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Literature, violence and the batshit-crazy Booker

 

Earlier this year I went to the launch of a literary journal in Melbourne during the writers festival. I went because the journal was publishing something of mine, and handing out prizes and money.

I also went because I had never been to any kind of literary launch or writers festival before and wanted to check out what it was like when badged afficionados of literature got together. I thought it could be fun.

I live in a small but notorious village in sub-tropical New South Wales and my preferred entertainment is sitting in a cafe writing, which is what I’m doing now. My interests are admittedly limited, so I figured I’d be getting out more.

So I made it to the launch. There were crowds of people stooging about for a long time in a room that would have made a good undertaker’s parlour for the corpse of a minor dictator. There was some free grog for drinkers and warm orange juice for non-drinkers, and bookshop reps selling the journal. Then the launch proper started, and numerous people spoke at length about literature. And that’s when things really went pear-shaped.

One way of putting it would be to say that I suddenly felt like I absolutely didn’t belong. As the speeches went on about the intrinsic value of literature to the world, I realised that I had no idea what anyone was talking about. It was quite distressing.

Another way of describing the experience would be that it was one of the most tedious, dispiriting and pointless events it has ever been my misfortune to endure. I wish to god I had stayed at home and never gotten on the plane. I can’t imagine what it must be like attending the Booker Prize. If there were any justice in the world, you’d think that the Booker shindig would involve a mass exodus of literati, consumed by despair and throwing themselves into the Thames like lemmings.

I’d very much like to believe that the world of professional literary activity – the book launches, the writers’ festivals, the agents shopping novels around, the review culture, the prizes and so on – gives us something to help us make sense of a reality where life is worth little, where the evil and cruel thrive, where children are crushed by Predator drones, women are treated like trashable objects, where atrocity and injustice are often feted and the planet is about to boil like a kettle. But I can’t because it doesn’t.

Recently I came across a list of the casualties of wars in the 1990s: two million killed in Afghanistan, 500,000 dead in Angola, 1.5 million in the Sudan, 800,00 in Rwanda, 250,000 dead in Bosnia, 200,000 in Guatemala, 150,000 dead in Liberia, 250,000 dead in Burundi. And so on.

War, children, might just be a shot away, but my guess would be that if you pored over all the fiction written in English during the 1990s you’d have very little inkling those events even occurred.

The central structure around which Western social orders, economics, and practices of enjoyment and pleasure are constructed is that of violence. Understandings and conversations about violence and its traumatic effects cut to the heart of those practices, and therefore the core of who we are and whatever it is we think we are doing. If we want to speak of the politics of self, of the politics of the West and our bizarre and destructive practices of enjoyment, it’s impossible to avoid an investigation of violence.

In her groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery: from domestic abuse to political terror, Judith Herman pointed out that all our understandings of trauma and violence have been born of radical mass political movements: the French anti-clerical revolutions of the nineteenth century, the anti-war movements of the twentieth, and the late-twentieth century rise of feminism. In between those movements there have been strange periods of amnesia. Herman, a psychiatrist, writes as a feminist, and might be the only trauma theorist I’ve ever heard of influenced by George Orwell, whose concept of ‘doublethink’ she links to the psychological concept of ‘dissociation’.

As Herman points out, in between the heightened revisitings brought on by catastrophic wars, trauma vanishes from professional and public discourse. Endemic violence becomes invisible.

Which brings us back to literature.

After the Melbourne lit launch I was weirdly disoriented. I felt like sitting on a park bench somewhere, drinking a bottle of vodka and writing in my notebook til my pen ran out of ink. But I stopped drinking a decade ago, and I had social obligations to fulfil that night, so it was a futile wish, and just as well.

When I finally got to bed, I berated myself for being so stupid as to believe that a writers’ festival and the launch of a literary journal could be meaningful. I was also starting to feel that I was going a bit nuts, which can happen when you have nutty experiences. In Grey Eminence, which is probably his best book, Aldous Huxley wrote:

All of us, I suppose, have woken up all of a sudden from the sleep of everyday living into momentary awareness of the nature of ourselves and our surroundings…suddenly to realise that one is sitting damned among the damned.

And then, in the tone of a man chilled to the heart he adds, ‘It’s most disquieting.’

I woke up in the middle of the night and gazing out of the hotel window at sleeping Melbourne, thought, this is completely fucked. What on earth do I think I’m doing when I’m writing? I’m just scribbling to myself in the dark. And for what? The privilege of being published in an esteemed mainstream literary journal? I haven’t received my complimentary issue of the journal yet, but if and when I do, I intend to dig a hole and bury it (probably out in the orchard near where I buried the dead chicken that the dog accidentally killed) and dance on its grave.

There is something really wrong with the way that literature in English is produced and the processes by which those products are sanctioned. It’s crooked and it’s a scam, and writers are complicit with it. Having published a few things and won a couple of things, you’d think I might be feeling good about myself. After all, that’s the recognition writers are supposed to strive for. But the Melbourne lit launch, a launch that someone who had been to many similar events told me was just your average launch, was so absolutely batshit weirdo crazy that, as the slow tedious evening wore on, the feeling grew that I was in a stateroom on a sinking ocean liner. It was as if we were all nibbling on canapes while outside the passengers in steerage were already looking for the lifeboats. And finding none. I kept sticking the equivalent of mental Post-Its on my mind: ‘Steve, this is ok. You’re tired and this is unfamiliar. It’s just a harmless, well-meaning literary launch.’

