In this installment of the Visiting Scribe,Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part One of their exchange here. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Joshua Cohen to Justin Taylor:
This is what I’ve come to expect from you — this level trust of gut. It’s one of your best qualities — both as a writer and a friend. And it’s a quality I frankly covet for myself. When you write that it doesn’t bother you to “use the same computer to type [your] fictions as [you] do to write [me] a note about where to lunch on Sunday,” my commonsense alert goes off and I get depressed and crawl into a corner where I smoke and drink icewater and lament my preciosity. (Both you and I know I could have used the word “preciousness.”)
So I’m chastened, but still some quivering gelatinous part of me — say, my knee — wants to maintain that there’s an element of computerwriting that somehow eludes analogizing with writers of the past using the same pen to draft both a shopping list and War and Peace Redux. The computer, for me, has always had a business aspect, or, better, what the MBAs might call an opportunity cost. It seems to professionalize me in ways that disgust. It does this by insisting, by its boxy gray existence alone, the concept that my writing might, will, one day be public. Now my conscious mind knows this, my conscious mind craves this, but I’m not sure that the conscious mind is the best of all minds, for me, to be writing with. I need to fool myself to write. To tell myself nothing matters, no one cares, I don’t care. That the desk and chair I’m describing has nothing to do not only with the desk and chair I’m occupying but with all possible desks (escritoires) and all possible chairs (Aerons) I might access online.
Not that the escritoires and Aerons haven’t helped me, but the computer compels me toward that help.
So yes, yes, our conclusion might be the same: the problem “is not with the tool but with the user.” But then the very moment I agree to agree, Heidegger jumps me with his Ge-Stell, or “enframing”: the artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist. I fantasize, whenever I make a mess of my life, that all equanimities and pragmatisms are just technological enframings of a natural frenzy.
Here, I’ve searched it up for us:
This, though, is from The Discourse on Thinking:
“Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. We can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.
“But will not saying both yes and no this way to technical devices make our relation to technology ambivalent and insecure? On the contrary! Our relation to technology will become wonderfully simple and relaxed. We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, that is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time ‘no,’ by an old word, releasement-toward-things.”
In Heidegger’s day I would’ve been too lazy, or too dead, to have typed this out. Thank God for copy/paste.
The German for “releasement” (indeed, Heidegger/his translators, John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, could have used “release”) is Gelassenheit.
That’s a good old word to repeat while waiting for the F Train at 4AM.
My tone question was related, in a sense. The computer gives us so many selves, or gives us the option of being so many selves, that what’s needed — or what I need — is some variety of Gelassenheit from a core personality, or from the idea of a core personality. It’s my inability to release — let’s please release all the sex from that verb — that makes me wary of publicity. You’ve asked me to articulate a guiding policy or principle for peddling one’s own book, but that’s what I’d wanted from you — but that’s what you’ve given me. Your formulations are sound, especially this one: “Anything you’re willing to say ‘Yes’ to and actually do, you can be responsible for.”
That sounds, I am serious, like something Jesus would’ve said, had he taken a correspondence course in logical positivism.
I’ll end with the concept you find most interesting — the one I find most interesting too — at least a concept we both can address without getting too bijou philosophical or maudlin: Voice.
It’s true that voice has been troubling me lately. I seem to have become more social/engaged than ever — I have many friends, I read many things — but when it comes to writing I’ve lost any inkling of what one can assume when addressing a reader (or, for that matter, a friend). No, no, I haven’t lost that old power o’assumption—I never had it—and it’s only because I’ve become so friended and am reading so much that I’ve noticed, very recently, this lack.
Lately I’ve found myself very much taken with two ways of writing: very general and direct, not fablespeak but more like late Tolstoy, and very specific and personal/private, oblique, think diaries (Dostoyevsky’s, Pepys’s), letters (Byron’s), think of unbooks, unplanned, accidental, collations (often posthumous, often not intended for publication) of whateverthefuck by Canetti, and, oy, Kafka. Notebooks by Tennessee Williams, Ashbery. Anything in the middle reads, I was about to write “mediumsized,” but more like a sales pitch, an upsell beyond all comprehension. This might be Quality Grumbling — me complaining about contemporary writing without the skill to convince — this might even be Reality Hunger, with a side of fries, but I suspect — pace David Shields — that both those appetites are subsumable under a single rubric: we don’t know how to address one another anymore. Because maybe there isn’t an “other.” Maybe there are only fragments of a “one.” It could be that childhood, for everyone, was more whole and coherent. And that growing up is just this superdistracting superdistractible search for someone or something else. The keywords are “Sie und du,” “monoamine oxidase inhibitors,” “Saturday Night Function (Ellington-Bigard),” and “Gershon Sirota.”
