New Fidelities

Acts of Liking and Other Deliria

By Antonia Pont

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At some point early in the film High Fidelity (2000), we learn that ‘it’s not what you are like, but what you like’ that counts. The film goes on to unsettle this idea without, however, overturning it completely, its denouement running parallel with this sound-byte on taste. Implied is that ‘having complicated likes won’t absolve you from actually making something’, in other words, guy gets hot lawyer girl (back) because he starts to deliver ‘in the world’ and not just by curating his preferences, for example by arranging his record collection autobiographically. The film’s central motif is taste – what we can love about its careful, sometimes defensive, version of love, and what we can be wary of.

But let’s consider the sound-byte’s first limb. To be able to call on an are-like, we’d find ourselves looking around for substance, for that authentic essence of people that the cool and philosophically-coached know to make cautious, if any, claim to. Believing in essence can be a little like believing in Santa – at 40, living alone, with stockings hung hopefully near the heater. And yet, the taste bravado of the record store lads at some point in the film also strikes the viewer as reactionary, a little cowardly, even brittle. To make what someone likes the most important criterion of character assessment is a very particular kind of manoeuvre.

In good Hollywood form, the film’s characters change. Their arcs do take them (and us) somewhere new. We could frame this as a change in their substance, but we’re more likely to feel at ease (and safely rigorous) with a framing that emphasises a change in their doings. They all start to do other things or to live differently. Jack Black’s character starts singing; Todd Luiso’s dates a girl; John Cusack’s begins to mentor younger musicians and take more responsibility.

Verbs are doing words, and ‘to like’ is one of them. Liking, as a result, is arguably a kind of action. Perhaps liking and then noticing that, and then standing behind what you like (as a liking, not a fact) can be an apprenticeship in grounding one’s action in the world, without firstly having to proselytise to oneself or to others. This reminds me, as a good friend of mine once did, that the word ‘thesis’ is derived from the Greek term ‘tithenai’ – the verb for ‘to place, put, set’. In other words, to have a thesis – or to write one, something many writers do or contemplate doing – means to take a position and to speak from that place. The beginning, continuing and finishing of a narrative all also involve decisions of a comparable kind.

If what matters is ‘what you like’, this might be because it suggests something further reaching. To like, you have to have gone looking; you have to have laboured; you have to have risked and lost. You have to have endured interfacing with what the world offers – its boons and deficiencies. It’s the risking and the losing implicated in the praise of liking that renders it most interesting, and which brings me to the real preoccupation of this piece.

Antic’s editors set me the task of considering what stylistic, syntactic, rhythmic tendencies in prose (let’s leave poetry out of it for now) might have to do with various philosophical positions? What do our choices (our likes) – as writers now, as makers – say, if anything, about how we see the world? In other words, do preferences around style speak to the ontologies to which we subscribe, knowingly or not? Does style (in the broadest sense here) betray our most pressing existential worries, our particular way of squirming and daring? And, as an upshot, does what we experience as the spoken or unspoken rules of writing (or of particular writing enclaves and positions on writing) have anything to do with power and politics?

The article could wind up here with the simple answer of ‘Yes, of course. We know all that already.’

In that case, what follows here is less an argument for persuading the present reader, and more a musing that might take pleasurable turns for that same reader. (The thing about liking is that we can tend to do it first, and argue for its content later. This chronology, however, can easily get fudged. We reverse the order of its logic: preferring to think that we like things – or ascribe to ideas or opinions – only after we’ve seen convincing evidence. Of course, we know it’s more mercurial than that.) Style, then, and inevitably, gives us away at some level. (For example, my putting a ‘then’ in that sentence, to slow it down, and my use of ‘inevitably’ – an adverb – inside commas, another deceleration, would not say nothing about my stance on other things, in other registers.)