Actually it wasn’t. It was a sinister microcosm of the dead values and toxic ideas that construct and police literature. I looked into the heart of the bourgeoisie – and realised that it was me. I had become a sanctioned literary person. I’m not a Booker Prize winner or anything, but I’m compromised enough. Fiction is light, excitingly traumatic entertainment for the bourgeoisie.

I can’t see how we can go on like this, constructing literature as an elite activity, plugged into the marketing whims of transnational corporations and glossed with a veneer of aesthetic credibility and notions of ‘craft’ and literary excellence. A writer’s output is fed into a corporate neoliberal marketing hierarchy and comes out at the end with a nice cover and a price tag. That’s the way abbatoirs work. This is no way to produce dissent.

Still, I’ve been wondering about the literature of writers from Indigenous nations and violently colonised peoples who may sometimes write in English. Literature written in English produced by the colonised and the invaded could be itself a kind of radical re-colonising, a landing on the shores of the continent of English Literature, a continent fortified by the concrete bunkers of publishers, with trolling battalions of critics.

Literature of the colonised is always going to be unavoidably political, and the political has been something that literature has historically studiously avoided, despite the best efforts of writers like Edward Said. A political novel is considered to be Nineteen Eighty-Four. The corpus of contemporary literature in English, literature for which violence is something that happens out there if it happens at all, doesn’t consider itself to be political. Politics, the examination of violence, happens in other countries and other literatures.

Maybe the production of twentieth-century literature in English, dominated as it has been by English and American publishers, was something of a scam. Readers and writers are often people in love with the idea that literature is almost ontologically important.

It’s actually not that important at all. It’s people that are important and what people say about themselves and each other, and that can happen in a variety of ways. Fiction is not transcendent, it does not offer a moral compass, reading it does not make you a better person, and it does not inherently speak to the human condition. If you think it does, you may well be putting an awful lot of trust in people who think it’s really cool to win the Booker Prize.

Which, if I may say so, seems rather unwise.

In a post at New York Review of Books the US writer and academic Tim Parks made some very interesting observations about novels and about the somewhat elitist description of literature extolled by Jonathan Franzen in his well-broadcast comments about Twitter. Franzen’s comments made him sound like the only writer who would get a job in Plato’s Republic.

We are in thrall to the narrative of selves, says Parks, that do not really exist in the way we imagine, a fabrication in which most novel-writing connives. Parks is going to be one of the 2013 Booker Prize judges though, so perhaps he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying, but still it’s an opinion worth exploring, even if Booker Prize judgments are historically not.

Novels, as Parks points out, are not magically woven out of transcendental story-essence. Novelists have largely conspired with the idea that novels are terribly important, even essential to the continuance of Western civilization. As readers we have often gone along with that, partly because as we have grown up reading became so important to us, for all kinds of strange and sometimes unsavoury reasons. Fiction may well have made us feel real, and maybe those of us who are addicted readers are people whose neurosis is that we read a lot of books to fix ourselves.

Reading literature hasn’t traditionally been seen as a symptom of anything. These days I’m inclined to see almost anything as a symptom, but my life of incessant reading seems to look weirder the older I get. Maybe reading fiction just made my ordinary unhappiness acceptable to me and helped me collude with my avoidance of the violence deeply embedded in ordinary social life. Perhaps, as Parks seems to be saying, fiction just supported me in my idea of a self that has an essential nature, a kind of anodyne de-politicised self that Western culture has privileged, and privileges now even more than ever. And if it is misconceiving a solid independently existing apolitical self that makes us unhappy, perhaps novels just help us to keep talking about our unhappiness.

Maybe the novel has been integral to the advance of Western civilization. Perhaps literature has given the West’s violent imperial practices a gloss of respectability, a sheen of insight, and made us appear as though we really cared about the processes of living and the well-being of others, like a sociopathic BP executive who donates to charity and can hum along to ‘Voi che sapete’ when he’s at the opera.

Perhaps fiction writers have just been violent Western imperial culture’s spin doctors. Sure, rampant Western culture has given us Shakespeare, the refrigerator, the fountain-pen, the music of John Cage, the book, personal transport, the internet and peanut butter. But it also has to take responsibility for transcontinental industrial-scale genocide, global warming, mass irreversible species extinction, carpet bombing, the fetishisation of rape-culture, pesticides, and nuclear weapons. It’s not as if we can argue that the novel is one of the West’s saving graces: ‘Hey everyone, sorry about all the mass murder and ecological destruction and everything, but look, The Novel! And this one won the Booker!’

A novel is hardly ever an item of dissent. Fiction writers can be very compliant with the hypercapitalist machine, and its weird and destructive priorities.

