From: “Ottessa Moshfegh Is Praying for Us”

To be fair, Moshfegh has never tried to defend her characters on moral grounds. She intends that they be outsiders, freaks, malcontents. “I let them say what they want,” she told one interviewer. “Usually they’re saying something too honest.” The effect can be powerful. After Eileen casually humiliates a young woman who is visiting her rapist, she reflects, “I suppose I may have been envious. No one had ever tried rape me.” The sentence slices through you like an icicle—the wit of it, the horror, the heartbreak, the audacity of such poor taste—and the pieces melt away before you can decide how it made you feel. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the orphaned narrator mentally flicks away her mother’s suicide note by calling it “totally unoriginal.” The quip is devastating not least because there really is something cliché about the grandeur of depression—and there really isn’t a right time to bring it up. If this is what Moshfegh means when she speaks of telling people “the truth they don’t want to hear,” then good: She is well within the remit of all the best fiction, which rightly holds up a sharp pin for our worst angels to dance on.

This is all well and good; it has the pleasing shape of radical sentiment without the encumbrance of any actual political commitments. In reality, it is very easy to oppose the banning of a book like Lolita while also pointing out that the author of American Psycho is a sundowning reactionary. But Moshfegh seems to believe that unsettling moral perspectives are better found in novels than in readers. For her, the threat to the novel is posed not by murderous corporations, which are merely window-dressing here, but by a sinister “political agenda” found, like all political agendas, in the swarming tweets of strangers. The substance of that agenda is easy to guess—social justice, both real and imagined—but what Moshfegh really means is what most successful artists mean when they speak vaguely about the value of art: the absolute indignity of being told what to do.

Beneath all the bluster, the only political enemies Moshfegh openly acknowledges are commercialism and agitprop—that is, the desecration of art by money and power. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation speaks with uncharacteristic reverence of the “ineffable quality of art as a sacred human ritual” and laments the art world’s enslavement to “political trends and the persuasions of capitalism.”


This is why we all shit: to be renewed. Everything else—money, political ideology, institutions of all kinds—is a distraction from the fundamental unity of shit and spirit. “We are spiritual and we’re human poop machines,” Moshfegh says. “We are divine and we are disgusting. We’re having these incredible lives and then we’re going to be dead and rot in the ground.”

For all its technical mastery, there remains something deeply juvenile about Moshfegh’s fiction, colored in with an existential discomfort that the author has not updated since childhood.

Like the art-touching scene at the end of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ina’s miracle is a clear allegory for the very novel it concludes—all the way down to the motif of the hand, which might as well be holding a pen. Moshfegh describes her writing process as an ecstatic experience of “channeling a voice,” and she has often expressed a desire to “be pure and real and make whatever is coming to me from God.” The epigraph to Lapvona, “I feel stupid when I pray,” is taken from a Demi Lovato song about feeling abandoned by God. But the phrase also recalls Moshfegh herself, who imagines that her “destiny” is to reach into readers and transmit the divine. “My mind is so dumb when I write,” she told an early interviewer. “I just write down what the voice has to say.” In other words, there’s a reason God isn’t listening: He’s busy praying to people like Moshfegh.

That’s a nice thought. It must be convenient to believe in a God whose theological features consist in giving you divine permission to write whatever you want. But even with all the authority of heaven behind her, Moshfegh would rather preach righteousness to an empty chapel than break bread with the weak and the blind. This is the problem with writing to wake people up: Your ideal reader is inevitably asleep. Even if such readers exist, there is no reason to write books for them—not because novels are for the elite but because the first assumption of every novel must be that the reader will infinitely exceed it. Fear of the reader, not of God, is the beginning of literature. Deep down, Moshfegh knows this. “If I didn’t like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose,” observes the widow of Death in Her Hands. Yet the novelist continues to write as if her readers are fundamentally beneath her; as if they, unlike her, have never stopped to consider that the world may be bullshit; as if they must be steered, tricked, or cajoled into knowledge by those whom the universe has seen fit to appoint as their shepherds.



[The Author does not know if they agree with the statement “Fear of the reader, not of God, is the beginning of literature” or this review at large. Interesting perspective, though.]

