Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Lydia Davis and the Cosmogony of Capitalism

The average reader may not realize it, but we are living in an age of great political fiction. For a while after the Cold War literature lost its combativeness; the hegemony of Western mercantilist structures and the apostles of “liberal economies” turned the figure of the auteur engagé redundant, anachronistic even; “history” had reached its finality and those living in the last decade of the millennium could boast of being the Last Men, that is, those who had solved all the apparent contradictions of the market. Only a few matters, more of makeup than essence, remained to put in their proper places, and consequently novelists took up minor issues without ever questioning the foundations from which their flaws emerged: so David Foster Wallace savaged TV and the entertainment industry (Infinite Jest) in a gross simplification of Gerry Mander, sometimes even backpedalling from the aggressiveness of Four Arguments Against Television. And William Gaddis served a satire of litigious greed (A Frolic of His Own) without taking that phenomena to its matrixes. Meanwhile Don DeLillo seemed to take the end of the tensions for granted, with the “past,” or its currently-accepted simulacrum, stable enough to allow measurement and weighing and understanding, for a generation at least: thus the nostalgic novel about the 1950s, Underworld, pining for the dualities of a bygone era that would restore meaning to a growingly-obfuscating world on the threshold of Globalization. Others pushed further into the past, like the confusing, bloated novel by Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, a pointless exercise that only fugaciously makes a connection between Enlightenment and Capitalism and the birth of the modern financial system. Melancholy laughs were safer than deep analyses. What all these novels showed was that a vast police tape cordoned off the present, making it impossible to examination save the corrupt authorities credentialed for it; thus crimes occurred without anyone able to cry foul.

For a while it seemed that politically-conscious literature had lost its edge, that it barely amounted to a residue during the false era of opulence that ended so tragically in 2001. Since then however a new breed of fiction writers has emerged to challenge the neo-bourgeois assumptions of the current world order. Unfortunately the political writing of our time cannot be said to be as free as in the heyday of Robert Coover and Ishmael Reed; 9/11 brought new challenges, and enforced and normalized an oppression and vigilance that forced many writers to feign vacuity, to seem to talk about illiterate banalities when in fact they’re writing acidic critiques of the system and speaking truth to power. Not without reason many writers think the government spies on them. Lydia Davis, the voice at the forefront of this generation’s indignation, stands out as a writer of great symbolic density whose messages, in order to be fully understood, must be rearticulated from an oblique modality to an enunciatory modality. This means academia, far from seeing its role threatened by the growing closing of the American mind, sees its function reasserted as the hierophant bridging the void between literature and the layman. A case-study is the apparently simplistic short-story "Idea for a Short Documentary Film," from Davis’ 2007 collection, Varieties of Disturbance:

Representatives of different food product manufacturers try to open their own packaging.

Behind this the story, which is no longer than this sentence, Davis performs some of the most extraordinary verbal feats in American letters since Nabokov. Like a poet, she condenses multiple allusions and polysemies in the space of mere verses. But unlike the old aristocratic émigré, living in his silly made-up worlds, Davis hurls her readers back to the immediacy of phenomenological actuality.

For instance, what to make of the fact that the short-story has 12 words? What does that make us think of? 12 members has a jury and 12 are the signs of the zodiac; and indeed this story is simultaneously a cosmogony and a theodicy. Less attentive readers may not have noticed that the first letter of the first word is in all-caps, that is, it’s isomorphic to a capital letter, capital of course being also the English word for the German Kapital, which in turn is the title of Karl Marx’s foremost critique (from the Greek word kritikós, someone good at judging, which we all hope jurymen are) of capital in modern times. Davis’ cosmogony, therefore, her new creation myth for our neoliberal age, starts with money. William Gaddis, in JR, only started the novel with the word money; Davis goes one step further, capitalism and writing converge into the semantic-epidermal network of the Word. But she plunges deeper, making explicit all the whiffs of meaning only implicit in language. Balzac once famously said that behind every fortune there is a crime. Davis not only agrees but she gives the adage precision. The capitalized word representatives contains rep which is homologous to rape/rip (off), while also alluding to Jack the Ripper and linking the plight of the Victorian woman with the challenges of the modern woman (igniting a mysterious resonance with Bolaño's 2666), whose social victories have come under threat in recent years, forcing her to once again become a housewife, a mere reproduction machine, “to open her packaging,” as the short-story bluntly says, for the patriarchal forces the representatives represent, who urgently need her to restock the shelves of society with fresh consumers.

But there’s also pre or prey, as in preying on the weak; there is sen or sin, showing that although Capital is our era’s creation myth it is also its own original sin (creation and sin together, or as Marx would have called it, “the internal contradictions"); and finally we have tatives, a phonetic rendering of the noun phrase the thieves.

So we have rape, preying, sin, thievery. Now notice how the short-story ends with packaging, which of course is a pun on peck and aging, as in pecking the aged, attacking the elderly, the welfare state, overriding the rights generations fought to conquer, obliterating the future itself. With her oblique style, Davis conjures some of the most horrifying images in contemporary American fiction. In a way this short-story is the bleakest dystopia since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, except it has a social consciousness.

