His days were extremely long and full of time, like an adolescent’s; he knew how to find time to study and to write, to earn his living and to wander idly through the streets he loved; whereas we, who staggered from laziness to frantic activity and back again, wasted our time trying to decide whether we were lazy or industrious.— Natalia Ginzburg
There is an activity I run with my students in the first class of semester. I tell them I’m going to play a video and want them to give me their impressions. How does it make you feel? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Are you without emotion? Then, I explain, I will reveal something about the video’s making and ask how this new information changes their impressions. Then, I divulge more of the video’s context, and ask once more for their responses.
It’s a film of a skyline at twilight. In the foreground, thick smoke pours into the sky and drifts from right to left. The students often think they see a castle, more recently they have seen Notre Dame. The footage is scored by a gentle six-note orchestral loop that sounds as if it were emanating from a long-dormant gramophone, flecked with spits and crackles. The notes are played by horns, a cavernous melody for the moment right after you receive terrible news but just before you start weeping; it anticipates a blow that never comes. Some classrooms find the music mournful, some find it triumphant.
I pause the video after a minute or so and, after hearing their thoughts, tell them that the music comprises the first part of a sequence by William Basinski called The Disintegration Loops. In 2001, Basinski decided to digitise a series of analogue tape loops stored in his archive, snatches of radio from the 1980s. As he left one loop running through the digital recorder, he discovered that the process of digitisation degraded the tape. Telling the students this, I scrub forward through the film. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. The sky is duskier and the audio is scratchier, ghostlier. Shells of notes remain, but they’ve been eaten out from the inside. A dying animal. This, usually, is when students begin to use metaphors, to say what the video seems to be about. Loss, degradation, decay.
The point of the activity – aside from it being an excuse to introduce students to a film I love – which I discuss with students once it is complete, is to pay attention to how knowledge shifts our disposition, particularly how knowledge of an object’s creation changes how we respond to that object. I don’t want them to come away believing that to know more about how art was made means that their response will necessarily be more authentic, or better, but simply to register the emotional and intellectual shifts that occur when we discover something new. The promise of my field, literary studies, is that it will deliver a peek behind the curtain, it will take apart the mechanisms so we can see how they work. It is a discipline offering access.
Because, however, it is difficult to summarise exactly what is being accessed when this kind of work is undertaken, it is difficult to justify the humanities without organising the field’s defence in compliance with an order that demands its studies hew to market logic, where outcomes will only be recognised if articulated in a managerial vocabulary pretending to empiricism. If a student is analysing a novel, they are developing their critical thinking, a skill transferable to activities that will, in some future life, be directed towards profit-making. If they are learning to write well, they are developing proficiency in communication, a prerequisite for employability in some sectors. In a society interested exclusively in experiences that can be tabulated, literary studies as an end in itself, or as a task with undefined ends, can be understood only as an indulgent hobby.
The humanities are on their firmest footing, and perhaps at their most invigorating, when engaging in unceasing critique. And yet they are being marginalised, as is literary culture, by a similar strategy. Neoliberal administrations are taking scorched earth approaches to meaning, undermining and dismantling it at every opportunity if it cannot somehow be made profitable.
Bruno Latour wrote:
There is no sure ground even for criticism. Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere? But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground is taken away from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against the things we cherish?
It is obvious to me that literary studies is worthwhile, and that, as many have recently written, it is a discipline capable of much beyond critique (it can do love, delight, terror, irritation, confusion, a lot else). The practice is vital, as is the teaching. Even as a precarious sessional, I am constantly grateful that I get paid to read and teach. Yet whenever I come to muster a defence of my career, I have to confront my anxiety about the source of its appeal. As an academic and critic, I remain suspicious of my own desire to engage in literary criticism, because the honest pursuit of such commitments requires a constant wariness of the self-importance that can accompany the work. Without doubting the value of writing or criticism, I sometimes doubt the motivation to clarify it, to behave as if we might one day get to its crux. Does the strength of the forces arrayed against the flourishing of my discipline distort my own motivations, inflate my sense of professional grandeur? This is not a both-sides claim: the humanities are essential, and those wishing to strip them from society are decolourising our lives. But in attempting to sustain a way of life, might I forget its actual worth?
