Anne Carson, Dan Brown, and the poetics of (anti-) consumer choice

anne carson dan brown

This post is mostly about Anne Carson’s “The Albertine Workout.” It is mostly a stretch of thinking-through of the connections between power, servitude, information, and expectations. The text, unfortunately without the appendices, can be found here:

One appendix to the poem pretends to explain the difference between metaphor and metonymy with a a nonsensical parable: Children asked to explain “a hut” respond with either “a small cabin” or “it burned down.” One of these, it would appear, should exemplify metaphor; the other, metonymy.

As one who stakes some portion of their self-esteem both on knowing this difference and on being able to parse difficult sentences, I was frustrated and halted by this parable: “This does not make sense.”

When I turned the page, seeking distraction or clarification, I found absolution of a different kind– Anne Carson apologizing for ‘letting the previous appendix get away from her.’ Obviously, the parable didn’t explain the difference between metaphor and metonymy at all.

In some daringly platitudinous phrase, Anne Carson forgives herself for getting sidetracked. Something like, “It’s natural, whenever one undertakes the ‘crazy adventure of thinking.'” (i read the book in the bookstore because I am poor, but now I am paying for it with not being able to access the appendices.)

At this point, I’m beginning abstract wildly, articulating the associations and oppositions Anne Carson seems to be suggesting: “charming digressiveness, distractibility associated with ‘adventure of thinking’; this in opposition to meeting expectations, definite knowledge.” And my malcontent mind takes this from the sphere of the text, appends to the latter set: “rational expectations, customer feedback cards: ‘meets expectations, exceeds expectations, does not meet expectations’

The title of the poem, “The Albertine Workout,” taken as if from a tabloid headline, conspicuously does not deliver on its promise. (Albertine, we are told, is always asleep.) The volume is a work of charming disobedience, like a precocious child you are glad does not always behave as directed. Albertine, the poem’s namesake, is a character in a Proust novel, probably based on Proust’s chauffeur. She is a servant to the narrator-character, probably based on Proust.  The Proust volume is called La Prisonnière in French and The Captive in English. Here is a stretch of text that I am not making much of an effort to truncate. (I am: 1) charmingly digressive 2) unindustrious poor)

8. The problems of Albertine are (from the narrator’s point of view) a) lying b) lesbianism, and (from Albertine’s point of view) a) being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.

9. Her bad taste in music, although several times remarked on, is not a problem.

10. Albertine does not call the narrator by his name anywhere in the novel. Nor does anyone else. The narrator hints that his first name might be the same first name as that of the author of the novel, i.e. Marcel. Let’s go with that.

11. Albertine denies she is a lesbian when Marcel questions her.

12. Her friends are all lesbians.

13. Her denials fascinate him.

14. Her friends fascinate him too, especially by their contrast with his friends, who are gay but very closeted. Her friends ‘parade themselves’ at the beach and kiss in restaurants.

15. Despite intense and assiduous questioning, Marcel cannot discover what exactly it is that women do together (‘this palpitating specificity of female pleasure’).

16. Albertine says she does not know.

17. Once Albertine has been imprisoned by Marcel in his house, his feelings change. It was her freedom that first attracted him, the way the wind billowed in her garments. This attraction is now replaced by a feeling of ennui (boredom). She becomes, as he says, a ‘heavy slave’.

18. This is predictable, given Marcel’s theory of desire, which equates possession of another person with erasure of the otherness of her mind, while at the same time positing otherness as what makes another person desirable.

The continuations of the above interpretative key may be fairly apparent: Possession, a meeting-of-expectations (customer feedback card, the purchases of the rational consumer), itself destroys desire in the senses of “wind-billowed garments” or “palpitating specificity,” which is contingent on otherness. Possession, then, is opposed to desirability, which we can align with Anne Carson’s non sequiturs, ‘the adventure of thinking’, or “free” sexuality. As soon as we have these things, they cease to exist. I don’t think much of this is groundbreaking so much as it may be relevant. I have in mind the generally misogynistic discourse of “sexual obligation” which converts desirability to the meeting-of-expectations. One can picture the resigned intercourse of the ‘heavy slave,’ the eventual consummation of what “might as well” happen. The paradigm of passion or discovery is displaced by the bored reenactment of inherited expectations, like losing your virginity at prom.

