Long Live Aporia!

Hal Foster

  • Agapē Agape by William Gaddis
    Atlantic, 113 pp, £9.99, January 2003, ISBN 1 903809 83 5
  • The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings by William Gaddis, edited by Joseph Tabbi
    Penguin, 182 pp, US $14.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 14 200238 0

Off and on, for over half a century, William Gaddis worked on a manuscript about the short life of the player piano in the United States. Over fifty years on an outmoded entertainment? There is more here than meets the eye: ‘Agapē Agape is a satirical celebration of the conquest of technology and of the place of art and the artist in a technological democracy,’ Gaddis wrote in a proposal from the early 1960s. ‘As “The Secret History of the Player Piano”, it pursues America’s growth in terms of the evolution of the programming and organisational aspects of mechanisation in industry and science, education, crime, sociology and leisure and the arts, between 1876 and 1929.’ In fact there was too much here, and the project got away from Gaddis. Luckily, his four great novels also intervened, each satirical and compendious, too, and all crucial to the development of American literature after the war: The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and A Frolic of His Own (1994). Yet the project didn’t disappear, and at times Gaddis borrowed from it: a figure furiously at work on an unwieldy treatise is a staple of his fiction (in JR a character named Jack Gibbs struggles over this very text), and over the years he wrote several essays on related themes (now collected with other occasional pieces in The Rush for Second Place). Then, in early 1997, Gaddis was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which prompted him to distil his mass of notes, clippings, outlines and drafts into a fiction of 84 manuscript pages, the version of Agapē Agape left when he died a year later.

The novel has some similarities to the others: it is nearly all dialogue, or rather all monologue, the soliloquy of a dying man in bed, who is and is not Gaddis. In a frantic state of distraction (heightened by doses of prednisone, which Gaddis also took for emphysema), he struggles to patch together both his book and his body in order somehow to conclude and to die. He has a deadline without extension: it is either edit or be edited once and for all. With the earlier novels Gaddis tracked his many characters and stories, ideas and riffs, through rows of notes pinned to the walls around him. Agapē Agape is also composed as a collage of texts, though it is much leaner than the others, a last delirious solo. More than the other books, this one makes a subject of its own (un)making, and dramatises the predicament of the author in the process. Imagine Proust, propped up in bed, rambling about his writing life, crossed with Benjamin, in his last days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, rearranging his Arcades notes, and add a little of the ‘I can’t go on, I go on’ of Beckett and a lot of the run-on ranting of Thomas Bernhard, a contemporary whom the Gaddis surrogate here accuses of plagiarism before the fact. (Agapē Agape does recall Concrete, a Bernhard novel about a writer unable to begin a biography of a composer.) In the end, as the dying man works to get his estate in order, he identifies with Lear, but he is a High Modernist Lear maddened by a neglectful world gone to the mass-cultural dogs.

Book and body in pieces before him, he fixes on a note here, a symptom there; he pulls them out like threads that he snaps and lets drop again in a great tangle of observations and obsessions. He has no time to lose, but with his veering thoughts and stuttering entreaties time is the thing that slips away:

No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organised . . . that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four-year-old with a computer, everyone his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?

For the dying man this struggle between order and entropy is personal, but it is also the philosophical crux of his book and the practical question of his age.

Eccentric as a displaced artefact, the player piano is central to ‘the secret history’ that is the literal pretext of the novel, the open sesame to ‘the patterned structure of modern technology and the successful democratisation of the arts in America’ (the proposal again). The outmoded objects that intrigued the Surrealists possessed this rich ambiguity, too, and Walter Benjamin also looked to such things for the ‘profane illumination’ of historical dreams (in his essay on Surrealism he listed ‘the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos’). In this light the idée fixe of the dying man – ‘my whole thesis entertainment the parent of technology’ – might have interested Benjamin, who is given a cameo in the book. Yet the thesis that mechanisation is somehow internal to art, even initiated there, seems to reverse the Benjaminian view that mechanisation transformed art from the outside, from the world of industry. In dialectical (not to say diabolical) fashion, the dying man laments the effects of mechanisation even as he implicates art in this technological degradation.

For Gaddis and his double, the genealogy of mechanisation begins with the Enlightenment automata of Jacques de Vaucanson, though the water organs of Hero of Alexandria and the golden birds of Byzantium cherished by Yeats are also noted. The inventor of a playing flautist and a shitting duck in the 1730s, Vaucanson became Inspector of Silk Manufactures in France, and in 1756 transformed the industry with mechanical looms controlled by pierced cylinders. It was literally from the pieces of this apparatus, restored at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, that Joseph Jacquard devised his punch-card loom in 1804, which, thirty more years down the road of modernisation, inspired Charles Babbage in his Analytical Engine, the great predecessor of the contemporary computer. For the dying man, the player piano is a lost term between these last two machines, the vanishing mediator between industrial and digital ages: ‘the beginning of key-sort and punched cards and IBM and NCR and the whole driven world we’ve inherited from some rinky-dink piano roll’. It becomes the magical key to his own history of automatisation, which is why ‘getting the whole chronology in order 1876 to 1929’ is so important to him.

