Why Do People Buy Books They Don’t Read?

0. TBR! TBR!

Regardless of whether your passion is for books, films, games or comics, the chances are that your home contains a large stockpile of unconsumed culture. Depending upon the exact nature of your passion, this stockpile can take a number of different forms including:

  • A pile of books marked ‘To Be Read’
  • An array of downloaded or recorded TV series you need to ‘Catch Up On’
  • A Steam account containing games boasting zero hours of play
  • A shelf groaning under the weight of shrink-wrapped DVD box sets

As perverse as this kind of cultural opulence might seem, it is as nothing when compared to the mind-boggling absurdity of our tendency to buy new books and films when we have dozens of perfectly wonderful titles sitting at home on a shelf. Why do we do it? Why do we buy books we don’t read? The answer lies in our postmodern condition, the economics of human attention and the ever-changing nature of the self.

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REVIEW – Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

FilmJuice have my review of Monte Hellman’s powerfully existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two Lane Blacktop is a film about a pair of twenty-somethings who support themselves by moving from town to town and participating in drag races. This pair are so complete adrift in the world that they possess neither home nor name, all they have is their car and the open road. In fact, the pair are so emotionally detached that it barely registers when an attractive young woman decides to join them on their aimless journey. One day, the pair run into a middle-aged fantasist and challenge him to a long distance race. Sensing some element of menace from the youngsters, the fantasist agrees but is puzzled to discover that the young people have no interest in actually winning the race:

At one point the middle-aged man is driving along and spots the youngsters having breakfast in a diner. Annoyed that they seem to be taking his challenge so lightly, the old man pulls over and confronts them, angrily asking “Are we still racing?” but no answer is forthcoming. Increasingly ill at ease with this strange relationship, the older man convinces the young girl to travel with him and he takes off while the other two are racing a local. With steel in their eyes, the pair take off after the older man but rather than confront him about cheating or stealing their girl, their annoyance seems to come from the fact that he moved the relationship from one of mutual cooperation to one of competition. As the older man drives off alone, he begins to weave lies about how he won the car from the younger men using his customised muscle car.

The middle-aged man spends the entire film telling lies because he cannot cope with the hollowness of the existence he experiences on the road. Too old and too set in his ways to come to terms with life’s lack of meaning, he spins lies to make sense of his life and that of the youngsters while the youngsters just keep on moving from town to town without ever asking for or receiving any answers.

Released by Masters of Cinema with a bevy of essays and documentaries designed to bolster its status as an overlooked classic of 1960s counterculture, Two-Lane Blacktop captures the beauty and alienation of a life lived outside of traditional culture in a way that Easy Rider never quite managed.

BG46 – Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning

Futurismic have my forty-sixth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning’.

This column took me quite a while to write as I struggled to put my finger on precisely what it was that annoyed me about Skyrim. Initially, I thought it might be the bleak nature of the setting that reduces life to a series of to-do lists and selfish ambitions with easily quantifiable outcomes. However, while I am no Randian and tend to think that this vision of life is to be rejected rather than embraced, I simply could not fault it. I mean… life is ultimately about jumping through hoops until we die, right? Then I began to reflect upon the game’s lack of narrative and how playing it felt a lot like playing World of Warcraft without engaging with the social realities of guilds and pick-up groups. This was more promising as Skyrim is indeed a nightmare of pointless grind hidden by the tiniest narrative fig leaf imaginable. Then it occurred to me: if life really is nothing more than grind, why should we seek to immerse ourselves in fantasy realms that are similarly bleak and mechanistic? Skyrim‘s real problem is that it is an escapist fantasy that denies the possibility of escape:

While all video games ultimately reduce down to mechanical feedback loops and branching decision trees, most game designers soften the impact of their mechanical reductionism by hiding it behind a series of dramatic conceits that place the events of the game within a particular context which, though meaningless in mechanical terms, will provide the players with a context through which to understand their in-game actions, a context that will allow them to connect on an emotional level with the plots and characters of the game.

As usual, when faced with the bleakness of the world, I turned to Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for advice. The great sage’s advice to me was clear and unambiguous, when confronted by the horrors of existence and the feeling of bottomless dread that can only come from the realisation that we are truly and hopelessly free, the only possible solution is to laugh and launch into a nice little musical number as searching for the meaning of life is really nothing more than a quest for the most psychologically convenient form of self-delusion available.