What it would take to be a radical writer of fiction, someone no longer in thrall to the neoliberal narrative of selves, ready to confront the systemic violence of the West and literature’s amnesia, sceptical of the novel as a form of artistic enjoyment and uncooperative with a publisher’s corporate priorities, might be a question worth considering. If the production of literature in English as we have known it didn’t exist, we’d be obliged to invent something else, or at least do it very differently. Currently, in its corporate amnesiac rigidity, it is decomposing where it stands. It’s a dead parrot, it’s a zombified corpse with garish make-up supplied by the marketing branch of Literary Capitalism, and all the literary prizes and launches and festivals in the world won’t bring it back to life.

Stephen Wright lives in Nimbin on a land-sharing community. He has won some things (2009 Eureka Street Prize, 2013 Nature Conservancy Prize), been shortlisted for others (2012 Creative NonFiction Prize, 2014 Calibre Prize) and was once runner-up for a poetry prize he’s forgotten the name of.

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Comments

  1. Does it seem too obvious to say in response to this that fiction and literature (whatever that is), and indeed individual and group reading are so diverse and ubiquitous practices both within narrow ‘literary” elites and the wider community, that to characterise them as good, bad, failing, flawed, or anything else so specific only betrays a narrow starting conception of them. Culture, including manufactured written culture, is never going to be one thing, or useful to everyone, or necessarily good or bad. To exclude it from gradations of value is to exclude considered thought about it.

  2. I’d like to write an article about how contemporary mosaicking doesn’t adequately account for central Asian labour laws and as such reveals itself to be compliant with megacapitalist orthodoxy. One might also fruitfully consider how useful the art of the futile, resentful rant is.

  3. Mm. Interesting responses if a bit mystifying. It seems reasonably uncontestable to assert that fiction is generally authorised and produced by transnational companies. And such companies don’t generally have an interest in supporting radical ideas they can’t sell. Readers habits may well be diverse etc etc. but corporate accounting and production practices are not.
    Perhaps mosaicing or anything else might benefit from considering the kinds of violence that are endemic in all our modes of production. It’s not as though the production of phones is problematic, but fiction is somehow sacrosanct. If violence is endemic in our systems of economic production and relationships and cultural production, I’m not sure how fiction would be exempt. The interesting question is, where is that violence hidden in literature’s production?

    • Hi Steve,
      I really can’t agree with you that violence is deeply embedded in our relationships, or anything else for that matter. I see violence more as an abberation of human nature rather than intrinsic to it. And it so often seems to be the result of a lack of some kind or another – education, nurturing, freedom, etc. I see Literature, including fiction as among other things, an educational tool, which in my experience commonly does address the human condition, both directly in the portrayal of characters, and indirectly by giving the reader some perspective. Fiction has the potential to lessen violence in our societies. I don’t think it matters too much what the bourgeoisie do with it either. They are often good at what they do and they contribute to the conversation, so no harm done as far as I can see. I understand your angst about it though. So you really think we are inherently violent, Steve? :)I hope you are well and happy.

      • Karen, I’m not arguing that violence is inherent to anything,and certainly not to human nature. I think about where violence is hidden. I particularly wonder where it is when an art form claims transcendence, or claims to be beyond politics. I think violence is located in social structures and relationships and that this is very obvious. If literature is a part of this, then where is the violence located? Perhaps literature has an ‘educational’ function, whatever that means, but artists have always argued that art has functions beyond education. In any case, being educational wouldn’t negate any violent characteristics.

        • That’s okay. I think perhaps I have misunderstood your words and I apologise for any confusion. We are probably talking at cross-purposes here. I do think literature can be educational, and of course like any art, that is not all it is. I just don’t see the violence that you see, and don’t feel the same concern for its machinations, that’s all. I see literature as a largely positive force, even if it isn’t perfect.

          • Apologies not required. Not on this blog anyway.
            If literature is a force for good in your life Karen, by all means enjoy it. Take no notice of what I write. I just have narrow interests and pre-conceptions.

  4. I agree entirely with Stuart Glover’s comments–the conceptions of ‘literature’ here are far too monolithic and generalised to be in any way meaningful, and little account is taken of the fact that the large, multinational publishers have more or less moved away from literature (3 of 5 titles on this year’s Booker shortlist are actually produced by small publishers). While I support the critique of official cultures, this rant radically overstates the case: literary launches may be banal and even reinforce cultural norms, but it’s hard to accept that they are ‘sinister’ or ‘toxic’. This is precisely the kind of terminological slippage I usually associate with the Right.

    • And I was worried that had understated my case. If you find it hard to accept that that the events that surround literature’s production can be sinister and toxic, I’m not sure what to say.

      • But you are simply wrong. You say that ‘It seems reasonably uncontestable to assert that fiction is generally authorised and produced by transnational companies.’ This is incorrect. The vast majority of literature is produced by smaller, local companies that earn very little money for so doing, and ‘literature’ comprises a tiny fraction–likely less than 3%–of trade publishing income. You make some very big claims based on assumptions that do not reflect the material reality of things.

  5. Thank you for this, Stephen Wright. It’s good to know that somebody else gets it. And there really are a few fiction writers out there who are struggling to do the very things you outline in your final paragraph, so it is not only a question worth considering but something actively to seek. Not at the literary launches and Bookers, of course . . . .

    • No problems. The questions I asked at the end are really the questions worth answering. I have no doubt there are fiction writers addressing those questions. But they are going to find life difficult. Seeking them out though is what reading is about I think.

