I picked up Stewart Home’s Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie whilst traveling two years ago. I must have read it too quickly at the time because it didn’t leave much of an impression. I’ve been reading it over again recently for work I’m doing on literature and computer code and I’m convinced that Home is a vital contemporary writer (see HERE for a persuasive argument about this claim!).
A description of Blood Rites’ structure will give you a sense of Home’s approach to literature. Blood Rites is a short book – only 127 pages – that’s divided into three sections: an unconventional narrative; a fictional erotic exchange between a character in the novel and the real-life author of a call-girl confessional;* and a lengthy appendix containing selected posts and related comments from Home’s blog. Blood Rites is as convoluted as it sounds. Unlike most literary experiments with structure it’s not a difficult read because it’s also really funny.
Blood Rites starts with a pretty familiar postmodernist gambit – a reflection on literature’s, and by extension its own, conditions. The second line: “[i]t occurs to you that there has been an abstract movement in art but not in fiction”. This mix of self-reflexivity and second-person interior monologue troubles the demarcation between Home’s voice and the text’s fictional space. My take on this blurring is that it lets Home’s character’s monologues be read as pronouncements about this text. A couple of lines later, Blood Rites announces “[s]ince Abstract Literature doesn’t exist you attempt to conjure it up by producing a definition of it”. From the beginning, Home tells us that this book is going to be a demonstration of an abstract approach to literature, or at least a questioning of such an approach’s absence. Based on the way these lines work, his renovation of literature is aimed straight at novelistic conventions like linearity and narrative frameworks.
Home’s most obvious attack on narrative linearity involves littering the text with appropriated email spam advertising pornography and pharmaceutical products. Only, these chunks of text have been corrected with the insertion of female artist’s names. It’s not hard to make something of this strategy, because Home is up front about what he’s doing with it. In a comment in the narrative part of the text that blurs with the content of the text itself, one of his characters argues that their own similar work “… [draws] attention to the way in which [women’s] work is devalued by a patriarchal capitalist society that views art activities and more specifically the role of the artist, as one of the few legitimate areas of male emotionality…”. The critic’s job seems to have been done already: Blood Rites critiques gender disparities in the art world, which is taken to be a microcosm of contemporary society.
This blunt announcement reflects Home’s claim in an INTERVIEW with the novelist and artist Tom McCarthy that “[i]t’s one of my weaknesses to set up scenarios in which any criticism of what I’m doing is already incorporated”. Blood Rites’ targets are not just standard narrative conventions. By staking out the meaning of the text in advance, Home’s novel defends itself against the neutralising recuperations of criticism. With Blood Rites, then, Home gives us a novel that heralds both the novel’s and criticism’s redundancy. What does this leave us?
Home dodges the risk that these tactics might negate Blood Rites itself – as work of literature – by recognising not just the limitations of narrative conventions, but also the limitations of their formalist subversion. Blood Rites is wary of the self-reflexive deconstructions of literary conventions that are modernism’s legacy. The play between the rhythmic formalism of individual paragraphs and the novel’s failure to constitute a coherent structure doesn’t present us with a hermetic, modernist literary ruin. It creates a literary space that eludes the seductions of that kind of avant-garde solipsism.
If the outer limits of experimental fiction are marked as modernist territory, the contemporary writer has a couple of choices: to confront its legacy or to avoid its lessons altogether. From Blood Rites: “[y]our sentences are rolled into the ebbing waters of modernism, and then wash back like a bulimic’s forced vomiting”. Blood Rites confronts modernism by forcefully ingesting its remains. With Home, writing after modernism – after, McCarthy might say, literature’s watershed moment, Finnegan’s Wake – becomes a question of incorporation. In C, McCarthy’s response to the problem of modernism is figured in Serge Carrefax’s feverish monitoring of the early wireless network’s blips and beeps, as though the author is trying to tune in to the echoes emanating from the depths of history. The result is a kind of “conceptual literature” that spins these echoes into new texts.**
Home inverts this movement. His kind of literature is a visceral rejection of modernism, ingesting it to force it from literature’s system. Instead of amplifying the echoes of modernist experimentation, Home gives us the poetics of reflux: obscene appropriations and combinations that use and abuse this legacy for literary ends. Another line from Home the narrator: “[y]our text is pornographic, its obscenity lies in the fact that it can’t be imagined, it can only be experienced in its totality as concrete form”. For Home, it seems that obscenity is one of the only ways of breaking with the limitations of formalist experimentation. -Or, of moving from hermetic theorisation to an active re-politicisation of literary subversion.