Of course all cosmogonies need their Armageddon. Taking imagery from popular science, but giving it much better use than Mr. Pynchon ever did, she uses the black hole as the concluding image of the narrative. Notice how the sentence ends with a black dot, in which we can persuade ourselves to see lack (in the dictionary sense: “deficiency or absence of something needed, desirable, or customary”) and do(ub[u? Is she implying that Jarry's Ubu Roi is also a critique of Capitalism? It seems so.])t, that is, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, the instruments with which the political-financial system keeps citizens weakened and distracted from their oppression.  In this new parable of creation, the “real” reality begins with God-Capital and ends with a cosmic conflagration of existentialist doubt and anguish, the black hole precipitated by the implosion of the collapse of the world financial system reverting Mankind to barbarity and scarcity. That much is signalled by the part about the food product manufacturers (different obviously stands for Globalization), introducing around the plot’s halfway point the theme of man reduced to a beast of primary desires and needs.

Apropos of Globalization, now of course Davis knows you can’t write different without rent, which operates on the double pun of rent money and the verb to rend (“to separate into parts with force or violence”): she no doubt intends the way the Western capitalist nations rent out the rest of the world to their representatives, rending the world apart, feeding, or preying (remember “food products” from words 4 and 5) on their inequalities and social asymmetries, which they manufacture with deliberation. (Notice also how David makes subtle use of the word's homophonic potentialities. Manufacture = man, you fucked, you are, mercilessly reminding the individual of his grim future unless the course be inverted and the danger averted.) In essence the emerging world is just a menu that pays for being its own meal to the rich (is it even necessary to point out the play on manu/menu and that in Latin factura becomes the modern factura, or bill and invoice, in Romanic languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese? The short-story won’t be fully understood unless we draw from the author’s experience as translator). At the same time Davis takes a strong stance on job scarcity: notice the disproportion between nouns and verbs: only two words out of 12 constitutes verbs, that is, words that act, that work, whereas the nouns (or substantives [for substance, goods, richness)] overwhelm the text, much like shortage of jobs, in this austerity-harmed economy, are hampered by the lack of financial investment, the banks hoarding it all in secret offshore accounts while companies disappear one bankruptcy at a time. Kapital here becomes the dyad of capital and capitol (Washington D.C.), linking the banks with politics for the current state of the world while also drawing parallels with the Roman capitol of imperial times, making this short-story at the same time one of the most eloquent indictment of covert neo-colonialism ever written: imperialism did not finish, it just changed forms and geographies.

Therefore Davis gives us a parable, or rather a pa-rable, a conflict set in scene between a Jungian archetype we may simply call Pa, an all-mighty figure of authority, and the rabble, between the rich and powerful and the dispossessed; but parable also invokes a pair, and what famous pair do we have in creation myths? Able sounds just like Abel, and symbolism about keepers killing their wards runs through this text. Much like Cain killing Abel, banks have killed the economy, betraying their duty to watch over and to look out for the proverbial little guy.

Finally we can’t forget that, with some imagination – it’s irrelevant if the author intended this reading; the text’s elasticity permits it – the par in parable can be turned into pas, meaning not in French, making it not able, which with a further help from imagination we can convert into disabled, which brings us full circle to the attack on the elderly, the welfare state, the future that will not come into fruition thanks to these dictatorial filmmakers from the title.

It can then be said that this short-story is a parable wherein Capitalism is seen as a God, pitted against the failing forces of Humankind; an angry, hungry god absorbing all resources; an oppressive God who sets back female social conquests; a creation myth and modern apocalypse that foretells an obliteration in the black hole. In Davis’s text screams the entirety of the current history since Reagan and Thatcher. In 12 words she achieves what Don DeLillo failed to map in Underworld: a cartography of greed and betrayal, a hymn to a self-destructed species, a maudlin meditation on the recrudescence of conservatism, uttered with the eloquence and vitality and terror of a biblical verse. But there is no New Testament here. We are in the desert, wandering below a tyrannical authority figure, without comfort from priestly lies.

Is it depressing? Yes. Is it hopeless? It certainly is. Davis proves that authentic art can carry political messages without compromising aesthetic vision. Although concise the story packs a lot and its themes reverberate countless times through the narrative, accumulating, obsessing, transforming themselves, like Bach variations, to make sure we understand what it’s saying. The syntax of course is deceptively simple at times, even declarative, to show the strangling of imagination and complexity in modern times, the rise of anti-intellectualism coeval with the hegemony of performative ambitions; look how the title alludes to the obsession with filmmaking, in a single sweep mixing Guy Debord and Mark Zuckerberg. Don’t forget she was writing in 2007, before Facebook gained the importance it currently has. Lydia Davis not only displays the finest verbal skill since Shakespeare, she’s also our modern-day William Blake, a prophet of fire and thunder.

That's not a pussycat, that's a communist.

Miguel M. Miguel is a philosopher, teacher and editor of The Marxist Review of Books. His most recent book is called Further Spectres of Derrida. He currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins University.


  1. I have never understood Davis, and I would say this is no help except that it is actually more help than anything I have read by anyone sincerely trying to explicate Davis.

    I keep meaning to ask if you have read Mumbo Jumbo, and here you give me the opportunity.

    1. Tom, I mentioned Reed because I'm somewhat aware his fiction had a political edge, so it seemed a nice inclusion. I have not yet had the pleasure of reading him, although he's been on my list for a while (like Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme, Doctorow, Carole Maso, etc). I don't know whether to start with 'The Free-Lance Pallbearers' or 'Mumbo Jumbo.'

    2. I haven't read Pallbearer, but Mumbo Jumbo is mostly great, and where it is not great, it - well, it is doing what your recent manifesto said novels ought to do.

      Unfortunately, I gave my copy to a person who desperately needed it and have not replaced it.

      That book is a good choice to contrast with Davis, actually. Reed is a writer of excess.

    3. I like excess, so I'll give him a try indeed.

  2. Glad to know Tom LeClair agrees with me: