Monday, October 29, 2012

In the Skin of a Lion


The fastest way to describe my dislike for Ondaatje's style is that every sentence seems overwritten. However, I am going to unpack why I hate this novel so much and why I revolt at his silly ostentatious style. Ondaatje's sentences call attention to themselves by focusing on incongruous details or by framing those details in bizarre ways. It is this over-attentiveness that - for me as a reader - I find most distracting. In his book, How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of detail that "Nabokov's fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself". Wood goes on to write of insignificant detail that is significant in its significance and lazily asserts that modern fiction is focused on the abundance of detail. It accumulates like barnacles on a ship, concatenating for the reader an effect of realism. In his novel, In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje concatenates detail purposefully to affect a poetic style that fetishizes aestheticism. As a reader, I have to be very careful in my capacities as individual reader of a particular taste and as a critic able to more or less objectively qualify a text. I do not harbor a particular fetish of the aesthetic, but I can appreciate an author's ability to do so. If I didn't, I certainly would dislike Nabokov and Joyce (I don't; I love them).

So why then does Ondaatje's overwritten style so offend me? Is is the style itself, or is it the style's refusal to convey "proper" reality? Is it the seriousness of it, or is it the sheer monotony of seemingly incongruous style? Ondaatje's prose is like clockwork in that I can always expect a short sentence to follow a long sentence and I can always predict a strange way of describing something visual. It's formulaic in its attempt at being not formulaic, and I struggle with this.

Authors of a certain caliber often deploy irony in order to say something profound or important about their text without referring directly to it. Joyce was a master of this particular type of misdirection. His third person omniscient narrator would produce a painful cliche or a poor metaphor, but within the free indirect style, thus alerting the reader that it's the character thinking in this manner, not the author. The tension between the character's perception and the narrator's reality produces the irony, which in turn, tells us something about the character. Many times, the effect is humorous.

Ondaatje is absolutely unable to produce this type of tension within his text. His characters notice all sorts of bizarre details that throw off the reader from the rhythm of the prose. There exists no tension between the character's perception and the narrator's reality because they are one and the same. The characters speak in the same self-important, all too serious manner that the narrator uses. A self-important style deployed by characters can often be funny because of the incongruity or the pompousness of it. But when that prose matches the reality offered by the ponderous narrator, this lack of tension is intensified.

In the novel, Patrick is convalescing in a hotel room when Clara comes in. She says:
-I've imagined us meeting all over the world, Patrick, but I never thought we'd meet here. By this river you told me about.

She puts her head against him and they were still, as if asleep. Her finger traced a delicate line down along his shoulder, parallel to a cut.

-It would be terrible if we met under perfect conditions. Don't you think?
The sentence not spoken by Clara is an example of fine detail. It humanizes the characters and produces an effect of reality. Both things Clara has said ruin this effect by their sheer unrealistic nature. "By this river you told me about" is firstly, not a pretty sentence, and not something an English-speaking person would say naturally.

Here is another example of "poetic" style that simply screams overwritten. In this bit, Caravaggio is being attacked in a prison cell at night.
His hands are up squabbling with this water creature - sacrificing his hands to protect the body. The inside of his heart feels bloodless. He swallows dry breath. He needs more than anything to get on his knees and lap up water from a saucer.
Here we have four pieces of information conveyed at a very slow pace. It takes time to parse what in the world Caravaggio is thinking because of the "poetic" style being deployed. Caravaggio protects his body using his hands, his heart is pumping wildly, his throat is dry, and he would rather not have a dry throat. But why would a man, being beaten up in a prison, think of his heart as bloodless? The heart isn't a muscle you can feel. A man in the midst of an attack would no doubt think of the fullness of his extremities due to the increased blood flow, ne c'est pas? And why the saucer? The only detail that works in this section is the water-creature, and even then, I'm only willing to accept it because of Caravaggio's confusion about the man and the darkness of the prison cell. But why water?

The details call attention to themselves but not in the sense that their insignificance is significant. Rather, the unrealistic nature of the details call attention to themselves as artifice. This novel is not populated by humans with an eerie sense of noticing details. Rather, the accumulation of details soaked in wrongness creates an artificiality.

But, you might say, a novel doesn't have to be realistic. In fact, many would argue that the novel's very construction implies a distinct opposite to realism, despite any claims to the contrary. Flaubert is often credited with the development of a modern realism that looms over the past 160 years, but his brand of realism was distinctly unnatural. Rather, it was the invisible attention to seemingly unimportant details that created a particular and successful effect within the reader. The difference between which details are noticed and which are not becomes significant to the text.

Ondaatje doesn't need to create reality with In the Skin of a Lion for the novel to be successful if he wants to provide a shimmering hazy reflection of the real world. However, the content of the novel should meet even halfway with the form of the novel.

Considering this novel is distinctly postcolonial in its focus on immigrants and their exploitation by a superstructure of modern capitalism as well as traditional history's tendency to dehumanize or dismiss the immigrant from its pages for the sake of wealthy "important" men like Ambrose Small. It is a novel about filling in the darker corners of history with living breathing people. It is about migrant conditions.

However, this purpose is totally inert when conveyed with this meretricious prose style. The theatricality of the prose calls attention to the construction of the novel as a novel rather than a representation of humanity. In the Skin of a Lion has a false depth right from its very title that masks a superficiality, an interest in fetishizing aestheticism, and l'art pour l'art. Thus, it is completely and irrevocably inert.

As an aesthetic experience, it isn't even successful due to the utter ostentation of the prose. I could unequivocally forgive the novel if the prose had been beautiful but the text artificial. I could even forgive the novel if the text had felt completely evocative but the prose poorly written. But I cannot and I will not forgive both. In the Skin of a Lion is a terrible book that has lots to say and says it in the most boneheaded, most counterfeit, most bogus style it can possibly do it. It is ultimately a shaggy dog style but without a clever pun at the end. It's politically inert and it's aesthetically inert.

It is an empty inert novel and I hate it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas


It's hard not to be reminded of Fredric Jameson's assertion that one of the constituent elements of postmodernism is the pastiche when reading David Mitchell's feted novel Cloud Atlas. There is nothing new within the cultural logic so the present must look to the past. The structure of Cloud Atlas is intensely specific: six nested narratives that use specific literary forms. The novel starts with the earliest text, chronologically speaking, and then moves forward in time until the sixth story, which is set in the distant future. Then, the novel works backwards, picking up each abandoned story with the end of each one finding and reading the text of the next, going backwards in time.

Many of the paroxysms of praise lavished upon the feet of the author focus on the versatility of the prose. Mitchell is deft at mimicking the specific literary voice he's attempting, be it the 19th century slave narrative, the 1970s political thriller, or the dystopian cyberpunk voice. The central story, the one set in the distant future, is written in the form of oral literature with a difficult to read language that feels like the logical outcome of centuries of evolution on English.