  6. How did your dog ‘accidentally’ kill a chicken? Talk about hidden violence! I’m sorry to focus on the trivial, but that’s what really caught my mind here.

    • Retriever puppy + chickens + retriever fetch-instinct = accidentally-killed chicken. Also not my dog so I absolve myself of all responsibility.

  7. I wonder is Stephen Wright has encountered the post.structuralist fiction that was popular in the 1980′s and 1990′s. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Jeanette Turner hospital’s work in this era are examples. Basically these authors created works that were written differently to what would normally have been expected by publishers of genre fiction. The way in which these books were written was to peal away layers of meaning in order to discover a truth. For example; an onion has layers.

  8. If by “neo-liberal narrative of selves” you mean the literature of (say) Jonathan Franzen, I don’t have an argument. But why take him at his own estimation as the sum of the contemporary literary novel, when there are people like Roberto Bolano, or Michelle Desbordes, or James Kelman, or Ursula le Guin or Alan Garner [paste your own names here] doing so much else? I mean, such a comprehensive denunciation loses much of its force by being so comprehensive. And I actually don’t know what you mean by “hidden violence”: do you mean things like Australian publishers outsourcing printing to cheaper Asian companies, or do you mean the actual work of writers themselves? It’s very difficult for most writers, who generally exist at the bottom of the industrial foodchain, to feel that they have any real agency in the wider corporate world of publishing, which might explain some of the responses here. Moral purity might be desirable (a questionable proposition for me, since I think purity is creatively toxic), but how, for example, does one balance eating and writing, especially if you have dependents? That’s a real question, btw, and certainly in my life.

    I guess the main preparatory reading you should do for literary events is Dorothy Parker’s note on Literary Rotarians. Apologies, but I can’t resist posting a little of it here:

    “I went to a literary gathering once. How I got there is all misty to me. I remember that, on that afternoon, I was given a cup of tea which tasted very strange. Drowsiness came over me, and there was a humming noise in my ears; then everything went black. When I came to my senses, I was in the brilliantly lighted banquet-hall of one of the large hotels, attending a dinner of a literary association. The place was filled with people who looked as if they had been scraped out of drains. The gentlemen were small and somewhat in need of dusting. There were guests of honor: a lady with three names, who composed pageants; a haggard gentleman, who had won the prize of $20 offered by Inertia: A Magazine of Poesy for the best poem on the occupation of the Ruhr district; and another lady who had completed a long work on “Southern Californian Bird-Calls” and was ready for a play…

    “By pleading a return of that old black cholera of mine, I got away before the speeches, the songs, and the probable donning of paper caps and marching around the room in lockstep. I looked with deep interest, the next morning, for the bookmen’s and bookwomen’s accounts of the event. One and all, they declared that never had there been so glamorous and brilliant a function. You inferred that those who had been present would require at least a week to sleep it off. They wrote of it as they write of every other literary gathering — as if it were like one of those parties that used to occur before Rome fell.

    “From that day to this, I have never touched another cup of tea.”

  9. If I can add another (semi-relevant) literary reference, there is the most wonderful description of a poetry reading in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers in which impoverished poets are stealing little round wax-covered cheeses and hiding them in their pockets. The (anti)hero poet ends up attacking someone with an umbrella after an argument about nuclear power. It is worthy of Dickens.

    Interestingly, poets are, I think, always good (if flawed) in King, whereas novelists are not. I suppose he can afford to be generous to poets!

  10. I believe I understand the thoughts and emotions expressed here on the conditions of contemporary existence and wouldn’t be caught dead at most literary gatherings myself (and there again I think, why not?) and find myself in a constant bind between aesthetics / politics, but unable to derive the aesthetic pleasure I should from work associated with both due to a failure of politics, both fail to make sense, and so, in turn, does the world fail to make sense.

  11. There’s a lot going on here, or not, so I’ll try to get it all in one comment. I’m not making myself clear on some things I think. It seems to me that there are a whole lot of neoliberal values that have become ingrained in the way that literature is configured. For my part I think those values have become ingrained in our lives that we don’t even examine them very closely. I think there is a whole post, at least, on the neoliberal self and how that is described or acted upon in literature. And someone else can have the pleasure of writing it. Transnational corporations don’t have to print books themselves to police literature. They can produce it by reviewing it in the pages of their newspapers for example, or by other means. The whole Western literary monster has been hurtling along for some time and I don’t think indie presses are going to overturn it. The current chair of the Booker complained about the destruction of the serious review culture just last week.
    The fact that several indie publishers made it onto the Booker list isn’t a cause for celebration. Even if the winner is good news for an entire country (whatever that might mean) begs a whole lot of questions. I’m not sure I would call Peter Carey a post-structuralist writer myself. And while there may be writers who embody some of the values I am advocating for, that’s not really an adequate defence of the ignorance of violence I’m raising.
    By ‘hidden violence’ I’m not referring to mediaeval work practices. That’s a no-brainer. I’m asking what I think is a fundamental question; if violence is endemic in our social orders, and indeed even in the ways that the self is created, is the creation of literature exempt from that violence? I doubt it myself. If that’s the case, where is it? And what does it look like?
    Or look at it like this: Do you believe that our social orders and relationships embody violent practices? If you don’t, we don’t have anything further to say to each other. If you do, then how does the writing of fiction embody that? In what way has the creation of fiction legitimised Western imperial practices of sovereignty and so on? I don’t this is an unreasonable question and I’m surprised to find such an unwillingness to examine that. Even if you believe I’ve expressed my arguments badly, I don’t think I’ve expressed them that badly.

