Blog Tour

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Notes on Uselessness

James Tadd Adcox's debut novel Does Not Love was released this fall by Curbside Splendor.  ACM is pleased to host Adcox on his blog tour, and now, without further ado: 

 

Notes on Uselessness

 

1.

 

For the last several years I have been attending a Quaker worship service each week. Here’s how it works: You go into a room with some other people. There are a lot of seats more or less in a circle. You sit down, and you’re quiet. You can close your eyes if you want. You don’t have to, but most people do. You wait. Sometimes the whole hour goes like that, with everyone waiting in silence. Sometimes, before the hour is over, someone stands and says something. There are no ministers in Quaker worship, or rather, everyone is potentially a minister. You are only supposed to stand up and speak if you feel compelled to do so by God, or the divine, or what-have-you (Quakers don’t all necessarily agree on the terms here). After someone stands and speaks and sits back down, there’s quiet again, and maybe in a little while someone else will feel compelled to speak, or maybe they won’t, and the rest of the hour will pass in silence.

            I have never stood. I have never felt compelled to. I’m not sure what that would feel like, to be compelled. The best description I’ve heard is that you stand and speak when it becomes more painful not to speak than it would be to speak. That seems like a pretty good guideline.

            All of which is to say that last night, I was reading a book about the history of silence in religion, and I thought about what it would be like, to apply Quaker principles to writing. To sit in quiet, or rather stillness, until I felt compelled to write something. To wait patiently, without anxiety, not worrying whether I write anything at all. Why write something if it’s not worth writing? If it doesn’t need to be written? Why write unless it’s more painful not to write than it would be to write?

 

2.

 

But then something in me rebels against this idea. The writing I’m concerned about primarily is fiction and poetry, which is to say, art. I am not sure what art is, if it is not superfluous. In fact, the more I consider the question, the more it appears to me that what is worthwhile about art is how honestly, flagrantly, superfluous it is. How simple art is in its superfluousness.

            Almost everything we find around us is useful, a means. We are taught to think of things in terms of means. We ask, what’s the return on investment? We ask, is that quantifiable? We ask, how many clicks, how much screen time? And of course art can be useful: it can be used to sell detergent or to convey a certain message. But that doesn’t exhaust art, and in fact doesn’t really get at what art is, at all. There is something fundamental to art that is wholly outside of whatever uses it might be put to.

            I read a book several years ago about PR. The book’s thesis was that PR is necessary because consumers are too savvy to be swayed by advertising any more. The book said that advertising is now an art form. What it meant by this was that advertising is no longer necessary. Candles, the book said, were once necessary as a form of light. Now we have electric light, so candles have become aesthetic: people use them when they want to be “romantic.” You might say that likewise, painting was once necessary, because it was the only way we had to know what people looked like after they were dead; the photograph made painting into an art form, or at any rate made it nothing other than an art form.

            The book’s point was that advertising is now useless, just like candles are useless now, and paintings are useless. As things become useless they pass into the realm of art. But art isn’t restricted to technologies or mediums that have been superseded. Obviously a photograph can be art. But it is art to the degree that it is useless.

            On some level, art is a refusal of usefulness. A refusal to be useful, or to accept that usefulness is the only yardstick of value. Every work of art engages in this to some degree. Even those works of art with a message are not wholly reducible to their message; some part of them holds out, refuses to be message and nothing more.

 

3.

 

What is this superfluousness of art, that constitutes its refusal? Because its refusal and its superfluousness are the same. What value or importance can superfluousness have? As should be obvious from what we have already said, this cannot be a value based on use.

            I would assert that this superfluousness or refusal is what moves art from the category of ordinary objects into the category of objects capable of being loved. In this refusal, once put into interaction with an audience or a reader, art acquires a seeming subjectivity of its own. There is a sense we get, of course, that a work of art has certain opinions, or expresses certain views on the world, but that is not quite what I mean. Beyond whatever opinions it may express, a work of art seems to have a white-hot core of being that we cannot reduce to a set of propositions or uses. This is its refusal.

            Love is premised on an inability to view the beloved as a means. To whatever degree we view the beloved as a means, we do not love him, or her, or it. The contrary holds as well: to whatever degree we value the beloved but are incapable of seeing him, her, it, as a means, to just that degree do we love.