If we go along with Deleuze, the worst of literature’s delirium (which, according to him, is always a disease) occurs when it ‘erects a race it claims is pure and dominant’ (1997: 5). This is the slippage faced by the record store lads. In their certainty that they are niche-loving outsiders, they can actually erect their own little kingdoms of purity and domination (we see a number of comical scenes where they do this – tormenting customers who are themselves following their desires, as particular or singular as the latter may be). The literatures of music, in which the lads are fluent, risk eddying here into sedimentations of taste and ‘rightness’, of disapproval and scathe.

Conversely, Deleuze posits that there is another pole to this delirium of literature – one in opposition to the fantasy of purity and dominance – and that this pole sets us free. In this incarnation, literature’s delirium is the ‘creation of health’; it invents a people, and creates a ‘possibility of life’ (1997: 5). This recaps his notion of minor literatures, literatures – if I’ve understood him correctly – that enable saying (and therefore enable the ‘being’, and the multiplicity of beings, that saying-as-process conjures). Being unable to say is a reliable alarm bell for the likelihood that one is caught in the rip tides of shifting dominations, or of ‘larval fascisms’ (1997: 4). This is demonstrated grossly when entire languages are criminalised (explicitly or otherwise) [1] but plays out when convention’s snub stifles the awkward slips where language might spill its own limits. Literature, Deleuze says, involves language being seized by ‘a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows’ (1997: 5) Similarly, Haraway, in her famous essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ from 1983, notes that a more astute way to name the machinations of white capitalist patriarchy might be using the term ‘informatics of domination’ (2000: 301). Codes (social, linguistic, literary, criminal, etc.) coax us toward collusion. By being in the know (wise to the cant), we assert our belonging to the inner circle, thereby forcing those less well versed to the periphery of our community, society or culture [2]. Where this becomes relevant on a less grand, more humdrum, register is with regards to the things we say, or which get said, about writing: so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ styles of writing. Style dictums come to serve as the criteria for inclusion and exclusion. These dictums are reinforced and perpetuated in all the obvious (and less obvious) places: in creative writing pedagogy, in commercial and more ‘niche’ editorial practices, and in the endless flux of writing ‘advice’ that gurgles around in the cisterns of the internet. What kinds of difficult intersections exist between our likings and preferences (our decisions and stances concerning what constitutes ‘quality’) and this observation of Deleuze’s that literature can go either way – towards sedimented dominations and purities, or towards life and a setting free?

Though everyone may (to some extent) contribute to the promulgation (and prosecution) of these codes, there are those who, due to their structural position, speak from position of authority. They are our editors and teachers of writing, as well as those who have attained prominence in our conversations about writing, whether online and in print. They/we have more power than they/we know (or than they/we take responsibility for) with regards to what might be comfortably said (and how) by those seeking platforms for work, or simply to evade indifference’s cold shoulder. Editors reject or accept (with or without accompanying comment), and teachers determine the marks students receive as well as ‘teaching’ them. Teaching itself involves uttering clusters of advice, descriptions and warnings about writing and its process – direction that lands on very attentive, porous soil.

I was alerted to this recently with regard to the adverb and its shifting status as approbated or, what is more likely, maligned. A fellow writer declared quite unequivocally: ‘adverbs are just wrong’, meaning they’re the wrong things to put into prose fiction, ever.

‘Strip them out’ was her gist. Adverbs are abject. I could picture them, as she spoke: the dandruff of our compositions, marring the blackness of our cashmere suits.

What’s more interesting than accepting or refusing this ready-made position on the adverb – its usefulness or obsolescence – is tracking it as an example of the way opinion and ‘what we like’ can blur into solidified so-called professional conventions, can blur with liking to become a sedimentation of taste and the permissible. That adverbs have been deemed unseemly, in other words, might perform the slide that obtains between ‘what I like’ and the ‘what is quality’. It’s a subtle distinction, but one with consequences. ’What I like’ reveals the responsible subject of the verb (to like); ‘what is quality’ conceals this subject behind a hushed imperative, behind misleading objectivity that naturalises orders and lends to opinion an authoritative veneer.

