how to do things with thoughts

I’m a materialist, more or less convinced that the apparently irreducible qualia of my consciousness are an epiphenomenon of the biological functioning of my organism. I’m also heavily invested in what is traditionally called “the life of the mind”: in literature, in the history of ideas and aesthetic forms, and in the personal cultivation of an “inner life.” In other words, I live more or less in service to something I consider an epiphenomenon.

As a result, I don’t view the life of the mind as something out there, some superliminal current of thought which sweeps up the individual thinker. Instead, it seems to me contingent; it seems an agglomeration of historically embedded and artefactually externalized thoughts sustained only by the voluntary and continued participation of new minds. It is a project, in other words, that depends at every moment upon us — upon you and me, who are invested in it — to carry it forward or even keep it in memory. People who pay lip service to “the life of the mind,” by, for instance, reading and writing about books, often subscribe in practice to the idea that this life exists outside them, in the texts they read and write, or, at the very least, in the conversations they have. But I believe you don’t “participate” in the life of the mind unless you lend your solitary thinking to that life, like logs to the fire, a significant amount of the time. If you want to participate in the life of the mind, you have to make your mind a stage for thoughts, and that involves more than the artefact-focused acts of reading and writing (or the other-focused acts of listening and speaking, etc).

I first arrived at this conclusion in grad school. At the time, I was not a materialist, but I was concerned with that typical preoccupation of new philosophy grad students everywhere: how to be, and not merely act like a philosopher. I was looking for some kind of Hadotian Philosophy as a Way of Life thing. The focal activities of philosophy in modern academia are reading and writing, delivering conference papers, teaching: but what, I wondered, does the inside of the philosopher’s consciousness look like, on an everyday basis. When they’re not writing an article or delivering a speech or teaching a class or arguing with a colleage. What do they do with their thoughts?

I lived several miles from campus, and I had not-so-cleverly found an apartment with no public transport nearby. So I walked about three hours each day, along the same urban route. My desire to live like a philosopher and the boredom of retraversing the same sidewalks combined to inspire a series of conscious experiments in concentrated thinking.

First I tried memorizing as I walked. That was quickly tiresome.

Then I tried rehearsing the plots or arguments of the books I had been reading. That was a good idea. I can still remember the contents of those books and now consider that I haven’t fully read a book until I’ve gone over in detail, away from the book, everything I can recall from it.

I also tried ideating along a line, as I called it to myself. I’d pose a problem or question (or, when I began writing fiction, I would propose a theme or image) and think of as many possible answers (or characters / settings / plots) as I could. The trick was to both generate many thoughts and also recall them. When I reached the end of the walk, I would scribble them down as fast as I could.

Eventually — particularly when I began teaching, and then when I was writing my dissertation — these acts of rehearsal and ideation became a fully formed dialectic. I looked forward to each walk, because it was an opportunity to clarify my thoughts by working through various positions and their conflicts, deciding what needed more work, what I needed to research, and where I was simply impeded by the muddiness of my definitions or by internal contradictions.

From these experiments in concentrated thinking — in using my mind for thoughts without the crutch of an artefact — flow nearly everything I like about my life today. They flowed back into the creation of artefacts and the appreciation of them, of course, but now writing and reading felt like rivers flowing in or out from the main stream of my own thinking. I began to keep a thinking journal, just to mark the development of my increasingly coherent and unified project of thinking. (Yes, that’s the origin of my notebooks of hyper and deep attention.) I even began to attract other people looking for a certain kind of conversation — conversation that unfolds across meetings and the vagaries of talk, held together by the supple stitch of thinking together and returning to those thoughts to expand or amend them. This was not a unity imposed from without, by curriculum or some marvelous social context, it was a simple by-product of devoting time away from artefacts to the life of the mind.

These days, since my mind’s life is mostly taken up with stories — reading them and attempting to write them — I often find myself concentratedly thinking about language or visualizing a scene. 