The central story puts forth the climax and theme of the novel and then Mitchell spends another two hundred pages providing a cascade of climaxes and intertextual references in order to connect more strongly the characters. The central idea is that each story is not only a nested narrative, but the same cast of characters reincarnated. This is almost made explicit in the central narrative, when the future goat herder of no education is introduced to an ancient relic in the form of Siddhartha.

Mitchell connects this idea with other literary tricks such as the recurrence of the number 6 and the echoes of certain names and concepts. For example, in my favourite section, set in the 1930s, a young composer gets hired as the assistant to an almost forgotten composer of critical acclaim. During breaks, the young assistant composes a Cloud Atlas Sextet in which solos of different instruments are nested within and without. Each instrument is playing a different solo, but at the heart, it's all the same.

Unfortunately, all of the cleverness and literary chameleon act does not disguise that the constituent parts of the novel are wildly uneven and somewhat weak. It's an anthology book, and in true anthology fashion, there are weak parts and strong parts. The central narrative, with its irritating linguistics is far too long to sustain its idea. The section set in the 21st century features an aging publisher tricked into an old folks' home and subsequent escape. It's particularly weak in light of being sandwiched between stronger sections.

As a whole, the novel is engaging, but on the microcosmic level, it's frustratingly uneven. Perhaps the effort didn't match the ambition of the premise. Certainly the connections between narratives are somewhat tenuous to the point that the reader would not feel mistaken in thinking this a collection of short stories with a bizarre structure. If the characters are indeed reincarnations, why then the character commenting that this isn't feasible or even logical? Why then have characters comment on the authenticity of previous narratives? Why present the narratives as fictional within following sections? If each narrative is a fictional device, then is the central narrative the only true one? But that's not possible as the end of the central section implies that it's only a story.

But this doesn't make the novel a failure. Far from it. It's compulsively readable due to Mitchell's seemingly effortless prose, as well as some trickier aspects of the novel. The outside sections change in language as it moves closer to the center, which is a particularly well done effort.

As well, despite sections being geographically and chronologically distant, there's a political strain running throughout, something quite critical of capitalism and the dehumanizing process of commodification that becomes explicit in the dystopian section near the center. Instead of a democracy or a totalitarian government, the world is run by a "corpocracy" in which the law states consumers must spend a specific amount of money every month, in which clones are created to serve, in which nouns have been replaced by recognizable trademarks to the point that "cameras" have become "nikons", etc. But this anti-capitalist fervour is not contained in only this section. In fact, there are echoes of it in every section. In the central narrative, in which the themes are explicitly laid out, the Fall of mankind is not due to external factors but due to the hunger inherent in consumption and production. Nothing was ever enough, so mankind consumed everything to point of destruction.

The subtlety of the political ideology in the novel is quite a success as a linking device as well as a structuring device. More so than the reincarnation bit, but this might be a case of confirmation bias in your humble reviewer.

Despite my qualms that the individual elements don't necessarily work, the sum is greater than the parts. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the novel, so much that I read it in less than 24 hours. It's a transcendental work both in the sense of its themes and its ability to rise above the relative strengths and weaknesses of the constituent elements.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Does it strike anybody as ironic that we pour scorn on 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man for being a soulless cash-grab of a movie but we heap praise upon 2008's The Dark Knight for being a stellar film? It's certainly worth observing the respective films' effect on the movie going public considering both are pure examples of corporatism and crass commercial film making. Maybe it's because The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot that only comes five years after the last film. Maybe it's because this particular film is a sign of things to come. It's an omen of decreasing time between film and remake, of soulless film-making and the constant thinning of the line between art and commerce.

Possibly because The Amazing Spider-Man isn't a very good movie whereas The Dark Knight is a good movie. The latter elevates itself from its intellectual property by saying something about surveillance and institution in the post 9/11 world. The former tells an emotionally hollow story about an asshole kid getting his comeuppance.

Make no mistake, Peter Parker in this film isn't a nerd, a geek or even an outcast. Instead, he's a skateboarding photographer who gets friendzoned and stands up to bullies. It's been ten years since I've graduated high school, but even I can recognize the winds of change within the American school system. A skateboarding photographer? Being an outcast? Not possible. That's quinessentially cool.

Let me extrapolate and attempt to answer the very first question of this review. Peter Parker isn't a nerd or a geek, nor is he shown being socially awkward or disgusting or even all that interested in girls. Why, might you ask? Because Peter Parker is a corporate figure and therefore, must appeal to all possible demographics. He must straddle the line between "cool" and "uncool" in order to appease both sides of the (admittedly arbitrary) line.

Thus, The Amazing Spider-Man puts its aims right on the surface. This isn't a film to tell a beautiful story about a child learning how to cope with mistakes or the fickle character of nature. We already had one of those.

The essential question to ask, time and again, is why does this film exist when Raimi's version, albeit not perfect, manages to be true to the spirit of origin while maintaining its own flavour and character.

Rather, The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't even ask anything of its characters other than to be in the right place at the right time and allow the CGI to do its magic. If there was ever a film to dispute the auteur theory, it's this film, where the touch of the corporate hand can be detected in every frame. "Make sure you get a shot of Andrew Garfield's butt to woo the girls and make sure you get a shot of Emma Stone's legs to woo the boys," I can hear them say. The producers must have been on set every single day.

How else then to account for the ludicrous scenes of Peter and Curt Connors "doing science"? Why is it in every American film featuring scenes of science, the group of scientists and technicians are working with outrageously dumb equipment? A computer that audibly announces every movement? The techies would have shut that off immediately. Fuck gene splicing, Peter and Curt are working with holograms that can be physically touched! Holograms that are packets of movable data!

Only somebody without the faintest idea of genetics would include this scene.

Perhaps this is simply nitpicking, something I'm not terribly fond of. Let's broaden our focus to display even further the greasy stains of the corporation's fingers. In a particularly telling scene, Gwen Stacy, a lab technician and high school student, guides a tour (ALSO a tour guide) in which they point to the dangerous MacGuffin that sprays gas into the atmosphere. Even though the audience is told it's dangerous and the project was scrapped, the machine is still running. The screenwriters might as well have had characters say, "REMEMBER THIS GUYS, THIS IS IMPORTANT".

Or how about when Peter conveniently falls through a roof and lands in a wrestling ring. As the thugs shout helpfully, "I've seen your face" Peter looks up at a poster for a luchadore wearing a mask. Again, this is the stink of poor screenwriting that has been tampered with, messed over and poked at by a horde of producers in the hope that the film will have the biggest box office by being safe.