‘Work, in today’s society, is a mystery,’ wrote sociologist John Bellamy Foster. ‘No other realm of social existence is so obscured in mist, so zealously concealed from view (“no admittance except on business”) by the prevailing ideology.’ For adherents of the humanities, this mystification of work (of writing, art-making, criticism, and so on) justifies a perpetual, never-quite-resolving examination of process and meaning-making. For the humanities’ opponents, work’s mystification underpins an economy that justifies the impossible wealth of CEOs or the money of those enriched by abstract economic instruments as earned on merit. Certainty as to what precisely work entails eludes us. How might we find equivalence between eight hours staffing a cash register and an immeasurable fraction of a second of Jeff Bezos’s day? Our worlds depend on us continuing to not quite know, while feeling as if we are just about there. (Both financialisation and poststructuralism are innovations realised by a continuous deferral of meaning.) We are all transfixed by the chase.
I committed to undertaking a PhD during a trip to America in 2013. I was a sales consultant at a web design firm. My dozens of applications for journalism jobs were being left unanswered, not even rejected. The trip to America was motivated by a fear that 2013 would become a year in which nothing happened. The conviction that I would move from Brisbane to Sydney in order to become a postgraduate took shape during a visit to the Chicago Institute of Art, while I was absorbed by a room of Italian biblical paintings (I’ve always found myself mesmerised by the letters INRI, engraved atop the crucifix, an acronym that brings me to tears, so I guess I was feeling sensitive). In the next room, a new exhibition was being installed, and the entry of visitors was proscribed by a red velvet rope. As I observed this cliché, it transformed into evidence of my various failures: there was not a velvet rope in the world, I thought, that would be lifted for me (the thought, I know now, of an idiot). 2014, I decided, would be a year in which I began to professionalise, in which I would have access to something, in which I would learn both how to work, and how to understand the work of others.
This feeling, a desire both to understand and to be seen to understand afflicts and motivates us all, a notion that we might locate the tools to demystify our failings, to learn how to escape our shortcomings. Standing in the Chicago Institute of Art, university seemed to me like a place where I might discover those tools.
People who spend a lot of time thinking about art usually spend a lot of time thinking about demystification, disassembling concepts and assumptions, because the conditions under which we experience art – administered by the gallery, the concert hall, the bound book, the YouTube video – are organised to conceal the making. The assumption underpinning this concealment is that if the processes of production were revealed, the product would become less wondrous, less believable. The assumption of the investigator is that to illuminate construction and explicate meaning will deepen our appreciation.
Stanley Cavell writes of theatre:
the first task of the dramatist is to gather us and then to silence and immobilize us. Or say that it is the poster which has gathered us and the dimming house-lights which silence us. Then the first task of the dramatist is to reward this disruption, to show that this very extraordinary behavior, sitting in a crowd in the dark, is very sane.
Is the first task of the critic, then, to show us how this all works? Do we have a duty to preserve the wonder, or does the wonder take care of itself?
Among the places to which my research allowed me access were the archives of David Foster Wallace, at the University of Texas, Austin and Joan Didion, at the University of California, Berkeley. I took these two trips with the hope of finding material useful to my writing about the relation between reader and author in American essays. In the end I used almost none of what I found. The argument of my thesis turned out not to depend on anything that could only be inferred from looking through their old papers.