I can’t imagine my life without this dedication to concentrated thinking. Not to musing or errant daydreaming, but to doing the work of thought even when my mind isn’t powered by page or pen. But I think it’s rare. It’s not hard, but it’s rare. Because no one teaches it. Because its value is not expressed in accountable profit. And I think the failure to teach or describe this hidden part of the iceberg of the life of the mind is one of the reasons I’ve seen so many aspiring young intellectuals end up dissatisfied with their lives, suspicious they’re doing it all wrong, unfulfilled by academia but uncertain of an alternative. I’m not sure what the solution is. What form teaching would take. Perhaps the imposition of boredom. Perhaps every grad student and aspiring writer should be required to walk along a boring road for three hours a day until they find out how to do things with thoughts. I certainly shudder to think of my own life without the benefit of that boredom.

on secret readers

[Reposted from]

Three novels about three women whose secret lives as readers are the truth of their existence: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; and An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. In Barbery’s book, the secret reader is a middle-aged concierge in a French apartment building. Gruff and stupid as far as the lodgers are concerned, secretly she’s a connoisseur of fine literature, art, music, and film. In Bennett’s book, the secret reader is the queen, whose accidental brush with a traveling library and a bibliophilic staffmember birth her as a reader in the senescence of her reign. And in Alameddine’s book, the secret reader is a Beiruti divorcee and former bookshop owner, whose hidden, private life is devoted to translating books into classical Arabic, unbeknownst to anyone. Three novels; three secret readers. Together these books justify me in declaring a sub-genre: the sub-genre of the secret reader.

All three secret readers are middle aged or elderly women. Two suffer the obscurity of poverty, and one the obscurity of fame. Each of these secret readers is the sort of person that our producerist, patriarchal, youth- and sex-worshipping societies would write off as unimportant and insignificant. And yet, by reason of their secret lives as readers, they are more significant, in the proper sense of the word, than a dozen vapid CEOs, celebrities, or sports icons. For the secret readers, each deed and observation signifies, pointing beyond itself to the vast and echoing chamber of cultural memory in which they live. They are significant: but are their lives, therefore, important? The three novels I’ve mentioned almost seem calculated to pose the question of the importance of the reading life in its extreme form: they will be either a reductio ad absurdam or a final vindication of the curious way that some of us, we readers, choose to pour days and weeks of our lives into a strange, still, silent activity.

The secret readers in these three novels are nothing or they are everything.


To begin with, it’s true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarising what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. ‘I think of literature,’ she wrote, ‘as a vast country to the far border of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.’

— The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett


All readers, even famous critics, are secret readers, because the reader’s reading life is always a secret life. It takes place within, at incommunicable depth and intensity. Passionate readers, though they may chatter happily about books, feel a constant, yearning sense of frustrated intimacy toward one another, all book chat is a flimsy rope bridge across the abyss of incommunicable experience.

If the reading life is so inescapably private, isn’t that privacy a mark against it?

Reading does little for your material prosperity or your social standing. That’s one obvious point all three of these novels is making. Notwithstanding the perennial article in Forbes about how top CEOs are set apart by their reading habits (they read newspapers and shitty self-help and pop science books, as a rule), most readers recoup materially neither the time they invest in reading nor the money they invest in books. Nor do readers necessarily get respect. From other readers, perhaps, a bit. But in the larger scheme of things, budgeting three hours a day to read, as I do, is an unambiguous social negative, a laughable affectation. People consider you “pretentious,” and laugh, and try to get away.

Reading — and I mean a life of reading, not the opportunistic reading of a single book to answer a specific question or to impress some passing constellation of peers or pedagogues — forces you to face up to an extremely difficult question: the value of an inner life.

Valuing private, incommunicable experience over social recognition or material prosperity is often a sign of madness. Kierkegaard goes so far as to associate an inexpressible inner life with the demonic.

Readers: insane or evil. What culmination or return on investment do they expect?


Blame Joyce and his Dubliners, which I adore, but do pity Mr. Joyce, because the only thing some writers understand from his masterpiece is epiphany, epiphany, and one more blasted epiphany. There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.

Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories.

I should send out letters to writers, writing programs, and publishers. You’re strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by bland book.

— An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine


The epiphany, arguably, is a specious attempt to pay off the insane, demonic investment of reading. I prefer to think of the closure or climax of stories in purely formal terms, the last stroke in an artificial pattern, a closing of the brackets of a code. Decision or effect answers a story question, and the satisfactions of such closure ought to be the satisfactions of form rather than “a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” So, with Alameddine’s secret reader, I dislike epiphanies.

This apparent digression within An Unecessary Woman to rant about epiphanies is actually highly relevant to the essential concern of the secret reader sub-genre. The payoff of individual narratives is not identical to the importance of reading. The concept of epiphany seeks a way out of the pointlessness and privacy of aesthetic experience and inner life. There is no way out. That’s why reading is private and inner. You have to come to terms with the privacy and innerness of reading or acknowledge that the whole things a waste of time.

new and forthcoming book lust

Not having access to a good university library — which is driving me wild — I’ve been spending an absurd amount of time lovingly stroking the catalogs of various presses. With the result that I’ve established quite the list of new or forthcoming books I want to get my sweaty fingers on. Here are some.

Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg.

Letters, Dreams, and Other Writings, by Remedios Varo

The Glance of the Medusa: The Physiognomy of Mysticism, by László F. Földényi

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, by Taeko Kono

k-punk: The Collected Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, by Mark Fisher

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, by Matthias Énard

The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. 5, ed. Cristina Jurado

A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger, by Joshua Sperling

Whiskey Tales, by Jean Ray

American Fictionary, by Dubravka Ugresic

The Other Irish Tradition: An Anthology, by Rob Doyle

The Milk Bowl of Feathers: Essential Surrealist Writings, ed. by Mary Ann Caws

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, by Kat Howard

Night School: A Reader for Grown Ups, by Zsófia Bán

On Haiku, by Hiroaki Sato

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, by Sarah Pinsker

Birthday, by César Aira

Red Moon, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Charles Bovary, A Country Doctor, by Jean Améry

The Last Supper Before Ragnarok, by Cassandra Khaw

the yes of description

I’m hungry for a literature of things. Made things, evolved things, found things, imagined things. A literature in which description is centered in new and interesting ways, while the often tired patterns of character and plot are subordinated to the sensuous exploration of surfaces. This isn’t the only literature I want, but I’m hungry for an expansion of this specific corner.

We find ourselves in a world of things. We pick them up and act as if they only exist in relation to us, as tools. Yet things in some senses constitute the real players in history: they are like the carcass of an enormous beast in whom we have built a city and live out our short lives, but actually the beast is alive and in motion and we are just the gut flora.

I’m thinking about this because of a series of blog posts by Dorian Stuber at Eiger, Mönch, & Jungfrau. He has been reading and writing his way through the novels of Zola with a friend. A particular strand of Dorian’s essays, concerning description, has crystalized for me a number of stray thoughts.


The line of thought I’m interested in begins in an essay about Zola’s The Belly of Paris. “It’s when nothing is happening,” writes Dorian, “and the narrator is simply describing stuff, food mostly, or things that could become food, the whole Leviathan that makes up the food market of Les Halles, that the novel dazzles.” A little later, he directly touches on the thesis that excites me (and makes me certain I need to read Zola): “It’s as though Zola is taking the narrate/describe distinction and reversing it. Here narration is the digression from description rather than the other way round.”

(In a later post, Dorian calls this, in a wonderful turn of phrase, “Zola’s yes of description” — I’ve stolen that phrase for the title of this post. In the same post, he expands on the theme, bringing up György Lukács’s association of reactionary politics with description and progressive politics with narration, and wondering what he would have made of Zola. In fact this is one of the paradoxes of Lukács’s theories: that his aesthetic preferences lined him up opposite his political preferences. He liked conservative realists like Tolstoy more than leftist naturalists like Zola. This is interesting stuff and I look forward to seeing Dorian pursue it as his essay series continues, but let’s set it aside for the moment.)