Badass Digest, a film site, has an article in which they take apart the initial trailers and then attempt to figure out where those scenes were when faced with the theatrical cut. There was another film presented to the studio before release date. It might have been worse, it might have been better, but surely we can agree that it was different.

A couple other sites have been wringing their hands about the death of the medium sized film. The Amazing Spider-Man, with its small scope and intimate feel, could have been a solid medium sized film (Peter isn't even in his suit until halfway through the film). However, Spider-Man is far too large of a corporate figure to be underused. Medium films make medium box office.

I'm going to wrap this up, because I actually don't care enough about The Amazing Spider-Man's utter failure in capturing the spirit of Spider-Man (in this film, Peter's just a fucking asshole who deserves to be treated like crap) and its failure in entertaining me (seriously, the Lizard just goes bad because he can?).

From the overly screenplay-y screenplay to the boring direction to the awful character designs, to the boorish behaviour of Peter Parker to the incomprehensible teaser that was added because hey that's just what these films do, The Amazing Spider-Man is an empty vessel of a film without any artistic merit. Fuck this movie.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Anxiety of Choice and the iPod Shuffle


In every choice, there is a sense of loss, due to the blocking of the path not taken. This loss contributes to a sense of anxiety around the choice, making it difficult to make future choices. This is exacerbated in a culture in which we are faced with endless choices. With the ubiquity of the Internet, the increased availability of music, and the increased accessibility of these choices, be it through technology or shopping malls or any other convenience, people are faced with more choices than they can manage. Within the capitalist system, where options are proclaimed as a virtue of that system, choice is utterly hegemonic which directly contributes to a systemic anxiety. There is no better example of this than the mp3 player, in which one's vast music library is made available at any time and in any place. In this paper, I am going to show that the iPod is both a contributor to the anxiety of choice as well as the relief thanks to the Shuffle option which shifts the labour of choosing from the subject to the device.

Lacan said that anxiety is not about the lack of the object, but about the lack of the lack. The logic of capitalism introduces the idea that no matter what the subject consumes, it is never the object, and "thus we endlessly go on searching for the thing we hope will bring satisfaction" (Salecl 63). However, the choice we make must be the correct one, and "everything in life has become a matter of decisions that need to be made carefully in order to come close to the ideal of happiness and self-fulfillment" (Salecl 22) until, of course, that choice is made and then another one must be made. If there are too many choices, there exists the feeling that there is no objective authority, and nobody is in charge. If one has a terabyte of music to listen to, how will one know which is best, and how will one determine in which order to listen to all this? As aforementioned, anxiety about choice comes from an anxiety about loss and any decision one makes is defined by the possibility of the opposite being blocked off. Thus, when deciding to listen to this album or song, there is guilt that one could be listening to another, better selection.

This leads to what has been called "iPod ADD" (Urban Dictionary): having so many songs on your iPod or MP3 player you can't decide on one. When the subject gets what they wished for, be it one million songs, the subject also feels that this is not what they wanted and they begin to search for something else entirely. However, listening to snippets of songs is not the same as listening to whole songs. As Simon Reynolds writes in Retromania, "[s]kipping and skimming... offered the 'illusion of action and decision' but [is] really an insidious form of paralysis" (Reynolds 73). How then to resolve the anxiety caused by too many choices?

Capitalism offers the solution to this anxiety that is caused by capitalism. The most pertinent is the popularity of the iPod shuffle, which takes the labour of making decisions out of the listeners hands and puts it into random selection based on arcane algorithms. The iPod shuffle offers the solution to the very anxiety that capitalism creates while still fulfilling the logic of consumption. Now, the subject can consume without having to make any choices, while still having the illusion of freedom of choice - which is not a freedom.

We invest so much time in the cultivation of the mp3 library that there should a reward. Rather than choosing each individual plants, we let the iPod choose for us in order to maximize enjoyment by not fretting about the choice. Capitalism is about impatient capital, about "a constant desire for rapid returns" (Salecl 22). Wasting time, the greatest crime in capitalism, on deciding which song to listen to while shopping for groceries or commuting to work, is not an appropriate behavior for the amount of labour put into the cultivation of the mp3 library.

The shuffle, or the life-coach or self-help advice columnist cannot behave like an authority, but rather must appear to be simply a helper or a servant whom the individual has chosen to listen to. The subject must retain the perception of the ability to choose and the mastery of the mp3 library. The iPod shuffle or the coach encourages the subject to adapt constantly to the changes with which the subject is presented. Genre promiscuity has created a wide mixture of possible song choices for the iPod shuffle. The subject must learn to adapt to the shock of incongruous song concatenations. By learning adaptation, the subject is learning how to master the self; the irony being that in order to do so, the subject must submit to the shuffle and conform to a dictated listening practice. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, "to function effectively as a component of just–in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or 'precarity', as the ugly neologism has it." (Fisher 34). By learning to live within this mode of shuffle, the subject internalizes and then normalizes the process. Thus, the iPod shuffle mirrors the precarity of the job market. The subject is constantly moving laterally, from a series of short term jobs to the next and the subject feels a constant "demand to be a 'adaptable' worker, to be constantly 'networking'" (Power 21) in terms of location, position and even job itself.

If the authority that teaches the subject what music to listen to is the Big Other, and there is a perception of the weakening of the Big Other, then this might be due to the crisis of capitalism and the incredulity to metanarratives. With so many choices of music, it is even harder to find an expert whose taste aligns with the consumer. Thus, the consumer has no Big Other to help direct the cultivation of their tastes and mp3 library. The subject then uses the iPod shuffle to alleviate not only the anxiety inherent in choosing which individual song, but even to alleviate the anxiety in choosing what in general to listen to.

In conclusion, the iPod contributes to a great anxiety of choice by encapsulating the logic of capitalism by offering a multiplicity of choices. Each choice is marked by a sense of guilt over the loss of the option not chosen. As capitalism offers constant choices as well as the enjoinder to consistently make the right choice, the subject is affected by a pervasive anxiety of choice. The iPod Shuffle helps resolve this problem by moving the labour of listening and choosing from the subject to the device itself, acting as a coach or mediating authority. Thus, with the displacement of labour, the subject is free to consume without guilt or impunity and return to the constant labour that is required in the late capitalist system.

Works Cited

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Winchester: Zero Books, 2009. Print.

Power, Nina. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester: Zero Books, 2009. Print.

Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.

Salecl, Renata. The Tyranny of Choice. London: Profile Books, 2011. Print.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fredric Jameson and K-pop


[This is a seminar I'm presenting this week that attempts to give an overview of an assigned article as well as tries to make a new argument about it.]