I’ve already said that Home’s text announces the redundancy of criticism. This response is a way of trying to work through that problem. There are few writers that manage to pull off the intricate tactical incursions into literature’s conventional territory that Home accomplishes so deftly. Even less manage to do it in such a funny way. There’s so much more going on in Blood Rites than I’ve mentioned here. Unpicking Home’s politics would require more knowledge of obscure leftist political groups than I’m willing to dig up, for example, and I haven’t even mentioned his play with identities or the whole Belle De Jour thing.
So – read the book and enjoy, if only to keep Home writing! From the text again: “Abstract Literature: A New Movement in the Visual Arts!”
* Belle De Jour, or Brooke Magnanti, who some commentators thought was actually Home trying to make some money. See HERE for some background.
**See McCarthy’s recent essay on his own practice – in ebook format – HERE. I really like C and I hope to write something about McCarthy’s little e-book soon.
Five sculptures hover in Tolarno Galleries’ exhibition space, their presence and mass amplified by the indistinct reflections they cast in the polished black floor. These subtly weird forms brim with unshakeable sentience and with symbolism that refuses to resolve itself. Hewn from wooden discs, protuberances and solid trunks connote vegetable tubers, calcified coral polyps and gesturing human limbs all at once. Though suggesting a pattern or a formation, the arrangement of these figures in space also eludes significance. There is a field opened by the oblique relations between these figures, by the similar structures that they share, but traversing it does not make its contours appear. The first sentiment inspired by Benjamin Armstrong’s Conjurers exhibition is a creeping feeling of disorientation. His sculptures sit on the periphery of sense, inviting a skirting inspection of the gallery space in search of some cipher that might dispell their secrecy. This circling is a step to the side of meaning, opening a space in which the occluded and esoteric are free to operate.
Three ink works mounted on the walls complete the exhibition. Their composition betrays a similar rhythm to the sculptures, relying mostly on circles and curves. The unruly waves of Swell dissolve into blinding white crests, looking more like range of mountains than watery bodies. In Victory, bleached rainbows pierce through dusky clouds that suggest a face whilst also evoking the lobes of a brain or fungal forms. Though these works promise to clarify the sculptures nearby the coiling of their lines into involute shapes repeats those figures’ stolid impenetrability. The focal points of Swell and Victory fade into indefinite patches of white, leaving us to contemplate protean textures ripe with allusions and arcane resonances. The final work, Conjuring, plays with this ambiguity. The image seems to crackle with electrical intensity. The central shape is most like a web of light. It could also be a knot of veins or, with the star-like flecks adorning its background, an astronomical scene. Hanging over this image are two ghost-white hands, holding what might be wands or artists’ pens or brushes. Pushed back from the image’s centre, we’re left to contemplate whether the lines and motifs in Armstrong’s ink works are esoteric fetishes or self-conscious symbols of artistry.
The cores of these works repulse the eye, leading it elsewhere. Their glowing focal points seem to exceed representability. One residue of this excessiveness is the works’ allotropic textures, which gesture to many forms and other things. We are also left with scenes that nominally depict atmospheres: clouds, skies and seas, the enveloping mediums of planetary territories. The diffusion of the atmosphere in space are the conditions of inhabitable physical masses, allowing us to experience spaces as places or locations. Spaces are determinable things: objects of direct experience. Atmospheres, though, are too indeterminate for that kind of sensibility. Armstrong’s ink works inhabit this indeterminacy. To be in awe of an atmosphere is not to be affected by an object, but to be struck by an open field. This dissimulating openness has a correlate: an overwhelming sense of wonderment.
This space between the ink works and sculptures in Conjurers is thick with unresolved possibility. The sculptures’ chthonic forms gesture to the unrememberable elsewheres of night terrors and fever dreams. Their vague anthropomorphism suffuses them with agency, lending them a subtly unsettling energy. The mystic indeterminacy of the final ink work, Conjuring, doesn’t need to decide between artistry and the arcane, because its burst of light is the point at which they meet: in the open space of that which resists knowing determinacy. Here, things recede. We are immersed, instead, in the pregnant atmospheres that precede them. Armstrong’s exhibition captures the movement from wondering about an atmosphere to wandering around it in search of a way in. We circle, with this exhibition, towards a liminal space unmoored from straightforward significance. Around, that is, an experience of the unknowable – that aspect of Armstrong’s works that unsettles and intrigues.
Conjurers showed at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, Australia from 28 April to 26 May 2012. Google Tolarno’s homepage for a link to the catalogue and images.