Tree of Life (2011) – Cheese is Bad for You

Tree of Life begins with both a question and a tentative answer.  The question comes from the Book of Job:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

The context of this line is slightly peculiar but, for the moment, we can interpret it as being existential in nature: It is a demand for explanation. Where were you? Where am I? Who am I? Teasingly, Malick provides an initial answer in the form of a voice-over.  There are, we are told, two paths in life: a path of Grace and a path of Nature. The path of Grace, the voice-over explains, is fearless, rewarding and free from self-doubt and self-awareness.  It is a path that one walks seemingly without being aware that one is walking a path. Tellingly, Malick neither tightens his question nor the concept of Grace that he offers as a potential solution.  Nor does he ever bother to explain what the path of Nature might entail. One way of reading this hand-waving is by assuming that Malick is challenging his audience: What is Grace? What is Nature? How do you walk these paths? How does walking these paths answer the fundamental existential questions of being? All will be revealed in the film that follows. However, I will argue that Malick’s evasiveness is the entire point of the film. In life, answers are fleeting and all attempts to seek clear answers are doomed to end merely in more questions. Tree of Life suggests that no matter which type of cheese (be it ‘happiness’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Grace’ or ‘union with the Godhead’) we seek, life will always be a maze.

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Aesthetic Authenticity and Not Being a Good Cultural Citizen

To say that humans are fond of self-delusion would be something of an understatement. Lacking the sort of all-encompassing social meta-narrative that delivers us a pre-packaged sense of place and identity, many of us choose to define ourselves through what we do. Some of us sing, some of us paint, some of us write and some of us have anonymous sex with multiple partners. We define ourselves not merely by doing these things but through a process of emotional investment whereby how well we are doing as individuals becomes intimately tied to how well we are doing at a particular activity.  This process of emotional investment offers us some respite from the postmodern condition but it is also a minefield of self-delusion.

The more commonly travelled path to self-delusion involves becoming so emotionally invested in your undertakings that you become blind to your own inadequacies. This generally results in a hideous Catch-22 whereby people are doomed to mediocrity by their unwillingness to recognise the areas that would benefit from more work. The more areas of human undertaking I rub up against, the more I become convinced that this sort of thinking is endemic to the human condition. We all like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes and snowflakes tend not to fare too well in the baking heat of self-doubt. This, however, is not the sort of self-delusion that I want to write about today.  I want to write about the need to be a good cultural citizen and to, as Dan Kois put it in a piece for the New York Times, “Eat Your Cultural Vegetables”.

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Three Colours: Blue (1993) – Tightrope Walker

We are, according to existentialism, hopelessly free. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that, in the absence of God and the sort of meaningful meta-narratives that give life an objective meaning and purpose, we are free to define our own natures:  ‘To Do is To Be’ because ‘Existence Precedes Essence’. The problem is that freedom is a double-edged sword and while the death of God may well have done away with all limitations on our freedom, it has also served to render all of our choices meaningless.  Indeed, if all paths are open to us and equally inviting then there is no correct path to take and so every decision we do make is tainted by the knowledge that all of our choices are effectively meaningless and arbitrary.

Freedom’s double edge so concerned Sartre that he wrote a short pamphlet entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) addressing the charge that existentialism is a gloomy credo.  The pamphlet ends with a barnstorming rant against Christianity:

 This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself as truly human (…) In this sense, existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.

Barnstorming though it may be, this rant is hardly convincing as the vision of human nature that Sartre describes is one of perpetual vertigo and while ridding ourselves of the tyrannical sky-pixie is no bad thing, Sartre seems to have saddled us with another form of tyranny: The tyranny of responsibility for ourselves and the tyranny of endless choice.

This tension within the concept of freedom is beautifully demonstrated by Krzysztof Kieslowski in Three Colours: Blue, the first of a trilogy of films interrogating the values of the French Revolution (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite).

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Some Thoughts On… The American (2010)

Directed by Anton Corbijn and based upon the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman (1990), The American is far too formulaic and slow of pacing for it to function as an effective thriller.  However, if approached as more of a character study, the film does suggest some insight.

The film begins with Jack (Clooney) living in a snowy wilderness with a ‘friend’.  When some assassins turn up and the ‘friend’ dies in the firefight, Jack the former spy is lured out of retirement and placed in the field by his former handler.  Right from the start, Jack is a rootless and isolated man who walks through the world acutely aware not only of that world’s hostility, but also his lack of place in it.  Like all spies, he is the resident of a demimonde of assumed identities and hidden skills.  Corbijn communicates Jacks demimondaine status by having him instantly recognise a fellow demimondaine who hires his to make a custom-built gun for her.

As Jack attempts to pull together the tools that will allow him to work on the gun, he is forced to make friends with the local priest; a man who not only knows his place in the ‘grand order’ of things but also within his local community. Much like Jack, the priest has secrets but, unlike Jack, he does not allow these secrets to isolate him from the people around him.  In fact, his secrets only serve to embed him even further in the local landscape.  He is a rock of his community, a man completely at home in the world for all of his propensity to dwell on that which lays beyond it.