The word “postmodernism” was not coined by Jameson in his essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Rather, it was a term circulated in the field of architecture and in literary criticism going back as far as the 1960s. In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge which defined the term as “an incredulity towards metanarratives”. In 1984, Fredric Jameson expanded on this idea in his aforementioned essay published in the New Left Review. In it, Jameson argues that postmodernism is not simply a period but a logic that brings together culture, economics and politics. In this seminar, I will explain Jameson’s argument, and then draw on cultural examples to illustrate the argument.

Before doing so, it is worth explaining what Lyotard meant by an "incredulity to metanarratives". Incredulity means a state of being unwilling or unable to believe something. The postmodern condition is to be wary of the grand important narratives that had previously structured life, such as the Church, or the American Dream. The collective loss of belief in metanarratives creates one important effect: the dogmatic cling to the dying metanarrative itself. A shaking of belief in the Church's power translates into the church member's deathgrip on the Church and its practices which still structure that member's life. For Jameson, the decay of capitalism has resulted in the world's frantic attempt to grasp and rehabilitate capitalism in the current era.

However, the first element to note of Jameson's essay is that the author is extremely careful in articulating that postmodernism is not merely a stylistic device nor is it a periodizing category. He writes that periods "tend to obliterate difference" and "to project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity" (Jameson 56). Instead, it is important to view postmodernism as a cultural dominant as he terms it. This allows postmodernism to envelope overlapping periods and aesthetics under its aegis. In fact, the periods and trends are not simply parts of postmodernism but serve to inform its very structure. Jameson writes
aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation.
The turnover in trends and styles is actually part of the cultural logic of postmodernism. This is different than modernism, even if modernism and postmodernism shared the same superficial styles and forms. Modernism is not structured by the late capitalist system and thus remains a different type of category outside of postmodernism's wide grasp. For Jameson, the shift from modernism's dominance to postmodernism seems to be a gradual change from the 50s into the 80s.

What brings postmodernism into focus is the gelling of the constituent features. Jameson names those features as
  1. a new depthlessness
  2. a consequent weakening of historicity
  3. a whole new type of emotional ground tone
  4. relationships of all this to a whole new technology
  5. mutations in the lived experience of built space itself


In order to show that this depthlessness has taken over, Jameson uses two works of visual art, the first being Van Gogh's "Peasant Shoes".The painting can be read in different ways. The unique painting of the shoes mirrors the uniqueness of the shoes themselves. That is to say that the painting's production mirrors the production of the shoes, a unique and laborious process. The peasant shoes are not created by mass production or an industrial revolution. They are not works of art in the age of technological reproducibility and neither is the painting. The shoes are unique to the peasant, and no doubt, the only pair of shoes that the peasant owns at a time. When these shoes are worn out, the peasant will undergo the process of creating new shoes that are not an identical reproduction of the previous pair. "The painting is not simply an arrangement of pigments, nor even, primarily, a representation of something. It is, rather, a statement about a world that lies beyond the painting—the hard life and work of the peasant who wore these boots" (Appleyard).


The other work of visual art is Warhol's "Diamond Dust Shoes". Immediately we should be able to note that Warhol's work is a a jumble of shoes without any centre. Unlike Van Gogh's painting that tells the viewer of another world, Diamond Dust Shoes "does not really speak to us at all" (Jameson 59). It is "a random collection of dead objects" that does not connect the viewer to a world of life outside the work. Warhol's work fetishes the shoes as works of art in an age of technological reproducibility by being itself a work of reproducible art. The work is a silkscreen with diamond dust on the canvas. Just like Warhol's famous Coca-Cola banner and Campbell's soup can, the shoes are art that explicitly function around commodification. However, none of these examples are political statements about the commodification of art or of the fetishism of commodities in late capitalism. This lack of depth to the work is the first signal of postmodernism, Jameson argues. "Diamond Dust Shoes" are a flat work of art not just in terms of aesthetics but in the work's superficiality.


Warhol's work articulates what Jameson calls the waning of affect. He points to Edvard Munch's The Scream as an illustrative example that articulates expression of emotion. Within the subject, there is something particularly different than the outside. The emotion within is "projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling" (Jameson 61). Postmodernism has repudiated this interiority/exteriority duality along with other depth models, as Jameson calls them. They are:
  1. essence and appearance
  2. latent and manifest
  3. authenticity and inauthenticity
  4. signifier and signified
These depth models have been flattened and replaced with the character of superficiality. Depth is replaced by surface. Munch's The Scream depicts a mode of thought that is no longer fashionable or even useful in late capitalism. The Scream represents the subject's alienation and the outward expression of that emotion albeit in silence due to the medium of the painting. But postmodernism, Jameson argues, is not about the alienation of the subject; rather it is the fragmentation of the subject. The style of modernism was to assume a centered subject as a container of emotion and convey that through avant-garde forms. Postmodernism assumes that the subject is liberated from that expression and is in fact liberated from the emotion itself as well due to the end of the individual style, the individual brush stroke and the individual itself. Instead, the individual becomes a subject of the logic of late capitalism. No longer is the modernist interest in time organizing art but rather, due to the depthlessness of everything, space is the organizing characteristic.

It is as this point that Jameson turns to pastiche and parody, the chief elements of colloquial postmodernism. In the cultural discourse, many people point to intertextuality and "quoting" as the main qualities of postmodernism. The non-Marxist critic points to works made by Tarantino as postmodern because it's a superficial tissue of quotations. Can anybody think of a particularly good example of a film or novel that seems entirely made up of quotations that we should normally classify as postmodern? Jameson writes that the modernist voices become the norm in an age of mass reproducibility. As quality is replaced by quantity, the "unique" voices of the masters become imitated and recreated and recirculated until these voices become the norm. The pastiche, like Tarantino and the fine examples we've come up with, is "the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language" (Jameson 65). This should surely remind us of Will Straw's Embedded Memories. He writes that the recirculation of videocassettes and other containers of knowledge (like books) refashions the past "within the languages of the present, so that vestiges of the past may be kept alive" (Straw 4). Straw argues that culture derives from movement so that new forms and new ideas can be produced in a society of movement. A stagnant society, Straw writes, produces stagnant culture, which is to say the constant recirculation of the past within the new. No new idea can flourish when up against the accumulated weight of the past. As Jameson writes, "the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture" (Jameson 65).

Thus, Tarantino's reproduction of old cinema is simply a symptom of the postmodern condition. His jumbling of eras and styles within one film, such as Kill Bill's spaghetti Western and martial arts film, is an effect of the historicism of postmodernism. It's an effect of what Guy Debord calls the society of the spectacle: "the image has become the final form of commodity reification". The past is no longer something to orient ourselves with in the present but rather a vast collection of images from which to draw on repeatedly, like frantic waves of seemingly novel commodities which "randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles".

