Article by Jorge Carrión in A*Desk
Are levity, speed, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency the principal traits of the literature in our time? Italo Calvino imparted his famous cycle of Harvard talks in 1985 (“Six memos for the next millennium”, Harvard University Press, 1998). More than twenty-five years have passed since then. In this lapse of time, it’s not just that the Berlin Wall has fallen and the Twin Towers been knocked down, but also that screens have multiplied, reality became pixelated and the postmodern era came to an end. His six concepts, of which he only developed five, are still valid for thinking about the literary precisely because the byte has occupied part of the symbolic place of the atom or the cell: lightness, speed, the visible or the multiple are concepts that help us to understand digital writing as much as the literature published on paper, where the technological imprint at the end of the turn of the century is evidenced. Exactitude and consistency, if we bear in mind that Calvino didn’t exclude the value of weight from his defence of levity and the importance of dilation from his defence of speed, point to coordinates that in reality are in tune with most avenues of contemporary creation, without totally excluding the rest. As if, ultimately the prophecy was so plural that it also couldn´t be erroneous. And that it would situate itself between two poles: electricity and the body, the virtual gesture and gestural physicality.
This coexistence of practices and tendencies, stemming from different moments within the history of art, is, indeed, one of the principal characteristics of our 21st century. Even within the career of one author we find books that echo conflicting narrative models: think of “See Under:LOVE” (Picador, 2002), by David Grossman, an Israeli investigation into the memory of European Jews constructed with mechanisms typical of the postmodern novel (the last part is written in the form of an encyclopaedic dictionary and all of it dialogues inter-textually with the life and work of the canonical author Bruno Schulz, as well as an immensely popular writer, Sholem Aleijem). And “To the end of the Land” (Vintage, 2011), by the same author, a work that despite being set in the present recuperates the psychological ambition and technical register of the great novels of the 19th century that have a woman as the protagonist. The first was published in 1986 and the second in 2008. The first is contemporary with Calvino’s millennium memos and the second is of this millennium.
Both, what is more, are monumental. I say this because it seems that the anti-monumental is the principal tendency of the literature of our time, an idea concomitant with that of lightness and speed, that have their correlation in the contemporary art that has worked with the project, with dematerialisation or the concept, instead of making the Work of Art or the Monument. And it is highly likely. In the Hispanic ambit, some of the authors, who are more celebrated by critics and academics, cultivate exclusively the novella, or the more or less short novel, as if it was the most convincing answer to the total novels of the 60s and 70s. I’m thinking, amongst others, of César Aira, Mercedes Cebrián, Mario Bellatin, Julián Rodríguez, Yuri Herrera, Alejandro Zambra, Valeria Luiselli, Sergio Chejfec or Ricardo Menéndez Salmón. Authors who have maybe encountered, consciously or not, in the reconnection with the brevity of J.L. Borges, Juan Rulfo or Augusto Monterroso, a way of escaping the shadow of the deicide narratives that were written by Gabriel García Márquez, José Donoso or Mario Vargas Llosa. Self-sufficient narratives, preoccupied above all with History and Literature, far from the dérive of Contemporary Art that could have been their spur and context.
If one had to look for a split in the authors of this generation, a work that did dialogue with the visual arts and the music of its time and whose most well known title, is simultaneously a monument and its rebuttal, one would have to cite “Rayuela (Hopscotch)”, by Julio Cortázar, who in 1963 proposed the possibility of the counter-novel. Rereading its expendable chapters involves noticing that Cortazar’s project was by nature anti-monumental. And one has to remember that the majority of current authors have read this novel in their youth (although they refute it with intellectual arguments, it’s still there, latent in their sentimental memory). And in these same final chapters Cortázar insists on the project of “a story that wanted to be as unliterary as possible”, he talks of “unwriting” –a verb that connects with the “unword” of Beckett– that, as in his case, implies stripping away: “behind that deliberate poverty, behind that “began to go down” that substituted “commenced his descent”, I get a glimpse of something that encourages me. I write very badly, but something happens through it all”.
