Moral Seriousness as Detail Orientation

April 30, 2011 § 7 Comments

from Franco Moretti, “Serious Century”:

But what exactly does “serious” mean, in literature? Diderot, who introduces the genre sérieux, in 1757, in the Entretiens sur le fils naturel, places it more or less halfway between comedy and tragedy. It is a great intuition, which updates the age-old connection between style and social class: to the aristocratic heights of tragic passion, and the plebeian depths of comedy, the class in the middle adds a form that is itself in the middle, intermediate. But intermediate does not mean equidistant, and it soon becomes clear (already in Diderot) that the genre sérieux models itself after the “high” style of the old ruling class. One looks at a masterpiece of bourgeois seriousness like Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day,” for instance, and realizes that, although serious may not mean tragic, it certainly means dark, cold, impassible, silent, heavy, solemn. (“All of us are attending some funeral or other,” Baudelaire had just written in “The Heroism of Modern Life.”) The class in the middle has closed its ranks and uses its seriousness to distance itself from the “carnevalesque” noise of the laboring classes.

But the mass appeal of what in English is called “romance” was never really shaken by writers like Goethe or Austen or Eliot (let alone Flaubert); not in Western Europe, and even less in the southern and eastern parts of the continent, where it encountered all sorts of resistance. Then, in the twentieth century, politics and the economy discarded without regrets the old bourgeois restraints; the culture industry wagered on excess, instead of measure, while the great modernist art despised realism with passionate intensity, and, later, “magical” realism re-enchanted the experience of modernity. Encircled from so many parts, and already exhausted from within, the serious style surrendered, and abandoned the scene.

…but only just off stage.

David Simon on The Wire:

Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearean as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood—two shows that I do admire—offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen). Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The modern mind—particularly those of us in the West—finds such fatalism ancient and discomfiting, I think. We are a pretty self-actualized, self-worshipping crowd of postmoderns and the idea that for all of our wherewithal and discretionary income and leisure, we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious. We don’t accept our gods on such terms anymore; by and large, with the exception of the fundamentalists among us, we don’t even grant Yahweh himself that kind of unbridled, interventionist authority.

But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.

Or, modern realism as the anti-modernist, neo-classical drama of disenchantment, updated to depict (in ‘Dickensian,‘ realistic detail) the preeminence of postmodern institutions over neo-Shakespearean (and by implication Romantic) character.

Roger on the (minor) literature of the clerk:

There is a lineage that goes from Lichtenberg’s Scribble book through Lamb, Baudelaire’s Fusées, Rozanov, Pessoa, and – supremely – Kafka, whose request to Brod to burn his papers was, as it were, a request from this history itself, over and above Kafka’s personality. The principle holding this literature together was enunciated by Bartleby – I prefer not to. This is, in the universe of the clerk, equivalent to Lucifer’s non serviam – it ties together the two elements of the scribble and the institution. If we can speak of an institutional consciousness, it is always a consciousness of the system. Jack Goody, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind, notices the importance of the list in all early writing that has been found in the Mesopotamia. Goody divides lists into three types: the list that is a catalogue of names, events and offices, which he calls a ‘retrospective’ list, and which can be thought of as a representation of work-flow; the ‘shopping’ list, or the list that includes expectations and items for future projects; and the lexical list – the proto-dictionary, the list that lists the elements of listing – sounds, letters, numbers. A very important list, according to Goody, in Mesopotamia. All three of these lists are dealt with and syncretized in the clerk’s office – viewing the clerk very broadly as one of the central types of ‘circulation’ worker, as Marx named them. The accountant’s task, for instance, is – for all of its spreadsheet cleverness – directly related to the functions invented in the Mesopotamian bureaucracies.

