Monthly Archives: August 2011

Georges Bataille Generator

Reading the Wikipedia entry on Georges Bataille, you would get a distinct impression that he was a pivotal figure in the history of Continental philosophy in particular, and Western civilization in general. He is purported to be a key intellectual influence on Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and several others.  None of these claims is substantiated with evidence—the exact influence of Bataille on Madness and Civilization, say, is unexplained, and no explanation is given as to how exactly Bataille’s work “has gradually matured to reveal . . . considerable philosophical and emotional depth.” However, for you indie music fans, Georges Bataille is featured in that Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”:

I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met
Who could appreciate Georges Bataille;
Standing at a Swedish festival, discussing Story of the Eye.

Since Of Montreal is a good band, and they seem like a smart group of people, this allusion to Georges Bataille would appear to reflect favourably on the quality of his work, right?

In fact, the opposite is true. Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s frontman, may be good at music making, but his taste in literature is evidently bottom of the barrel. Story of the Eye, in fact, is probably one of the worst things ever written that is still referred to as “literature.” It’s hard to believe, upon reading it, that what you’re reading is the same thing that was referred to by Barnes, because why would anyone want anything to do with a person who didn’t recognize right off the bat that Story of the Eye was a piece of garbage?

I will concede that a big part of the problem with Story of the Eye may be the translation, as I could imagine certain turns of phrase, like “she huddled against me with a beating heart and gaped at the huge phantom raging in the night as though dementia itself had hoisted its colors on this lugubrious chateau,” could actually read much better in French, and in English with a stronger translation. Surely reading another of his works would give us a better indication of whether it’s a translation problem or a Bataille problem, right? Reading through The Solar Anus, however, it’s hard to be convinced that he’s not just a bad writer:

The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.

As far as Story of the Eye is concerned, this opinion is shared by a lot of the people at Good Reads (at least the ones on the front page). Anita describes it as “an enormous turd polished to a sheen by specious intellectualism.” According to Nathan, “the best part of this tedious wankstain is that it is short.” Chris, a reviewer with a keen eye for the written word, remarks that “in Story of the Eye the scenes aren’t particularly moving, interesting, or even necessary. Come to think of it, Story of the Eye pretty much sucked.” Patrick described my experience exactly: “This book was unabashedly, humiliatingly retarded. It’s the kind of book that’s so famous and then you read it and wonder if someone is pulling a practical joke on you.” John notes that “This book is just plain bad. No real characterization, plot, description, . . . nothing really.” “It reads like a dishwasher manual,” says Jaga. According to Blake, “it begins badly and then gets worse. The narrative is too brisk and lacks subtlety; the images are crudely sketched when they ought to be sharply drawn and vice versa and the transitions are blurred. It was just not pleasing.”

Strangely, the average review of Story of the Eye on Good Reads is 3.77 out of 5, which is unexpectedly charitable. This appears to be a result of a surfeit of readers who revel in pornography, as long as they have an excuse to parade it around as a showpiece of intellectualism. Take Beverly, for example: “Bataille’s masterpiece, a genius of eloquent pornographic imagery, so that one’s disgust is coupled with desire. I never read anything so appalling and enthralling at the same time.” Or Mr.: “a mordantly brilliant dip into the post-Nietzschen world modernity . . . . A seminal piece of 20th century literature.” Or Forrest: “It served as mirror to observe my own reaction to the transgressive.”

Of all the reviews I read, positive and negative, Doug’s is my favourite. It consists only of a quote from Nabokov, apparently as an authority on pornography, but also as an authority on good writing:

In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated . . . . Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in) and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.

Not surprisingly, this describes Story of the Eye quite accurately. Nabokov disliked pornography and considered it somewhat antithetical to literature, because in pornography “every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation.” There is certainly no aesthetic enjoyment to be had from Story of the Eye, as even many of the favourable reviewers admitted (e.g., Melissa, who gave a four-star review, suggested that “if you read for narrative pleasure you should run in the other direction”). Thus it appears most likely that people who think highly of Story of the Eye either aren’t very well read, or their reluctance to admit that they like the story because it’s pornography compels them to gussy up their opinions with intellectualism.

This idea of gussying shallow things up with intellectualism may be familiar to some people in the context of other Continental writers like Derrida, and certain manifestations of academic postmodernism that emerged after these writers–at least, certain writers in the humanities took a lot of criticism for gussying up their weak ideas with fancy words (and between some and much of this criticism was warranted). Andrew Bulhak, a fan of Alan Sokal, created a script using the Dada Engine that generates complete academic papers with titles like “Deconstructing Social realism: The postcapitalist paradigm of narrative and neocapitalist modernist theory,” which are total nonsense but which are designed to sound like typical unintelligible humanities papers. After having read The Solar Anus, I think Bataille’s work would be a good candidate for one of these text generators. It would produce statements like this:

The Epididymis of the Moon
Each of the moon’s phases represents a step in the transition from flaccidity to erection. As the crescent reflects a building of lunar passion, the full moon results from an ejaculation of gibbousness. Each lunar orgasm is constituted from particles of thought, and as the lunar erection thrusts into the dripping shadows, the light of the sun is reflected in a torrent of blood. Thus menstruation is a flushing of the bodily consciousness through the plumbing of fear and loneliness. Within the woman, impregnated by the gibbous moon, the fetal goddess becomes restless. It plucks the legs from a hornet and watches it writhe, electrified by the erotic pain of dismemberment. Like a fly caught in flowing sap, the fetal goddess is drowned, at birth, in a cascade of semen, and her body corrodes into the fluid of moonlight. But because the craters of the moon tolerate only love and hate, they drink the saliva of the bourgeoisie. In the struggle for power, only love caresses the shafts of moonlight penetrating the clouds, making them shudder with thunder and delight. And like rain the shaft of moonlight pours onto the oceanic sea a torrent of waves, and those waves lap against the shore like a tongue, making the rocks wet with pleasure. In the warm cavity of a shadow lurks the anus, and within the anus, the written word trembles sordidly.