As he works on the gun, Jack begins two contrasting relationships: The first is with the fellow spy.  Corbijn does an excellent job of communicating their rootless flirtation by having the pair demonstrate the extent to which they trust each other (they aim loaded guns at each other and even fire in their general direction and yet they do not shoot one another) while the traditionally trappings of seduction and romance are revealed to be nothing more than props in case the police should pass by.  The second relationship with a local prostitute resembles the first in so far as it too spurns the traditional trappings of romance and seduction but here the oddness of the flirtation is presented more as a sign of openness and complete honesty than of guile and mis-representation.

When Jack decides that he wants to get out, his handler predictably turns on him and Corbijn struggles to fill the formulaic denouement with anything approaching tension or dramatic charge.  In a way, it simply does not matter if Jack gets out… the heart of the film lies in its portrait of a man struggling to deal with his sense of alienation from community and landscape alike.

The American is one of those films that reminds me why it is I think that spies are posterboys for the postmodern condition: Isolated, deracinated and living in a world they not only do not belong to but actively fear, spies fill their days with the ritualised mundanity that is tradecraft: Check to see if anyone has been in while you were out, check to see if anyone is following you, check in with your handler, check the dead letter box, check to see if your contacts have gotten back to you and all along make sure that nothing you do makes you stand out as anything other than ‘normal’.  Spies are people alienated from society who spend all of their time trying to pass for members of the societies they live amongst.  That sense of alienation combined with paranoia and intense longing for membership and place are the constituent parts of that postmodern existential urge to belong and to know where one stands.

The fact that Jack’s flirtations are with women who exist on the margins of society is telling.  By virtue of being a spy and a prostitute, the film’s female characters are both people who, like Jack, pass as normal thanks to having learned the rules of normality from the outside, as aliens.  Jack’s stilted and technical conversation with the female spy reveals what the aliens’ language might be like while Jack’s awkward flirtations with the prostitute seem to hint at a path out of the demimonde and into the sunlight of normality.

As much as I liked the film’s capacity for capturing the postmodern condition, I was not all that convinced by Jack’s desire to return to the real world.  At the beginning of the film, he is living a ‘normal’ life in the middle of nowhere and it is not clear why it is that a life embedded in the real word should be superior to that or why Jack should require ‘the love of a good woman’ to save him.  The slow pacing of the film and the atmosphere of art house detachment and depression invites us to speculate about Jack’s inner state but with a plot this formulaic, I found myself unwilling to turn a blind eye to the lack of depth.  A few extra scenes fleshing out Jack’s existential dread beyond there merely generic would have transformed this from a perfectly watchable film into a good one.  A missed opportunity but very much part of a growing tradition of existential spy films.

Never Let Me Go (2010) – Tommy and Kathy and Paolo and Francesca

One of the founding myths of contemporary intellectual culture is the idea that, denied the consolation of religion and confronted by a universe both devoid of meaning and over-burdened with choices, humanity now finds itself in a world that has become disenchanted.  As Max Weber puts it:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ”disenchantment of the world.” Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental.

The term ‘disenchantment of the world’ is not in fact Weber’s but that of Friedrich Schiller whose critical writings — including Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) — can be seen as attempts to come to terms with his feeling of being somehow out of step with the world and more in tune with the by-gone age of classical Greece.  An age which:

Displaced humanity, and recast it on a magnified scale in the glorious circle of its gods; but it did this not by dissecting human nature, but by giving it fresh combinations, for the whole of human nature was represented in each of the gods.

With characteristic insight, Gabriel Josipovici suggests in Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010) that this sense of displacement flows not from a fundamental change in the nature of the world or of man’s relation to it, but from a sense of romantic nostalgia.

This sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern.

This sense of detachment from the world and yearning after a time when life had meaning is elegantly articulated by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book All Things Shining – Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (2011).  In an early chapter, Dreyfus and Kelly compare the affairs of Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)) with the adulterous affair of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s Inferno.  Whereas Flaubert depicts Emma’s betrayal of her witless husband in a way that can continue to command our sympathies, Dante depicts adultery as a form of moral incontinence:

The medieval couple knew that it was wrong to engage in an adulterous affair – there was no question about it; unfortunately, they couldn’t resist the sinful passion of lust.

The medieval couple lived their lives within religion’s enchanted bubble of certainty and, as a result, they knew that they were doing wrong whereas Charles and Emma Bovary, living in the modern disenchanted world, lack a basic moral infrastructure. In fact, despite her shallow tastes, emotional remoteness and infidelity, Charles comes to the point of admiring his unfaithful wife for her betrayal.