From David Foster Wallace, THE PALE KING

Anyhow, meanwhile, in what essentially seemed to be a recapitulation of his main points so far, the substitute said, “True heroism is a priori incompatible with audience or applause or even the bare notice of the common run of man. In fact,’ he said, ‘the less conventionally heroic or exciting or adverting or even interesting or engaging a labor appears to be, the greater is its potential as an arena for actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” It seemed then that a sudden kind of shudder went through the room, or maybe an ecstatic spasm, communicating itself from senior accounting major or graduate business student to senior accounting major or grad business student so rapidly that the whole collective seemed for an instant to heave — although, again, I am not a hundred percent sure this was real, that it took place outside of me, in the actual classroom, and the (possible) collective spasm’s moment was too brief to be more than sort of fleetingly aware of it. I also remember having a strong urge to lean over and tie my boots’ laces, which never translated itself into real action.

At the same time, it might be fair to say that I remembered the substitute Jesuit as using pauses and bits of silence rather the way more conventional inspirational speakers use physical gestures and expressions. He said, ‘To retain care and scrupulosity about each detail from within the teeming wormball of data and rule and exception and contingency which constitutes real-world accounting — this is heroism. To attend fully to the interests of the client and to balance those interests against the high ethical standards of FASB and extant law — yea, to serve those who care not for service but only for results — this is heroism. This may be the first time you’ve heard the truth put plainly, starkly. Effacement. Sacrifice. Service. To give onself to the care of others’ money — this is effacement, perdurance, sacrifice, honor, doughtiness, valor. Hear this or not, as you will. Learn it now, or later — the world has time. Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui — these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.’

…I should probably acknowledge an obvious paradox in the memory — despite how attentive and affected by his remarks about courage and the real world I was, I was not aware that the drama and scintillance I was investing in the substitute’s words with actually ran counter to those words’ whole thrust. That is to say, I was deeply affected and changed by the hortation without, as it now appears, really understanding what he was talking about. In retrospect, this seems like further evidence that I was even more ‘lost’ and unaware than I knew.

‘Too much, you say?’ he said. ‘Cowboy, paladin, hero? Gentlemen, read your history. Yesterday’s hero pushed back at bounds and frontiers — he penetrated, tamed, hewed, shaped, made, brought things into being. Yesterday’s society’s heroes generated facts. For this is what society is — an agglomeration of facts.’…’But it is now today’s era, the modern era,’ the substitute was saying (which was difficult to argue with, obviously). ‘In today’s world, boundaries are fixed, and most significant facts have been generated. Gentlemen, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts. Classification, organization, presentation. To put it another way, the pie has been made — the contest is now in the slicing. Gentlemen, you aspire to hold the knife. Wield it. To admeasure. To shape each given slice, the knife’s angle and depth of cut.’ However transfixed I still was, I was also aware, by this point, that the substitute’s metaphors seemed to be getting a bit jumbled — it was hard to imagine the remaining orientals making much sense of cowboys and pies, since they were such specifically American images. He went to the flag-stand in the corner of the room and retrieved his hat, a dark-gray business fedora, old but very well cared for. Instead of putting the hat on, he held it up aloft.

‘A baker wears a hat,’ he said, ‘but it is not our hat. Gentlemen, prepare to wear the hat. You have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys. As will you be. Riding the American range. Riding herd on the unending torrent of financial data. The eddies, cataracts, arranged variations, fractious minutiae. You order the data, shepherd it, direct its flow, lead it where it’s needed, in the codified form in which it’s apposite. You deal in facts, gentlemen, for which there has been a market since man first crept from the primeval slurry. It is you — tell them that. Who ride, man the walls, define the pie, serve.’ There was no way not to notice how different he looked now from the way he’d appeared at the beginning. Ultimately, it wasn’t clear whether he’d planned or prepared his final hortation or exhortation or not, or whether he was just speaking passionately from the heart. His hat was noticeably more stylish and European-looking than my father’s had been, its welt sharper and band’s feather pegged — it had to be at least twenty years old. When he raised his arms in conclusion, one hand still held the hat —

‘Gentlemen, you are called to account.’