Rules around writing proliferate on the internet, self-replicate in universities, are disseminated implicitly (or less so) in the praise or criticism of editors, and are ‘validated’ in the decisions of prize committees. These rules can offer examples of the products of ‘liking’ being repackaged as certainties, derivable and stabilising. That is, the swarms of varying opinions and likings are taken up in portable, condensed form as ‘rules’. Do’s and Don’ts. When we create an abstraction of something (in order to be able to retain it, the very mechanism of any representation), we also shut down the clouds of probability in its vicinity. The anxious student, maker or would-be-published freelance writer is extremely vulnerable to internalising these rules – once they themselves have been on the pointy end of an opinion parading itself as a definitive on writing.

To return to our example of the adverb, we know in any case that it is an endangered species. Echoing my colleague’s blithe statement of its wrongness, the adverb has fewer and fewer environments in which to thrive (the word ‘few’, incidentally, is also endangered). The adverb (or at least its traditional ‘-ly’ marker) is practically dead in advertising – ‘fresh baked bread’, ‘fresh cut flowers’ – and is dying in our mouths and viewed with suspicion on the page. The adverb, I’d begin by noting, takes us longer to say or read. Our response to the adverb might then rehearse at a distance our investments and assumptions regarding temporality’s modes, how we might misrecognise its various operations, and perhaps our dogged insistence that it would be something we could steer or control it in efficiency’s name [3].

Does style (in the broadest sense here) betray our most pressing existential worries, our particular way of squirming and daring?”

The adverb speaks to an ephemeral register: that of the quality of doing. It describes the way of a way. It is twice removed from the register of substance. It implies something thick and nameable which nevertheless escapes the nominal register. My suspicion is that, in the current historico-economic moment, our eyes are trained to be trained on things, as a kind of decoy for what’s really going on. The idea that the world is best represented via a stable subject and its unqualified verb may shield us from what might really be determining outcomes, directions and efficacies, namely the fabrics of, and movements within, doing itself [4].

Adverbs might lay bare that register, denuding its mechanisms. Maybe. They slow us down by telling us something of speeds and inflection. They insinuate their movement into our movement – via their particular choreographies: lapping, palpable in the mouth, auto-affective, even. They are the differentiators of how things move. Could our snarly impatience with the adverb’s ‘-ly-’, our contempt for its awkward presence, have anything to do with grieving a world in which inflections on movement (ones that exceed the so-called densely descriptive verb, ones which via naming and combining invent other kinds of complexity not yet within appearance) are increasingly difficult, even obsolete?

It may be that the velocity of adverbs is anachronous, with the latter’s very status telling us something about what is happening to time. It’s as if we could utter the word ‘busily’, ‘busily’, ‘busily’ until it fell apart, broke open to reveal an aporia. Busy is the state in which there can be no adverb. Once busy, there is only one choice. One black car. One soft drink. One brand of computer. You might say there are two, but such a dual-ness is illusory. The two is the same as the one, in the sense that being offered a closed binary effectively amounts to being offered one thing, an illusion of choice. One is either busy or lazy. One is either getting on or breaking down. One accedes to the paradigm intimated by the binary’s very flavour. The point is to render any gradation – or any third term – unthinkable. Not for now.

The other possibility is that adverbs are relics of a moment when we needed to draw attention to variations within movement. Perhaps now this variation is all we have – there is nothing but differentials of velocity. We are reminded of Deleuze’s take on Spinoza’s definition of a body as defined by relations of motion and rest. Deleuze writes:

Thus, the kinetic proposition tells us that a body is defined by relations of motion and rest, of slowness and speed between particles. That is, it is not defined by a form or by functions. Global form, specific form, and organic functions depend on relations of speed and slowness. 

Given Deleuze’s reading, we can then ask, regarding our own social and political moment, whether explicit mention of, or recourse to, the adverbial register has become effectively obsolete.

Are we are living in adverbial time where instances of adverbs themselves are of as little interest as the mixture of gases that sustain us? We no longer believe in Santa, or in Santa’s body. There is only redness, at a certain velocity, with redness itself a certain velocity in relation to others.