            It is possible, when one is in love with another, that one is nonetheless engaged in a relationship of exchange. The theologian Rienhold Neibuhr posits that in any reciprocal loving relationship, an exchange is always taking place, one that must in a healthy relationship be more-or-less equal. However, the lovers cannot be aware of this; they cannot, say, keep a tally of what one has done and what the other has done, and make sure that it evens out—to do this would destroy the relationship of love, would make it something quite different. It would transform the beloved, for each, into a means. Quantification, the sort of exact quantification that does not admit of superfluousness or refusal, is the enemy of love. Something must remain unquantified for love to exist.

            Of course something—the vast majority of things, in fact—always remains unquantified. This is not a question of the pettiness of love. It is a question of the pettiness of ourselves.

 

  

(Cover of Does Not Love by Jame Tadd Adcox, image courtesy of Curbside Splendor)

 

4.

 

It has been pointed out before that the relationship of love is at once universal and wholly, concretely particular. The object of one’s love seems to have some sort of absolute necessity, such that, for the lover, it can be difficult to imagine a life of any sort without the beloved. And yet the beloved is individual, particular in time and space, and so cannot possibly be necessary in the way that the lover imagines. More to the point: while there is a feeling of absolute necessity to the love once it has occurred, it is wholly contingent before it occurs. The experience of love creates its own necessity.

            Prior to the experience of love, the beloved has no importance, it would not matter to the lover whether the beloved never existed; once love has occurred, the thought that the beloved might never have existed, or that the beloved might one day no longer exist, seems impossible and impossibly painful. Imagine asking someone who is not in love about love: “Love” might be important to them, which is to say that it might be important to them that they be in love with someone, at some point in the future; but imagine asking them if it is important to them that, at some future point, they be in love with this person, in particular? How could it possibly matter to a person who is not in love what particular person they will later be in love with? How could it even matter to them (assuming they have not yet met their future beloved) whether such-and-such unknown person had existed? Perhaps the would-be lover would offer a pragmatic response, along the lines of, “Oh, yes, he (or she) would be a good match, we come from similar backgrounds, have similar beliefs about the world”—the would-be lover might, as many of us do, even have a list of qualities in mind to describe the sort of person they would like to one day be in love with—but such pragmatic considerations miss the point. Until the lover loves, the beloved does not matter, the beloved as beloved is wholly contingent. Once the lover loves, the opposite is true: reality becomes impossible to imagine without the beloved.

            In this the lover’s attitude towards the beloved is much the same as one’s attitude towards one’s own life: non-existence, for the living, is at once impossible, and yet, somehow, an impossibility that registers as painful.

 

5.

 

Art is a thing that creates its own necessity. Before the book Moby Dick existed it did not matter whether the book Moby Dick ever would have existed: once it has existed (if you prefer: once it has been read) it is impossible to imagine existence without it.

            The reader, of course, is free to select another book or work of art to substitute, if he or she does not find Moby Dick particularly compelling. The point is that the world got on perfectly fine without Crime and Punishment or Hamlet or Ran, and would continue to do so had they never come into being; yet now, for certain of us, the world is unimaginable without them.

            Notice the difference between such books and Origin of Species, or Principitia Mathematica. These are books that made certain changes in the world, changes that we can point to. Perhaps the full impact of such books cannot be known, their changes resounding, spreading throughout society; but in broad outline we can say, “Well, Origin of Species introduced the theory of evolution, which has fundamentally changed our understanding of biology, has changed how scientists go about investigating the world, and so on”; or “Principitia Mathematica helped to develop modern concepts of logic, without which, among other things, the computer might not have existed.” It even seems likely that, as some historians believe, such ideas these are the product of their time, overdetermined by a variety of historical factors, rather than the product of any individual. Certainly it’s the case that the theory of evolution would have come into being with or without Darwin; Alfred Russel Wallace had written his own account of the theory, contemporary with Darwin’s, and Darwin had to rush his own account into print to receive credit for it. If this is true, it only further supports the case that such books have a necessity that comes from outside themselves.