What excites me here is the idea that Zola’s novels belong to the little collection of texts that I label The Literature of Things.


We could sum up the role of description in the received ideology of narration (what Lance Olsen calls “normative narrativity”) like this: description is meant to serve plot and character.

In writing workshops, one is routinely urged to cut any descriptive sentences which do not also characterize or advance the plot. Some handbooks and teachers assert that character is the dominant principle. A book like James Woods’ How Fiction Works, in its paean to “free indirect style,” is a celebration of the subordination of description to characterization: “When I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I am talking about detail I am really talking about character, and when I am talking about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” Other handbooks and teachers assert that plot is the dominant principle, following the ur-narratologist Aristotle. In The Poetics he wrote: “The incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.”

Whether you go with plot or character as the “chief thing of all,” description still ends up subordinated to them, supernumerary to the real project of literature.

Not only is description subordinate, but it catches a lot flack from authors (coughJonathanFranzencough) who believe the novel is fighting for its market share against tv, video games, and so on. This is just commercialism, I think,  and one could even argue (contra Lukács) that the polemic against description is now a more or less direct result of the commodification of literature, and should be resisted in those terms. If one wanted to argue that.

(On the other hand, it seems to me there is something to the idea that literary description doesn’t serve the journalistic function it played before photographs, radio, film, television. If you want to know what Paris looks like, a film will answer better to your needs than a novel, but there was a time when maybe Les Miserables was your best bet. Doris Lessing says some interesting stuff about this in The Golden Notebook, where she inveighs against the reduction of novels to journalism. Alas, I do not have the book at hand to quote.)

Anyway, my point is that description has been systematically subordinated to plot and/or character at least since Aristotle.


But how is description actually used in stories? As someone who tries to write stories every day, I’m keenly aware of the distinction between literary theory and literary practice… So here are some notes on the characteristic and specific uses of description as I was taught to employ it in writing books, writing classes, and workshops.

Descriptive detail is used as a kind of evidence for narrative authority. At least since Defoe wrote a text purporting to be the autobiographical recollections of an industrious castaway. Here’s John Gardner in The Art of Fiction:

In any piece of fiction, the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe), or else to engage the reader’s interest in the patent absurdity of the lie. […] In all the major genres, vivid detail is the life blood of fiction. Verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief through narrative voice, or the wink that calls attention to the yarn-teller’s lie may be the outer strategy of a given work; but in all major genres, the inner strategy is the same: The reader is regularly presented with proofs—in the form of closely observed details—that what is said to be happening is really happening.

Description also serves structuring purposes which bleed, often, into a kind of blatant symbolism. A wonderful trick for framing and tying together a scene is to punctuate its beats with reference to an object, a thing, that registers, like a gauge, the change which the scene dramatizes. Consider, for example, Janet Malcolm’s observations about J.D. Salinger’s cigarettes:

Like the food in “Franny,” the cigarettes in “Zooey” enact a kind of parallel plot. Cigarettes offer (or used to offer) the writer a great range of metaphoric possibilities. They have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention. They create smoke. They make a mess. As we listen to Bessie Glass and Zooey talk, we follow the fortunes of their cigarettes. Some of them go out for lack of attention. Others threaten to burn the smoker’s fingers. Our sense of mother and son’s aliveness, and of the life-and-death character of their discussions, is heightened  by the perpetual presence of these inanimate yet animatable objects.

In James Wood’s beloved free indirect style, description serves to project a character’s thoughts and feelings on the world around them, communicating these things to us indirectly.

Some writers use descriptive details to puncture what they consider to be the narrative illusion that life is meaningful. Gabriel Josipovici talks about this in What Ever Happened to Modernism? — another book I don’t have at hand to quote. In this use of description detail, description is treated as some kind of unfiltered other of plot, popping the romantic bubble of the story. A couple is smooching in the park, and then the narrator points out the roadkill on the other side of the fence. Stuff like that.

