“Language Is Such a Mess” — A Short Review of Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things

What does Slavoj Zizek mean when he says that the Lacanian Symoblic carries the “stain of the Real”? During a talk I once saw him deliver, we watched a clip from David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The plot is as follows: disaffected middle-class wife Celia Johnson falls in love with one Dr. Alec Harvey, both unhappily married with children, both finding in each other a means of escape from their droll realities. They can’t avoid running into people from their shared social circles, forcing them to lie, ultimately delivering us to the final scene. At the train station,  the precipice of their final good-bye, Johnson and Harvey are interrupted not only by a nagging friend of the former, but the whistle of Harvey’s train, preventing a passionate farewell (note: they also have not consummated their affair).

The point is that there is a Symbolic laid over a Symbolic — the first are Johnson’s and Harvey’s individual marriages, the illusion that the ritual provides access to the Real of intimacy (the failure of this accomplishment is signed by the crushingly boring misery of their lives); the second are the lies that overlap the marriages, a futile attempt to circumvent the trap of middle-class marriage. The point to this point: Johnson’s friend, the whistle, and the progressive threat of discovery with each new lie are policemen of the Real. Even in the myth of love we are not truly connected; the stain of the Real interrupts to remind us that there is no signifier of the Real without the Symbolic.


Implicit in this construction is that there is no capital-T Truth, that the Symbolic always leaks the Real through its pores as it tries to envelop it. Such is the dilemma of Jon Michaels, the protagonist in Lee Rourke’s new novel Vulgar Things. Michaels, a mid-level editor at a small academic publisher, hungover from the funerary-celebratory bender of his recent sacking that shuttles against the wounds of a fresh divorce, is told by his perpetually unavailable brother Cal that their estranged Uncle Rey, lost to “‘wacky baccy and strange ways,'” has committed suicide in his caravan on Canvey Island, a tucked-away seatown in the Thames estuary in East London where people–mainly idealistic men–used to believe could restart their lives. Instead, it became a place to simply die.  “I’ve always understood, deep down, beneath the laughter,” Jon says during his first few steps on Canvey, “why the locals refer to it as the island, deep down it’s always made perfect sense to me: to feel dislocated, to feel lost and forgotten.”

It’s my disadvantage that I’m not English and know nothing about the UK’s geography, the cultural codes built into words like Southend or Queensway. To know, however vaguely, centuries of history through the mediation of businesses coming and going, hundreds-year-old buildings crammed up against new condos. The beaten bricks giving way to municipal sidewalk-grade cement. The phasing out of regional accents, the arrival of RP and other posh accents (this is the extent of my knowledge of the UK) to the grimace and chagrin of the locals, who know all the stories and histories of Canvey. Because Vulgar Things is a text built on and from the echoes of these stories, and of stories in general, the highways and throughways of mediation.

Vulgar Things‘s plot is far from compelling. Jon has to go clean out a dead uncle’s Caravan, becomes obsessed with a woman he sees on the pier, discovers something reality-shattering about himself and Rey. For the first fifty pages or so, I was struggling to find something in this limp plot, in Rourke’s signature flat prose (which is what got me jazzed on him in his last novel, The Canal). At first it seemed to be nothing; I was worried, but Rourke’s deliberately unremarkable and at times sophomoric prose points us to something else entirely: the desire to have desire, the desire for agency within a plot, and the inherent failure at attaining truth. In Canvey, “the sea and sky above [him], everything else behind [him, it] makes immediate sense, [his] being here, to help decipher things, to tie up all the loose ends of Uncle Rey’s life.”

Canvey is a space in which Jon is underneath the atmosphere, the systems of reality that fix Jon’s life in apathy: his overpriced London apartment, the dissatisfaction he found in his work, a failed marriage. The messy task of deciphering and reassembling Rey’s life through his papers loses Jon between temporalities. For here is a man surrendered to aimlessness, wanting anything that can fix him to a desire and thus a meaning and thus a truth. Jon’s and Rey’s wanderings collide wonderfully when, like a good mystery, Jon finds amidst the detritus of Rey’s life a manuscript titled Vulgar Things, a reassemblage of Petrarch’s sonnets, the only poet, according to Rey, who got anything right.  Rourke’s Vulgar Things becomes a palimpsest of Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” itself a palimpsest of Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Fragments of Common Things). The elevation of the banal is reflected in this mediation through the form of the book — the days of the week are built from ordinary phrases, seemingly forgetful perceptions: “such a long time”; “afternoon drinking”; “pointless”; “part of the furniture.” As if these are the forgettable shots in a film, the necessary moves that help get us from Point A to Point B. The limp conceit I mentioned above becomes a kind of mystery-thriller, not unlike the strange turns that Rourke’s last novel takes, when Jon becomes animated by Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” the secrets he points to in his strange video recordings. The startling coincidences of Laura throughout the three media (Petrarch, Rey and Jon).

Sort of unsure how to end this, much like how Jon is unsure how to integrate the revelations he has at the end of the book. He doesn’t keep anything; which is to say, we’re prevented an ending that Symbolically ties up the trajectories of desire that Vulgar Things elicits (perhaps solicits) from us. Again, this is much of the book’s thesis. We need language, but language is a medium, and these mediums are haunted by its linguistic and media forebears and continually fail at providing a truth beyond its Symbolic functions. Yet we are caught in desire, caught in language, and can do little else than to contend with that failure.

