Thank You For Not Reading by Dubravka Ugresic
001. 5 I learned recently that Cuban cigar-makers, los torcedores, are the most educated segment of Cuba’s population. Rolling cigars by hand is, evidently, tedious and laborious work. The cigar-makers sit on benches, as in school, and spend the whole day rolling leaves of tobacco in their hands. But there is a tradition in Cuba of hiring readers, who sit on a raised platform, hold a book and a microphone in their hands, and read.
002. 14-5 Recently I have done nothing but write book proposals. I took the trouble to write a book proposal for Remembrance of Things Past. It was turned down. Boring, too long, change the title…
Now I’m testing the market. Camouflaged Shakespeare works great. Ulysses got nowhere. Despite my having told it as a soap opera, The Man Without Qualities ended up in the trash. Memoirs of Hadrian too, and The Death of Virgil. All right, I agree, the great European writers were always a bit tedious. But even Hemingway didn’t do any better, although i did mange to sell The Old Man and the Sea. I disguised it a bit. I stressed the ecological aspect of the whole thing. And I changed the old man into a good-looking young Cuban exile, gay. The proposal was immediately accepted.
003. 26-7 Socialist realism was an optimistic and joyous art. Nowhere else was there so much faith in a bright future and the definitive victory of good over evil.
Nowhere except in market-oriented culture. Most of today’s literary production bases its success on the simple socialist-realist ideas of progress. Book store counters are heaped with books which contain one single idea: how to overcome personal disability, how to improve one’s own situation. Books about blind people regaining their sight, fat people becoming thin, sick people recovering, poor people becoming rich, mutes speaking, alcoholics sobering up, unbelievers discovering faith, the unfortunate becoming lucky. All these books infect the reading public with the virus of belief in a bright personal future. And a bright personal future is at the same time a bright collective future, as Oprah Winfrey unambiguously suggests to her impressive world audience.
004. 51 The aura of glamour is, it seems, reserved for only those public activities which create the illusion that everyone has the same access to it.
005. 61-2 The phenomenon of the best-seller is a projection of the collective longing for one book, for the book of books, for a substitute Bible. The longing for one book is deeply anti-intellectual (let us recall that the history of culture begins with tasting that apple from the tree of knowledge!)
006. 62 The best-seller offers a closed system of simple values and even simpler knowledge.
007. 66 In his book Cynicism and Postmodernity, Timothy Bewes maintains that the phenomenon of sincerity is one of the cultural obsessions of our time. At the beginning of the 1990s, the media, measuring the pulse of the market and picking up a longing for semantic transparency, repacked the postmodern zeitgeist as the age of honesty. Thus, concludes Bewes, “sincerity has replaced wit and subtley as the mark of commercial credibility.”
008. 78-9 Recently, out of curiosity, I visited the website of the author of the iconic book The Alchemist. The work, which critics describe as interdenominational, transcendental, and inspirational, is a bag of wind with millions of readers throughout the world. Out of the some two hundred enraptured readers on the web, only two expressed mild reservations about the alchemist’s talent. The skeptics were immediately pounced upon by The Alchemist’s devotees, who asked that Amazon.com deny web access to any such comments.
I wondered why the consumers of victorious products were so fierce and intolerant. … What is it that unites the million-strong army of lovers of The Alchemist… What is it that drives millions of people to shed tears as they watch Titanic…? … I think I know the answer, but I would prefer to keep quite, for the answer makes me tremble with terror.
‘I know perfectly well that the book is shit,’ said a friend of mine, a teacher of literature at a European university, about some book. ‘But I looooove it!’ he howled, drawing out the ‘o’.
‘Americans love junk. It’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love,’ said George Santayana. he said it at a time when he did not yet know that we were all one day going to become Americans.
But still, there is, presumably, something in the very nature of shit that makes it so looooved. And however much the theoreticians of popular culture try to explain why shit ought to be loved, the most attractive aspet of shit is nevertheless its availability. Shit is accessible to everyone, shit is what unites us, we can stumble across shit at every moment, step in it, slip on it, shit follows us wherever we go, shit waits patiently on our doorstep. So who wouldn’t love it! And love alone is the magic formula that can transform shit into gold.
009. 83 In the history of mankind, whenever required, women-witches (literate women) and books (the source of knowledge and pleasure) have been proclaimed the work of the Devil.
In Taylor Hackford’s American film Devil’s Advocate, there is an interesting modern representation of the Devil. The Devil (Al Pacino) and his female crew can be identified by two details: they smoke (no one smokes in America today apart from dark forces!) and they use foreign languages eloquently (the educated are also among the dark forces).
010. 119 In America there is an Indian tribe called the Croatan—which had some difficulty in acquiring the status of North Americans, because there are some indications that they are descended from Dalmation sailors who went astray on the shores of North Carolina and “internationalized” with the local female population.
011. 129 States do not like those who seek papers. Every state, of whatever kind, respects every other state, a bureaucrat respects a bureaucrat. That is why the emigre is punished by a lengthy, tortuous bureaucratic procedure in order to acquire a residence permit. Decent people don’t abandon their states, or their old parents, just like that. Decent people stay at home.
012. 137 They have learned that lesson: it is easy to perform anti-nationalism, but difficult to remain a-national. Even Western Europe will not tolerate that nationally indifferent: the proud West European ideology of multiculturalism wants declared ethnic cultural identities in order to generously grant them the freedom of self-realization.