Some writers emphasize setting through description. Setting then — to cite a common reviewer’s cliché —  is said to become “a character in its own right.”

My point is: not only in the abstractions of theory but also in the concreteness of practice, description tends to be subordinated to plot or character. And where it isn’t subordinated, where it undercuts plot or takes the center stage instead of character, it is treated as an invasion of chaos and entropy or rechristened as a character itself.


But you don’t have to treat description that way! I’m intrigued and excited by a small band of writers who, quite without reference to each other, try other things.

Outside the bounds of normative narrativity, we find the various exemplars of what I call The Literature of Things. The term is my way of binding together writers who do something interesting with description that doesn’t involve subordinating it to character or plot. I would include some of the work of Russel Hoban (Kleinzeit) and Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of SpaceThe Psychoanalysis of Fire) and Francis Ponge (everything), Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons) and Colette (lots of stories), Italo Calvino (Mr Palomar) and Peter Handke (Once Again for Thucydides, among others) and Georges Perec (loads of stuff) and Walter Benjamin (A Berlin ChildhoodOne Way StreetThe Arcades Project), and also, I now know thanks to Dorian, Émile Zola.

This is getting long, but on another occasion I will examine how some of these writers specifically take description out of the servant’s quarters and into the master bedroom.

Here’s a concise manifesto for my Literature of Things, from Francis Ponge:

About the simplest things, it is possible to make countless speeches entirely constituted of original statements, and therefore not only has little been said about anything but practically everything remains to be said. […] I suggest that each individual opens up a series of interior trapdoors; travels through the thickness of things; an invasion of qualities, a revolution or subversion comparable to the one effected by the plow or the shovel when, all of a sudden, and for the first time, millions of parcels, grains, roots, worms, and tiny beasts, up to then buried in the ground, appear in the light of day. O infinite resources of the thickness of things, brought out by the infinite resources of the semantical thickness of words!


In my own work, I am only just beginning to explore the practical possibilities of using description outside the conventional bounds of normative narrativity — since I’ve hardly mastered the conventions themselves — but I greatly desire to find things to read which explore the same possibilities. (Please recommend things to me!)

Why bother? you might ask. What’s the point of sneaking past the workable conventions which have already produced a treasure of texts inexhaustible by any single reader? Beyond the sheer fun of it, and beyond the consideration that the organization of our society is so harmful and bad that we ought to be exploring alternatives to the institutions, ideas, and, yes, aesthetic forms that maintain and reproduce it, I think Italo Calvino has the best reason of all:

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.

beyond charity and suspicion

One of my first memories of grad school is listening in disbelief as a professor asserted we should read Plato’s dialogues as if each word and all its connotations were intended by an omniscient intelligence. I flinched in such revulsion I pinched my elbow on my desk-chair and bled all over my notes. Having only just begun to extricate myself from an inherited fundamentalist Christianity, I had no intention of voluntarily submitting to a new doctrine of inerrancy.

I date a new skepticism from that day. Trust had served me well before grad school: I got through many books that were “above my reading level” on the faith that something good waited beyond — or even in — confusion. After the class of the bloody elbow this trust gave way to suspicion. I surmised I was about to enter an agora where bullshit vendors would offer cut-price mystifications, and maybe I was right. But lately, post-grad-school, I’ve been trying to ease up. To access a bit of that childhood patience. Suspicion is getting in the way of my increasing appetite for difficult, conceptually interesting, formally inventive books. In Lance Olsen’s Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing, I found, in an interview with Alan Singer, a perfect summation of the attitude I’m trying to cultivate:

Read with a special attention to the prospect that what doesn’t appear to make sense matters most because of the possibilities of sense-making that are portended in it.

Clinging to this attitude is working out great.

For instance, I’ve finally begun to appreciate Gertrude Stein.

In the grip of this new enthusiasm, last week I decided to read Janet Malcolm’s Double Lives, her book about Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Somehow instead I ended up with her essay collection Forty one False Starts.

