Around Reading, Towards – Simon Gennard
Around Reading, Towards
Before I write, I read. Hungrily and inefficiently. Gathering PDFs on my desktop, dog-eared books on my desk and floor. It’s a matter of being thorough, of giving myself permission to start writing. It’s a matter of trying to convince myself of what I think, to confirm some vaguely held suspicion, to work out how to see and say—in the most elegant way possible—something I feel about the world.
In a prolonged crisis such as this one, it’s hard to read. It’s harder to write. It’s hard to concentrate, hard to care, hard not to let oneself succumb to the doom. Things happen in rare bouts of mania, or they don’t happen at all. Trains of thought barely leave the station before they give up. With so much energy expended keeping the world at bay, it’s almost impossible to remain attached to any line of thinking or wishing that may aid us in arriving at a new one.
This text has a companion, a piece I’ve been slowly working on in tandem, due to be published in Enjoy and GLORIA Books’ project As needed, as possible: emerging conversations on art, labour and collaboration in Aotearoa. There, I’m writing about Natural Selection, a periodical published between 2004 and 2010 including art reviews, experimental writing, interviews and artists’ projects. Edited by Dan Arps and Gwynneth Porter (alongside regular contributing editors) and designed by Warren Olds, Natural Selection indexes a time and place just out of reach, providing both a record of thought-in-motion around what art is and can be, as well as gossip exchanged, in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia’s (mostly Melbourne’s) art scenes during the first decade of the twenty-first century. The journal is unashamed about its intimacy, and my argument in the piece is for a form of publishing that allows for a community to speak to and amongst itself, in a voice at once sincere and knowing. This form of publishing takes on the world-confirming and world-broadening possibilities of speaking to oneself, the comfort in knowing one’s concerns are shared, in a shared belief in making and doing, and in a record that something mattered to someone at some time. Its emphasis is on binding some kind of shared feeling, rather than on reach.
If that piece is about publishing, then this piece is about reading. At one point, weeks ago, I wanted to say that reading provides opportunities for moments of solidarity in a crisis; that it might provide routes for seeking out and staying near those with whom we find ourselves in proximity—intellectually, affectively, temperamentally. I’m still convinced, but maybe less hopeful after six weeks at home. Better to hold something loosely than risk making a fool of oneself by committing too earnestly.
In the seventh issue of Natural Selection, published in 2010, Amy Howden-Chapman imagines a series of exchanges between herself and some of her favourite writers—Jill Lepore, Lydia Davis, Nicholson Baker. She calls it, “A conversation with my favourites,” but conversation doesn’t seem quite right. Howden-Chapman writes, and, without the direct access to one’s interlocutor a conversation would imply, collages passages from these writers’ published works in lieu of a reply.
Howden-Chapman writes to Jill Lepore, after reading her essay on breastfeeding in The New Yorker, “Breast feeding, employment, corporate power, work life balance, I love all that stuff, it’s so interesting. I like how you use breast feeding as an example of how commercial forces ease, or pad, difficult situations and thereby take away the impetus for broader social change.” Impressed with the work, she becomes curious about the writer. She ends her note, “Jill I think you’re great. I would like more about you, are you married? I bet your husband is rocking.” But Lepore remains mute on her own marriage. Howden-Chapman is left to hunt through Lepore’s writings, looking for clues that might answer her questions. Lepore’s response is a quote from her essay “Baby Talk: The fuss about parenthood” in which she says she’s “not impressed” by the glut of parenting books on the market and what they have to offer, doesn’t quite satisfy. It leaves Howden-Chapman hungry: “the fact that you don’t let on too much about yourself makes me want to know even more about you.”
It appears the writing Howden-Chapman desires is something that withholds. Like how a crush is all the more intoxicating before any confirmation that the attraction is mutual—every glance, laugh or brush of skin against skin thick with meaning, possibility, potential embarrassment. And, like a crush, Howden-Chapman’s evocation of the second person address, the “you” of Lepore, Davis and Baker—signifies a yearning. The “you,” when summoned, is summoned as a cluster of desires, a hope against hope that one’s partner in conversation may fulfil the role the speaker desires of them, that some space may open up between two parties for an ideal communion.
But Howden-Chapman’s conversational partners never seem to meet her where she needs them to. They keep brushing past each other, never directly answering questions, concealing themselves in a tendency towards generalisation (Davis) or too much specificity (Baker). And there’s the bind. To digress more would be to break the spell. “Intrigue,” Howden-Chapman writes, “is the opposite of tell-all.”