Now that we've articulated what Jameson argues is the characteristics of postmodernism, we can now apply them to the text that structures the course, Simon Reynolds' Retromania. At this point in his essay, Jameson coins the term "nostalgia mode". He points to George Lucas's American Graffiti as one of the first nostalgia films that flatten the past into an easy to grasp set of images. Reynolds maps a similar effect in the chapter titled "Good Citations". He writes of seemingly timeless bands working against pop music that afterwards admitted to "'taking from 50s and 60s music'" (Reynolds 136). Reynolds writes, "it was clear even at the time that none of those groups pointed a way to the future. In a non-specific sense, they were tribute bands" (137). It is the colonization of the past by late capitalism, the rapacity of the system to seek out and exploit new markets. The past is rich in images for the recirculation. Reynolds writes of the mod revival that colonized an era that was only gone fifteen years. Even though the mod revivals wrote of "nothing new happening" they contributed to the stagnation by colonizing the past for lack of present day material. Reynolds guesses that the mods took "punk's idea of "no future" literally and acted like pop's clock had stopped" (Reynolds 229). Jameson points to E. L. Doctorow as an example of the crisis of historicity, but I think Reynolds' first half of his book does a lot of the work for us in identifying examples of bands that colonize the past.

The crisis of historicity, Jameson argues, signals a return to the formulation of postmodernism's relationship to time and space. If the subject has difficulty navigating past and present due to the constant recirculation of images of the past, then this would contribute to the fragmentation of the subject, as aforementioned. This is what Jameson calls the breakdown in the signifying chain. The schizophrenic suffers from a "breakdown of the signifying chain" in their use of language until "the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time" (Jameson 72). The crisis of historicity, our loss of it through the reproduction of the past, makes us metaphorically schizophrenic.

The next element that characterizes the postmodern is the new technology and periodization. Considering this week's class is called "Periodizing and Pop", it's worth mentioning Jameson's periodizing categories for capitalism. First is there market capitalism, industrial capitalism and finally multinational capitalism. Jameson calls this last stage the purest form, in that it has prodigiously commodified all available markets. In previous stages, technology is represented in various ways due to the visual aspect of the technology that allows for such representation. In our current late capitalist era, the main technology appears to be the computer. Instead of representations being about kinetic power like turbines, our representations are of reproducible images. However, what Jameson sort of misses due to his time of writing is the fetishizing of the iPod, which for a decade seem to dominate the technological discourse.

The most important point to extract from Jameson's argument on technology is that the representation of the computer, the giant web of interconnected devices and chips and networks is a representation of the multinational stage of capitalism itself. That is to say that it is increasingly difficult for the individual to grasp and to make coherent the complex networks of capitalism at this stage. It is the impossible act of grasping in its totality the contemporary world system. This, Jameson argues, is where our conspiracy theory fantasies come from: the fantasy of navigating the complex network.


The final element of postmodernism is the mutation of urban space. Jameson recalls the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles California which appears to be a mini-city. It encloses an entire world within itself as a substitute to the real world. Its glass walls do not allow for an exterior observer to see inside, but rather see only the distorted reflection of the rest of the world. The individual is no longer needed to orient and navigate themselves through the multiplicity of escalators and elevators.

At this point, I'd like to illustrate the postmodernism as formulated by Fredric Jameson by recalling Christopher Nolan's 2008 film, The Dark Knight, of which I've written a couple papers on. One of the main themes of the film is the comparison between the Joker's philosophy of pure chaos and Batman's adherence to a philosophy of justice. One way the film conveys this comparison is by portraying the Joker's chaotic movements throughout a complex urban space and Batman's tightly and specifically ordered movements. Batman, with his gadgets, sonar, multinational connections represents the fantasy of navigating through the era of late capitalism as well as the postmodern urban space and the Joker represents the fantasy of escaping the logic of postmodernism, which Jameson argues is inescapable.

The Joker is seemingly without motive or origin. He provides contradicting stories of his own facial scars, which could be designed to intimidate or it could just be insanity. He is an unstable figure with shifting allegiances and his primary motive is not one of greed. He immolates an entire warehouse of money because as Alfred says, "some men just want to watch the world burn". This is opposite to capitalism's constant enjoinder of "make money, spend money". He is the fantasy of escape from the postmodern condition.

Batman on the other hand is the fantasy of mastering the postmodern. His superpower is a multinational corporation that only he is able to successfully grasp in its totality. The best example of this is the giant wall of computer screens that represent both the totality of the urban space as well as the totality of the multinational capitalism, if we remember Jameson's syllogism. His navigation of not just the urban space of Gotham but also of international borders and Shanghai. He controls the ground through military grade vehicles and controls the air in Shanghai through "skyhooking". Not only is Batman able to grasp the totality of the postmodern condition, he is able to master it. He totally commands the postmodern condition.

Instead of competing fantasies of the postmodern, we can turn to K-pop as a symptom of the postmodern. Specifically, we can take a look at Gangnam Style's success in Western media as an example of many of the constituent features of postmodernism.

Normally, at this juncture, one would provide a history of the video or even a context for the video, but this is not necessary in the slightest. The video's success on the Internet depends on a lack of context or explanation. The video, if you haven't seen it, is a stout Asian man rapping and dancing in South Korea, making reference to a style called Gangnam.

As John Seabrook writes in the New Yorker, "K-pop is largely video based—one of the things that’s interesting about the genre is how it has spread around the world largely without the help of radio—and a lot of this piece was reported on YouTube" (Seabrook). That is to say that it's entirely visually based, recalling Jameson's use of Debord. "K-pop is a blend not just of Western and traditional but of new and old" (Seabrook) which recalls the crisis of historicity and Straw's argument. K-pop is built on remediation as we've already touched on. As well, it's part of the late capitalism in its attempt to colonize the biggest market. Seabrook reports that "many artists censor themselves, in order to reach the broadest possible audience" (Seabrook) and there is a high degree of corporate synergy. He writes, "there is the constant presence of the idols on billboards and in display ads. Life-size cutouts of idols greet you at the entrances of the big department stores. On the streets and in the subways you see echoes of the idols’ faces." (Seabrook)

Gangnam Style succeeds in the Western media because of its depthlessness. The Western viewer has no idea of the context, the district referenced in the title, or the winking tone of the video. Rather, it's a comfortable Western-style pop song without affect or depth using old and new forms of pop. The video showcases all sorts of prominent locations in Seoul, but it is without meaning to the Western viewer. The parody of both K-pop and Western pop forms becomes a pastiche through the Western viewer. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, "when Jameson first advanced his thesis about postmodernism, there were still, in name at least, political alternatives to capitalism. What we are dealing with now, however, is a deeper, far more pervasive, sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility" (Fisher 7). Gangnam Style is an excellent representation of this sterility that Fisher and Jameson diagnoses.