That book, accidentally arrived at, proved surprisingly relevant to my goals. Rarely since resolving to abandon a posture of suspicion toward art and literature have I been more tempted to return to it than I was by Malcolm’s stylish evisceration of “pretentiousness, intellectual shallowness, moral murkiness, and aesthetic limpness.”


Janet Malcolm is a journalist with such keen eyes that she can turn a description of her subject’s living room or their innocent gestures into cutting satire. She is, as an excellent recent book has it, sharp:

I once watched [Ingrid] Sischy chop tomatoes. She took a small paring knife and, in the most inefficient manner imaginable, with agonizing slowness, proceeded to fill a bowl, tiny piece by tiny piece, with chopped tomatoes. Obviously, no one had ever taught her the technique of chopping vegetables, but this had in no way deterred her from doing it in whatever way she could or prevented her from arriving at her goal. She is less afraid than anyone I have ever met of expending energy unnecessarily.

That’s an observation of someone she likes.

But these preliminary satires of description are only the means by which Malcolm marks her subjects with a sharpie. The scalpel itself is inserted by the force of their own words. Here she is, for example, handing the photographer Thomas Struth his own petard, with which he immediately proceeds to hoist himself:

I asked Struth about the influence on him of the Bechers’ pedagogy. “Their big pedagogical influence was that they introduced me and others to the history of photography and to its great figures. They were fantastic teachers, and they were fantastic teachers in the way that they demonstrated the complexity of connections. It was an outstanding thing that when you met with Bernd and Hilla, they didn’t talk about photography alone. They talked about movies, journalism, literature—stuff that was very comprehensive and complex. For example, a typical thing Bernd would say was, ‘You have to understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.’”

I said, “I don’t get it. What does Atget have to do with Proust?”

“It’s a similar time span. What Bernd meant was that when you read Proust, that’s what the backdrop is. That’s the theater.”

“Did you read Proust while you were studying with the Bechers?”

“No, no. I didn’t.”

“Have you read Proust since?”


“So what was the point for you of connecting Atget with Proust?”

Struth laughed. “Maybe it’s a bad example,” he said.

“It’s a terrible example,” I said. We both laughed.

Her victims see their fate coming. Sometimes she records their attempts at damage control:

As we were leaving the café, Struth said, “I feel bad about Proust and Atget.” Struth is a sophisticated and practiced subject of interviews. He had recognized the Proust-Atget moment as the journalistic equivalent of one of the “decisive moments” when what the photographer sees in the viewfinder jumps out and says, “This is going to be a photograph.” I made reassuring noises, but I knew and he knew that my picture was already on the way to the darkroom of journalistic opportunism.

Malcolm — as in the phrase “journalistic opportunism” — is not afraid to turn her gimlet eye toward the mirror. “Every journalist,” she wrote, famously, “who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

She thinks of the interview as a contest. In her book on Sylvia Plath, she describes the interview as “a special, artificial exercise of subtle influence and counterinfluence, with an implicit antagonistic tendency.” What is this antagonism about, exactly? Control of the narrative, I think. Both interviewer and interviewee wish to pull a certain story out of the chaos of their interactions, and each is partially in control and partially powerless. The interviewer can shape the story, but only out of words they are given by the interviewee.

The best story, the juiciest story is always: the great brought low. Malcolm does all she can to get that story. Her favorite victims are artists and thinkers who take themselves too seriously.


I confess to a certain sympathy for Thomas Struth. Malcolm records his account of how art school changed him from a skilled artisan to someone with aspirations toward a more theoretically sophisticated and innovative art:

Recalling his student days, Struth spoke of the atmosphere of seriousness that permeated the academy: “When I came there, it was a shock to realize that I had to regard art as a serious activity and develop a serious artistic practice. Painting and drawing was no longer my hobby, a private activity that I enjoyed. It was something that had categories. Artists were people who took positions and represented certain social and political attitudes. It was an intense experience to realize this. There was very intense judgment by the students—who is doing something interesting and who is an idiot painting lemons as if he were living in the time of Manet and Cézanne.”