    • And, I will quickly add while my comment is strangely awaiting moderation, that another way of putting this, (in the framework of trauma which somehow seems to have been overlooked,) is what is writing fiction a symptom of? Or, what is reading literature a symptom of?

      • It’s disheartening to see that your ‘analysis’ remains untroubled by the facts. This kind of thinking, to quote Hegel, is the night in which all cows are black.

        • Don’t be disheartened Emmett. It’s just a blog and no-one really cares about it. A comments box is a limited space to discuss these things. Perhaps one day we can sit down and work this through. Probably won’t be at a literary event though.

    • “Even if the winner is good news for an entire country (whatever that might mean)”

      I said ‘good for New Zealand literature’. Don’t be obtuse now. And Emmett and I simply took issue with a statement of yours that was patently incorrect, or at the very least needed some unpicking. I’m perfectly happy to concede that the existence of independent publishers or their winning the occasional prize doesn’t make a great difference in the overall scheme of things. But Alison’s point stands: a comprehensive denunciation loses much of its force by being so comprehensive. If there are writers who don’t hide the violence you describe (and I believe that there are) then it might be worth exploring what alternative conditions could there be for making their work public; just as it’s worth asking – as you have – what exactly the literary world is celebrating when it celebrates itself.

      So anyway, seeing as it was the subject of your previous post: Gomorrah was published in Italy by Mondadori. The owner of Mondadori is Silvio Berlusconi, who purchased it twenty or so years ago after corrupting a judge who had to rule on legal challenges to the acquisition (his lawyer went to prison for this). Besides this, Berlusconi has extensive and well documented relationships with the mafia world that Saviano described. Untangle that.

      • Hi Giovanni – I missed this in the commenting flurry. I don’t think I’d accept Alison’s point at all. The more I Iearn about violence and its effects the more I wonder if it is possible to be comprehensive enough in identifying it. That’s the trap of looking at violence, and the trap that the traumatised can feel themselves falling into; one starts to wonder if there is any particle of one’s life that remains untouched by the violent act one has experienced. The answer is often, no.
        That’s what I took out of Saviano – the sense that he was going mad, because the more he looked the more endemic violence he found. As far as Gomorrah’s publishing history goes – that’s a perfect example of what I’m trying to speak of. I don’t think it needs untangling at all.

        • Nothing to untangle? Okay so if Saviano is a writer who not only doesn’t hide but brings into full view the violence (which I thought was the point of your last post) then it doesn’t matter how his work is made public? It doesn’t matter who profits, even if it is very directly the leader of the political arm of the mafia? How can the literary act, when it seeks to show how it is permeated by violence, also be insulated from its (meaning the violence’s) conditions for existence, allowing us to evaluate and appreciate Saviano, as you did, without any consideration for those other things? Or is the commerce of literature so complicit that it doesn’t matter which publisher is chosen – but then shouldn’t that disqualify all the literature that is available on the market?

          • I haven’t got a lot of time at the moment, so I’ll throw a reply out now or I won’t get to it for a few days.
            Yes, it matters how any work is made public, but complicity with violence is hard, if not impossible, to avoid. That’s my point. That’s the condition of all our ives. Saviano did a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that he’s utterly non-complicit.
            A literary act can’t be insulated from the conditions of its existence, its violence. I touched on this a wee bit in the Saviano post, wondering about madness. It’s not just about choosing a ‘good’ publisher. As I said in another post recently, choosing an ethical green phone doesn’t get us out of our complicity with the chains of violence like those Saviano describes. I’m interested in why we enjoy these things, and how we do and why we cant stop.
            As far as the neoliberal/bourgeois distinction goes – point taken. But it’s a blog, written over breakfast in a cafe. So necessarily very limited, and spotted with crumbs of pancakes and splatters of maple syrup.

        • (Besides which I have some issues with the use of the term neoliberal in your post. The critique of the novel as a bourgeois form predates neoliberalism by some decades, so maybe there are some distinctions to make.)

  12. I think the REAL question here is whether you were dancing on the grave of the chicken or of the literary journal? I don’t know whether I prefer either answer.

    • That would depend on whether or not I could tell the difference between my own writing in a lit journal and a dead chicken. Jury still out on that one.

      • No, the jury’s in. I think a non-fiction book called Dancing on the Chicken’s Grave won the Pulletser Prize last year.

        (Slinks off, ashamed as a chastened retriever…)

        Incidentally, weren’t you writing about humour and the left recently? There is rather a different tone in this article. Not that I value consistency particularly.

          • I laugh at the dead chicken joke- but not because I am a bad person, but rather because I am a good person repressing the trauma of this tragic but oh so integral figure.

            Are you suggesting that writing and literature are “violent” in themselves, or are you arguing that they are weapons of (inherently violent) writers?