A large part of current writing is also riddled with what is known as “bad writing”, a concept like the deliberate poverty that we find in all art of the 20th century (from arte povera to the art of recycling, from Antoni Tàpies to Nam June Paik, from Roberto Arlt to Osvaldo Lamborghini, from jazz to noise music). Nowadays, the trash sculptures of Mark Jenkins or the tales of cumbia by Washington Cucurto imply the extension of this tradition that acquires a new meaning with each economic crisis. And the one at the beginning of this century is, obviously, no exception. In “Estética de laboratorio (Laboratory Aesthetics)” (Adriana Hidalgo, 2010), Reinaldo Laddaga carries out a comparative analysis of the artistic practices of our time that specifically share the staging of a creative process that implies stripping away. In the introduction to the book, the Argentine essayist mentions, amongst others, W.G. Sebald, Pierre Pichon and Joan Didion, in dialogue with visual artists such as Sophie Calle, Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney. We read:
“A considerable part of the most ambitious and inventive art (of music, literature and visual arts) currently takes place in the place where they converge and articulate these strategies: the presentation of the artist in person at the scene of the work, realizing himself some form of work at the moment of its self-exposure; the use of minor materials such as light-bulbs for controlling light; the most casual greetings in the use of language and, with sound, the banging of knuckles on wood; the frequenting of past productions that are approached as accumulations of strata, like quarries or reserves, where elements that have been deposited need to be picked up and preserved; the construction of diffuse architectures, hardly differentiated in the space in which they have come to exist and into which they would soon like to reintegrate themselves; the interest in anomalous collaborations, that condition productions of a particular type, but also the sites of investigation into the possibilities of inter-human relations; the imaginary exploration of the relations between creatures that have fallen into spaces where the horizon is not visible and must persist in the relation however they can.”
In one way or another, the majority of artistic practices in our time, that we understand as contemporary and, consequently, as inheritors of the modern art of the end of the 19th century, the avant-garde from the beginning of the 20th century and postmodernity, in the least exclusive sense of the term, can be understood by way of the concepts enumerated by Laddaga. The music interpreted with toy instruments by Pascal Comelade, the novels of Pablo Kadchadjian or Michel Houellebecq, the flamenco by Israel Galván, the performances by Ron Athey or Angélica Liddell, the theatre of Rodrigo García or Rafael Spregelburg, the visual works by William Kentridge or Kikki Smith, the films by Isaki Lacuesta or Albert Serra, the installations by Kuribayashi Takashi or the comics by Miguel Gallardo or Peter Kuper. Laddaga selects two writers for a detailed examination: J.M. Coetzee and Mario Levrero. With the South African, as much as with the Uruguayan, we find principal works that recur to informal forms, such as the diary, the journalistic interview or the annotation, as if it was possible in these narrative procedures to strip away rhetoric, in-exactitude, the sketch, offering a certain immediacy that communicates truth. Because if La novela luminosa (The Bright Novel)(Alfaguara, 2004), Levrero’s masterpiece, tells us something, it is that through it we are accessing the reality of a writer, his anguish, his routine, his sincere thought. While in “Diary of a bad year” (Vintage, 2008) as much as in Summertime (Vintage, 2008), Coetzee doesn´t conform to reproducing these types of texts, but with them constructs a complex artefact. Because the novel is no longer found in the words so much as in the structure, not so much in the text as in the texture. “A great writer? How John would laugh if he heard you! He would say that the times of great writers have ended for ever!” exclaims one of the people interviewed in “Summertime”. As opposed to the perfection, closure and excessive ambition of a certain type of novel of the 20th century that persists to this day, Coetzee and many other writers today propose an apparently imperfect literature, open, in a minor key, in just correspondence with the symbolic place that the literary occupies today.
We also find the format of the lecture, recurrent in the more recent work of Coetzee, in that of Enrique Vila-Matas. In which the supposedly anti-rhetorical immediacy is crossed with another trait that is fundamental in the literature of today: its performativity. One only has to observe the first chapters of his latest novel, “Aire de Dylan (Dylan’s Air)” (Seix Barral, 2012), which like the previous one “París no se acaba nunca (Never any end to Paris)” (Anagrama, 2003) begins with a performance and participates in the theatrical representation that all lectures have: instead of imitators of Ernest Hemingway, in this case we find ourselves faced with discussions about artistic failure. After a clearly self-fictional beginning, the narrator is invited to a Swiss congress that will deal with failure, to which writers such as Sergio Chejfec or Werner Herzog will also attend. There he will meet Vilnius Lancastre, who intervenes in the gathering with a performance titled “Reality theatre”, where he aims to “confirm live his suspicions that the public have absolutely no interest in his drama (…), his performance ends up being the painful and sultry failure of the history of narrators of all times” and was “a complete and exemplary public exhibition of how to fail fully and truly”.
