Thursday, April 26, 2012

Airport Studies

I've often joked about wanting somehow to acquire an abandoned airport and convert it into an art gallery—or just capture it as a tremendous art piece, really, everything around the normal operations of flight left undisturbed.  Another idea: take an old airport and reclaim it as a liberal arts college campus.  I like the thought of holding seminars in the departure lounges, and having studio art classes around old luggage carrousels. Intact aircraft scattered around the tarmac would serve as dorms, and the control tower?  Just think of the possibilities...

I suppose these fantasies are related to my fascination with "airplane boneyards": those places in arid geographic locations where aircraft go to hibernate, die, or be salvaged.  I can rove over the Google satellite views of these ghostly landscapes for hours.  Here's a snapshot of the boneyard outside of Tucson, Arizona:

There's something chilling yet captivating about seeing all these planes lined up, some cockeyed or askew, all types of military planes returned from who knows what far flung missions and campaigns.  Look at that swing-wing fighter jet with one wing akimbo and the other wing gone; or the one missing both wings and sitting off alone, as if multiply abject.

It may be that I have just finished rereading Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, and it has put me in the mindset of ruins and remains.  McCarthy himself did not miss the chance to conjoin twentieth-century flight lore and post-apocalyptic survival; in one memorable image he describes wandering refugees "wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators."

This topic makes me want to return to Don DeLillo's Underworld, to mull over those scenes where one character has begun a massive endeavor to turn a boneyard into a vast three-dimensional canvas of sorts: "We can paint their deactivated aircraft."

Perhaps at my airport liberal arts college I'll finally teach a course on "airport studies," which will take into account the various weird ways that air travel lends itself to creative re-purposing, philosophical speculation, and perceptual shifts away from flight per se.  "Airport studies" is also the title of one of my book chapters that wanders and wonders down this path a bit.  (My book, by the way, now appears on the Continuum site in its paperback edition, for an appealing $24.95!)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Office Work, In The End, Never Complete

Below is the final installment of my essay "The Work of Literature in the Age of the Office." Scroll down for parts 1, 2, & 3.


Coda: Office Work, In The End, Never Complete

The Pale King
was what Wallace himself came to call the “Long Thing.” It was to be a Work about work, and ends up being an unfinished Work that yet requires more work—that is, more office work from other people (e.g. journalists, editors, academics) to produce a Work that can still never, by definition, be complete. The Guardian article quotes a Penguin statement about how Wallace was aiming “to be emotionally engaging and to write about boredom while being entertaining and to show the world what it was to be a human being.” The desire to “show the world what it was to be a human being” might suggest an exhaustively tall order, for any book to achieve fully.

But seen from another angle, Wallace desire is also what is achieved by any act of literature: writing is always necessarily a trace of human effort, or work
. This either unique or obvious sense of Wallace’s intention for The Pale King is reminiscent of what was arguably the first great office space narrative: Herman Melville’s 1853 story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” While The Pale King adds to the complex (genre) of contemporary office space novels including Personal Days and Then We Came to the End, Wallace also conjures Melville’s much earlier tale that provides—in an anticipatory way—a critical backdrop for the contemporary tales of office work. I will conclude with a few remarks on “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

In Melville’s story, the narrator employs Bartleby to work in his “good old office” as a law-copyist:

At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
The figurative gustatory language of “famishing,” “gorge himself on,” and “digestion” ironically anticipates the dramatic turn of the story, whereby Bartleby abruptly stops writing, and gradually starves himself to death. Bartleby’s shift in attitude is marked by his resorting to the infamous line “I would prefer not to”—repeated again and again in increasingly absurd contexts.

In The Parallax View, the philosopher Slavoj
Žižek explains Bartleby’s maddening refusal as “not so much the refusal of a determinate content as, rather, the formal gesture of refusal as such.” Put another way, it is not that Bartleby simply stops writing in the law office, but that he stops (working) in general.

In the context of work and the Work as I have discussed them in relation to contemporary office space novels, Bartleby represents a critical stopgap for work (writing in the law office), and the Work (the story) takes place. The office
once again is poised as the uncertain space that loses focus, dissolves in repetitive, endless tasks; meanwhile, the Work of literature emerges into (or as) the foreground.

In his reading of “Bartleby,”
Žižek goes on to claim that “there is a clear holophrastic quality to ‘I would prefer not to’: it is a signifier-turned-object, a signifier reduced to an inert stain that stands for the collapse of the symbolic order.” In other words, “I would prefer not to” is not simply a “No!”—but rather states a preference for something in the negative. Bartleby’s seemingly simple refusal is in fact an embodied “structural minimum” that, when given, causes the entire positivistic system of production to tremble, by evoking a nonsensical yet present negation.