The major question is something many theorists are asking themselves. Is there any alternative to this? Reynolds speaks of avant-garde music of the 2000s that is using the same avant-garde methods of the previous 20 years. Hollywood is churning out sequel after sequel after remake after sequel to remake. The cultural sterility and exhausting of late capitalism is due to the very system itself so the question begs another: does genuine novelty arise from outside of the capitalist system and if so, is that even possible? If even K-pop, a relatively new period of pop, uses the same old trappings of pop music, is there any hope of something new coming along within the system?

Works Cited

Appleyard, Bryan. "A One-man Market." Intelligent Life Magazine. Nov/Dec 2011: n. page. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. .

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2009. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight. Writ. Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. Film.

Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.

Seabrook, John. “Factory Girls.” The New Yorker 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

---. “Uncle Pervy’s K-pop Playlist.” The New Yorker Blogs 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Straw, Will. "Embedded Memories." In Charles Acland, editor. Residual Media . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 3-15.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Problem with Goodreads

Previously, I argued that bad art is caused by a mixture of poorly constructed art with poor critical thinking from the audience of said art. I was inspired by comments on book blogging and perceived limitations in the critical discourse when book blogging is in its infancy. Parallel to this issue with book blogging is the ubiquity of social media.

Social media has entered hegemonic status for multiple reasons: the constant sharing of information fits into the pleasure principle as well as the instantaneous access to all things at all times. The world is easily grasped through the construction or observation of social networks. The sheer intelligibility of the planet is increased when the web of interconnection becomes visible through social media.

Proof of social media's status as a major paradigm in contemporary society is the legitimization of the media through academic journals (eg Social Networks) and an award-winning film about one site's inception (ie The Social Network by David Fincher).

Due to the rapacity of capitalism, different social media are constructed around different markets. Facebook, the supreme network that eclipses all others by a huge factor, is organized around interpersonal relationships. Twitter is organized around brief "bits" of information traded at instantaneous speed.

Goodreads, among others, is organized around books. While ostensibly about the discourse of sharing books, Goodreads tends to mirror other more dominant forms of social media in its shallowness and capitalist methodology. Goodreads, I would argue, serves to flatten books into consumable commodities by the very structure that allows it to exist.

The site's success is in allowing for a diverse group of complex individuals from across the globe to trade and share book recommendations and reviews as well as quantify books into numerical ratings. I've argued previously that numerical ratings are inherently reductive, but in this case, I'm going to expand on this in a bit. Goodreads' success is due to the increased intelligibility and accessibility of a diverse and infinite system of knowledges (aka books). It is an archive that is seemingly infinite and the numerical ratings and ability to share information by recommendations, discussions, and ratings helps the user navigate and thus organize the impossibility of understanding the totality of Goodreads' archive.


Goodreads is positioned as an alternative and more interactive system of understanding books than the culturally dominant forms of literature, such as the New York Times Review of Books and the Paris Review. Instead of being controlled by market forces, editorial boards, corporate synergy, and academia, Goodreads is the vox populi. It allows the users to generate the content (similar to Wikipedia) and generate the numerical rating. This allows for a decentralization of power. No longer will the old rich white men control the archive of what is literature and what isn't, via the proliferation of newspapers and periodicals.

One Goodreads user writes that:
the "superficial" nature of the reviews is also what I actually do like about this place: I like it that the reviews are written by "normal people" that just want to share their opinions briefly without turning them into something pompous and pretentious, something that I think the more professional literary reviews tend to be.
While not representative of the entirety of Goodreads (that's the point: decentralization of power), this is surely indicative of the ideology operating within. A dichotomy is established between "normal people" who are not literary and thus not privileged and the pompous and pretentious literary elite.

Goodreads establishes an alternative model to the snobbery and exclusion of the literary elite by total inclusion. Everything is included within the archive and thus no violence is done to that which is excluded.

Fundamentally, the navigation of Goodreads is built around connections between books. As for Facebook and people, Goodreads operates by building bridges between books. Thus, its method of navigation is in true Internet fashion, the hyperlink. Unlike a footnote that directs you to another work, the hyperlink propels you to the other work. Hyperlinking provides the ability to read everything that is connected, but rather, the constant "skipping and skimming offer[s] the 'illusion of action and decision' but [is] really an insidious form of paralysis" (Reynolds 73). The subject is constantly learning about the existence of other books, but is rarely reading those other books.

Reading fiction, some critics bemoan, is slowly dying due to books' inability to compete with the visual media of film and television. We live in a society of spectacle that is visually based. This is not a new idea, as Guy Debord has written a book on it, among others. Neil Postman in his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, writes, "discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation of images, not words" (7). We respond to advertisements that deploy hieroglyphic brands that are visually based rather than complex sentences and words.


In his short story "Paintwork" in the titular collection, Tim Maughan posits a future where advertisements on walls and billboards have been replaced with QR codes that when scanned deploy augmented reality to advertise the products. The initial QR code that the protagonist is defacing (with another QR code!) leads to an image of the Coca-Cola brand and an Asian cowboy. That is to say that visual hieroglyphic images are actually signifiers for more visual hieroglyphic images. It's a signifying chain of spectacle.

Books have to compete with the hegemony of visually based culture, and they are not winning the battle. Add to this the complexity of books themselves. They cannot be fully grasped in one sitting, usually, and function by postponement. Plus, the accumulation of the past has created an impossible amount of books to get through in one lifetime. There are literally too many books to read for one person.

Goodreads battles these three things in one important way: it reduces books to a picture and a numerical rating. All books on Goodreads have a numerical rating and are accompanied by a picture, either of the cover of a particular edition, or a picture proclaiming there to be no picture of a cover. Each book's numerical rating is an average based on the ratings from the users. Thus, the content is user-generated.

Each book has its own individual page. On it, the picture, the numerical rating, a synopsis, and user reviews are offered. As well, there are other books by the same author and other books read by readers of that particular book, which reinforces the hyperlinking of books together.

The synopsis is often taken from the publisher, and rarely generated by user. It serves to increase the intelligibility of the book in question by reducing it to a plot summary or a provocation to read the book. Additional information about the book's character is provided by similar books in tone or content as well as "reviews" from Goodreads users who wish to go further than a numerical rating.

In my previous essay on "Good Art versus Bad Art" I produced an example of a Goodreads review that reduces the complexity of the novel down to a qualitative judgement on the characters and plot. It is decidedly not literary criticism but rather a reducing of the book in order for the next user to determine if the book is "worth their time".