Footnote in the Guardian review: “As Foster Wallace writes in his notes: “Big Q is whether IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one.”

Roger again, on the debt owed by the clerks to the moralists:

1. The literature of the moralistes, a literature which is, at the center, a reflection on character, is the great ancestor of the literature of the clerks, the marginal Daoist tradition that runs from the clerk Hamaan to the clerk Kafka. Character, for the clerks, is a ruin, a roofless and desecrated temple, an archaeological site – the clerks all respond, in one way or another, to the Bartleby principle: I would prefer not to. The world of the clerks reflect fully the two removes that characterize the modern – the remove from nature and from production – both removes, of course, managed by Capital. The clerks inherit the moralists lack of systematicity (the idea of the essai, of experience as a trial, an experiment), but among the clerks that lack has turned to hatred. And this hatred, what is it? It is hatred of the dominance of substitution, a fear of losing their interiority, their difference, completely to substitution. It is a fear that arises from their place as agents of circulation, in Marx’s terms.

and finally on Marx, clerks, and unproductive labor:

…the reflections on commercial capital and money – Warenhandlungskapital and Handlunggeld – are decisive, and sociologically apt. This segment can be treated as an independent unit in the collective system of circulation. Looked at in terms of social phenomenology, Marx makes this Hermes place – the place of pure metamorphoses in which what happens is, in a sense, that nothing happens. When the producer realizes his surplus value by selling to the middleman, from the proceeds of which he again purchases labor power and material to continue producing, the middleman, the Tiresias of capitalism, has only begun. He has expended his capital, either borrowed or taken from his stock, to buy products wholly for resale. There is evidently no magic in this, and yet, like the producer, in the ideal case, the successful merchant realizes a profit. As Marx likes to emphasize, while the merchant’s employees are exploited just as the factory hands are, the merchant’s employees do not create surplus value. And although they may be formally exploited just as the worker is, there is a sociological difference that does drive a real divide between them.

About this, there is much to say. But for the moment, notice that for Marx, this commercial segment is subordinate to the true producers, the manufacturers. If the commercial segment becomes too important, accrues too much economic power, the manufacturer can, theoretically, erase the middleman and encroach into the merchant’s territory.

In fact, though, the dream of getting rid of unproductive labor – dreamt most recently by the advocates of the New Economy who projected that the computer maker would simply sell the computer on the internet, the automaker would sell the auto on the internet, etc., etc. in a happy deflationary spiral satisfying both customer and producer – does not happen.

Instead, as many Marxist economists (Sweezy, Moseley, Wollf) have pointed out, on many dimensions the composition of developed capitalist economies shows that unproductive labor – both in terms of surveillance work and in terms of circulation – becomes increasingly important in developed capitalist economies on several dimensions: for instance, in the number of people employed in unproductive labor and the amount of the investment of the GDP in unproductive branches of economic activity. In 1987, Edward Wollf estimated that as much as 40 percent of employees were unproductive laborers.

The peculiar sociological characteristics of this segment impress themselves upon the dynamic of this segment – for it is from this segment that most knowledge work, most representational work, has branched out.

It is here that the economic rationality of the classical type – homo oeconomicus – emerged, and plausibly describes the kind of strategies that make up the landscape of commercial metamorphoses. At the same time, it is here, too, that the alienation from the time of one’s life has found expression in the aesthetic sphere – in fact, thematically dominates the aesthetic sphere. This is important in as much as the population of the aesthetic, or cultural industries – driven originally by the necessity of closing the discontinuities that can arise in this segment of circulation when demand lacks or there is an oversupply of goods – overlaps the population that sits at the desks of the counting houses. The media that they have produced is the semiosphere in which all are now bathed, worker, housewife and clerk.


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§ 7 Responses to Moral Seriousness as Detail Orientation

  • W.Kasper says:

    Simon’s bullshit knows no bounds. He’s gone from Dickensian sweep to Greek tragedy? The Wire’s roots lie in the 80s cop show (especially the Altman-inspired Hill St. Blues and Homicide, which Simon wrote for), along with Sidney Lumet’s ‘revisionist’ takes on police procedurals (minus his social liberalism, plus layers of clunky editorialising).