Struth’s mis-step about Proust and Atget makes this story of art school awakening appear risible: look where it got him, what unsupportable bloviation it lead him to! But it was precisely at this point that I found myself recoiling from Malcolm’s seductive invitation to scorn. (Profiles in which the agon between interviewer and interviewee are clearly on display involve us in the contest as readers, as judges answerable for our sympathies.) Malcolm admires Struth’s technical skill. She respects how he processes a portrait as she watches, she admits that his eye picks out extraordinary scenes invisible to her in a factory they visit; but there is more than a whiff of an implication that he would be better off without regarding art as quite so serious an activity — at least if he could avoid categories, taking up positions, representing social and political attitudes. But the irony here is that the projects he pursues, including the ones she admires, seem to depend upon his striving after intellectual depth. Aspirations — even pretensions — can be fruitful, generative; they are certainly unsettling and catalyzing.


The alternative to suspicion is often held to be “charity.” But I’m not interested in interpretive charity. I’m not interested in suspending disbelief or scorn out of an opposite prejudgment or as a matter of morals or manners.

What is there instead of charity? The quality of openness I am trying to cultivate in order to become a better reader of difficult texts excludes suspicion because it is inimical to the full flower of aesthetic experience. Yes, I like that: flowers. I want to seize on that metaphor. What you need to raise a plant is, among other things, patience. Those little intuitions of excellence — such as Malcolm has watching Struth practice his art, and seeing its results — are seeds, easily uprooted by an impatience that refuses to trust an artist’s self-conceptualization. I want to resist suspicion of “what doesn’t appear to make sense” because such suspicion can be a form of impatience that limits aesthetic experience to the most superficial intuitions and observations. Bad art shows if you give it a chance. Difficult, good art only shows if you give it a chance. So I want to move beyond suspicion, beyond charity, to patience.

in lieu of an agenda

My old website broke and I can’t seem to fix it, so I’ve given up on self-hosting and moved myself over here to a blog hosted by WordPress itself. If you tried to visit, you got redirected here. Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds.

I guess this is a new blog, despite the old name. Let’s think of it as a fresh start.


I have two notebooks. One is a fat black Leuchtterm, The Notebook of Hyper Attention; the other is a thin gray Muji, The Notebook of Deep Attention. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the former. I keep it open beside me when I do anything that calls for concentration. It’s a scratchpad for stray thoughts. I carry it in the basket of my bike and balance it on my knee in cafes. It’s both mnemonic and purgative. It smokes out the bees in my dome.

Yesterday, I made a list in the Notebook of Hyper Attention. Here, in lieu of an agenda, it is.

Georges Bataille
Bertolt Brecht
Wayne Koestenbaum
Joanna Russ
Robert Musil
Gertrude Stein
Rainer Maria Rilke
M. John Harrison
James Joyce
Emile Zola
Simone Weil
Jane Bowles
Djuna Barnes
Jeff VanderMeer
Samuel Beckett
Teju Cole
Giorgio Agamben
Søren Kierkegaard
Georges Perec
Paul Valéry
Vanessa Place
Stefan Grabinski
Antonin Artaud
Hélène Cixous
Anna Kavan
Walter Benjamin
Jean Genet
Witold Gombrowicz
Ursula K. Le Guin
Tom McCarthy
Anaïs Nin
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Alejandro Zambra
John Berger
B.S. Johnson
Anne Carson
Thomas Bernhard
Marcel Proust
Maurice Blanchot
Bhanu Kapil
Naguib Mahfouz
China Miéville
Helen Oyeyimi
Frederic Jameson
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Franz Kafka
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Francis Ponge
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Theodor Adorno
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Knut Hamsun
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Doris Lessing
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Clarice Lispector
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Louis Ferdinand Celine
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Italo Calvino
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Ann Quin
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