Attempts to account for our unease with adverbs, our wish to dispense with them, to prove ourselves already beyond them, often goes via the explanation that the speed of the experience and the ambiance of the narrative’s actions can and should be conjured without the need of adverbs. Explicit mention of such speeds and ambiances can betray the anxiety of the writer – either their hesitation or their micromanaging. Adverbs would seek to direct our experience of the scenario. The text is now an environment, or a site; it is not an address. No one speaks to us. There is no narrator really. That voice is fabricated. Given that the AI owner of that voice may have been programmed using rules from The Elements of Style (whichever edition), there’ll be few adverbs to be seen, and a pervading sinister (but also at times arbitrary) purism [5].

On the bright side, the thing about AIs, as Haraway noted all the way back in the twentieth century, is that as illegitimate offspring they ‘are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential’ (2000: 293).

The fact that we do not yet know what a body can do, and we do not yet know what language can do means that we can delay our conforming to and being beholden to too many kinds of rule, or at least put that off for as long as we can bear. This holding-off may, of course, leave us unsure, vulnerable, flickering in and out of appearance. If adverbs are abject, it means that they threaten the edges of what keeps things proper. (We want to be proper writers, right?) It would seem that we need them, even if they unsettle us, even if they appear and go again. We may put them in, take them out, reinsert them, and allow them to cavort and play out their liminal promiscuities on their fellow elements of language. When one forgoes a rule, one steps into responsibility. This returns us to taste, and to liking.

“A fellow writer declared quite unequivocally: ‘adverbs are just wrong’, meaning they’re the wrong things to put into prose fiction, ever. ‘Strip them out’ was her gist. Adverbs are abject. I could picture them, as she spoke: the dandruff of our compositions, marring the blackness of our cashmere suits.”

To declare a like (like declaring a desire, letting oneself be mirthfully infested by it) operates at a wholly other register to getting it on with rules. Those that make rules, who propagate convention, even without wanting to (and this means all of us) could note this effect of their authority. The question is always how to unsettle our relation to authority without dismantling what it enables, without shirking care and fertile gradients of (for want of a better word) power-to. Derrida, on this point, noted in his early work the easy slide of confusing hierarchisation with domination, political authority with exploitation (1997: 131).

To write with an awareness of convention – to be informed by rules without being beholden to them –can enable us to pursue the messy, ‘unseemly’, illegible but also thrilling work for which future versions of ourselves might develop a taste. It dooms us to immediate invisibility or it may court the glitches in time in which the future can appear before it has arrived.

When we have been shamed for not knowing or daring to flaunt rules, without a moment to clock the operation of shame, we are likely to pass on the weapon that injured us. It’s just how it mostly goes. If someone once told us that jeans of a certain cut are daggy, or to never use that fork for that, and if we don’t question these declarations for what they are, we will find ourselves the mouthpiece for replica taunts. (This is the anxiety that patrols the thresholds of class divisions). If we don’t pause, we will become the vehicle for the very thing that dominated and sought to consign us somewhere abject.

If we weren’t afraid that adverbs would make us look like writing dickheads, then what would they manage to do for us – for our sense of time, for the inflections of movement, for ambiance, for the sweet, surprising lilty pace of the text?

Crum, in her Huffington Post article ‘In Defense of Adverbs’ (2014), selects this example from Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, which I’ll reproduce here:

It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Joyce makes us say these cumbersome words in our head. He makes us say this final paragraph at the very pace and with the muteness of snow. If we skim read it, we will plough through the delicate adverbs, and turn his weightless cadence to slush. The soft thickness of the world, the thickness of how things feel comes to us here. It is the end of a story, and perhaps we are allowed to rest then. Adverbs might show us that within movement there is actually infinite stillness. It stretches out, endlessly, no matter what rules we impose, or how quickly we like to go nowhere. As Deleuze will teach us, it is actually via the miracle of true repetition (2004: 3) that we slip the mechanisms of the present and the past, and, with no content and no excess, are flung into the future. The agent can’t even come along. Grammar’s subject and even the verb’s content drop away. To repeat in this miraculous way is an adverb.