Dreyfus and Kelly’s account of Dante’s psychology is above reproach.  It is lucid.  It is elegant.  It is comprehensive.  However, the psychological model underpinning Dante’s characterisation is profoundly alien to our modern eyes.  If Paolo and Francesca were so sure as to the ‘right thing’ to do, why did they act otherwise? And, more importantly, how did they act otherwise?  Dreyfus and Kelly speak of the couple as suffering from what ancient philosophers called akrasia or weakness of the will, but they do not delve deeply into the psychology of akrasia and the ways in which a mindset characterised by moral certainty and a tendency to akrasia might differ from a modern one.  Indeed, as modern disenchanted readers we find it easy to empathise with Charles Bovary’s refusal to condemn his wife because, like him, we have trouble choosing which moral framework to apply to her actions.  Should we judge her by the standards of Christianity?  Or should we be understanding of the fact that she was trapped in a loveless marriage to a dull and unambitious man?  This inability to choose between frameworks is, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, the defining characteristic of our modern disenchanted state:

This sense of certainty is rare in the contemporary world. Indeed, modern life can seem to be defined by its opposite. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to find ourselves at least occasionally wavering.

But what is this “wavering” if not akrasia repackaged in existentialist livery?  Dante may claim that Paolo and Francesca knew that they were doing wrong but their actions suggest a degree of uncertainty as to whether or not ‘the right thing to do’ was actually the right thing to do in that particular situation.  It is my contention that, far from being a modern invention, existential anguish and lack of certainty are fundamental to the human condition.  They are necessary by-products of the way in which human consciousness engages with the world.  As John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs (2002):

When we are on the point of acting, we cannot predict what we are about to do. Yet when we look back we may see our decision as a step on a path on which we were already bound. We see our thoughts sometimes as events that happen to us, and sometimes as our acts. Our feeling of freedom comes about through switching between these two angles of vision. Free will is a trick of perspective.

While we may not possess free will, our consciousness is such that we cannot help but see ourselves as free.  This perception of limitless freedom and responsibility for making choices creates a sense of existential vertigo as we struggle to come to terms with the fact that we could have acted differently and yet did not.  This sense of existential vertigo is omnipresent in contemporary intellectual culture because all systems of value are now open to scrutiny, but even if our culture did not tolerate dissent or ‘shopping around’ for values, we would still feel that lack of certainty.  We would still feel that lack of meaning.  We would still desperately try to latch on to any system that would help our conscious minds make sense of our actions.

Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) explores both the universality of existential anguish and the universality of the need for consolatory myths.  Deploying science fictional tropes to create a world in which people’s lives have both a meaning and a purpose, Never Let Me Go suggests that the lost certainty lamented by Romantics is nothing more than another myth concocted as a remedy to our innate sense of alienation from the world.

 

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BG 35 – Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events

Futurismic have my thirty fifth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled “Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events”.

Evidently, I am absolutely terrible at Quick Time events as I managed to achieve what is evidently the most downbeat ending that Heavy Rain has to offer (killer goes free, everyone else dies in misery), but despite my lack of basic competence at… well… video games in general, I nonetheless saw in Heavy Rain a quite revolutionary approach to gaming.  An approach that restricts interactivity whilst also managing to make what little interaction the game allows seem so much more important and meaningful.  A brilliant game and an enjoyable column to write.

The Hollow Men – Negative Space and Characterisation in Existentialist Fiction

There are times when our critical vocabulary is all too shallow.  There are times when our critical vocabulary becomes so deep as to be impenetrable.  There are also times when our critical vocabulary is reduced to the status of the mantra; sentences and judgments, once meaningful, loose their potency through endless repetition.  First they move from insight to cliché and then they move from cliché to mantra.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly meaningless.

One such mantra is the assessment that a writer is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at characterisation.  These sorts of evaluations pop up in all forms of criticism and yet they are seldom unpacked.  What makes a good character?  What makes a bad character?  When does a writer cross from one category to another?  What takes place when a writer fails to engage in ‘good’ characterisation?  Literary theory is frustratingly evasive on this question, all too often ‘good characterisation’ is defined in terms that offer little penetration and little insight beyond the obvious synonyms.  Consider, for example, the famous distinction drawn by E. M. Forster in his collection of lectures Aspects of the Novel (1927) :

The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.

So a ‘round’ character is convincing while a ‘flat’ character is not.  This advances us precious little.  What makes some characters more convincing than others?  Which techniques reliably produce rounded characters?

One place to find inspiration is the visual arts.  One of the most important concepts to the analysis of visual composition is the idea of negative space.  Negative space can be described as the space that exists around the foregrounded object, but it can also be quite a bit more.  Indeed, when an untrained photographer takes a picture of something, they tend to see everything that is not a part of that something as mere background.  However, by focussing solely on the object itself, unskilled artists will frequently produce a picture that seems somehow wrong.  Aesthetically imbalanced.  Strangely ugly.  Frequently, this is because of a lack of attention to the space surrounding the foregrounded object.  Indeed, in order to force their students to take negative space into account, composition teachers will frequently ask them to draw not the object itself but the space surrounding that object.  It is only by balancing the use of positive space with the use of negative space that elegant composition can be achieved.

This principle also applies to characterisation.

 

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