Spanking (and Veiling) China Miéville

by on Jun.09, 2011

Almodovar's Dark Habits


In her book Crack Wars, Avital Ronell notes: “Literature is most exposed when it ceases veiling itself with the excess that we commonly call meaning. […] Literature has to be seen wearing something external to itself, it cannot simply circulate its non-being.” Ronell points at book reviews as seeking to “cover up the work”—to legitimate a potentially lawless work by constructing walls around it, by covering up its non-being, by making it confinde, habituated, conventional, by giving it a habit to wear (though, thanks to Almodóvar’s Dark Habits, we all know what nuns get up to in those narrow cells!)


Give this man a glass of water


We can see this veiling instinct—which is really a disciplinary instinct– at work in a review of China Miéville’s Embassytown in last Sunday’s NYT’s Book Review. In this case, the veil is genre. Carlo Rotella tries to fit the veil of genre over Embassytown, disciplining what he acknowledges as Miéville’s brilliance, using the supposedly streamlined shape of genre to try to cover up Miéville’s jouissance, to make his lawless, messy, deathy literary production look like capitalism—that is, streamlined, economical, moving forward in linear time towards a singular payoff, earning its effects.

At first, Rotella has very positive things to say about Miéville’s use of genre: “Miéville repurposes genre formulas like a salvage artist, mixing a connoisseur’s respect for recovered materials with heretical joy in putting them to surprising uses.” Heretical joy derived from the corpselike ‘trash’ of salvage = jouissance.

Unveiled: the Divine

But Rotella immediately wants to look at genre not as the source of Miéville’s writerly jouissance but as something that controlls, disciplines, or veils it; in speaking of Miéville’s recent well-received title, The City & the City, he notes, “The novel could get lost in pondering its endless allegorical possibilities, but the plot conventions of a murder investigation keep it pressing forward.” Genre, in this case, is a hygenic method, keeping the novel from getting ‘lost’ in its endless possibilities, its Bataillean expenditures; genre disciplines and streamlines the novel, keeping it ‘pressing forward’, participating in linear time and a kind of payoff which are how literature is made to mimetically recreate the economic shape of capitalism.



Continuing in this vein, Rotella, after praising Miéville’s “brilliance”—and brilliance is expenditure is jouissance—also expresses the wish that Miéville would discipline this brilliance a little more, make his writing make the moves of capitalist production:

There are times when I wish Miéville, brilliant as he is, would take a lesson from other writers he has clearly read — like Vance, the master of planetary romance — and devote a little more of his potent originality to showing rather than telling. Vance’s stories feel as if they were engineered with great economy, tinkered up to impart strangeness while rolling steadily onward under their own power. Miéville’s, by contrast, feel theorized, sweepingly grand in conception but sometimes a bit disembodied, not quite fully fleshed in scenes that feel genuinely lived.

It can’t be coincidental that making one’s writing more streamlined, more economical, more linearly progressive, also involves ‘taking a lesson’. Pedagogy is patrilineage. If we would only nicely ‘take our lessons’, we would also participate in the progressive linear time which underwrites patrilineage, the inheritance system which conserves property in the male bloodline, linking good literary behavior to linear time, to progress, to reproductive futurity, and to a masculinist culture.

Also, non –coincidentally, the result of this non-economy is fakery, ghostliness, corpse-likeness, a refusal to participate in the prerogatives of consumption and healthy bodies; work that is “a bit disembodied, not quite fully fleshed in scenes that feel genuinely lived.” Rotella’s critique undoes what he says about Miéville’s use genre in the first place–  that Miéville is a salvagist,  bricoleur, unhygenically interacting with the trash bodies of genre, and reassembling them to generate lawless, heretical joy. Rotella wants to praise Miéville, but by the end of the review he’s brought out the disciplinary, hygenic notions of patrilineage, pedagogy, masculinism and capitalism to veil and cover up Miéville’s embarassing non-utilitarian endlessness, his exposed feminine jouissance.

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