Critical for
Žižek is the supposition that this trembling of the system remains after the system is gone—all systems must tremble in order to change, and therefore the trembling (which is a negative structural quality) should be a constant. Within the incomplete novel The Pale King, Wallace’s I.R.S. office is left trembling in its incomplete state. In this light, we might think of The Pale King as a sort of Bartleby figure always asymptotically approaching death, both before and without death, because an incomplete novel can never end. Thus Wallace’s own death might be seen to literally let his Work live incomplete, a curious testament to endless work.

To return to the first three case studies—Mad Men
, Then We Came to the End, and Personal Days—we might conclude that what keeps these texts from being truly critical (of) office work(s) is that they, in a word, prefer to narrativize (often to excess) the office. The structural logic of office work is without end, and thus it endlessly affirms the relations and forces of production that determine the work. This keeps what Henri Lefebvre would call “the social text” legible—if still unread. Yet the Work contains work, offering the idea(l) of a meaning “in the end,” as the banal/apocalyptic saying goes. This is the work of literature in the age of the office: literature converts endless work into a finished product, and provides meaningfulness where perhaps this meaning-making itself might rightly be called into question in a way that the Work cannot quite manage.

Wallace’s The Pale King
and Melville’s “Bartleby” complicate the work of literature in the age of the office, suggesting in their own ways that scriveners and authors alike will continue to die, but the work always remains—and (just) writing cannot break free of this dire matrix. Literature never simply reflects office work, but stands as a fundamental conceptual knot where work and the Work are inextricably tangled. For literature to be able “to show the world what it is to be a human being,” the Work would have to tunnel equally and endlessly into the work…accepting the full risk of never (re)emerging complete. In the end, Wallace’s unfinished Work will never have an adequate conclusion, and this most truthfully—if also troublingly—reflects the basic condition of office work which is, in principle, never complete.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Author is Dead; Office Work Remains

I am fresh from my wonderful, stimulating panel on David Foster Wallace at this year's American Comparative Literature Association conference in Providence, Rhode Island. I am now sitting in the Providence airport waiting for my flight to Dulles to board, thinking back on all the fascinating papers and appreciating the eclectic group of smart scholars working on this contemporary writer. The airport is a perfect place to reflect and write. And now is the perfect time to post the next section of my essay "The Work of Literature in the Age of the Office." (Parts 1 and 2 are below.)


Part 3: The Author is Dead; Office Work Remains

David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel about office work self-consciously bores
. This point was put as a question in one online article entitled “Will David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King Be the Most Boring Book Ever?” To get at the complexity of this unfinished work, let us consider an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker shortly after Wallace’s suicide; the excerpt was called “Wiggle Room.”

This is perhaps the strongest (if strangest) office space story yet, because it tunnels unflinchingly into the boredom, tedium, and inner-subjective torment of one Lane Dean Jr., I.R.S. tax return office worker. The subject explains why certain readers might have been either afraid of or titillated by the prospect of a very potent dose of boring
prose provided by Wallace. Unlike the novels Personal Days and Then We Came to the End, Wallace’s writing does not make wry comedy out of the day-to-day dramas, debacles, and tangential tales of office workers. Rather, “Wiggle Room” presents the reader with an understated mind/set of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts that bore in a double sense. Here is Lane Dean Jr.:
He did another return; again, the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and I.D. number that some part of him still refused to quite get memorized so he had to unclip his badge and check it each time and then stapled the 402 to the return and put the file in the top tier’s rightmost tray for 402s Out and refused to let himself count the number in the trays yet, and then unbidden came the thought that “boring” also meant something that drilled in and made a hole.

This sentence is representative of the entire excerpt (and much of the larger 'novel' from which it is drawn), which moves between contemplation and hallucination, all under a clock on the wall whose second hand’s “job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow, unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t already been a million times before….”

Wallace does not animate the workspace so much as he uses the bored (and possibly boring) subject to dissolve distinctions between the world of work and the life of the mind. “Wiggle Room” includes a drawn-out meditation on the etymology of the word "boredom," and this is a meditation that is meta-reflective and self-referential in many regards: for the reader afraid of being bored by the text, a text puts that boredom under an analytical lens; for Lane Dean Jr., his story of
boredom is also a story about boredom; for David Foster Wallace, the novel story reflects not only a fictitious character’s struggle with boredom, but also the author’s own long struggle with a subject that finally consumed him in a final end—i.e., the very subject of subjectivity. The lonely, quiet office cubicle becomes a literary figure for phenomenological bracketing and tunneling introspection, a type of work that can “bore” endlessly, as in tunnel down, but also as in evacuate—this is the kind of work that no Work can finally (or ever) fully encompass.