A chronology in The Rush for Second Place tells us that 1876 is the year the Pianista player was first exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition along with an electric organ; it is also the birth date of the telephone. The demise of the player came in 1929, with the spread of gramophones and radios (from five thousand in the US in 1920 to 2.5 million in 1924), the advent of sound film, and ‘the first public demonstration of television’. This history is potted: under 1876, for example, Gaddis also lists the Christian Science Association, whose charismatic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, is taken at her word: ‘I affix for all time the word Science to Christianity; and error to personal sense; and call the world to battle on this issue.’ For Gaddis this ‘elimination of failure through analysis, measurement and prediction’ is the great force of technoscience, but it is also the reason it can overwhelm matters of the spirit, in religion and in art, ‘where truth and error are interdependent possibilities in the search for unpredetermined perfection’. In addition, Gaddis argues in his early proposal, ‘the career of the player paralleled the zeal for order and patriotic proclivities for standardisation and programming contributed by McCormick (patents), Rockefeller (industry), Woolworth (merchandising), Eastman (photography), Morgan (credit), Ford (assembly line, plant police), Pullman (model town), Mary Baker Eddy (applied ontology), Taylor (time studies), Watson (behaviourism), Sanger (sex) etc, etc.’ Clearly Gaddis is concerned less with mechanisation per se than with the ‘more pervasive principle of organisation’ which continues to govern ‘automation and cybernetics, mathematics and physics, sociology, game theory, and, finally, genetics’. Clearly, too, this project pushed Gaddis into a paranoid ‘zeal for order’ of his own (I mean this as a compliment, according to the Philip K. Dick definition of the paranoiac as ‘the person with all the facts’ on whom the maintenance of meaning in the world seems to depend). At the same time his short history of outmoded techniques also points to a counter-argument to his vision of total organisation: rationalisation is not always rational; media invention is littered with mistakes; and, as the exploded shuttle Columbia reminds us once again, technological advance is bound up with technological catastrophe.

For the dying man, the player piano also provides an occasion to reflect on representation and reproduction, and here he draws on three conservative lines of pop-Platonic thought: that representation is illusory and so dangerous; that reproduction is dispersive and so entropic (he is swamped by versions of his own text, a not uncommon condition for writers in the age of electronic reproducibility); and, finally, that replication is uncanny and thus subversive, ‘this dangerous demon you can’t control not really part of you but can force you to do things.’ This last is the old view of technology as Frankenstein’s monster run amok, and the dying man does riffs on strange dolls from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Olympia to Ian Wilmut’s Dolly, in whose honour he transforms a Blakean song of innocence into a Mephistophelean rag of experience: ‘Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? . . . Doctor Wilmut made thee, Doctor Ian Wilmut cloned thee outside Edinburgh.’ For the dying man ‘this dangerous demon’ of replication has it in for the artist in particular: ‘the technology the artist created being used to eliminate him’. And in this automatisation of art the player piano figures again between Vaucanson’s flautist and ‘every four-year-old with a computer’: according to Gaddis, the player worked to dissuade potential performers and to deskill actual ones, so that its very success (by 1919 more player pianos were produced than straight ones) nearly doomed the whole business of piano playing.

The period 1876-1929 saw the full advent of both the art of High Modernism and the society of the spectacle. Nonetheless, the implicit opposition between active performance and passive entertainment is an old chestnut of cultural criticism, and it follows other clichéd binaries of serious art and mass culture, avant-garde and kitsch. In this regard the dying man keeps to the high line of the Criterion (new and old) and the Partisan Review, but at times his diatribe is not so reactive. If he does not treat high and low culture in Adornian terms as ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’, he does sketch a kind of dialectic of musical composition and mechanical reproduction. Some composers like Liszt, the dying man suggests, tended towards a ‘banjo beat’ in part to suit the clunky regularity of the player piano, while others like Ravel favoured complex rhythms in part to foil it. This is too deterministic by half, but his thinking is more nuanced when he considers Glenn Gould. On the one hand, he sees Gould as the ultimate performer; on the other, Gould famously withdrew into the recording studio. Yet in doing so, the dying man implies, Gould was so given over to technological manipulation that he overcame the opposition between the performative and the automatic, so steeped in mediation that he passed through to the other side into immediacy again: ‘he wanted to be the Steinway because he hated the idea of being between Bach and the Steinway . . . he’d be in total control with his splicing and editing and altering pitch what he called creative cheating for the perfect performance.’ Music has long figured such grace in art – the dying man quotes Eliot’s ‘music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts’ – and clearly Gaddis sees a kindred spirit in Gould, for he, too, seeks an immediacy of pure voice through a mediation of collaged texts: ‘between the reader and the page what it’s all about, that solitary enterprise’. Yet this quest for ‘the blue flower in the land of technology’, as Benjamin put it in his essay on mechanical reproduction, can be bewitched (this is a prime problem in ‘new media’ art today, not to mention, say, The Lord of the Rings), and Gaddis is more subtle in practice than the dying man is in theory. For his novels do not seek to transcend the mundane discourses that they rewrite – advertising in JR, Christian fundamentalism in Carpenter’s Gothic, law in A Frolic of His Own. In the precise words of Joseph Tabbi, editor of both Agapē Agape and The Rush for Second Place, Gaddis works by ‘watching the operations of power, appropriating its language, recycling its massive waste products’ in order to create a critical space ‘under regimes of information, unreality and bureaucratic domination’. In this light he is less a High Modernist Lear than a gadfly jester of our everyday thought.