Perhaps we have to rise to merit adverbs. We, and not they, may need to change. They are not below us, but instead portend our utterances-to-come. They may be the most delicate part of speech. We can use them with caution, not because they are ‘wrong’, as was stated, but due to their volatile potential for unusual beauty. Rather than forbid them, we could wish to become writers fluent and easeful enough to place them decisively. Joyce knew how to slow time, to fold temporal haste back on itself via the slalom of the iterative ‘-ly’. With music, as with writing, with circles of people, as with places and times, the sign of mastery is often less an encyclopaedic disapproval and more an appreciation that is at once wide and intricate, patient and decisive.

Rules and professional guidelines – parameters for a field of practice – are crucial. We cannot do without them. Writing pedagogy, editorial feedback, and the internet’s tips and lists do their best work when they equip more people to enter this field armed with some understanding of its conventions. In this sense, the dissemination of rules constitutes a democratising manoeuvre, but invites the same risks that always accompany democracies. Rules about writing are like hints about how to use the cutlery at the fancy dinner party. Rules might be both the stuff of the master’s house and the tools for dismantling it – but only to an extent.

We return to liking. When liking is declared, the mirage of ‘rightness’ is reinflected through particularity. It is when we slide from the aliveness and vulnerability of liking towards correctness (liking-because), and claims to ‘quality’, that we move from the gateway of the verb to stodgier substance. This is why the lads in the film all manage to surprise themselves and us by the end – they start dating; they lose their mediocre compulsion for ‘new’ flirtations; they make their own music.

We don’t need to (can’t) know what makes for ‘quality’ in the moment of making (because ‘quality’ is of the register of representation, whereas crucial moments of making occur at a wholly other register). Put differently, we will need to engage with questions of quality, but perhaps not ‘yet’, not instantaneously. What the dominant party in any context likes will hold sway under usual conditions, but we can identify their preference, for ourselves, as being just that, and then take a position on our respect or otherwise for their skills, experience and insight, and without believing. If we can perceive the workings of liking, instead of generalising its movement into the brutish comfort of rules – that mostly go to work on us surreptitiously – we hold things open. That open space is the site or context where the event that we call art can happen to us.

NOTES

[1] See for example Ó Cathail S, ‘The Politics of the Irish Language Under the English and British Governments’ in The Proceedings of the Barra Ó Donnabháin Symposium, 2007, pp 111-126.

[2] My gratitude to editor, Aaron Mannion, for his editorial insight on this point.

[3] In his recent book, Abstract Market Theory (2015), Roffe devotes a chapter to thinking temporality, following Deleuze and Bergson, in order to think the market itself in terms of time’s various modes, (see Chapter 7).

[4] Unqualified verbs, we can further note, imply those which would carry their inflections close to their person, like travellers with minimal carry-on, like George Clooney’s character in Reitman’s unsettling and darkly funny Up in the Air (2009). As pious contemporary subjects, aren’t we programmed to be devoted to the promise of clutterless utopia?

[5] To collage the vocabulary from Geoffrey Pullum’s critique of the work, as found on Wikipedia.

REFERENCES

Crum, M. ‘In Defense of Adverbs’, Huffington Post, May 6, 2014.

Deleuze, G. Difference and Repetition, P. Patton (trans), New York & London: Continuum, 2004.

————– Essays Critical and Clinical, DW Smith & MA Greco (trans), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

————– Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, R Hurley (trans), San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988.

Derrida, J. Of Grammatology, GC Spivak (trans), Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Haraway, D. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in The Cybercultures Reader, D Bell & BM Kennedy (eds) London & New York: Routledge, 2000.

Ó Cathail, S. ‘The Politics of the Irish Language Under the English and British Governments’ in The Proceedings of the Barra Ó Donnabháin Symposium, 2007. Pp 111–126.

Roffe, J.  Abstract Market Theory, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Photo: Lines by Margo Akermark

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