On SF & Donna Haraway:

Contained in these briefest of sketches, however, are important keys to understanding the full intent of Haraway’s ironic myth. The Manifesto calls on SF in a number of ways. First, and crucially, looking to SF becomes a way of foregrounding and talking about the mythic elements of technoscience. Thee Manifesto is centrally concerned with a reconstruction of socialist-feminist politics “in the belly of the monster” -a drive that requires a “theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations” (Haraway 1991a: 163). For Haraway, SF is a useful tool for foregrounding such “systems of myth;’ especially if we export our SF reading practices to science and see both as stories about science.

SF in the Manifesto is also, of course, a key source for the figure of the cyborg itself. As in all her work, “grokking” the cyborg entails accepting the enmeshing of the material and semiotic, the “reality” of subjects described by science as well as their historical constructedness. Thus “the cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience” and Haraway’s cyborg, at least, sees its promise in the confusion of boundaries between organism and machine that seemed reified as part of the science/arts, nature/culture, human/animal binaries. The SF cyborgs Haraway cites as cogenitors are key for the way they “populate worlds ambiguously natural and
crafted” (Haraway 1991c:149). That is, the SF worlds writing cyborgs into being always skirt the im/possibility of the natural/artifactual dualism. It is in this sense that Haraway calls her feminist SF writers “theorists for cyborgs” and our “story-tellers exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds” (Haraway 1991c:173).

Key to Haraway’s approach in the Manifesto is the need to oppose a technophobic fear of the machine and instead accept the machinic-and the collapse of technological/organic boundaries-as part of our embodiment; “the machine is us, our processes, and aspect of our embodiment”(Haraway 1991c:180). These are, of course, not the only boundaries that must be challenged. Importantly, “cyborg monsters in feminist science fiction define quite different political possibilities and limits from those proposed by the mundane fiction of Man and Woman” (Haraway 1991c:180 )that is, our stories of sexual, gendered, and species divisions, amongst others. Haraway provides a whole list of oppositions and objects whose status as natural, given, universals is challenged in this work. “Thee cyborgs populating feminist science fiction make very problematic the statuses of man or woman, human, artefact, member of a race, individual entity or body” (Haraway 1991c:178). Indeed, most of the examples Haraway cites in the close of the Manifesto do not so much confuse the human/machine boundaries we commonly associate with the SF cyborg as they trouble these other problematic boundaries. Russ’s Female Man “refuse(s) the reader’s search for innocent wholeness” (Haraway 1991c:178); while Tiptree is called on for her “generations of male brood pouches and male nurturing”; Varley for his “mad goddess-planet-trickster-old womantechnological device” Gaea; and Butler for her black sorceresses, shapeshifters, mixed species and human-alien characters. 1here is human/technology interface here, certainly, but in the case of Tiptree, Varley, and Butler these are cyborgian monsters produced through biotechnology, and ones where the human/other boundary is polluted through intermingling between races, species, aliens, and animals. What all these texts have in common is the way in which they were consciously engaged in rewriting and revisioning both traditional SF narratives as well as broader scientific and social discourses. Most of the texts Haraway references were associated with the feminist utopian movement, however these visions were not-as some commentators persisted in arguing-blueprints for a real “elsewhere.”” Communion or joining with the alien or animal in feminist SF is not a desire to escape planet Earth and indulge in miscegenation, but a way of thinking differently about what it means to be human-to resist and warp the self-other dyad. The appeal of all these texts for a cyborg trickster figuration is their resistance to wholeness, unity, and innocence… The alien species, races, organisms, and machines populating these texts mean we cannot escape the fact that right from the beginning there was always more going on than the boys from Wired or the cyberpunks might have thought.

It is this destruction that “provokes the necessity of active rewriting as reading.”

Haraway-qua-reader feels compelled to rewrite not just the story itself but “the whole human and unhuman collective that is Lisa Foo” (that is: just as she has reread and rewritten the cyborg, oncomouse, or dogs). She uses this act or performance of rereading to make her real point, which  is about the aim and function of such rereadings, reappropriations, and reconfigurings. … This is, of course, precisely what Haraway does with her other figurations, including the cyborg: she rearticulates or redescribes them in order to foreground that which is hidden or foreclosed. “It’s not a ‘happy ending’ we need, but a non-ending” (Haraway 2004:no).

From Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway 

On muteness:

“The differend demands a rigorous listening-not because of some a priori rule which says I must do the other’s bidding, but precisely due to the absence of a priori rules, to the sui generis nature of the encounter Every differend has never happened before-it is always happening for the first time, and thus requires an openness to every possible way of linking onto the phrases produced. “Phrase” here does not necessarily mean linguistic phrases, but it does mean “utterance” produced by a semiotic agent or whatever is taken to be a semiotic agent by the rules of the language game. In other words, in some contexts a lighting bolt might be a phrase (as when a mystic believes herself to be peaking to God, who then sends down a lightning bolt in response), whereas in others it won’t be (as in a meteorological di course). Silence is a phrase when someone chooses to withhold or not speak. Thu , for our purposes, everything depends upon showing that nonhumans can be, and are, semiotic agents and maintaining a context in which what they produce counts as utterances in spite of the fact that these utterance will ncesarily be, for lack of a better term, different. In other words, this model of democratic being-with requires that we figure the other as capable of meaningful utterances even as we are unable to understand these utterances.

Cary Wolfe’s critique of Lyotard’s notion of the differend centers precisely on the notion of agency and its humanistic entanglements. Because the differend takes place between agents of phrases, it is not the best model for understanding our differences from animals when animals are “mute” as a matter of course, not agentially. The animal’s silence is not a phrase and so not a proper silence, “it is not a withholding, and thus does not express the ethical imperative of dissensus and the diflerend” (Wolfe 2003:59). Because the animal cannot be said to be the agent of its utterances in the same way as the human, Wolfe argues, this fundamentally undermines the effectiveness of the differend schema for a multispecies theory of justice. Lyotard’s humanist commitments sneak in “in the taken-for-granted muteness of the animal, which, crucially, can never be a withholding” (Wolfe 2003:62). However, apart from what Lyotard may or may not have written about the animal, it is important to examine what role agency could possibly play in a philosophy that begins from the condition of a relation of not-understanding the other. What does it mean to identify a being as a semiotic agent-or not-in conditions of not-understanding?”

From, Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway 


GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Why Are We So Resistant to the Idea of a Modern Myth?

‘Experts, I fear, aren’t much help here. You can collect academic definitions for as long as your patience lasts. “The word myth,” as Northrop Frye rightly says, “is used in such a bewildering variety of contexts that anyone talking about it has to say first of all what his chosen context is.” Folklorist Liz Locke put it more bluntly in 1998: “such a state of semantic disarray and/or ambiguity is truly extraordinary.”

Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko nonetheless gives a definition that kind of sounds like what you’d expect from an expert: a myth is

a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.

This is a fair appraisal of how myth has often been regarded by anthropologists. But it is fraught with dangers and traps. Like the word “anthropology” itself, it seems to offer an invitation to make myth something “other”: something belonging to cultures not our own, and most probably to ones that even in the circles of liberal academics retain an air of the “primitive.” Gods, creation, ritual, cult: these are surely notions that we in the developed world have left behind and only pick up again with an air of irony. Our “gods” are not real beings or agencies but metaphorical cravings (“he worships money”) or celebrities (rock gods and sex goddesses).

This picture is tenacious, and I suspect it accounts for much of the resistance to the notion (and there is a lot of resistance, believe me) that anything created in modern times might deserve to be called a “myth.” To accept that we have never relinquished myths and myth-making might seem to be an admission that we are not quite modern and rational. But all I am asking, with the concept of myth I use in this book, is that we accept that we have not resolved all the dilemmas of human existence, all the questions about our origins or our nature—and that, indeed, modernity has created a few more of them.

One objection to the idea of a modern myth is that, to qualify as myth, a story must contain elements and characters that someone somewhere believes literally existed or happened. Surely myths can’t emerge from works of fiction! The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski asserted as much, saying of myth that “it is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read today in a novel, but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies.”’



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