A book review, by necessity, is telling us whether or not something is "worth the time". As aforementioned, there are too many books to read. This contributes to the anxiety of choice, which posits that there are too much freedom in choices which actually creates a lack of freedom in choices. A choice always means a loss (you didn't choose B but you chose A) and thus there's always guilt. The flattening of commodities (the reduction of a book into a numerical rating/review) helps assuage that guilt and then turns it back to the subject. The review serves to quantify the book so that we can make the decision of reading it or not. Thus, to me, a review serves to reduce a complex work of art into a consumable commodity.

Unfortunately, that commodification of the book as container of time is necessary. There are literally too many books to read for one person's lifetime, so we rely on reviews to help sort and organize books into categories ("to-read"/"ignore"). But surely it's ultimately a reductive practice.

It strips the book of meaning and casts it as a consumable product. That serves the very logic of Goodreads' system of book recommendation rather than literary criticism.

And this, of course, is the problem. Why argue about a lack of depth with a system that's very intention is to flatten everything? What is the point of fighting against this system that hopes to and helps increase accessibility?

Goodreads is a capitalistic measure. It helps inform the consumer and allows for "informed" choice. But there is no choice. Each book is reduced in order to increase intelligibility but this paradoxically decreases the complexity. Books are complicated things that have generated thousands of years of discourse. They are not easily grasped and that is exactly why they continue to exist in the cultural discourse. If books were easily grasped and more tenable, then we would not have written millions upon millions of pages of criticism about them. In order to make sense of the sheer impossibility of books, Goodreads simplifies them, which exhausts them of their usefulness.

The site is essentially a market that serves to highlight already known books (success feedback loop) and serves to revitalize exhausted commodities in the form of forgotten books. The previously known books have been exhausted of their complexity by constant recirculation and promotion. They no longer have complexity (and thus usefulness) because they are endlessly reduced by thousands of numerical ratings. The forgotten classics are ruthlessly colonized by the market in search of unexplored realms of possible capital. Their usefulness is exhausted by the books being made into objects of collection rather than containers of information. The forgotten book's success is simply because of its forgotten state, not for its content.

Thus, the market recirculates exhausted commodities over and over, reducing their complexity and creating stagnation, a slowing-down of forward momentum. And because the market is so successful in recirculating these exhausted commodities, Goodreads can be seen as a microcosm of capitalism. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes that there is,
the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.(3)
Goodreads' discourse of flattened consumable commodities presents itself as the only possible system of making sense of the complexity of the world of literature. Recall the quoted Goodreads user who prefers the simplification of books. Literary analysis is too complicated and too intimidating. If Goodreads is capitalism, then literary analysis is regarded as Communism.

Fisher writes,
The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value.(4)
Monetary value is totally equivalent to numerical rating. A book needs to be "worth" one's time, and the only way to understand its worth is to reduce it to a value, a quantity. Each book is reduced to being an artifact within an archive of "equivalence" thanks to Goodreads' implementation of the capitalist system. The reader wanders from book to book as if in a museum, simply observing the works rather than engaging. The spectating inherent in this system is even lionized in the capitalist system. Indeed, it is the virtue of capitalism in comparison to other economic and social systems. The user comfortably trades lack of engagement for the protection from other more insidious things such as books sneaking their ideology through by reading.

Thus, we reach the ultimate problem with the flattening of books into consumable commodities. Everything is mediated through ideology, including books. When one reads a book, one enters into an exchange of ideology. The book offers its ideology for the reader to confront, challenge, disagree with, think about and cogitate on. By reducing books to simple consumables, whatever ideology is present within the book or its subtext is being presented whole-cloth to the reader.

More often than not, those ideologies being consumed by the reader are in the interest of maintaining the political status quo, as per Adorno's formulation of what he calls the culture industry. Fredric Jameson writes about this in his seminal book, The Political Unconscious. The subject is ignorant of the ideology being presented, and of course the ideology is part of the dominant social structure. Jameson writes that there are master narratives embedded within texts.
The idea is, in other words, that if interpretation in terms of expressive causality of of allegorical master narratives remains a constant temptation, this is because such master narratives have inscribed themselves in the texts as well as in our thinking about them; such allegorical narrative signifieds are a persistent dimension of literary and cultural texts precisely because they reflect a fundamental dimension of our collective thinking and our collective fantasies about history and reality. (34)
This should echo what Mark Fisher has written about Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, which I previously quoted: the master narrative offers itself as the only possibility and that there are no alternatives. They are the metanarratives that have totally consumed individual subjects. The primary metanarrative of course being the success and continuance of capitalism.

This perhaps sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory in which I cry out that capitalism's success is in embedding its message of totality in works of fiction. However, it's not a conspiracy in the sense that there is a malicious or even conscious intent. One of the tenets of neoliberalism is the decentralization of power, the very thing that Goodreads espouses to do. There is no villainous head of the corporation of "capitalism" that is directing the insertion of capitalist ideology within the fabric of culture. Rather it is like a conspiracy thriller without a real conspiracy, without a real centre. Despite our awareness that there is no real centre (no Big Bank that controls the other banks etc), we still search for that centre. The centre is lacking in order to disavow responsibility.

Goodreads cannot be blamed for the problems of Goodreads because there is no centralized power. There is no specific person to point to and say, "you are to blame". Rather, the success of Goodreads and its ability to escape culpability is to disperse power and content among its users. Namely, the individual subjects with usernames, pictures, shelves and ratings that generate the content that makes up Goodreads. The site becomes a structure without a centre, and to blame this structure for its failings is to miss the culpability of the super-structures above it, namely capitalism, etc. The structure "contracts out its responsibility to consumers, by itself receding into invisibility" (Fisher 66) so that only the subjects, the users of Goodreads, are responsible and culpable for the flattening of literature.

Even books that espouse an ideology of anti-capitalism are still reinforcing the logic of capitalism. While this might seem contradictory, Žižek helps us navigate this. He writes in his book How To Read Lacan about the concept of "interpassivity":
The obverse of interacting with the object (instead of just passively following the show) is the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passivity, so that it is the object itself which enjoys the show instead of me, relieving me of the duty to enjoy myself. (Žižek 24)
Works of art that are "anti-capitalist" are helpfully performing the feeling for us so that we might continue to consume without guilt. This leads to "the notion of false activity: people not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change" (26). Books that are anti-capitalist, that criticize the capitalist regime, are taking the power of political change away from the subject. Thus, even the subject is no longer responsible or culpable for the apparent flattening of literature and perpetuation of the dominant ideology.


