The Dialectics of Damage: Art, Form, Formlessness: A Reply to Jennifer Ashton
Is damaged art still art? There are two ways to approach the question. The first is ontological; it is a question of how much a work of art can be changed, damaged, or altered (the water-logged painting, the shattered sculpture, the abridged novel) and still be thought of as the same work. The other way to approach it is political: as a question of what it means for art to represent or reflect the damage—the compromise, concession, and instrumentalization—that is an inescapable consequence of its place in a market economy and a capitalist world. To put the question this way is to inquire into the conditions of an artwork that doesn’t pre-exist its damage, one that arrives already in damaged form; “totaled in advance,” to use Jennifer Ashton’s excellent phrase. But the artwork that is totaled in advance raises in turn a further question, which is whether it is possible to differentiate intentional damage from unintentional damage, the preemptive from the inevitable. Does art that takes up the unavoidable demands of the market as its subject thereby somehow escape those demands? Or is the very point of art under such conditions simply to demonstrate its own impossibility in the face of the limitless reach of capital itself?
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is either perfectly exemplary of the damage capitalism does to art or paradoxically immune to that damage. It is either a novel that overcomes literature’s enmeshment in the market, or it is a novel that was itself written only because the market solicited it. The difficulty of deciding which it is is what this short essay aims to think through. In “Totaling the Damage: Revolutionary Ambition in Recent American Poetry,” Ashton argues that “10:04 imagines, in short, that instead of the work of art being subsumed within the inevitable damages of capital, the damages of capital are subsumed within it. …[W]e are looking at a work that has been totaled in advance. Its damage—the fact of it being totaled—is no longer understood as something that has happened to it but as something that is—in the form of the novel—subsumed by it.”1
In Ashton’s reading, 10:04 is a novel that has intentionally damaged itself—exposed its market concessions, revealed its economic compromises—because it knew that it would eventually end up damaged anyway. In that case, though, what can 10:04 really be showing us other than the inevitability of damage, the unavoidable horizon of capitalist instrumentality? While Ashton reads Lerner’s totaled-in-advance novel as one that overcomes its concessions to the market by making them an intentional part of its form, I want to ask whether her theory of damaged form has more complex, less salutary consequences for how we understand the fate of art in a time of capitalist crisis. What is there that prevents the work that is “totaled in advance” from being nothing more than a record of the impossibility of avoiding damage, avoiding the market, and avoiding capital? What allows us to think that the role of art in a damaged world can be anything other than to remind us that there is no longer such a thing as undamaged art?
For Ashton, these questions are resolved by attending to the difference between being damaged and subsuming the damage; the difference, if you like, between sabotage and self-sabotage. The intentional self-consciousness of the latter, Ashton suggests, offers one solution to the structural inevitability of the former. In both cases, however, the result is exactly the same: a damaged novel. So how can we tell what kind of damage we’re looking at? This question is raised most explicitly in 10:04 with respect to the New Yorker short story that Lerner published in 2012, and that became the basis not just for 10:04 but for the “‘strong six-figure’ advance” he was given in order to write it.2 The story was damaged from the start. The New Yorker editors “wanted a major cut…the section I considered the story’s core.” The narrator of 10:04—also named Ben—initially balks: “I wasn’t going to make a cut whose primary motivation was, on some level, the story’s marketability” (56). But then he does exactly that: “The next day my agent helped me word my mea culpa…. The magazine was gracious and decided to run the revised story quickly” (57). Of course, we are reading about all of this in a novel, as the experience of writing the story and being forced to cut it is then folded back into the narrative of 10:04, which includes the verbatim text of the published story. This is the “subsumption” that Ashton is talking about: the primal scene of Lerner’s capitulation to “marketability” reappears in 10:04 as a confession of that capitulation that doubles, Ashton suggests, as its negation (“insofar as it’s part of the meaning of the work, part of what the artist intends for it as a whole, it also becomes integral to the form of the work.” Yet the re-publication of the compromised story within 10:04 may only be further evidence of the novel’s compromise. 10:04 makes much of its refusal to conform to the expectations of popular literary fiction. “‘Develop a clear, geometrical plot; describe faces … ; make sure the protagonists undergoes a dramatic transformation’” (156), the narrator’s agent tells him, all advice that 10:04 scrupulously ignores—except for one thing. “‘If they like it, fine,’” says his agent. “‘But you need to keep the New Yorker story in there, I think.’” And so Lerner does. What choice does he have, really? If the publishers “rejected it,” he reminds us, “I’d have to give the money back” (155).