            On a personal note, I really enjoy attending book launches and so on. I try to always go alone (much to the disappointment of my friends) and enjoy the people watching element of them. You can get a feel for audiences of particular works and the way these works are received. I try to avoid ever learning too much about my favorite writers, though because I don’t want to destroy the mystique. Build a brechtian theatre. They have power in isolation from their texts. I don’t really want to know what Melville really thought of slavery, because I want to speculate. Novels closest to our heart inspire thoughts and ideas that are, too. Atleast, that’s what I think. You could argue though, that the “resurrection of the author” or his appearance before people and media and the permitted interactions which take place therefore render them less authoritative. So, in theory, these sorts of events and their facilitating for that interaction between audience and author (now also made easier with social media- eh hem) really remove that god- like status of the writer BECAUSE there is an exchange and it’s a very visible one- and can be experienced.

            Also, I would argue that writing can be used to challenge violent power systems and structures, as much as it can be used to reinforce them. If writing is like speech, or any other creation, then it has the ability to reinforce or to destabilize philosophies underpinning those social dynamics. Are you suggesting that there is no such thing as a postcolonial piece of writing? I’m not comfortable with that idea.

          • I think writing COULD be used to explore the nature of violence, and perhaps most profitably, its own violence. And the same for speech of course, but literature has a way of accepting its own apparent goodness I think.
            I wonder in what ways literature has been unaware of its own violence and where that is located.

  13. I would direct people to the current issue of the Overland Journal where Rebecca Giggs provides some arguments that chime with Stephen’s position eg “correlations between the mentality of fictional narratives and the patriarchal construction of women’s psychosocial lives.

    • Ta for that link Gus. I’ve also had in mind a paper called Trauma and Literary Studies, by an author whose name escapes me despite having read it a few days ago.

  14. “In what way has the creation of fiction legitimised Western imperial practices of sovereignty and so on?”

    I guess Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism are the classics on this question. And his explorations are properly complicated.

  15. If this article is otherwise unengaged, I would like to ask to take it’s hand in marriage.

    In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell your article how ardently I admire and love it. In declaring myself thus I’m fully aware that I will be going expressly against the wishes of my family, my friends, and, I hardly need add, my own better judgement. The relative situation of our families is such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection. Indeed, as a rational woman I cannot but regard it as such myself, but it cannot be helped.

    I am oft abroad whaling, but shall I perish, your article would be permitted a generous annual allowance.

  16. Stephen is the point when you talk about the neoliberal ideas of the selves in literature that its also talking about the accepted commodification of literature.

    To me to the two seem interlinked. Fiction, particularly the literary fiction that wins the big prizes, is a product sold- the prizes adding prestige to that product- and one in it’s selling does not want to bring too apparent all the violence in the world and the system.

    Of some of the more recent fiction trends Bolano touches on exposing this violence through the lengthy murders of women in 2666. The detail raises some of the horrors of that violence and the length of the section how prevalent it is but it in a book that uses the tropes of ‘literary fiction’ does it really break through that.

    I don’t know. Just some more food for thought. Nice and provocative as usual.

    • Yes, I think literature has its own kind of commodification. And whether it is produced by indie presses or Penguin the outcome is largely the same. To make a product it has to look like a product and taste like one.
      The neoliberal narrative of selves is the marketing of a particular representation of the self to the same representation of the self. It’s a very Western self and one that historically has looked very strange to many other cultures.
      I found 2666 an infuriating book myself. It was as though Bolano was always about to do something mega-disruptive in the revealing of violence – and then didn’t.

  17. This is probably a derailment of the discussion: but on 2666: this book induced in me a sense of serious horror that is very a rare experience for me in reading literary fiction. It would take a long time to really say why, but in brief:

    The key was in that middle section, but it bled out into all the other narratives, from the opening comedy about what literature becomes as an academic commodity, to the final story about the disappearing author. I guess for me that horror stemmed from its remorseless recognition of the misogyny of violence. As those murders were logged, it became clear that they were not simply the result of a single pathological criminal. Bolano listed all sorts of crimes, from the simply solved “domestic” murder to sadistic serial killings. They became progressively more and more traumatic, as it became cumulatively clearer that all of them stemmed from a systemic misogyny that itself emerged from a wider social cauterisation, a society that is fundamentally brutal in all its relations, from family relationship to war. And this, although it was fictionalised in a society that was obviously different to where I live (in many ways, not all ways), was clearly and intimately recognisable to me, in my own experience as a woman living now: I totally recognised that violence and that misogyny. Bolano does in fact call into question (and mercilessly satirise) the act of writing in his questionings: he connects all these things together, and nothing remains untainted. Isn’t that kind of recognition of the endemic violence in social and literary relations precisely what you are asking for here? How did you think Bolano failed in expressing it? I’m very curious why it infuriated you.