    As for Deadwood and the Sopranos – what links them is parody, again rooted in the early 70s: revisionist takes on gangster movies and the ‘dirty’ western. Deadwood was also influenced by the 70s underground comix of S. Clay Wilson – OTT racial and sexual violence juxtaposed with cod-poetic dialogue (this has been noted elsewhere, apparently even by some of its writers):

    These HBO shows love selling themselves as ‘classic literature’, but I’d argue they’re conscious pastiches of po-mo revisionism (New Hollywood, UG comix, TV comedy sketches etc.) that was itself parodic, albeit with counter-cultural agendas removed. And then there’s Mad Men, with all it’s knowing references to early 60s Hollywood, which overrides any claim to actual social history (or even the history of advertising). Their ‘tradition’ really starts with Mad magazine and Mel Brooks. Pastiches of parody gradually losing sight of why the parodies were pastiching in the first place.

  • traxus4420 says:

    did simon actually propose the dickens comparison or was that just hbo’s marketing department? a 5 second google search is inconclusive. i’ve read a few other interviews, and i think he’s been pretty consistent on the ancient greek postmodern tragedy thing.

    i didn’t know that about the comix and deadwood — if you can find a reference i’d really appreciate it.

    agree with the un-to-semi-to-fully conscious parody of parody thesis — i tried to point out with this series of quotes how ephemeral and flimsy a certain elite strain of aesthetic justifications for bourgeois art and culture have always been, and the economic shifts that underlie their production, popularity, and periodic difficulties.

  • some instances Oct 1, 2004 | “It’s a novel,” David Simon likes to say about the show he created, HBO’s “The Wire.”

    “Our model when we started doing The Wire wasn’t other television shows. The standard we were looking at was Balzac’s Paris, or Dickens’s London, or Tolstoy’s Moscow. In TV, you can actually say that out loud, and then go do it.” David Simon in Newsweek, “Why TV Is Better Than The Movies, by Devin Gordon, 11/5/2007 2006

    I don’t see it on the web now but I remember “one long novel”, Dickens and Balzac, was part of the promotional paragraph for the first season’s dvds. This was a few years before the acafans decided Dickens novels must be models of subversive critique.


  • there seems to be some considerable misreading there of “unproductive labour”. It’s not that certain kinds of activities are productive (of capital) or unproductive (of capital), it’s the arrangements of property and exploitation. So while much advertising was unproductive in the past, most work in advertising, and surveillance, is now productive of capital. The question is not what is this labourer physically doing – bouncing a ball, reading text, swallowing something, driving a car, giving birth, standing on a streetcorner handing out fliers – but is a capitalist somehow capturing this labour in a commodity and selling it, thereby accumulating capital?

    • traxus4420 says:

      yeah, the same mistake it seems everyone makes. i kept it because i think it gestures at what’s been happening economically while also describing the popular sense of it, that the work of the professional media classes was never ‘real’ but is now (well for the past few decades) also being directly exploited just like everything else, because human nature is the hayekian model. it drove dfw to take accounting classes!

  • W.Kasper says:

    Maybe it was HBO marketing instead of Simon (I heard that meme so often hard to keep track). It was a print interview with Wilson and another article (can’t find it online) where they discussed Deadwood and writers being fans of his.

    But Altman does loom over a lot of this stuff. His 70s movies are largely parodic/revisionist, and his Tanner 88 was the pioneering ‘prestige’ HBO show (with a much better claim to ‘seriousness’ than what followed). TV absorbed his approach much more than movies since the 80s. Not least their multi-character focus on the ‘unproductive’ (gamblers, politicians, showbiz, prostitution, PR, subcultures etc.).

  • You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find
    this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and very broad for me. I
    am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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