I can only point to Fredric Jameson's reading of Andy Warhol's "Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980" as characteristic of the flattening of things in the cultural logic of late capitalism. Jameson writes that the emergence of the postmodern has seen "the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind superficiality in the most literal sense" (9). Instead of Van Gogh's affecting peasant shoes, Warhol's shoes are a silk screen, a flat copy of pictures of shoes, specifically, of reproducible shoes. The art is no longer about the shoes. Instead, postmodernism is about the shoes as commodity.

Goodreads' participation in the cultural logic of late capitalism suggests that all books are part of a system of equivalence. They are flattened and simplified in order to be easily reproduced (ie easily accessed in the form of webpage) and easily grasped. There is nothing more to Warhol's shoes other than the easily reproducible nature of the shoes and of the piece of art itself. Thus, there is nothing more to the books to be discussed or analyzed or open to interpretation because the mechanism of Goodreads has flattened everything within its archive. Thus, the pan-inclusion in the archive produces a flattening violence to all that is included. Gone is the sheer complexity of James Joyce's Ulysses when it can be slotted comfortably next to a YA dystopian novel with the same numerical score, and no doubt more numerical ratings as well.

In his essay, "Embedded Memories", Will Straw writes that "the relationship of the Internet to the past is typically talked about in terms of remediation, a process by which new media come to enclose the old" (3) which is to say that Goodreads (and the Internet) serve to reinvigorate the past and invests it with value through recirculation. Goodreads' relationship with "classic" novels is based on establishing the preconditions for their "perpetuation as material culture". Goodreads flattens, simplifies and packages the old within the framework of the new as marketable commodities. It refashions the past classics "within the languages of the present, so that vestiges of the past may be kept alive" (4). Straw argues that culture derives from movement so that new forms and new ideas can be produced in a society of movement. A stagnant society, Straw writes, produces stagnant culture, which is to say the constant recirculation of the past within the new. No new idea can flourish when up against the accumulated weight of the past. Imagine a ship weighted down by the vast amount of barnacles attached to its hull.

Straw's essay is particularly helpful in imagining how the constant recirculation of the past, and capitalism's "frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rate of turnover" (Jameson 4) has contributed to the colonization of the past by the present.

Goodreads' flattening of the past has enabled the present to essentialize the past and thus understand it. It's a system of deferral by which the present is able to understand and access the past by recreating it through the language of the present. That is to say that present fiction promoted by Goodreads (through advertisements and even professional authors on Goodreads) has "nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles" (Jameson 17-18). The archive of Goodreads enables the past to accumulate, like video cassettes littering the aisles of Blockbuster until "this storage may block processes of innovation or commercial turnover within the cultural field" (Straw 7).

This would help us understand why YA fiction that deploys previously seen genre tropes (steampunk, vampires, dystopia) has entered into hegemonic status within Goodreads. The primary demographic of Goodreads appears to be young adults and teenagers, judging by their votes for the "Best Books Ever":


Here we can see Twilight (vampire fiction), The Hunger Games (dystopian fiction) and Harry Potter (paradigmatic fantasy fiction) to completely and utterly dominate the top five. The first book of The Hunger Games trilogy has 1,061,852 ratings (as of 03/10/2012) while James Joyce's Ulysses has 34,135 ratings (as of the same date).

Of course, it's logical to point out at this point that my rubric of comparison is based on the same thing. Both The Hunger Games and Ulysses ruthlessly colonize representations of the past. The former uses a mash-up of classic dystopian while the latter deploys Homer's Odyssey. I could have used any other example of "classic" fiction, but I went with what is considered by many to be one of the best novels in the English language. Goodreads' simplification of Ulysses through numerical rating, which by the way, is lower than The Hunger Games (4.48 versus 3.72!), allows Ulysses to be easily circulated. Its stylistic innovations and formal experimentation are stripped from it, leaving only a number, a cover, and a helpful synopsis. Ulysses becomes equivalent to The Hunger Games (which is subject to the same process of flattening) and thus consumable.

To summarize, Goodreads is a complex archive built on the foundation of social media that serves to connect and simplify works of art, containers of knowledge called books. Goodreads proposes to be a vox populi alternative to rigorous (pretentious) literary/academic discourse that includes all books, fiction and non-fiction and does not sustain elitism by exclusion. However, the inclusion of everything does a violence to the books by simplifying them in order to increase their accessibility and intelligibility. This process is symptomatic of the commodification of everything in the cultural logic of late capitalism to the point that Goodreads can be metonymic of capitalism itself. Goodreads, while ostensibly an alternative to literary discourse, offers itself as the only possibility because of its accessibility and intelligibility, just like capitalism offers itself as the only possibility. This commodification/simplification process that every book goes through in order to enter the archive of Goodreads is fundamentally negative because it encourages a simplified reading of the book itself (commensurate with the process). This simplified reading in turn encourages a lack of engagement with the ideology or metanarrative present in the books. Since the books are made within the cultural logic of late capitalism, the ideology they espouse is self-fulfilling. The very circulation of books within late capitalism reinforces the hegemonic status of capitalism, including criticisms of capitalism. As with the logic of capitalism, the frantic waves of producing new products forces the present to reach back to the past, which is ever accumulating due to the nature of the all-inclusive archive. This causes the past to be spoken with the voices of the present, stagnating the forward momentum of cultural production in a stagnant system of curatorial practices.

But what does this all mean?

Goodreads is problematic but it is hegemonic. As I've argued previously and as Walter Benjamin has argued, reproducible art has the possibility of political power. Benjamin writes, "Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses." Fascism, something that directly effected Benjamin's life and career, could be scary enough to rouse the public through reproducible art. He closes his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" with a rousing and invigorating statement that the self-alienation of art has reached such a high degree that it can aesthetically enjoy its own destruction. Only Communism, Benjamin argues, can politicize art and awaken the masses.

I'm not sure if Communism is the answer, but surely offering an alternative model to capitalism can be interpolated into the conversation about Goodreads and its flattening of literature. Only the politicization of book blogging and of literary discussion can hope to struggle against the hegemony of Goodreads and its dangerous paradigm. Only a constant and loud battle cry can help destabilize the metanarrative that "reading for pleasure" means reading without consciousness, with interpassivity.

There should always be an alternative. There should always be the asking of "why" - whether this be at the microcosm level of the individual work of literature or at the macrocosmic level of structures like Goodreads and Facebook. The question should always be WHY is this the dominant ideology and what are my alternatives?

Works Cited


Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2009. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. New York: Cornell University Press, 1982. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Maughan, Tim. Paintwork. London: Smashwords, 2011. eBook.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.

Straw, Will. "Embedded Memories." In Charles Acland, editor. Residual Media . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 3-15.

Žižek, Slavoj. How To Read Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006. Print.