The title of the talk could be an indirect allusion to another book by Laddaga, “Espectáculos de realidad. Ensayo sobre la narrativa latinoamericana de las últimas dos décadas (Spectacles of reality. An essay on the Latin-american narrative in the last two decades)” (Beatriz Viterbo, 2007). In it he talks of a narrative less prone to “realize works than to design experiences” and summarizes the traits of a large part of the most relevant literature from the last few years: their apparent improvisation and instantaneity, their desire to introduce a trance, their aspiration to mutate and their relation with local cooperative practices (in a previous essay, “Estética de la emergencia (Aesthetics of Emergency)”, the author had carefully examined the very strategies of collaborative production at the turn of our century). His examples are works by César Aira, Mario Bellatin, João Gilberto Noll, Fernanda Laguna and Cucurto. But these traits of a few works, that simulate a stream of consciousness writing, reveal their scam, as being as much experiences of reading as experiences of the read, and as such are evidently performative, we can also detect them in titles by Victoria de Stefano, Agustín Fernández Mallo, Antonio José Ponte, Gabriela Wiener, Cristina Rivera Garza and Manuel Vilas.
All these considerations about the vectors that in our times govern the relations between literature and contemporary art make it possible to observe the greater mutation: from paper to pixel. A mutation that, as suggested by the multiplication of jam writing, has made a spectacle of the writer, who now no longer just produces deferred work (first written and corrected, then edited and published), but also produces work live (at the beginning of the last decade, Arcadi Espada carried out various exercises in his blog of chronicling in real time: today it is common practice in all digital newspapers, for example with the football matches, and in social networks and other platforms). The most important phenomenon with regard to the digitalization of literature was perhaps the explosion of blogs at the end of the nineties and at the beginning of this century, one of the many facets of the proliferation of writing that took place and is taking place on the web. Though the professional production of written discourse, often literary, was shifting from traditional supports to digital ones, it is probably the multiplication of amateur texts that is more relevant. The bad writing is thus divided into the intentional and the naïf.
Some of the most important mutations of the last few years come from this very tendency. I’m thinking of Hernán Casciari, who before 2005 had already published a novel and had won the Juan Rulfo Prize for literature, but from then on became well known thanks to “Más respeto, que soy tu madre (More respect, I’m your mother)” (Plaza y Janés), a compilation of the texts from his famous narrative blog. The blog, the novel and the theatrical adaptation: three incarnations of the same work, all three equally popular. Finally, after the success of a new blog, that of the television series in El País Digital, and his break with mass communication and corporations, Casciari began, at the beginning of last year, a project that seeks new routes for the circulation of culture. Orsai was born because several thousand readers promised to support it. It functions by way of a system of prior subscription: the magazine isn´t published until they have a sufficient number of readers. As well as a magazine, it is also a publishing company and even a sort of cooperative enterprise that has already opened a pizza parlour in Buenos Aires, with the clear vocation of being a cultural centre. From the virtual, to the performative. From virtual cooperation to physical cooperation. Devoid of national barriers in either the pole of production or that of distribution.
We find this same duality in the actions of the mutant Spanish group Hotel Postmoderno that publishes books on paper (“Hotel Postmoderno”, Inéditor, 2008; “De La Habana un barco (A boat from Habana)”, Lengua de Trapo, 2010), as well as realizing sophisticated on-line works, such as suicídame and los7vampiros. None of the same artists participate in any of their projects: the writers, musicians, designers, actors and actresses vary according to the characteristics of the proposal. It is clear that work online is one of the signs of our time, in real time and on a transnational level, to an extent that could never be so great. But so are the alternation between digital relations and corporal relations, between electronic textuality and texts printed on paper, between unpaid and non-lucrative projects and projects subject to copyright laws. One might think that this is consistent with a time of transition, but while writing is produced by typing (the physical pressure of fingers on the keyboard) and the family is the fundamental nucleus of human society one can only suppose that the coexistence of virtuality and the objectual, or corporal, will continue to be a characteristic of the work of writing. One only has to take a look at the quantity of English magazines that, after a successful existence on the web, have taken the form of printed objects. Or at how poetry recitals continue to be the best way of disseminating the book or the books that generally justify and sustain them.