But even this may be a best-case scenario, as such visible examples as that mass murderer whose name i forget might attest. He didn’t “get” what he was “owed” from women who were “less attractive” than him, and exploded with jealousy. Paradigms of exchange, possession, and knowable value were used as an analogy for human sexualities, and when reality didn’t meet expectations, he responded with violence.

But similar sorts of violence may be deeply and innocuously embedded in our social fabric, and not only with regard to issues of gender and sexuality. Take, as an example, people who work in retail or customer service (the “servant class.”) Take, if you want, employment as such. To extend slightly from the text quoted above:

19. And in point of fact, how can he possess her mind if she is a lesbian?

20. His fascination continues.

21. Albertine is a girl in a flat sports cap pushing her bicycle across the beach when Marcel first sees her. He keeps going back to this image.

22. Albertine has no family, profession or prospects. She is soon installed in Marcel’s house. There she has a separate bedroom. He emphasises that she is nonetheless an ‘obedient’ person. (See above on Albertine as a ‘heavy slave’.)

Albertine’s human connections are stripped from her. I’m reminded of David Graeber’s argument in ‘Debt’ that slaves had to be stripped from their ‘context’ before they could be made slaves, hence the breaking up of families, the necessary forced migrations, etc. Hence Albertine is turned into a servant by her lack of context. But to the degree that she is a servant, Marcel becomes bored. His fascination for her remains only insofar as she isn’t obedient (she lies), or only insofar as she still has a human context (Marcel imagining her with her lesbian friends.) Her value is inversely proportionate to the degree that she is possessed. Similarly, the unhumanity of the servant class is something of an unhappy cliché.

Take, as point of contrast: Anne Carson, as a poet, is permitted the relatively unalienated work of writing (her time is not controlled enough, or her work is not possessed enough, either by consumer or employer.) She is free to offer an ‘Albertine workout,’ or a parable to differentiate metaphor and metonymy, and then to simply not deliver. But, by virtue of her not delivering, we gain are able to interact with something else entirely, which ends up being much more interesting and valuable.  Like Oscar Wilde says of the soul of man under socialism, “It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different.  And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is.”

To return then, to the servant class, we see a collective possession of work-time by our greater economic system. The entitled consumer of other people’s time demands their expectations are met, but to the extent that they are, the possibility for enrichment and sociality is stripped from (not only) their lives. The obligation– to have sex, dispense coffee, fulfill expectations– is there, but in being an obligation, it is already, not free exchange, but a demeaned product of violence. The charming unexpectedness of the child at play gives way to obsequiousness and the need to please. “Give us what we are owed,” we say, and human lives are given socioeconomic justification to the extent that they satisfy demands or fulfill expectations– but, like Albertine, they are also rendered worthless to the extent that they do so.

It’s on my sociopolitical wishlist to see a discourse of ‘producer choice’ (or, better yet– ‘friendship,’ or ‘respect’) emerge alongside or instead of the already-popular ‘consumer choice.’

It’d maybe be a little bit funny, to not talk about Dan Brown in this post, but I’ll do so quickly, to expand the hermeneutic fleshed out above in another direction.

“What is it that hides behind the old masterpieces?” asks Dan Brown, and sets out to deliver exactly that.

Anne Carson asks the same question, but finds it already answered.

And of course, poetics / aesthetics cannot be definitively translated to an *answer* in any definite and meaningful way, so Dan Brown must forge a conspiratorial fantasy– which may retain elements of thoughtfulness or intrigue, but which, ultimately, becomes a “pornography of deduction:” false-to-life and coming to a definite end (spoiler alert: the narrator has sex with the holy grail.) The invented mystery behind the mona lisa is male frustration with female elusiveness. In rendering it knowable, it also renders it boring– by the epilogue, there is nothing more to be said.

Consider in contrast the numerated (stanzas? blocks?) of ‘The Albertine Workout,’ or the numerated but non-sequential appendices. The poem parodies the forms of the encyclopedia or deductive reasoning, both of which would offer a mode of knowledge conveyance metaphysically similar to “meeting expectations.” Dan Brown’s “mystery delivery” follows the logic of these forms (the information dumps, the linear unraveling) if not their structures, which recede into the background but still provide the basis for the violence that occurs, of rendering something knowable, making it “meet expectations.”