    Are you saying that the very fact that 2666 is a novel (and therefore a commodity, produced to be released into a market) cancels out what Bolano expressed in the book? Serious inquiry, not a rhetorical question: it seems to me you’re saying something very like that. I remember, for instance, reading that Bolano wrote it while he was dying so that his family could live on the royalties…

    Are you suggesting that the value of writing in a capitalistic society, aside from its existence as a commodity, is entirely negated? Is it meaningless to suggest that while literature might exist, inevitably, as a commodity in a capitalistic society, it might have a value and a necessity which can exist and have potency alongside its inevitable commodification, and can on occasions subvert it? Don’t artists always exist at odds with the cultural apparatus that seeks to absorb and negate them? Isn’t that the struggle with which you begin? If the inevitable result is that the artist loses (which it might be – think of Howard Barker’s play about this, Scenes from an Execution, in which the rebellious artist becomes by virtue of her very rebellion an adornment of the State) does it mean that artists should just give up? Is making/unmaking meaning a futile exercise? Where and how could you practice art if you have to make it in a context that leaves you untainted by the society you live in?

    I should probably stop before I ask any more questions.

    • Thanks for the questions Alison. It’s nice to have some.

      ” but on 2666: this book induced in me a sense of serious horror that is very a rare experience for me in reading literary fiction.”

      An experience I would argue is seriously lacking in literary fiction.

      “Isn’t that kind of recognition of the endemic violence in social and literary relations precisely what you are asking for here? How did you think Bolano failed in expressing it? I’m very curious why it infuriated you.”

      Yes, I think that 2666′s recognition of misogyny is something I’d like to see a lot more of. And Bolano’s critique of the literary culture in the first half of the the novel is interesting too and the use of some images too. I think that my response to 2666 was largely infuenced by my experience of talking with people of the violence they have experienced, particularly women. Which might be somewhat unfair a critique.. The more I listen, and the more I think and observe the more it seems to me that violence is not just systemic but almost infinitely pervasive. And also very much invisible. So, when I was reading 2666 it almost seemed to me, as odd as it may sound (and perhaps it is odd) that Bolano didn’t go far enough in his characterisation of misogyny. I was simultaneously intrigued by what he was saying and also wanting more.

      “Are you saying that the very fact that 2666 is a novel (and therefore a commodity, produced to be released into a market) cancels out what Bolano expressed in the book?”

      No. I’m not at all suggesting that violent commodification cancels out a work of literature’s value. I just wonder why it isn’t acknowledged. And what would happen if it was.

      “Are you suggesting that the value of writing in a capitalistic society, aside from its existence as a commodity, is entirely negated?”

      No. I’m interested in certain questions about the pervasiveness of violence and our tolerance and enjoyment of that.

      “Is it meaningless to suggest that while literature might exist, inevitably, as a commodity in a capitalistic society, it might have a value and a necessity which can exist and have potency alongside its inevitable commodification, and can on occasions subvert it? ”

      Yes it is meaningless to suggest that, if the suggestion is that literature exists outside the conditions under which it is created. Literature is not transcendent.

      “Don’t artists always exist at odds with the cultural apparatus that seeks to absorb and negate them?”

      Umm, no not often.

      “Isn’t that the struggle with which you begin?”

      No. It’s the only struggle, and never ends. If one considers that struggle to be an engagement with the propagation and enjoyment of violence.

      “If the inevitable result is that the artist loses (which it might be – think of Howard Barker’s play about this, Scenes from an Execution, in which the rebellious artist becomes by virtue of her very rebellion an adornment of the State) does it mean that artists should just give up?”

      I think the challenge is to be able speak of the unspeakable and to be able to tolerate and bear what should be intolerable. That’s all.

      “Is making/unmaking meaning a futile exercise? Where and how could you practice art if you have to make it in a context that leaves you untainted by the society y ou live in?”

      I think there may well have been many societies that were not as violent as ours and more importantly not as violent in such intimate ways to its own members. If art is a response to violence but still unavoidably affected by that violence then we have an interesting scenario on our hands. I don’t think that invalidates the art. It just begs questions

  18. Thanks for the answers, Stephen. Another slightly puzzled question: I rather suspect that my response to the book was enormously conditioned by my own (shattering) experience of violence. Perhaps that is pretty much inevitable, although I’m perfectly willing to concede that it might be particular to me. Making visible what is rendered invisible in plain sight seems to me very much part of the project of the book, and it certainly did it for me in a very visceral fashion. How far is far enough? (It’s only a novel, after all…?) Do you have an example of a work that does do what you’re looking for? It might make what you mean clearer for me. Kathy Acker, maybe?

    I think the critique of literature extends into the story of Archimboldo/Hans Reiter as well as the opening section: he is a soldier, a servant, a cipher, etc etc. In short, it seems to me that Bolano excavates various kinds of violence – economic, class, sexual, political – and winds his narratives of violence ambiguously and complexly around various ideas of literature. But he does that in other books too.

    Probably enough about 2666.

    One more question: isn’t it incredibly limiting to suggest that art should be only (or primarily?) a response to violence? It is a response to many things surely, the condition of being in the world being about all sorts of experiences, beauty and love among them. (Yes, ok, I have a long argument about beauty, which is in fact in part an argument about violence, but I know some people flinch at the word. I think it’s important, and not for anodyne reasons.) How can a response to the destructiveness of violence mean anything without an awareness of those other things? The “struggle”, whatever it is, seems to me as much about not losing sight of the possibility of those possibilities, despite everything that mitigates against them, as it is about perceiving and acknowledging present violence in its various forms.