            What changes does a Moby Dick make in the world? What changes does Crime and Punishment? Some minor changes, certainly, as any object in the world changes it in some way; but what changes can you point to that explain the feeling we get, when we encounter a great work of art, that the world ought not exist without it?

 

6.

 

I have just received in the mail Matthea Harvey’s new book, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? and already I am beginning to have difficulty imagining a world that could exist without this book. Such a world seems slightly, ever so slightly, unjust. Yesterday I did not feel this way; yesterday I did not yet know that If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? existed, or rather, I knew it existed as a name of a book but I did not know the book itself. Today I am ever so slightly in love with this book, which is to say, the idea of its possible nonexistence has become ever so slightly unimaginable. 

 

 

James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a collection of stories, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. He lives in Chicago.

ACM is Going to be a Stop on a Blog Tour!

Tune in here at the good old ACM blog on December 3rd for a scintillating He Said/She Said between husband and wife editorial duo Casey & Jessa Bye as they banter on the topic of sleeping and dreaming and cuddling and other crusty-eyed confessions!
 
Below is the tour explanation from Casey and Jessa!
 
And you can buy a copy of their slick anthology The Way We Sleep by clicking here!
 
"We're comin' to your town! Sorta. Over the next two weeks, we'll be traveling the world in support of the release of The Way We Sleep, an Anthology via the internet. Each day, December 2nd through 14th, we'll "stop by" a website or blog and provide unique content related to The Way We Sleep. There will be interviews, videos, previews/excerpts of stories and comics from the book, and much more! So spread the word and check in each day, because The Way We Sleep is coming to a computer near you!
 
Tour Itinerary:
 
12/2 The Quietus
12/3 Another Chicago Magazine
12/4 A Softer World
12/5 This Blog Will Change Your Life
*Plus The Way We Sleep will be represented in physical form by Rob Duffer, Simon A. Smith, Megan Stielstra, and J. Adams Oaks at Reading Under the Influence at Sheffields this night
12/6 The Collagist
12/7 Monkeybicycle
12/10 Lit Pub
12/11 Knee-Jerk
12/12 The Nervous Breakdown
12/13 New City
12/14 The Good Men Project"
 

CCLaP's Online Book Tour Stops in at ACM w/ a Novel Excerpt from Katherine Scott Nelson's HAVE YOU SEEN ME

The cops came to my front door at about eight in the morning. I didn’t recognize either of them. The older one had a full belly that he practically used to wedge the door open, and the younger one, who stood behind him, had a jarhead haircut that made his whole face look pudgy and prepubescent. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table with one of my library books, and I jumped when the front porch stairs creaked. The older cop knocked on the screen door and said, “We’re here about your friend, Amanda Mayward. May we come in?”

Like everyone else, the cops refused to use Vyv’s real name. Vyv and I were used to this. I glanced toward the living room, where my mom was still asleep on the couch, and toward the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, where my dad would be pacing and muttering to himself. I put on my hoodie and stepped outside to talk to the cops.

I leaned up against the wall while the older one flipped through his notes, loudly and slowly. I crossed my arms and ran my fingers across the leaves of my mom’s potted ferns. I knew their game was intimidation and I knew that you could win by coming prepared.

I had spent the last few days perfecting my lines. “I haven’t seen her since the end of the school year,” I had whispered to myself, as I ran hot water in the kitchen and worked on the stack of crusted pots and pans. I practiced a concerned expression in the bathroom mirror while brushing my teeth. “If I had to guess, I’d say she ran away,” I’d think, as I wrote a draft of a letter to the food stamp office for my mom.

He asked me, “When was the last time you saw Miss Mayward?”

Around the end of the school year,” I said. “Why?” It flew out of my mouth like a tape-recorded message. I stuffed my hands into my pants pockets. I knew I couldn’t do this.

But the cops didn’t flinch. They went on to tell me what I already knew: not home since Sunday, missing persons report filed, foul play not currently suspected, and so on. I confirmed their physical description of Vyv: five-foot-five, about 150 pounds, just enough weight for inconvenient curves that she hid under long jackets and baggy sweaters. Hair: red. Not natural red, but the kind of purple-red that comes from two boxes of L’Oreal Feria that she’d bring home from Grand Island every month. A thick sheet of semi-curls that reached to dye-scorched ends at her waist. Wrist-Cutter Red. Blowjob Red. Girl With Problems Red.