“Wiggle Room” did not appear on its own when it was originally published posthumously in the New Yorker
. A long article preceded this excerpt, in which D.T. Max reviews Wallace’s life and his struggle to write The Pale King. Max writes about the unfinished novel:

It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter, and centers on a group of several dozen I.R.S. agents working in the Midwest. Their job is tedious, but dullness, “The Pale King” suggests, ultimately sets them free. …The problem was how to dramatize the idea… Wallace’s solution was to overwhelm his seemingly inert subject with the full movement of his thought. His characters might be low-level bureaucrats, but the robust sincerity of his writing—his willingness to die for the reader—would keep you from condescending to them.

These final words are heavy, given Wallace’s suicide—and yet these words familiar, too. One cannot help but hearing echoes of Roland Barthes, who famously pronounced “The Death of the Author” in his eponymous essay from 1968.

Given Max’s assessment of Wallace’s writing of The Pale King
, Barthes’s words take on fresh significance: “we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

Of course Barthes did not mean this in a literal sense, but in the case of Wallace and The Pale King
, this theoretical position has been carried out in “real time,” as it were: the author is dead; office work remains. This might be an unofficial slogan for editors after David Foster Wallace’s death, faced as they were with thousands of pages of dense, ruminative, unfinished prose—about a subject—office work—that has no end.

As D.T. Max’s article “The Unfinished” seems to make clear, the text requires commentary in place of
the author. The author is dead; but office work remains. First, there is D.T. Max’s article, written presumably on a computer screen (that minimal case of 'office space' par excellence), and fortified by ample research, interviews, and editing along the way to publication. Then, Wallace's publishing editors have to figure out—in their offices, pushing paper and entering text into computers—what to include, what to omit, and how to format an unfinished Work about work.

As a later article in the Guardian
reported, The Pale King “is set for publication in the UK next year following an intensely contested auction between six British publishers.” The article quotes Simon Prosser, publishing director of Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, as saying: “[Wallace’s] challenge was to write about something so big you could hardly comprehend it—a world of mind-numbingly boring work.” The article goes on to explain:

[Prosser] was adamant that although the work is unfinished, nothing would be added to it. “You’ll get literally 50 pages of a perfect section, then a note to himself saying ‘insert X here’. In a lot of cases, the X exists, but there will be some parts that don’t. The challenge will be to remain as true as possible to what is there,” he said. “Personally I think that if ‘notes to self’ are included, it’ll be fine. We’ll obviously present it as an unfinished novel—he himself thought he hadn’t finished it. What’s so tragic is that he didn’t realise how close he was.”

Prosser’s adamant claim that “nothing” will be added to Wallace’s text encounters friction on the turf of the potential allowance of the “notes to self.” This begs the question of whether the literary fragment is sufficient on its own, or whether it would benefit from the author’s “notes to self”—yet if so, where would one draw the line? It is precisely this line of questioning that spurs one of Michel Foucault’s queries in his essay “What is an Author?”:

Assuming that we are dealing with an author, is everything he wrote and said, everything he left behind, to be included in his work? This problem is both theoretical and practical. If we wish to publish the complete works of Nietzsche, for example, where do we draw the line? Certainly, everything must be published, but can we agree on what “everything” means? We will, of course, include everything that Nietzsche himself published, along with the drafts of his works, his plans for aphorisms, his marginal notations and corrections. But what if, in a notebook filled with aphorisms, we find a reference, a reminder of an appointment, an address, or a laundry bill, should this be included in his works? Why not? These practical considerations are endless once we consider how a work can be extracted from the millions of traces left by an individual after his death.[9]

This looming imperative for “everything” to be published is exactly what Wallace was writing about in The Pale King: how to catalog without dressing up the endlessly boring contents of the human mind put to rote work. At the same time, it is the inability to delimit “everything” that makes the editorial work difficult, if not outright impossible: everything written in Wallace’s last years could never be finally recovered for the sake of the book, because writing (as Jacques Derrida would put it in another context), disseminates.

In “What is an Author?” Foucault goes on to argue that, “Plainly, we lack a theory to encompass the questions generated by a work and the empirical activity of those who naively undertake the publication of the complete works of an author often suffers from the absence of this framework.” Here again, one cannot help but be drawn back into Wallace’s in-principle (at least in the scope of human temporality, if not cosmically so) endless
subject of tax form filing, of which “W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441” is a truly infinitesimal sampling.

One can never be certain about just how exhaustively boring
Wallace was planning to be in the novel, because the complete Work could never encompass the endless work. And once we accept this fundamental uncertainty, how could one ever arrive at a conclusion as to The Pale King’s proximity to completion, as Prosser (the publishing director of Penguin) seems to intuit? On the one hand, Prosser admits that Wallace himself “thought he hadn’t finished it”; but on the other hand, Prosser, from the vantage point of the publishing office, is apparently able to see the real tragedy: just how close the novel was to being finished. This little snippet of reportage around Wallace’s unfinished Work reveals a tangle of theoretical complexities. To rephrase Foucault, we especially lack a theory to encompass the questions generated by the unfinished Work about unfinishable office work.