After his “Escuela Dinámica de Escritores (Dynamic Writers School)” or his “Congress de Dobles (Congress of Doubles)”, two performative and collaborative operations, Bellatin is carrying out a work that intervenes critically in this very context that I am trying to outline. In “Los 100.000 libros de Mario Bellatin (The 100,000 books of Mario Bellatin)”, the Peruvian-Mexican writer has renovated his home, in order to house, in the sitting room, a publishing house and a storage space, where, on one hundred shelves, thanks to the cooperation of an industrial designer and a graphic designer, the thousands of examples that he is going to publish of each one of his recuperated works are accumulated. The installation has become a thermometer of his life: he still hasn´t written one hundred books, so the future, of both his life and writing, is measured by the shelves occupied and by those that are empty, like a countdown. What does recuperated mean? It’s to do with the books that Bellatin published with a variety of publishers in different countries, some of them with a contract for copyright that is still valid, however, no law impedes him from self-publishing as long as he doesn´t distribute them commercially. The writer re-appropriates his books and takes them with him, in a suitcase that is heir to that of Duchamp, and he exchanges them (for money, objects or favours) at the literary fairs he attends. Sometimes he announces on Facebook that at a certain hour he will be in such and such a park, walking his dogs, and he’ll take his suitcase with him. Someone will approach, with a book, by him or someone else, with a bottle of wine or with 100 dollars to facilitate the swap.
These are a few examples that illustrate the desire to react against the ways the media and publishing industries have become codified, that stand out for having intentionally held back, in the last few years, the shift in the paradigm of consumption, from the traditional book to the digital. Sigueleyendo.es, the Barcelona initiative lead by Cristina Fallarás, proposes precisely to simplify the processes of relation between writers and readers, through innovative methods such as the purchasing of texts without electronic protection, without anti-pirating mechanisms, appealing to the common sense of the purchaser/reader through the following message: “Our books are not protected. They are the fruit of the labour of a writer, an editor, a corrector, a digitalisation technician, a web designer, a web master and a producer. If you pirate it, you know who you are stealing from”. Ultimately, like Hotel Posmoderno or Orsai, what Sigueleyendo.es proposes is the creation of a community.
With the distances between writers and readers increasingly blurred, in the supposed horizontality of the social networks, every writer is a self-manager who simultaneously belongs to several communities of producers of discourse or “I like”. All the users of Facebook, be they readers or writers, are micro-critics who manage a huge amount of cultural information moving from one side to another the flux of consumption and reading. The project Heartbeaters, by the Spanish artist Dora García, consisted in precisely this: in the creation of a community. A community, that arose from the existence of an online hyper-textual story, in the fertile frontier between contemporary art and literature (and vice versa and without the copulative and: literature is contemporary art). The relational art of the nineties prefigured the habitual modus operandi of written culture in our century. Forms of operation and intervention that are in the laboratory phase that are still hesitantly being progressively defined, without anybody knowing if they are going in the right direction. One only has to look at the boom of community managers and the dearth of companies in the management of social networks. Like them, each writer of the 21st century is looking for a way through, while also having conflicting relations with publishers, disbelieving in the cultural supplements while knowing that they are still the ones who decide part of the prestige, discovering in certain blogs and profiles – international ones – criteria that are of interest, conversing with interlocutors who up to four days ago were inaccessible (in a immeasurable quantity and quality, often secret, this virtual epistolary that in only a few cases will partially, one day, be revealed) and receives more audio-visual stimuli than any writer in the past and expands his artistic production thanks to tools that no longer need formal training (Photoshop, video editors, web pages, word and image processors, etc.). And perhaps, in the most extreme cases, even working in the ambit of digital literature, alongside a programmer or actually programming, far removed, from the market, the laws of supply and demand, from the preservations of works in libraries, from everything that we are accustomed to and which is increasingly rare, even exceptional.