On Non-Commodity Production

Conventional microeconomic theory deals with commodities– scarce goods that are interchangeable within their category, and which are consumed by individuals exercising choice in accord with their preferences.  Certainly, in this realm, markets are wonderfully efficient as mechanisms of production and distribution: producers are rewarded in proportion that they accommodate customers and lower costs, consumers are empowered to indulge preference.  But not all spheres of human activity accommodate these parameters.  Specifically, in the realms of culture, thought, and education, the quality of “not yet being understood” is essential to what is produced, and therefore the possibility of a consumer indulging already-known preferences is precluded from the start.  Yet cultural activity is bound nonetheless to the same or nearly the same market mechanisms as commodity production.  Imprecise analogy is a common element in conservative economic thinking, and it’s no real surprise that market structures have been extended indefinitely without any theoretical backing or demonstrable empirical benefit.  But what are the effects of this arbitrary act of policy?

As we’re trying to understand cultural production, it makes sense to look to notable cultural producers to begin our inquiry.  In Gravity’s Rainbow, American writer Thomas Pynchon writes, in a manner that is characteristically both superficially specious and actually profound:

“It’s true . . . look at the forms of capitalist expression. Pornographies: pornographies of love, erotic love, Christian love, boy-and-his-dog, pornographies of sunsets, pornographies of killing, and pornographies of deduction — ahh, that sigh when we guess the murderer — all these novels, these films and these songs that they lull us with, they’re approaches, more comfortable and less so, to that Absolute Comfort. . . . The self-induced orgasm.”[1]

What does it mean for forms of expression to become pornographies?  The definitive features of pornography are ulteriority, detumescence, and aloneness.  Ulteriority means that desire is affected in order to extract money: if it is not outright deceitful, it is at least ulteriorly motivated.  Detumescence is the loss of interest and significance following a definite end.  After the self-induced climax, you turn porn off.  It has no further bearing on your life; it is carefully isolated.  Aloneness is self-explanatory.

The natural contrast with pornography is of course love.  If one stars in porn for money, they love for love.  Love does not end with climax.  In fact, it never ends.  Even bygone loves leave memories and impressions.  And love, of course, requires another person.

For a form of culture to become a pornography then, it must exhibit these defining qualities.  First is the quality of ulteriority.  If one makes commercial art for money, they make honest art for love.  The ulterior goal, making money, alters the actual act; it makes it indirect.  This part is basic.  Commercial art is “selling out.”  Just as the prostitute enacts an attraction that is not actually there, the stock victories of romantic comedies or action movies proclaim a joie de vivre for a life that does not actually exist, or a virility and simplicity of victory that not actually possible.  Consumers who know what they want can only want what they already know.  Journalism becomes reassurance, education becomes accreditation, and art becomes affirmation.  As Keynes describes financial speculation as the hinging upon one’s expectations of others’ expectations, so too do the grand products of commercial art.  The eternal return of the meta-collective snuffs out the capacity for individual expression or honest dialogue.  Creative energy becomes only recreative–  Literally, the only point is recreation.  Older or more excitable estimations of art as instructive or worthwhile become impossible in the world of ulteriority.  In the stock victories of romantic comedies or action movies, it is shown that success and happiness are possible, but that they are possible in another world.  The existing state of things is proven good with a non-existent example.[2]

Following this false exuberance on the part of the producer, comes detumescence and aloneness on the part of the consumer.  As culture comes to reflect the commodity status it’s been assigned, the possibility of providing a lasting impression withdraws.  It becomes like the glass of milk or ear of corn that disappears upon consumption.  Relevance is no longer expected or delivered, and, in both structure and content, culture becomes less a part of life and more an escape from it.  If the cultural producer is expected to earn a living, their work must be conveyed in a way that limits its consumption and allows its purchase– it must be made scarce.  The conversation must become the novel or speech; the mural must become the private painting.  Art merchants remove graffiti from its public setting and sequester it in controlled areas that can be utilized to extract compensation.  At the night clubs, bars, and concerts where capitalist culture is most fully developed, dance is no longer participatory, but the specialized work of “dancers” who are compensated by the establishment or its clientele for their work.