Again, his history of technology via the player piano is potted, but its pottedness makes an additional point: that history always sticks together its pieces in partial and passionate fashion. Gaddis derives some of his own pieces from Plato, Nietzsche, Freud, Norbert Weiner, Benjamin and Huizinga (the last two take part in a hilarious dialogue in Agapē Agape), but others not cited also come to mind: Sigfried Giedion in Mechanisation Takes Command, Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilisation, and especially Hugh Kenner in The Counterfeiters and The Mechanic Muse, as well as, more distantly, Friedrich Kittler (‘discourse networks’), Gilles Deleuze (‘control society’) and Jacques Attali (‘the political economy of music’). Although more technologically deterministic than these thinkers, Gaddis is not oblivious to social agency. This concern is signalled by his enigmatic title. Agapē, the dying man tells us, is ‘that love feast in the early church’ which celebrated the creation of the universe, and that is re-enacted in miniature in every artistic performance: ‘That’s what’s lost, what you don’t find in these products of the imitative arts that are made for reproduction on a grand scale.’ Here the negative force of mechanisation in art is the withering away less of Benjaminian aura than of individual risk, on the one hand, and communal participation on the other. The dying man plays further on the word: the community of love conjured by art, he suggests, is always aghast at its opposite number, ‘the herd numbed and silenced agape at blood sex and guns . . . no more elite no wherever you turn just the spread of the crowd with its, what did he call it, what Huizinga called its insatiable thirst for trivial recreation and crude sensationalism, the mass of the mediocre widening the gap.’

All these ideas – art as eucharistic ritual, the lost community of aesthetic experience, the mindless ‘herd’ of mass culture – are staples of High Modernist discourse, and they are often reactionary (and sometimes anti-semitic). But Gaddis is too smart to leave matters there. He is also fascinated by another Greek word, aporia, which he once defined as ‘difference, discontinuity, disparity, contradiction, discord, ambiguity, irony, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, anarchy, chaos’, and saluted with a ‘long live!’ Although Gaddis might bemoan the gap between elite art and mass entertainment in the name of agapē, he appreciates other gaps, other aporias, that open up spaces for experiment and doubt, creative risk and critical thought. For Gaddis, then, agapē and aporia are in tension, maybe in the way that order and entropy are; the former term in each pair might offer some hope and reason, the latter some running-room and illumination.

This is where the dying man and Gaddis appear to part company. The dying man quotes Flaubert on democracy – ‘the entire dream of democracy is to raise the proletariat to the level of bourgeois stupidity’ – and adds a nasty revision of his own: ‘to bring the stupidity level of the bourgeoisie down to the subliterate appetite of the proles’. Here he passes beyond High Modernist belief in artistic detachment and difficulty into political reaction: ‘the crowd, the mass, the herd, will always be detestable. Nothing is important save a small group of minds, ever the same, which pass on the torch.’ For a moment the dying man considers the attempt to bridge the gap between elite and ‘herd’ by Tolstoy and Whitman, but dismisses it as absurd today: ‘Our literary language isn’t suited to his common herd of millions out there maybe they’re inventing their own, been to the movies lately? Listened to their lyrics?! Man I mean like I’ve heard it you dumb asshole give this muthrfuckr a blowjob everyman his own artist in this democracy of the arts.’

For his part Gaddis is drawn to moments of dissociation in a way that the dying man is not – in the sense of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’, too – and he works to make the most of them. For all his sympathies to high-minded Modernists, Gaddis also partakes in the demotic language experiments of Postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon (whose interest in entropy, not to mention proclivity for paranoia, he shares), Harry Mathews, Joseph McElroy, Robert Coover and Don DeLillo. Often this distinction between Modernists and Postmodernists is artificial, and Gaddis seems to write in the gap between the two dispensations, between different orders of linguistic imagination; and here other peers come to mind as well, not only Bernhard in Concrete, but also Max Frisch in Man in the Holocene and William Gass in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Like these works, Agapē Agape exists on the threshold between the collage technique of many Modernists and some other mode or archive that is not yet adequately theorised. Unlike the dying man, Gaddis does not lament the death of the author, for the writer is always about to be incarnated in a new form. In the meantime he has his surrogate test out different positions on art, technology and society, mocking and defending them in turn, suspended between agapē and aporia, order and entropy. At one moment the dying man is a resentful truth-teller; at another a cynical trickster, whose whole rant is so much blague: ‘I’m clearly the one person qualified for a piece of work like this one, first because I can’t read music and can’t play anything but a comb. Second because I use only secondhand material which any court would dismiss as hearsay so we can reduce it to gossip like everything else, and finally. Finally I really don’t believe any of it.’ In still another moment, his last in fact, the dying man is hopeful, as he calls out to a former artistic self who is also, always, a future one in the making: ‘that Youth who could do anything’.