Google “Gelassenheit”—the site autocompletes with “gelastic seizure”:
Justin Taylor to Joshua Cohen:
“The artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist” — this is undoubtedly true, and it complicates the argument I was trying to advance with my perhaps somewhat pat examples, but I’m not sure that my entire line of thinking is negated by the admission that the relationship between the user and what he uses is one of reciprocal modification. I don’t share your sense that the computer has an ineluctable aura of “business” about it. Growing up, there was almost always a computer in my house. I can say with something like complete confidence that I was the first of my childhood friends to ever go online — onto Compuserve, via a 14400 baud modem that we hooked into the house’s only phone line. I also played a lot of video games as a kid, mostly on consoles, because we only had one computer —it lived in the family room — and my father was very wary of any activity that might damage it (keyboards don’t stand up to punishment quite the same way Nintendo controllers do). Later, when I got my own computer in my very own room, the feeling was not unlike getting my first stereo, or, for that matter, my first little writing desk. What I mean is that it didn’t feel limiting, it felt freeing. Here was something that was all mine that I could use however and for whatever I wanted to without asking permission, waiting my turn, or having someone look over my shoulder while I did it. The computer was an extension of the bedroom itself — another space, this one virtual, over which I had exclusive dominion, could personalize after my own taste, and which expanded the range of work and play activities available to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite gotten over that feeling. I know so many writers who say that they can’t work at home, so they go to coffee shops, libraries, even pay to rent office space — this is a problem I’ve never had. When Amanda and I got this apartment back in February it came with a home office. This is probably the first time in my writing life that there hasn’t been a direct sightline to my workspace from my bed. A good thing, to be sure, but it’s taken a while to get used to.
None of which is to say that I’m unambivalent about the computer, only my ambivalence locates itself elsewhere than where yours seems to. My last year of high school I spent a lot of time online — in part because I was feeling very done with my hometown and in part because better technology made more things possible and I was interested in seeing what they were. I IM’ed with people I could have just as easily been on the phone with, I hung around Grateful Dead message boards looking for people to trade tapes with (cassette tapes! — sent through the U.S. mail). I downloaded lots of dirty pictures, and I played a massive-multiplayer online role playing game, where you had to team up with strangers you met in the virtual fantasy world and fight an unending battle against whatever was around. This, to me, is an example of “the tool making the user” — I felt it and could acknowledge it even as it was taking place — but I’ve switched my “user” back in for your “artist” because I’m not sure whether the re-making effect ever extended to my art. If I were writing a memoir, I might speculate at length about the effect of the computer on various aspects of my life (sexual, social, etc.) but suffice here to say that once I got to college, re-situated in a place and with a group of people I liked, whose artistic and political interests I either shared or adopted, I stopped doing most of the aforementioned online activities, because the point of all that shit had been to assuage loneliness and/or pass time, and now I had places to go and people to see.
All of which, I guess, is to say, that the computer has never seemed to me to have a developmental role in the way I make or think about my art. Rather, art is — among many other things — the arena in which I can process/analyze/interrogate the role the computer plays in the other areas of my life. Which brings us around to your book. Two of the stories in Four New Messages are explicitly concerned with the impact of the way the virtual and meatspace worlds inform each other. In “Emission,” the main character, a drug dealer, does something sleazy at a house party, which gets converted into salacious web gossip, gunks up his Google-ability, and basically ruins his life. Which is truly saying something since his life was something of a ruin to start with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Richard Monomian’s original transgression is in any sense redeemed or excused, but as the story progresses there is a sense that the punishment has outmatched the original crime. Though of course “the punishment” itself doesn’t seem to be purposefully delivered—it’s an unplanned side-effect of the reporting party’s use of the web as reporting medium. In “Sent” there’s a kind of reciprocal feedback between the virtual and the physical. That novella opens with what might be my favorite episode from this collection, and one of my favorite pieces of yours in general: the history of a bed from the time it was a tree in a forest, hundreds of years ago in Russia, taken through its chopping and carving and generations of ownership until it finally ends up as the “stage” for a cheap amateur (or “amateur-style”) porno that gets posted on the internet, where it’s viewed by an American manboy of our own era, who becomes so obsessed with the “starlet” he watches on the virtual screen that he decides to try and track her down in real life.
But all four stories engage with aspects of “the way we live now.” “The College Borough” is as fine a satire of creative writing-as-academic-discipline as I think I’ve ever seen. “McDonald’s” attempts to resist the total penetration of our lives and selves by branding language/ideology: it goes on a kind of hunger strike from the corporate lexicon, and delirium ensues. I love the book, in no small part because it feels so straightforward—not light, per se, but certainly more inviting than your previous novel, Witz. Which, for the record, I loved very much—it was a great challenge and pleasure, on so many levels—but going from Witz to Four New Messages reminded me of DeLillo going from Underworld to The Body Artist and then Cosmopolis. Did it feel good, with the Great Big Book behind you, to get back to the story/novella form? How did you go about gathering these disparate tales together around their several central themes? If I was going to be a total shit about it, and entreat you to tell me, in your own words, what this book is “about,” what would you say? Actually, it occurs to me that I did get you to do this once before—when you were working on “Emission” and we were driving back from the reading at the Jewish book store in Massachusetts, I remember you describing the piece to me before I had ever read a draft of it, and that you said your intention was, in a limited but real sense, pedagogical. That the story would be offered in the tradition of the advice-narrative, in which the fiction illustrates a familiar contemporary problem, to which it offers both a solution and a moral. Do you still feel that “Emission” works this way? Would you say that the book as a whole does, or that it can? Why isn’t your book called “How Should a Person Be?,” or since that’s taken, “How a Person Should Be”?
Check back on Friday for the final part of Joshua and Justin’s conversation.
Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and, most recently, Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). He is the New Books critic forHarper’s Magazine.
Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.
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