Thursday, July 5, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 150-175: Nobody Has to See Anybody

Whilst procrastinating en route to today's J R reading, I finally willed myself through the pilot of "The Newsroom" and holy fuck is this show fucking awful. And it's awful in a way that actually ties in nicely with today's reading! See what really grated me about "The Newsroom" wasn't its haughty, even paternalistic construction of the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the viewing public (OK, that grated me), or the fart-sniffing self-righteousness of nearly every single character (that also really grated me) or "The Newsroom's" seemingly-magical and totally unctuous ability to piece together one of the most complex stories in recent years--a story that the New Yorker's Raffi Katchedourain only wrote about like, a year after the fact--in like what, 15 minutes (THIS REALLY GRATED ME!). What outraged me the most about The Newsroom was the fact that it depicts people who are good at and who actually really like their jobs.

Is this how life typically works? Do things actually function so smoothly, so seamlessly? Is morale always this high? Are most people constantly possessed with an unquenchable sense of purpose, which sense is expressed in eight hour or ten hour increments five days a week? There is something uncanny, even something disturbing, about such a sleek depiction of such motivated and unwrinkled professional existences. I prefer "The Office," or "Larry Sanders," or even "Louie"--I prefer struggle. The elusiveness of fulfillment, the inner battles with one's limited competencies, and, by extension, one's limited capabilities (i.e. one's inadequacies) as both a professional and a human being--these conflicts are seemingly absent from "The Newsroom." There's struggle, but its stupid, politically-located struggle--struggle against the vacuousness of the newsmedia and the idiocy of the American public, mostly. These conflicts are bullshit, and the characters are more bullshit still. They love their jobs too much, and they love themselves too much.

Which brings me to the the first ten pages of today's reading, where days--perhaps weeks--pass within the confines of an office in Queens. In a novel of changing leaves and ticking clocks, the scenes in the General Roll offices are notably disconnected from any temporal signifiers. And yet time is constantly being mentioned: take a late lunch, because it will make the afternoon seem shorter. Get a plant to liven up the office, because that's where you spend half your life (not half your time--half your life). A weekend goes by. Angel leaves for a business trip; Angel comes back from a business trip. People come and go. A female employee is on her period.

Both the reader and the office hacks are acutely aware of how time is passing, but they're unaware of just how much time is passing. And it's passing quite quickly, by the novel's standards: the book's first day takes what, 80 pages? Here, we go through a week in the space of a few thousand words. And it's a week in which very little happens. Much of this novel is dedicated to scenes in which nothing really seems to happen: it's dedicated to obscure, bureaucratic discussions, to technical jargon or legalese, to deep conversations on complex matters that have been foregrounded with little and in many cases no previous exposition. The office scene is a poignantly low-stakes version of that. Time is hastened by virtue of the banality of the conversation filling it. There's frustration and sadness as the bottom of this--Time passes, nothing happens. It's a common and all too human frustration, and Gaddis evokes it brilliantly.

He evokes it for sound, thematic reasons as well. On page 172, Our Hero explains what I'll simplistically describe as the disembodiment of capital. Money flies around without debtors or creditors understanding who's sending it or who's receiving it or where it's going or why. The paths that it travels are not random, but there's no way of conclusively pinpointing its behavior. Shakespeare makes a similar argument in Act 4 of Timon of Athens, when the title character reflects upon the seemingly mystical quality of gold, a substance that can cancel the predicted course of nature, and that even the gods are enslaved to:

[To the gold] 2085
O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
'Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen's purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian's lap! thou visible god,
That solder'st close impossibilities,
And makest them kiss! that speak'st with
every tongue,
To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire! 

Of course, the mysticism of capital is different from the mysticism of specie--capital implies an intricate system of debits and credits; gold is simply money, a more straightforward signifier and enabler of wealth. Gold is a noble and valuable thing; capital, in contrast, can be the absence of value, or the promise of future value. Which is why the office scene is so vital: the office is where value is created; it's where things are made and produced, the tangible side of the crypto-black box economy that J R unwittingly describes. In these 25 pages, we get something of a full look at Gaddis's notion of contemporary capitalism, in all its quiet frustrations and absurdities, in all its mystical banality. It is something less noble, less worthy of high poetry than the notion of capitalism that Timon rails against. This is no bright defiler of Hymen's purest blood, and maybe in the next 500 pages, we'll find that it's something altogether darker--and altogether more familiar to us.

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