What is the difference between the decision to allow the initial cuts to the story and the decision to include the butchered story in the novel? How can we be expected to differentiate between the novel that is compromised by the market and the novel that preemptively makes market compromise part of its form? To put it simply, the problem here is that these two different literary forms—which carry two very different political connotations—look exactly the same. The problem can also be rendered visually, like so:
These two pictures—or, two copies of the same picture (a photograph of the poet Claude Roy taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson)—appear on page 135 of 10:04. The picture on the left has the caption: “Our world”; the one on the right: “The world to come.” The question they pose together is: what’s the difference? The problem of difference posed by the utopian desire for a different future, a different world, is first raised in the novel’s epigraph: “The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. …Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” 10:04 is obsessed with the imperceptible differences that might constitute a redeemed future, an obsession communicated in part through the repetition of that key phrase from the epigraph, always just a tiny bit different: “Everything will be as it is now—the room, the baby, the clothes, the minutes—just a little different” (54); “everything is the same but a little different” (109); “it was the same, only totally different” (133); “What if everything at the end of the book is the same, only a little different?” (156).3 Yet the minor differences among these articulations of utopian difference distract us from the more complicated and possibly unsettling assertion of sameness, an assertion made most forcefully by the duplicate Cartier-Bresson photographs. The world to come may be a little bit different; but it will also be exactly the same. This raises what is essentially a hermeneutic dilemma: if the utopian future will look exactly the same as our damaged capitalist present, how will we recognize that future when we see it? The answer suggested by the two indistinguishable photographs—just as it suggested by a novel in which the editorially damaged story and the formally redeemed story are, in every way, the same story—is that it’s possible that we won’t.
But if the problem of both the two photographs and the two stories is that they are aesthetically indistinguishable, the problem with the narrator’s actual political beliefs, as they are articulated in 10:04, is that they are frequently contradictory or irreconcilable. The content of the novel is, indeed, nothing but contradiction: between the political and the personal; between radicalism and liberalism; between the unrealized desire for collectivity and the incurable pathology of self-obsession. The narrator knows, for instance, that he ought to resist “the conflation of self-care and political radicalism” (46), then immediately conflates them: “I wanted a child, wanted one badly” (47). Then he berates himself for the conflation in a way that either overcomes the contradiction or doesn’t overcome it at all:
Your gesture of briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic—your bathroom—into the commons leads you to redescribe the possibility of collective politics as the private drama of the family. …What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostasizing as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co-construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit. (47)
Collective politics, transpersonal revolution, a world beyond capitalist profit: sounds good! And yet something about the jargon here (“transpersonal,” “co-construct”) seems suspiciously overdone; the passage reads more like a parody of “transpersonal revolutionary” politics—a phrase that no one who held this politics would actually use—than an affirmation of such politics. Then, too, there is the neurotic, oscillating rhythm of epiphany that brought us to this point: the rejection of self-care as politics, the unconscious desire for a child, the realization of the ideological poverty of wanting a child in such circumstances. Where does it end? Actually, it ends with the child. The final pages of the novel reveal that the narrator and his friend Alex have successfully conceived. The Ultrasound that confirms Alex’s pregnancy becomes yet another example of a world that is “the same, just a little different” (the narrator is reminded of his own earlier experience with an Ultrasound, used to diagnose the enlargement of his aorta), while the collective damage of Hurricane Sandy, bearing down in these last pages, devolves, through the flourish of metaphor, back into the “private drama of the family”: “On the flat-screen hung high on the wall, we see the image of the coming storm, its limbs moving in real time, the brain visible in its translucent skull” (233).