Reading can be lonely. In a crisis, no one seems capable of saying the right thing. Wendy Brown says, “Coronavirus is more than biological or medical because everything human is experienced and shaped through powers humanly made but not humanly controlled, powers that simultaneously sustain and destroy us, relate and break us apart, connect and stratify us.” Yuk Hui says, “The global outbreak has announced that globalization so far has only cultivated a mono-technological culture that can only lead to an autoimmune response and a great regression.” Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi says, “The virus is paving the way to a subject-less revolution, a purely implosive revolution based on passivity and surrender. Let’s surrender. All of a sudden this slogan takes a subversive sound: stop excitement, stop the useless anxiety that is a worsening quality of life.”
Everyone is so good and smart and I’m so exhausted. In reading, I’m swaying towards familiar voices, familiar platforms, hoping someone will be able to diagnose what’s happening and what might happen, in more eloquent words than I can. There have been brief periods in which it feels like something is giving away. Things that would have been, mere weeks ago, unthinkable are suddenly possible. When the Aotearoa/New Zealand Government announced its economic recovery package, which included wage subsidies, an apparent easing of the punitive culture of WINZ, mortgage payment holidays, and a plea for the nation be kind to one another, it almost seemed as if tacit acknowledgement was being made that the regime of endless growth, insecure job contracts, property speculation and wage stagnation under which we’ve lived for decades was not only unlivable, but fragile enough to crumble at the first sign of trouble. Hope like that is hard to sustain. I try to read hoping someone might offer some kind of hope worth galvanising. I try to read hoping to store up energy for change, later on, when the timing seems right. It doesn’t work. I get halfway through something before giving up, retreating into myself, lying down, masturbating, or going for a walk around the coast, putting my feet in the ocean and letting rogue waves wet the cuffs of my jeans.
I’m thinking of something Gwynneth Porter said to me three weeks ago when I interviewed her about Natural Selection. Responding to a question around what kind of publishing we need (or she’d be interested in working on) in the present, she paraphrased Bernard Stiegler. For Stiegler (through Porter), the crisis of the present (prior to Covid-19, but no doubt worsened by it), is a crisis of attention. Stiegler writes of an atmosphere of a-significance in the present; of finding ourselves interrupted to the point that nothing that takes place—intimately or within the wider world—is allowed to gain an impact. Significance is a matter of meaning making and of posterity.
I got a few pages into a PDF of Stiegler’s most recent book, The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism, and quickly learned I didn’t have the stomach for it right now—too much Heidegger. I’ll take Porter at her word for now.
More important, though, is what Porter offered as a tonic against inattention. She told me the political efficacy of writing might lie in its ability to register significance. To write might be to insist that something is worth dwelling on. Dwelling—to hold still and to live inside something—is almost unbearable right now. Or at least deeply boring. I can’t say from here whether we’re on the precipice of great change. I don’t want to. Difficult as it is, I am dwelling. For Porter, maybe. Or for myself. For lack of anything else to do; because I told Matt I would do it; because this moment feels significant; because I’m hoping. maybe foolishly, that this matters now and it may matter again in the future.
Amy Howden-Chapman, “A conversation with my favourites,” Natural Selection 7 (2010), 6.1. ↵
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011): 25–26. ↵
Wendy Brown, “From Exposure to Manifestation” Los Angeles Review of Books, 14 April, 2020, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/quarantine-files-thinkers-self-isolation. ↵
Yuk Hui, “One Hundred Years of Crisis, e-flux, April 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/108/326411/one-hundred-years-of-crisis. ↵
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, “Diary of the psycho-deflation,” Verso, 18 March 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4600-bifo-diary-of-the-psycho-deflation. ↵
Gwynneth Porter, Skype conversation with the author, 24 April 2020. ↵
About Simon Gennard
Simon Gennard (Aotearoa) is a writer and curator based in Pōneke Wellington. He is currently Assistant Curator at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space. Prior to this, he was the 2017 Blumhardt Foundation/CNZ Curatorial Intern at The Dowse Art Museum, Te Awakairangi Lower Hutt and Curatorial Assistant at Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Pōneke. In 2018, he co-facilitated artist-run initiative MEANWHILE. Gennard has an MA in Art History from Victoria University of Wellington (2017). His writing has appeared in Reading Room, The Pantograph Punch and Art New Zealand.