Topless Lacan

topless lacan

(Via Asian Emoticon).

Slavoj Žižek on Interpassivity and VCRs

The other side of this interactivity is interpassivity. The obverse of interacting with the object (instead of just passively following the show) is the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passivity, so that it is the object itself which enjoys the show instead of me, relieving me of the duty to enjoy myself. Almost every VCR aficionado who compulsively records movies (myself among them), is well aware that the immediate effect of owning a VCR is that one effectively watches less films than in the good old days of a simple TV set. One never has time for TV, so, instead of losing a precious evening, one simply tapes the film and stores it for a future viewing (for which, of course, there is almost never time). Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction and, occasionally, enables me to simply relax and indulge in the exquisite art of far’niente – as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place. VCR stands here for the big Other, the medium of symbolic registration. It seems that, today, even pornography functions more and more in an interpassive way: X-rated movies are no longer primarily the means destined to excite the user for his (or her) solitary masturbatory activity – just staring at the screen where “the action takes place” is sufficient, it is enough for me to observe how others enjoy in the place of me.

Slavoj Žižek in How to Read Lacan.

Žižek’s Lacan, Houellebecq’s Lovecraft (Books Acquired, 9.7.2012)


Slavoj Žižek on the Pressure to “Do Something”


The pressure to “do something” here is like the superstitious compulsion to make some gesture when we are observing a process over which we have no real influence. Are not our acts often such gestures? The old saying, “Don’t just talk, do something!” is one of the most stupid things one can say, even measured by the low standards of common sense. Perhaps, rather, the problem lately has been that we have been doing too much, such as intervening in nature, destroying the environment, and so forth . . . Perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing. True we often talk about something instead of doing it; but sometimes we also do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them.”

–From Slavoj Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce


David Foster Wallace, Slavoj Žižek, and Scatological Ideology

I came across this clip of Slavoj Žižek discussing the different types of toilets that one finds across Europe the other day, and his riff immediately reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s novella The Suffering Channel (or “The Suffering Channel,” if you prefer to think of it as a long short story). Here’s a version of the riff in English, which seems to approach a stand-up comedy routine at times—

“You go to the toilet and you sit on ideology,” says Žižek, arguing that “Disgust . . . is not necessarily, immediately characterized by its object” — disgust is when you confront something from your inside on your outside (Žižek is likely working in part from Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject here). His inventory and analysis of the differences between French, English, and German toilets immediately recalled this passage from The Suffering Channel

She had also at some point spent a trimester at Cambridge, and still spoke with a slight British accent, and asked generally now whether anyone else who traveled abroad much had noticed that in German toilets  the hole into which the poop is supposed to disappear when you flush is positioned way in front, so that the poop just sort of lies there in full view and there’s almost no way you can avoid looking at it when you get up and turn around to flush. Which she observed was so almost stereotypically German, almost as if you were supposed to study and analyze your poop and make sure it passed muster before you flushed it down

Of course, pretty much every page of The Suffering Channel concerns the scatological: it is literally about a man who shits out art. Wallace seems to be exploring the ways in which we are unable to reconcile what is inside us — that is, what makes us us — with its final form. For Kristeva, the ultimate abject is the corpse. Žižek, less mordant perhaps, seems to be signalling (in the short clip anyway) the relatively straightforward idea that ideology is always operating, always a force conditioning our identity.

Near the end of the clip (around 5:25 or so), Žižek brings up the example of saliva, pointing out that we are constantly swallowing it, producing it and absorbing it back into ourselves, yet to fill a glass with it and then try to drink it would be revolting, horrific. Compare this with another passage from The Suffering Channel

‘Your own saliva,’ said Laurel Manderley. ‘You’re swallowing it all the time. Is it disgusting to you? No. But now imagine gradually filling up a juice glass or something with your own saliva, and then drinking it all down.’

‘That really is disgusting,’ the editorial intern admitted.

‘But why? When it’s in your mouth it’s not gross, but the minute it’s outside of your mouth and you consider putting it back in, it becomes gross.’

‘Are you suggesting it’s somehow the same thing with poo?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think with poo, it’s more like as long as it’s inside us we don’t think about it. In a way, poo only becomes poo when it’s excreted. Until then, it’s more like a part of you, like your inner organs.’

‘It’s maybe the same way we don’t think about our organs, our livers and intestines. They’re inside all of us —‘

‘They are us. Who can live without intestines?’

‘But we still don’t want to see them. If we see them, they’re automatically disgusting.’

Wallce lards his novella with example after example of this kind, of the ways in which abject encounters with the borders of self — shit, saliva, menstrual blood, farts — confer identity through a kind of ritual shame. I doubt that Wallace is following, overtly anyway, any post-Lacanian figures in The Suffering Channel, and the concordance of examples used by Wallace and Žižek is probably ultimately not that remarkable. What I do find worth remarking upon, I suppose, are the ways in which Wallace and Žižek were/are so adept at discussing those areas of humanity we’re often happy to overlook.

Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gibberish, More Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited

While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:

“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain […]”


But Chomsky’s not done yet:

“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones […] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”

Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)


Two things:

First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”

So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.

Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.

I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.