The narrator wants a child but knows he shouldn’t want it; wants political community but ends up with a child; imagines the ecological and economic catastrophe of the storm to be a potential site for collectivity; then imagines that the real “coming storm” is actually his unborn child. The narrator knows very well what politics he is supposed to have…but still, he can’t quite bring himself to have them. Collectivity in 10:04 is thus there but not there, always a little bit—if not totally—different from itself. Every moment of political epiphany in the novel follows this formula, devolving into contradiction and self-negation. Consider the co-op that the narrator belongs to, toward which he has, over the course of three pages, at least three distinct attitudes. First, there’s the need to demonstrate that “you weren’t foolish enough to believe that belonging to the co-op made you meaningfully less of a node in a capitalist network, that you understood the co-op’s population was largely made up of gentrifiers” (95). “And yet,” continues the narrator, “I didn’t think the co-op was morally trivial. I liked having the money I spent on food and household goods go to an institution that made labor shared and visible and that you could usually trust to carry products that weren’t the issue of openly evil conglomerates” (96). And yet, it is precisely the existence of the co-op—what with all those products that are, thank god, not “openly evil” and all that “produce [that] was largely free of poison” (96)—that has produced “a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety” (97). If the co-op is not “morally trivial,” in other words, that is because it reveals the triviality of morals. The co-op does not simply make “labor shared and visible”; it also makes the mere “visibility” of labor insufficient grounds for the cooperative class politics that the larger economic structures routed through the co-op work actively to disable.
10:04 is, in this way, a thoroughly contradictory novel: a novel about contradiction that also makes contradiction the structuring secret of its narrative form. The damage on display in the novel’s market concessions (its inclusion of the New Yorker story at the agent’s behest) is reiterated at the level of the narrator’s beliefs, which only ever rise to the level of political compromise. There is thus clearly a parallel between the damaged form of the novel and the “bad” or damaged “forms of collectivity” (108) that the narrator must constantly settle for—forms that inevitably collapse into their opposite: individual self-obsession, reproductive futurity, coupled domesticity. The novel that both is and isn’t damaged (that subsumes its own damage) spirals out into the co-op that both is and isn’t “morally trivial”; the cuts to the New Yorker story that both are and aren’t unacceptable; the “bad forms of collectivity” that both are and aren’t collective. This series of both/and’s shows how the novel is structured by contradiction: the contradiction between the commitments Lerner’s narrator wants to have (to the collective) and the commitments he does have (to himself); between “art before or after capital” (134) and art during capital; between “the world to come” and the world we’re stuck with.
The literary form of contradiction is even visible in the novel’s ideas about form. Form is the central term in Ashton’s reading of 10:04: the “totaled work” becomes a model for the “total work”—the totalizing work—insofar as Lerner, according to Ashton, views aesthetic form as total, whole, unified. Such a view is born out most prominently in the scene that follows the narrator’s first visit to the Institute for Totaled Art, having been emotionally moved by “those objects in the archive that both were and weren’t different” (more contradiction), as he walks home across the Manhattan Bridge: “everything my eye alighted on seemed totaled in the best sense: complete in extent or degree; absolute; unqualified, whole” (134). The wholeness or totality of the work of art—its unqualified form—is, for Ashton, what protects it from damage; or, more accurately, what transforms the work’s outwardly caused damage into its own intentional formal choice. And yet the idea that the totality of the novel’s form can fully contain and preempt its damage is significantly complicated by 10:04’s own more ambivalent commitment to form; a commitment that looks, as often as not, like a commitment to formlessness. If the Institute for Totaled Art is the place where Lerner raises the possibility of art as an allegory for totality, it is the narrator’s visit to Marfa, Texas to view the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd that calls that possibility almost totally into question. “I had never had a strong response to Judd’s work,” the narrator admits;
I believed in the things he wanted to get rid of—the internal compositional relations of a painting, nuances of form. His interest in modularity and industrial fabrication and his desire to overcome the distinction between art and life, an insistence on literal objects in real space—I felt I could get all those things by walking through a Costco or a Home Depot or IKEA; I’d never cared more for Judd’s “specific objects” than any of the other objects I encountered in the world, objects that were merely real. (178)
Lerner’s narrator “believe[s]” in the “nuances of form,” while Judd’s sculptures are utterly formless, refusing not only certain “compositional relations” but also the very “distinction between art and life”; a refusal that the narrator rightly notes does not so much elevate everyday objects into art as make erstwhile artworks indistinguishable from “any…other objects.” What structures the narrator’s distaste for Judd is his antipathy toward Judd’s aesthetic project of refusing to distinguish artwork from object, art from life.
