Richard Price brings the “Lush Life” to Berlin

May 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

On a warm, sunny evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, American author Richard Price read from his latest book, Lush Life, a crime novel set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. From the gallery opening out to Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, Price’s reading was remarkable for the vivid style of his presentation which found unintended echos in the scene behind him. Impersonating more than one character through his tone of voice, jargon and versatile lingo, the city of Berlin seemed to answer back through the glass veil.

Price became famous as a screenwriter for numerous Hollywood movies such as The Color of Money (1985), Michael Jackson’s/ Martin Scorsese’s Bad (1987), the reissue of blaxploitation classic Shaft (2000), and most recently the HBO series The Wire. Next to his screenplays he is also an acclaimed author of novels, which are marked by an “ear for dialogue”, bringing to life the multicultural, multidimensional and contradictory voices and views of inhabitants in metropolitan American cities. Asked about the role of the city in his novels, Price conceded that the city was an important character, created through the voices and stories of the people who inhabit it. The format of the crime novel is here especially suited to explore the urban interplay of languages, voices and secret stories.

In The Wire, Price and his co-authors have followed this lead and laid out a panoply of voices from Baltimore, making the city the central character of the narration in its divers episodes. Price mentioned “social realists” on city life and more poetic authors such as James Baldwin and Hubert Selby Jr. as his most admired authors at an early age. In college, the “bebop” feel for rhythm of the beat poets was a strong inspiration for his style, although he would “be asleep in three minutes” today reading through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road again.

Price’s view of working for the movie industry was highly amusing to the audience that consisted mainly of scholars and professional devotees to American literature and culture. Having to balance writing novels with commercial script writing for movies and television, Price professed no interest in literary theory or scholarship. Rather than think about what he should do, he rather wanted to “get it done”. His unpretentious and outspoken look at his own work was a welcome reminder of the separate spheres academic and popular writers still inhabit. Doing something lucrative, Price summed up, allowed him to pursue his novel writing and have greater control over his work. On the occasion of the German American Studies Association annual conference, entitled “American Economies“, the reading of Lush Life and Price’s take on artistic and commercial production delightfully challenged the tacit separation of markets and metaphysics.

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Descriptive Excess: Jacques Racière’s take on the Reality Effect

September 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Politics of Sign and Space

Politics of Aesthetics

Given that the height of French structuralist criticism has long passed away (along with its most prolific writers) the review by Jacques Rancière at the Berlin Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) on September 21 was a welcome chance for a couple of hundreds of people to review the “politics of fiction” through an analysis of 18th and 19th century Realist literature.

Starting with Roland Barthes’ classic “The Reality Effect” (1968), Rancière attempts to recapture the political impact of Realist fiction through its radical dismissal of boundaries, of high and low, of subjecting parts to an overarching idea. The “descriptive excess” of Realism, in his words, does not conflate high art and the profane passions of every day life, but affirms that in democratic literature all elements play an equal part in the construction of the text. Invoking Borges’ criticism of Proust (“There are just too many pages in his work!”), Rancière underlines that what a appears as a representation in a Realist novel, actually dissolves representation by putting all signifiers on an equal level. The Real is produced as an effect of the text itself and is not supported by an external reality.

… in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity. (p.234)

(Roland Barthes “The Reality Effect” In: Dorothy J. Hale (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900–2000, London: Blackwell, pp. 230-234)

Rancière went on to point to the self-sufficiency of the realist description that self-consciously employs details and description to destabilize existing structures of power. By breaking the distinctions of class, of textual conventions, of conflating different media forms and images, Realist fiction does not so much produce reality as such, but offers “new possibilities of a sensory experience of equality”.

We might add a reference to the Constance School and Wolfgang Iser here to point to the democratic appeal of popular texts precisely because they need to be appropriated by a reader and are not in themselves meaningful.

Rancière has devoted a large part of his research to (re-) negotiations of space, of distribution and division in the legacy of Deleuze, and his more recent works summarize the “Politics of Aesthetics”. His defense of Realist fiction as a political art form might sound surprising. Whereas the Modernists rejected Realism on the grounds of its excessive logic of description, Rancière defends it. Realist fiction embodies a “self-contradiction of cause and effect” and follows a logic of addition (of details or images). Structuralists, Futurists, and Dadaists – in short the Modernist movement – on the other hand favored subtraction in painting, in writing and theater. Rancière emphasizes that Realist excess of description is an immanent criticism of cause and effect as a logical function of language itself. By placing signifiers on equal levels, Realism is the first truly democratic form of fiction and should not be dismissed as a mere representation. Without its representation, he contends, reality remains even more elusive.

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