Apotheoses of human needs are packaged as discrete elements, but in the fetishization of the sunset lies the quiescence of the capacity to enjoy a more diffuse natural beauty.[3]  The beautiful or sublime is perceived as detached from the course of things, as the labeled vantage point of a hiking trail or the photographic opportunity of a popular tourist destination, which function more to distract us from our surroundings than call attention to them.  Art that attempts to awaken us to moments of synesthesia or significance in everyday experience is displaced by that which seeks to capitalize on conspicuous exemplars of what we already imagine to be beautiful.  To the extent that this comes to define our actual experience, life is cheapened, constrained.  The American phallocrats of twentieth century literature– John Updike, Philip Roth, Henry Miller– have this advantage over pornography:  Instead of “cum shots” and blonde simulacra, attention is called to moments of unexpected or underappreciated beauty.

This commodity status enforces culture’s separateness from the everyday.  Just as there is a time for arousal and a time for sleep, a time for life and a time for porn, a time to purchase recreation and a time to work for money, so too are there are areas of beauty and areas of strip mall, moments to think and moments not to think as well.  But in being constrained in this way, beauty and thought are already forfeit:  A breed of joie de vivre that can only exist in a fantasy; impeccable reasoning grounded in otherworldly premises– that is not joyous; that is not logical.

Consider the climax of the “pornography of deduction,” the all-but-arbitrary final revelation of a work of suspense:  “This is the killer,” it tells us, “the killer and/or the girl, but it might as well have been any other.”  A need is serviced, synapses fire, and all significance fades away.  It is no longer consideration that allows itself to be incorporated in a framework of understanding in an ongoing manner, but considerations that are relevant only in the separate realm of the work.[4]  A trail of clues– a footprint, a fragment of speech, an incident from the suspect’s past– surface by whim of the writer; consideration is effected– “Is this a dream within a dream or a different character’s dream?”– but it is only a parody, a pornography, of intellection, a reflection that exists in a vacuum.  We are given witness to a stream of flawless deductions that lead inexorably to the completely arbitrary conclusion.  It could be anything– aliens, undead, the subconscious, terrorists, political dissidents, corrupt board members– the only thing that is certain is that it ends; but in ending, it asserts the fact that it never existed in the first place.  The final twist of a film by M. Night Shyamalon or Christopher Nolan is the sputter before quiet in a dark room, when it is finally revealed, that none of this has any bearing on anything, as the realization dawns, that you are alone, and you love nothing.[5]

Detumescence thus becomes the defining feature of our cultural moment.  The genderedness of this diagnosis is intentional:  a dysfunctional, or at least limited, mode of male sexuality has been posited as the universal paradigm of human experience– what is a world of self-interested utility optimizers but a world of masturbators?[6]

The culture industry becomes characterized by deceit and other forms of anti-sociality, and a more general blurring of categories follows.  Joy becomes jaded, lies become truth, the impractical becomes practical.  Advertisement, the most complete realization of ulteriority in art, becomes pragmatic, while the reality of the starving artist becomes a sad truism.  Rigor is stripped from the social sciences, and fantastical narratives of human nature or economic history provide the bases for professional success.  What is practical for an individual’s advancement in a dysfunctional society is impractical for society’s amelioration.  It is no mistake that, for those who actually work in the fields of cultural and intellectual production, alternatives to market competition– notably stipends and tenure– have long been recognized as more effective modes of supporting and rewarding production in these fields.  Thus it falls to economic theory and policy to restore a culture of love as opposed to a culture of pornography.  If truth and beauty are still deemed worthwhile goals, and not just schadenfreude and blank ambition, a universal stipend ought to be an immediate social goal.[7]  Why should this be more unrealistic than trillion dollar industries in advertisement, kitsch, and credentialisation?


[1] Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon quoted in

[2] This article from the A.V. Club documents a fun disjuncture in the economies of romantic comedies and real life:  One aspect of the fantasy is that these endearing and socially valuable jobs still afford secure and comfortable lives.

[3] Rene Magritte illustrates:

magritte les memores d'un saint

[4] Gravity’s Rainbow, conspicuously, does not end.

[5] This is why the 1985 movie adaptation of the board game Clue is so brilliant.

[6]  Before me, George Eliot extrapolated genderedness to different metaphysical inclinations in a similar manner.  She opens Daniel Deronda:  “Man can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. […] His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle.”  ‘Less accurate’ here should not be taken as derogatory.

[7] Thus the left asserts its rightful claim to “freedom.”  Consumer choice is maintained, and the constraints of the market are eliminated.  Also, see for a discussion of this and similar programs that views more from an economic rather than cultural standpoint.  The author of the article tends more towards alternatives to the “universal stipend,” and raises good points, but the solutions don’t have to be mutually exclusive.