I did, however, learn – combing through the boxes, looking at letters, notebooks, and proofs – that these writers were heavily edited. Of course I did not need to see scribbles and stets on drafts to realise that Wallace and Didion were flawed. But the fact of the edits, their materiality, along with the materiality of the many drafts and re-drafts, has stayed with me. Examining them resembled traversing a film set, experiencing the artwork as a series of conditional decisions, shaped by incidental moments and advice, rather than a preordained thing that emerged fully formed. I also discovered, during my weeks in the archives – those silent, chilly mausoleums – that I have no patience for archival work. The idea that a notebook or proof brings us closer to a writer in some meaningful, intimate sense, that preliminary ideas are more authentic or telling than polished ones, has never compelled me. They are expansive and at times revealing, but no more alive than the finished product.
One promise of a series like Writers at Work is that it might offer us a better understanding of writers and the mechanics of writing. Although readers seem to display an inexhaustible curiosity about the work of writing (as evidence by the popularity of writers festivals, author interviews, Q&As, composition classes, essays such as the one you’re now reading), they remain blind to it – of course writers are partially blind to it too, in the way the causal connection between our thoughts and our words can be tricky to see clearly. How writing moves, nonlinearly, from nonexistence to incoherence to (hopefully) elegance is more or less untraceable.
To closely examine a writing process is to make writing seem possible where it often seems impossible. The impossibility of writing is the impossibility of the apartment I live in, that I am writing these words in, part of a building that was decades ago conceived, designed, constructed. I cannot think of this building as anything but inevitable, whereas this analogy, as I write it, seems unstable, weak. I deleted and rewrote it several times, unsure of its quality. But as you read this paragraph, secured on the published page, even if you agree that it leaves something to be desired, you will still read it as if it had been sealed with lacquer, my hesitations smoothed away.
The irony of twentieth-century efforts to decentre the author and reveal the artifice of the gallery is that they led to Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ being treated with the same reverence as Botticelli’s ‘Venus’. Similar efforts of self-reflexivity, from the playful metafiction of Tristram Shandy, to improvisation in jazz, to the Pompidou’s outwardly-facing innards, are often seen to puncture tradition, but tradition is adept at incorporating puncture wounds, taking them as tattoos. Eventually, the avant-garde is either forgotten or absorbed by the bourgeoisie; given a retrospective at MoMA, or perhaps taught in classrooms as exemplary, as an object lesson. This happens because the kind of extended attention that analysis entails – rather than making us realise that art is a trick (which it usually isn’t) or an assembly of constructs (which it might be but who cares, so is everything) – further entrenches our commitments to taking its object seriously.
The resilience of the fourth wall is proven by how often it can be broken without us ever ceasing to believe in the worlds it separates us from. If I were to burst into the room while you were watching Seinfeld and exclaim ‘What are you doing? This is all made up. They’re just actors!’ it wouldn’t surprise you (my appearance and exclamation might surprise you, the information wouldn’t), nor would it diminish your emotional attachment to the show. You have already proved resilient to Jerry’s terrible acting and the improbability of the four heroes’ inexhaustible parade of attractive partners. This is where, I think, my love for writing, reading, and literary studies begins, with the phenomenon that no matter how enthusiastically we agitate a work of art with theories and critiques and dismantling, we always return to the object itself, to our belief in it. We vigorously pull art to pieces, but reassembly requires no effort.
The phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ was first used by Coleridge to describe the work the author undertakes in order to conjure the reader’s belief, to convince them, the same process Cavell describes. Today, we seem to use the phrase as if it captured some deliberate effort on the audience’s part to put aside their suspicion as they enter the cinema or theatre, or open the book. But, as I say, belief comes so easily.
When I read a writer I admire, I come to believe is that they have found something I am yet to discover. The way I write (distracted, in fits and starts, often away from a desk) seems vulgar and degraded in comparison to what I imagine to be the practice of others. Perhaps this is because, if I were to accept that good writing is often simply the product of reading extensively then sitting and doing the work, I would have no excuse for my own flaws and insufficiencies. Every book I cherish seems to conceal some ingredient in its construction that, by its nature, eludes me. This sense of elusiveness is what permits great works of art to serve as invitations for an endless response. I return to reading, to art, because it continues to promise new ways of understanding.