Any takers?

On No-Drain Tuna

A few words on the issue of no-drain tuna. I tend to think about no-drain tuna in the context of people being estranged from real experiences. Along with the car, no-drain tuna is an excellent example of that old Lame Deer maxim, “White people are so afraid of the world they created that they don’t want to see, feel, smell, or hear it.” A car, in comparison to walking, is designed to prevent sensory stimulation; it’s designed to be quiet, to ride smoothly, to have soft, comfortable seats, to restrict air temperature to a comfortable medium, and now to divert passengers’ attention away from the outside world and onto LCD screens often depicting idealized representations of that world. In general, a better car is one that is more isolating. This is necessary because we’ve manufactured spaces for cars to move through that are abjectly hostile to human beings—interstate highways, parking lots, underground garages—when they’re compared to our primordial byway, a trail through the woods. The experience of using no-drain tuna is similar when it’s compared to catching, cooking, and eating a fish.

I’m not sure exactly what the complaints were that the tuna company received about the draining of traditional canned tuna. Maybe some of the juice splashed onto people’s hands, or maybe it smelled bad; maybe it increased the amount of time it takes to make a sandwich (although increased in comparison to what, one might ask), I don’t know. Maybe some people forgot to drain it and they ended up with watery tuna by accident. I really can’t think of any other possible objections to drainable tuna. I also don’t know if the tuna company—I haven’t taken note of which one it is—produced this product in response to consumer demand, or in response to complaints they received about having to drain tuna, or as a result of extensive research involving focus groups opening and eating different kinds of canned tuna, or because they just needed a gimmick to set them apart from their competitors.

Whatever the case may be, I’m reasonably confident that the underlying motive behind this product, and the reason the tuna marketing team surmised that this product would appear attractive to consumers, is the ease of not having to drain tuna before you eat it. It doesn’t matter if no one found draining classically-canned tuna particularly difficult; if given the choice between having to drain tuna and not having to drain tuna, most people would probably pick the latter because it’s easier. For the marketing team this is a two-pronged tool that recruits both the people who resent traditional tuna because they dislike the process of draining it, and the people who don’t particularly care about whether they’re required to drain it or not—all things being equal, both groups would likely pick the no-drain tuna if given the chance, and that probably covers about everybody.

This concept of ease is often taken to be self-evident as a marker of human progress. The easier our lives are, the more advanced a civilization we belong to. Whether or not they’ve given any thought to the matter, I would be surprised if most people wouldn’t consciously choose to do something easier rather than something harder, because their conscious knowledge about what they want is underlain by this idea of ease. It seems self-evident, but it’s more likely that the preference for ease is a cultural thing that’s been adopted unconsciously by our being bombarded by the idea that we should want things to be easier. Other cultures might recognize more readily the value of things being hard. (Only lip service is paid to this counteridea; it usually appears in the form of an inspirational quote from someone like Siddhartha Gautama, unimaginably far-removed from our everyday lives.)

Research has shown that what people think they want is not always what they actually want. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, pointed out in his TED talk on spaghetti sauce that when people are asked what kind of coffee they would like, they almost always indicate a preference for a “dark, rich, hearty roast,” but when given samples of coffee to taste, they generally gravitate toward coffee that’s weak and milky. The idea that we might actually want a life of difficulty, on some less-than-conscious level, is not unprecedented; see, for instance, the criticism of a life of unadulterated ease presented eagerly in the film WALL-E. The disconnect between what people think they want and what they actually want, I think, explains, at least in part, why some people are attracted to certain unpleasant activities, like camping or jumping off a cliff into a cold lake. It’s because on a level deeper than their consciousness, they crave real sensory experiences; they desire to escape, temporarily, from this world governed entirely by ease.

Curiously, within each of these “unpleasant” activities is some measure of variation in the degree to which the activity severs one from his or her easy, everyday life. In camping, some people will take along a giant RV and a couple of motorboats, rendering the overall experience not much different from the experience of being in their backyard (apart from the boats), while others will load up a pack and spend a week huffing up and down mountainsides and sleeping on rocks. And even within this latter group, some people will spend a lot of money on lightweight sleeping pads and Gore-tex boots, while others will carry a box of melons on their head and wear flip-flops made out of old tires. The key is that even when seeking real sensory experience, the countervailing desire to lapse into ease is sometimes overpowering. It’s much more common, I imagine, for people to go car camping than it is for people to do grueling multi-day backpacking trips.

What predisposes a person to one or another of these categories is hard to say, but it could be figured out with some cursory empirical research. Is their something that distinguishes backpackers from RV campers, like socioeconomic class or level of attained education? And what is the significance of camping and backpacking being predominantly the activities of white people? Perhaps other groups of people get their sensory stimulation in other ways, through sex (BDSM?), through food (arugula?), through drink (IPA?), through music (Metal Machine Music?). Perhaps other people succumb to their conscious desire for ease, and then wonder why their lives are so unsatisfying—indeed, these are the people depicted by marketers, people continually haunted by the burden of figuring out how to stack tupperware containers in their cupboard so they don’t avalanche out when the door is opened, or people concerned about the possibility that their child might come into contact with monstrous germs coating their countertops and door handles, or people perplexed by the problem of figuring out by sight whether or not their beer is cold (so they don’t have to touch it, I suppose). Approaching these advertisements as a form of dramaturgy, is there any evidence that the people depicted therein derive any fulfilment from their lives?