Yet this may strike the reader of 10:04 as a somewhat surprising objection for the narrator to voice—considering that it would seem to be precisely the “distinction between art and life” that 10:04 itself is constantly trying to undo. “Part of what I loved about poetry,” says the narrator, whose life is more or less exactly the life of Ben Lerner, “was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain” (171). This is the answer to the question of why Lerner the poet has chosen to write a novel at all: because he is trying to write a novel as if it were a poem, which means writing a novel in which—as in poetry—the difference between fiction and nonfiction no longer matters. That’s exactly the type of novel 10:04 is: a book that continually reminds us of the fact that we are “reading [it] now” (194); a book whose narrator frequently comments on the process of writing “my book—not the one I was contracted to write about fraudulence, but the one I’ve written in its place for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction” (237). 10:04 is, in short, the novel being written by the narrator of 10:04, while the book that readers of 10:04 are reading turns out to be a book that is more than anything about our own experience of reading it.
But why would a writer who believes in the “nuances of form” write a book so perilously close to the “edge of fiction”—a precipice where the framing power of form, its singular capacity to separate art from life, no longer obtains? The answer, in this case at least, is: because that writer has changed his mind about Donald Judd. The chapter set in Marfa climaxes with the narrator’s transformative experience of the sculptures at Chinati: “All those windows opening onto open land, the reflective surfaces, the differently articulated interiors, some of which seemed to contain a blurry image of the landscape within them—all combined to collapse my sense of inside and outside, a power the work had never had for me in the white-cube galleries of New York. At one point I detected a moving blur on the surface of a box and I turned to the windows to see two pronghorn antelope rushing across the desert plain” (179). The “power” of Judd’s work is its capacity to “collapse my sense of inside and outside,” to dissolve the distinction between the artwork, where it is set, and what it reflects (and just so we don’t miss the fact that what art reflects is the living, breathing world, Lerner gives us the antelope). The newly discovered power of Judd’s minimalism, coupled with the narrator’s obsessive reading of Walt Whitman’s “bizarre memoir,” Specimen Days—in which Whitman similarly strives to blur the difference between his “empirical person” and a “pronoun in which the readers of the future could participate” (168)—ultimately transforms the narrator’s, and Lerner’s, sense of what kind of book 10:04 should be:
I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures (194).
This is the point at which “the nuances of form” fully disappear from 10:04, replaced by the formlessness of “an actual present alive with multiple futures”: a formlessness that is at once an indeterminate or as-yet-undetermined shape (“multiple futures”) and a refusal of aesthetic form (“an actual present,” “alive”). Thus “flickering between” fiction and nonfiction, 10:04 seeks to escape the constraints of form—of art’s unmistakable difference from the world at large—in order to imagine a literary work that has become indistinguishable from the world, inseparable from “actual” life, invested in fortifying a “‘fantasy of coeval readership’” (93). The formlessness of 10:04 resides in this turn from “fabrication” (art) to actuality, a turn away from the enclosed or total form of the artwork and toward the world in which the work is being read. Thus, while 10:04 describes itself as “a novel” (a word emblazoned, for instance, on the book’s title page), it might be more accurate to think of it as a novel that desperately wants to not be a novel—not just because it would prefer to be an essay or a poem (both of which are likely true in the case of 10:04), but also because it would prefer not to be forced to mark off the formal or aesthetic boundary between literature and “actual” life. The novel that is “totaled in advance” appears here as the novel that has crashed into the world.
Of course, considered in these terms, a truly formless novel is an impossibility; the very phrase “formless novel,” an oxymoron. The literalism of literature only goes so far. 10:04 thus remains, despite itself, a novel; and as a novel, it is impossible to mistake it for “any of the other objects” one might “encounter in the world.” Literary formlessness is, at bottom, a contradiction in terms. The narrator himself knows this, writing (interestingly enough, in verse) of Whitman’s Specimen Days: “It’s among the greatest poems and fails / because it wants to become real and can / only become prose” (194). But what, in that case, is the point of 10:04’s own impossible desire to “become real,” its own fruitlessly prosaic pursuit of formlessness?