Did she ever talk about running away?” the younger cop asked.

She talked about it all the time,” I said. “But I always figured it was just talk.”

Anyplace in particular?”

Everywhere, I thought. Vyv and I were walking barefoot down our town’s main street, and she was telling me about the beaches in Tangier, where writers arranged their future classics and the best weed on the planet got passed around. We were picking clover out of the grass on the school playground, and I was listening to her go on and on about Siberia, where the trees exploded in the sub-zero winter and the trains hurtled on through the darkness for weeks. We were at the mall, and she was trying on black clothes, like suits of armor, to prepare herself for New York City.

She’d been talking about Seattle a lot,” I said.

One of the cops whipped out a pen and wrote SEATTLE? in block letters. “Does she know anybody out there?”

I shook my head.

The younger one cleared his throat and said, “What do you know about her friends in Lincoln?”

I never really met them.” I crossed my arms. “Besides, she hasn’t talked to them since this winter.” I considered adding more, but held my breath. It wouldn’t do any good to bring up that whole mess with Sonia and Grant. I thought of that morning in homeroom, when Vyv had lifted her head from her desk and moaned, “This weekend was so fucked.” She never went into specifics. Something about heroin and screaming at the driver of a car as he blew through red light after red light.

The cops nodded and took it down. One of them asked, “Was she having problems at home?”

I swallowed. “She doesn’t get along with her stepdad. They’re always fighting about something.”

Why were all of my words so inadequate? “Doesn’t get along with” to illustrate the cloud of rage that followed Vyv around on some days? The weight that seemed to settle on her whenever she bit back tears from another long row? “Always fighting about something” to imply that she often spent afternoons staring at the shotgun mounted above her parents’ couch, loaded with potential vengeance?

What exactly happened at the end of the school year?” they asked.

We had a falling out,” I said.

The older one flipped through his notes. “Uh-huh. Did you and Amanda fight often?”

Oh shit, I realized. They think I’m Vyv’s boyfriend. Or at least one of those guys who hung around her for sex. It explained why I, the former Eagle Scout, would associate with Vyv, with her antique boots and top hat and alleged Satanism.

I tried hard not to squirm. If Vyv were here she’d be collapsing in laughter, right on my front porch. “No, we were pretty good friends,” I insisted. “I was gonna call her and apologize soon.” I thought I could see it in their faces. I wondered if they knew.

But they didn’t say anything. The older one handed me a business card and said, “Most of the time they come back on their own, once they see what it’s really like out there. Give us a call if you hear from her.”

I put the card in my pocket and promised I would.

Hey, I grew up on this block,” said the younger one. “In that yellow house.”

Oh,” I said.

Was a great place to grow up. Different then, of course.”

I said nothing. I’d always rather liked the shuttered houses, the distressed yards, the sinking pines, and I hated it when people shook their heads over the state of my street.

The cops turned and loped across my front yard, back to the cruiser. I went back inside. My mom was curled up on the couch under the heavy wool throw blanket, where she’d fallen asleep in front of the TV last night. I pressed her shoulder. “Hey Ma. I’m making breakfast. You want anything?”

Just coffee,” she yawned.

I put on the coffeemaker and set up two mugs with milk and sugar waiting in the bottom. I cracked two eggs into a clean skillet and sliced chunks of potato into sizzling fat. Hey Vyv, I thought as I stirred the potatoes. Did you see that? I sent the trail out to Seattle for you. I pictured her on the Greyhound, riding east into the hills. She’d be looking out the window and listening to The Gits in her headphones, or reading the copy of Jane Eyre she’d swiped from Goodwill. I was happy for her.

                    

Katherine Scott Nelson is the author of the novella Have You Seen Me, a current nominee for the Lambda Literary Awards. Hir work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Confrontation, make/shift, and Fiction at Work. Ze lives in Chicago, blogs over here, and is currently on a 'Virtual Book Tour' online as a lead-up to an actual physical tour, along with other CCLaP authors, in New York City!