‘No one,’ writes Adam Phillips, ‘wants to be the person who doesn’t get it.’ As our lives become increasingly exposed and connected, embedded in online communities, we are all constantly working to both get it and, more importantly, to appear to get it. The supreme examples of this style – men whose popularity depends on their appearing to get it – are Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and, for a time seemingly the world’s most interviewed academic, Jordan Peterson. Their message is secondary to their tone, carrying a grim knowingness that suggests an access to some special knowledge which they have descended from the mountain to dispense. They are popular with the restless and afraid who, made cruel by the strength of their desire, mistake clumsy intolerance for liberating insight.
While my worldview depends on their being wrong and me being, mostly, right, that desire is comparable to what drove me to enrol in a PhD program. I wanted, as we all do, to be in the know. In her recent book, Theory of the Gimmick, Sianne Ngai writes that we label something a gimmick ‘when we want to demonstrate that we, unlike others implicitly invoked or imagined in the same moment, are not buying into what a capitalist device is promising.’
Capitalism depends on this exclusion, the illusion that our unique insights equip us to outpace others. It suggests that we might set ourselves apart from the world by penetrating its essence, seeing behind the curtain, recognising that our success lies in the rooms beyond the velvet rope where others cannot go. ‘Indeed,’ Phillips explains, ‘consumer capitalism educates us in the virtues and easy pleasure of knowing what we want (knowing ourselves simply meaning knowing what we want to have). In this story self-knowledge is the precondition for satisfaction.’ What will save us, we think, is our judgment, our determination to organise the world by ruthlessly understanding it. We are drawn to understanding because it feels a lot like possession, repelled by not knowing because it feels like exclusion. Because the material actions of work seem always just beyond our understanding, we spend our lives either pretending to get it or acting as if we are on the precipice of final comprehension.
As the will to judgement pervades every aspect of our lives, so does the fantasy that we might come to know, like a revelation, the hidden operations of the world; the belief that everything is, ultimately, explicable, simply requiring the right kind of attention. Just as I make-believe that writers I love possess some hidden treasure that, if retrieved, would permit my ascent to literary greatness, we speak of politics, finance, celebrity, nation-states, populations, as if they’re puzzles to be solved. The puzzle’s appeal is the promise of the final piece, its triumphant click into place. The danger of investigating how writing works is that the investigation’s conclusion will be resolute, a total picture, rather than a limited description of something that no one involved entirely grasps, an acknowledgment of what is not known. Among the reasons the humanities is in crisis is that it argues for itself as a discipline dedicated to revealing and explaining, where in fact it is best when showing the dangers of our yearning for totalising explanations, for systems of value (money, nationhood, beauty, taste) that stand in for theories of everything.
When I skip to the final minutes of The Disintegration Loops, I let the sound play as I talk. It’s night-time, and the music is now a low drone disrupted by static, sharp strikes. A hulking machine edging towards its final rest. Not long after Basinski created the loops, planes flew into the World Trade Centre. On the roof of his building in Brooklyn, he set up a tripod, and filmed the last hour of sunlight on September 11, 2001, as it sank below Manhattan. Later, Basinski played the music as he watched what he had filmed. The sound and footage suited each other, and together made an artwork.
Students, finally realising what they are seeing, settle comfortably into stories of tragedy and grief, interpretations that fix the artwork, make it manageable. But what I find most remarkable, what I try to convey, is the fatefulness of it all. The timing, his view, the unintended slow destruction of the tapes, found by accident. None of these aspects were the product of work. They are not beyond interpretation, but they are beyond explanation, and they permit an ever-unfinished description, refusing definition. When our world seems unmoored we want nothing more than to anchor it. To learn how something works, how someone works, is to gather material for the task of sense-making. Equally, whenever I write, I am trying to make sense. But writing is best when it shows and knows what cannot be made sense of.
In order to hear the disintegration, attention is required. If you are patient, and sit with it a while, you will hear the spaces between sounds expand. In those deep and textured silences there is room to think, to listen.
We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish this essay.