013. 140 I dream that one day I shall remove the stickers that other people have assiduously attached to me and become just my name.
014. 145 The literary market demands that people adapt to the norms of production. As a rule, it does not tolerate disobedient artists, it does not tolerate experimenters, artistic subversives, performers of strange strategies in a literary text. It rewards the artistically obedient, the adaptable, the diligent, those who respect literary norms. The literary market does not tolerate the old-fashioned idea of a work of art as a unique unrepeatable, deeply individual artistic act. In the literary industry, writers are obedient workers, just a link in the chain of production.
015. 145 …good writers feel banished wherever they are, and only bad writers feel at home everywhere.
016. 150 There’s nothing much to love in the silent [people] , either, the ones who are neither fish nor fowl. You never know what they are thinking, and in the end they always turn out to have been right.
017. 151 … every thinking individual has the right to interfere, including intellectuals.
018. 153 There are cynics who hold that politics today is open to everyone: if actors, criminals, writers, mobsters, fools and murderers can become president, then politics itself is no longer a particularly serious discipline.
019. 153 There are secret addicts who seek the thrill of powerful emotions and bloody experiences, and war is certainly the bloodiest.
020. 153 However, a subtle chemical reaction has taken place in reality, and reality is no longer what it was. It has been irradiated by the media, and as is generally the case with radiation, the damage becomes visible only when it is already too late.
021. 155 Through media contamination, a real event is fictionalized (what an old-fashioned word!), for that is the only way it can be consumed, de-realized (deprived of its reality), and hyper-realized (made more real than reality itself). It begins to function the same way as the texts of popular culture so (movies, TV shows, cartoons, trivial literature, celebrities and so on). Sometimes a real event actually becomes text of popular culture. In order for this to happen, the text of mass culture must be producerly; it must stimulate and produce meaning, bring them into conflict, engage and activate the emotions of the consumers, question but also confirm the fundamental set of values which consumers have. In that sense, not every event has the potential to function as a text of mass culture. Just as not every text does either.
022. 156-7 The media, television in particular, transform events into entertainment, simply because entertainment, and not information, has become the engine of mass media. Media presentation has reduced American trials (O.J. Simpson) and American political life (the case of Clinton) to mass amusement. Of course, it is precisely as amusement that political life achieves the extreme point of its democracy (or the extreme point of its illusion of democracy).
023. 159 …a moral tax should be levied on those who take on a moral role. So from humanists above all.
024. 159 The media intellectual will become a celeb, a person without substance or rather of changeable substance, a person to whom media consumers attribute meaning.
025. 161 To talk about kitsch became impolite at the very moment when the world itself was turning kitsch. Notice that Kafka writes about the bureaucracy at times when the bureaucracy is still almost an innocent creature. Later on, when it swallowed our lives, it became self-evident and thus invisible…The point I want to make is this: the only time when one can recognize a phenomenon in all its horror is when it is still new. –Milan Kundera
026. 162-3 The intellectuals, who had been given full freedom for intellectual discourse—and intellectual discourse, let us remember, “remains one of the most authentic forms of resistance to manipulation and a vital affirmation of the freedom of thought,” as Pierre Bourdieu writes in his book On Television—missed their opportunity. They had the chance to dominate the medium, but the medium of TV, Bourdieu’s “space for narcissistic exhibitionism,” dominated them instead. Within the group itself, relations of power were immediately established: the fast thinkers (Bourdieu’s term) spoke and the slower ones tried to catch their breath. The former created “a field of forces, a force field,” which “contains people who dominate and others who are dominated.” Having secured the space, the fast thinkers continued to talk about trivial matters, using the rhetoric of discoverers. Those who did not want to adapt, or could not adapt, to the tone and topics which had been imposed remained silent.
027. 166 The intellectual today is a socialite who adapts to political, cultural, and intellectual mainstream trends and represents what is expected of every decent thinking person.
028. 167: The intellectual today means above all to be boring. Both of the Germans quoted, who condemn contemporary German literature, use a typical repertoire of accusations; highbrow, incomprehensible, melancholy, no fun.
029. 170 ‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that here would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us,” wrote the apocalyptic Nel Postman, adding that Huxley was right.
030. 189 The global cultural market so rapidly and enthusiastically appropriates the intellectual trends of our time—postcolonialism, feminism, multiculturalism, identity politics—that one sometimes wonders whether the market itself invents intellectual trends in order to make a profit.
031. 195 In the globalized world, individuals feel their insignificance more than ever before. That is why everyone loudly trumpets his own sound and no one listens to anyone else. Listening is, they say, submission to the dominance of another. Speech is the realization of personal freedom and, therefore, dominance over those who agree to be dominated.
032. 195 The global noise is indescribable. Even angels, whose job description includes patience and compassion, walk around with cotton balls in their ears. The only acceptable aesthetic choice that remains for people of good taste is silence.
033. 203 Suddenly it turns out that we are living in an age when everyone has the right to a voice but no one listens.
034. 203-4 … many serious writers are convinced that their ability to penetrate the market is a measure of their quality. Readers are equally convinced. And publishers zealously nourish that conviction.
035. 205 The individual voice is increasingly rare. Every voice, every text, is slotted into the market niche of the moment, the buzzword of the moment, the codes of the market. In order to be heard and understood, the writer consciously or unconsciously adapts his voice to the demands of the market, to his potential readers at that moment. Even if it never occurs to him, even if he refuses, this translation into the language of the market happens without his control: in the market itself, in reception, in reading.