If literary formlessness is a contradiction, then what one discovers through it must be its opposite. The truth at the heart of the impossibility of literary formlessness is thus not hard to state: it is literary form. And if form is what the novel ends up affirming precisely through the work of attempting to negate it, then we can finally understand why the novel as a whole is so formally committed to contradiction—to oscillation, vacillation, and ambivalence. While the political dilemma of 10:04 is how to reconcile two opposing beliefs (are co-ops morally trivial or aren’t they? is family a model of collectivity or a retreat from it?), the book’s aesthetic dilemma is how to distinguish two seemingly identical forms: the compromised story from the subsumed one, damaged art from redeemed art. But where contradiction is clearly a problem for the narrator’s compromised politics, it ultimately turns out to be a solution to the novel’s damaged aesthetic. That’s because the problem of indistinguishability is simply what contradiction looks like after it’s been resolved. The narrator’s self-contradictory politics are thus, in the end, also a lesson in the dialectical power of art—in art’s capacity to resolve contradiction even (or especially) as art itself emerges out of the material, social circumstances of contradiction. The two identical photographs (one of our world, one of the world to come); the two indistinguishable stories (the first a sign of capitulation to the market, the second an attempt to “subsume” that capitulation): to learn to tell the difference between them is to learn to see the seemingly imperceptible difference between the resolution of contradiction and the mere unawareness of it. Contradiction is a process. That process takes time—and that time makes all the difference. It’s the difference, above all, between “art before…capital” and art “after” it (134). For Lerner, for now, it is the special power of aesthetic form—the identical stories, the doubled photographs—to show us contradiction in the process of making itself disappear. The more dialectical lesson of 10:04’s damaged form, though, is that the disappearance of contradiction is not the same as—is, in fact, exactly the opposite of—its never having existed at all.
How can market concession be a version of art’s autonomy?4 How can damage be a version of repair? How can formlessness be a kind of form? These paradoxes only make sense once we see contradiction itself as a formal strategy for resolving contradiction. This is what it means for a novel that seems essentially to be one long concession to market forces to be at the same time a thought experiment in the eventual overthrow of those forces; for a novel that “wants to become real” also to be a treatise on why novels never can. Like the emphatic “no” that the narrator knows was “just a moment in the dialectic of her yes” (57), formlessness is just a moment in 10:04’s dialectic of form: a rejection of form that is itself transformed or sublated back into form—the same kind of form, but now also a little bit different. And so, too, is inevitable damage (capitulation to the market) simply a moment in the dialectic of damage’s aesthetic formulation: its subsumption—as Ashton puts it—into intended form. To say that formless = form, that damage = restoration, is not to say something illogical. It is—as Fredric Jameson does when, at the end of The Political Unconscious, he imagines “an imperative to thought in which the ideological would be grasped as somehow at one with the Utopian, and the Utopian at one with the ideological”—to say something dialectical.5 The risk of this dialectical strategy for a writer like Lerner is that, in the end, we won’t be able to tell the difference between the two: between ideology and utopia, damaged art and redeemed art, a revolutionary novel (Ashton’s 10:04) and a reactionary one (my 10:04). The reward, though, is that it teaches us to see indistinguishability itself as the product of a deeper antagonism, the sign of some underlying but unequivocal contradiction. It reminds us that, under capitalism, there is nothing besides contradiction. Thus, while Ashton sees this dialectical process as being fully realized by the novel (“10:04 presents itself as the achievement of this work”), I remain more ambivalent on the topic. More precisely, I view the novel’s formal ambivalence as a sign of what it knows it can’t achieve; and I see the novel’s commitment to contradiction as an unsuccessful but not necessarily unhopeful way of figuring the distance between the ambivalence it can’t escape and the revolutionary politics it sincerely wants but most definitely does not have. The contradictory form of 10:04—its narcissistic politics, its bad collectivities, its misguided formlessness, its intentional damage—is, at best, a reflection of the contradictions that structure life under capitalism; an ambivalent but not imprecise depiction of what it means to live in a world that both is and isn’t on the cusp of change.