation.”

5)Or, put another way, there’s no success like failure.

6) Some have said that Roberto Bolaño’s work, with its many missing, absent, or disappeared artists, thematizes the failure of art to intervene in and alter history, to prevent coups, to make anything happen, but I think his formlessness and archival quality makes a history on art’s terms. In the final passage of Amulet, dead bodies extend all the way to the South Pole and back, a parody of a utopian vision that would stretch further; the dead bodies in the fourth part of 2666 dishevel the narrative and even the ability of the genre—here noir—to assemble itself. The bodies amount to just carnage and dread of more carnage. Boring, boring dread.

7)I often talk of my work in terms of form but what the form frames is something else that gapes away from it—in the final form of my sci-fi novel Flet the protagonist becomes an archaeopteryx rotting in the desert and that’s how the entire second half of the plot is ‘resolved’, or, decomposed in a decomposing artwork that involutes and becomes darkly and toxically capacious. Like the women of Juárez, it can die and die and die.

8)The figure of an accounting is obviously central to the model of expenditure vs. capitalism built up in Bataille, and it’s a nice fit with what we’re here to discuss today: story making. The making of an account. The accounting. Should the accounts be measured? Should the balance hold? I think they should take the form to destruction and beyond. Mine will be poorly made, willful, deathleaning. Spend, spend, spend. This does not mean it will be drab, minimal, but maximal, desiccated, well dressed for death. I like archaic things which have already failed or are not destined to survive, failure to thrive, shrift instead of thrift, a shrivening, a mourning, the lack of sturdiness that pertains to minor genres, the eructations they engender instead of children. As Baudelaire writes of the Dandy:

“Whether these men are nicknamed exquisites, incroyables, beaux, lions or dandies, they all spring from the same womb; they all partake of the same characteristic quality of opposition and revolt [...]Dandyism appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is just beginning to totter and fall. In the disorder of these times, certain men who are socially, politically, and financially ill at ease, but are all rich in a native energy, may conceive of the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to shatter as it will be based on the most precious, the most enduring faculties, and on the divine gifts which work and money are unable to bestow.”

--and he goes on to give as examples the Dandyism of the ‘savage’ tribes of north America.

9) Indeed, northwestern North American tribes, with their model of potlatch, provide Bataille with his extensive model of expenditure. Whereas the displaced Lakota provide me with the model of the Ghost Dance. The materialization of irrational expenditure of the Ghost Dance caused such panic in the would-be sensible army that they had to put a cease to it. They who did not believe in spirits or ghosts found the spectacle of this expenditure so frightening that they reacted irrationally and completed the Indians’ acts of expenditure by sacrificing them, and making them sacred.

11)And they all spread from the same womb, the same womb or entrails, and their high fashion, their cloaks and adorned, bulletproof ghost shirts, cover over it until it can’t. Which brings us to the topic of camp. And particularly to the figure of Judy Garland, once the girl next store who always seemed to be singing from beyond the grave, as if her flesh would really melt from her voice at any minute, her body weight and its untidy expenditures the matter of constant biographizing. In the wholesome ‘Summer Stock,’ the film with which the whole notion of ‘putting on a show in the barn’ reaches its apotheosis, Garland-the-farm-girl stops the show by shedding her overalls and performing a sexy, terrifying Weimar-inspired cabaret number in only a man’s jacket, fedora, and hat. She sings

Forget your trouble, come on get happy
We’re going to chase all your cares away.
Shout alleluia come on get happy,
We’re headed for the Judgment Day.

This ghoulish hymn to death-in-life is all the more ghoulish for its context—like revolution, it stops the show by maxing it out. Like revolutionary violence, it stops the clock. Death and life touch there. In ‘real life’, Judy fled the set for a eight week Dexedrine purge midway through the production. She literally stopped the show and remade it in her own artificial image. Moreover, her incarnation of Weimar sensibilities opens an aperture from the awe-shucks American setting onto an earlier and patently ghoulish time. Death-in-life applies not just to the lyrics of the song, which in their manic inability to arrive at the promised land suspend the ‘we’ in a feverish, plagued inbetweenness—but in its aesthetic ventriloquism of the Weimar period, the decadence that was the recto of the Holocaust’s verso.


15) Which is all to say: I may be writing a maximal, dandified, camp, illgendered, millenarian text, for the sentences to run on past health to death, a region in which the most blasphemous rituals take place, and they require an undo attention to style, flair, garments, gestures rather than actions and plot, descriptions only of things which never were, an uncanny, transporting voice not tied to any body, around which flesh accrues and decomposes, a text which does not choose life but might acquire it alongside death.


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