    • I think as far as literature goes I don’t have a lot of faith in it. The fiction writers I like in regard to your question I like bits of – so yes, Kathy Acker, and WG Sebald, Eliot Weinberger, Herta Muller, Amos Tutuola, Primo Levi, Roberto Saviano, Marcel Proust. I’m not saying that these guys are exemplars of things I’d like to see in literature, but they make attempts sometimes, And I am always interested in Indigenous writers, Scott Momaday, Alexis Wright, Mudrooroo, Oodgeroo and so on. As I say, I don’t look to literature for the discussions of things I’m interested in, because they are not there. To be honest I’d much rather read Robert Louis Stevenson than Bolano.
      I’m not arguing that literature should be a response to violence, I’m asking what literature might look like if it addressed its own practices of violence, and considered what violence is.
      The most disruptive antidote to violence is considering what a politics of care might look like. And notions of beauty might come into that. But these are desperate times, if literature can’t address the conditions under which it is constructed, what good is it?
      Just by the bye, I have been watching a lot of Swedish detective noir lately – Wallander, Beck, The Killing, and while they are problematic in all sorts of ways, they do at least try to address the idea of violence, what it is, and why it exists in the middle of affluent, apparently peaceful liberal democracies.

  19. It seems a bit self-defeating to condemn literature for being, well, literature. Maybe you just don’t like novels? (“I, too, dislike it…”) You frankly confess that literature doesn’t give you what you are seeking, but I still don’t know what you mean. I’m sorry to push the point, it’s probably tedious by now, but I quite genuinely don’t. If you look at literature as a whole, which is admittedly impossible, it basically covers the entirety of human experience, from the most evil self-willed blindness (Ayn Rand) to full-on commercial enterprise to, I don’t know, Paul Celan. You ask what might a literature that confronts its own implication in a violent society look like… It’s a thing in poetry – people like Sean Bonney, say, whom I reviewed on Overland a few months ago, or Doug Oliver’s painful, excoriating poems, or Denise Riley’s lyrics or, if we’re also talking “politics of care”, Kate Fagan’s beautiful recent book First Light. In novels, what about post-Holocaust books like The Last of the Just, or contemporary writers like Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Ballard, even China Mieville… A lot in German writing, actually, because of the cultural revulsion after Nazism and WW2: Heiner Mueller’s plays and prose eg. The more I think about it, the more I’d argue that the problem of violence is pretty much a contemporary literary obsession. Oddly, I’ve been reading the Wallander books recently too. They remind me, weirdly, of Sebald. But they’re hardly exceptional in their recognition of violence in peaceful democracies…

    Maybe the problem is that literature isn’t something that primarily “discusses” things? It is something. It doesn’t have a moral.

    • I’m not really interested in novels, or short stories for that matter. So that cuts out quite a bit of literature. I think that a claim that ‘literature covers the whole of human experience’ is exactly the sort of statement that I have problem with. I rarely read anything that describes my own experience, never mind the rest of humanity.
      Violence might be an obsession in literature, but that doesn’t mean it is being addressed in politically meaningful ways. A traumatised person can be obsessed with violence too, and it’s not helpful to them.
      Literature discusses things in many ways I think, interrogating the reader as the reader interrogates the book. To say that literature ‘is’ something seems to me to be perilously close to saying it has some kind of transcendent essence. Literature is amoral? I’d argue that everything has a moral, because everything is political.
      And BTW, in regard to Swedish noir, I haven’t read any. I just watch the DVD’s. I think it’s interesting the way the various series question violence and then get themselves all tangled up in all kinds of politically problematic ideas, digging themselves deeper and deeper holes as they try to find meaningful solutions or stances.
      In terms of the violence I want to respond to or seek conversation on, literature isn’t where i go for ideas or stimulation, even among the ‘systems novels’ that I see Emmett has just mentioned in a comment. And that’s because I see violence as central to contemporary life. Others don’t and that’s fine. Perhaps Overland is not the place to question the value or purpose of literature, but Overland is a tolerant place and always interested in conversation so it was worth the shot.
      Alison, maybe the bottom line is that you, and others, are really into literature and I’m not. Just as I like punk music and John Cage and other don’t. In the end, I don’t think literature is that important a part of human experience. it’s something that popped up at the end, among a specific civilization as an attempt to make meaning. It just had the problem of making grandiose claims about itself.

      • On the one, hand it’s nice to hear you admit you dislike literature. Given that, though, it’s a bit of a strange thing for you to write about. Finally, it’s interesting to note that neo-liberal rationalisations for cutting funding to literature (and the study of literature) also obsess over the issue of literature’s perceived lack of ‘purpose’ and ‘value’ (itself an economic word). There’s a strange sympathetic resonance between your position and the very ‘neo-liberal self’ you seek to critique.

        • Actually I don’t think I have admitted I dislike literature. I just have questions of it. And writing only about things I like seems a little limited.
          Because the neoliberals have appropriated terms like ‘purpose’ and ‘value’ for instrumental use, doesn’t mean they can’t be re-appropriated. The neoliberal argument is that if literature doesn’t have an instrumental value it doesn’t have any value. I am asking questions of fiction writers about what they do, and why they do it, as I’ve done before. It’s because I’m interested and puzzled and I find writing, something I engage in, a strange practice.

  20. It’s hard, too, not to think of the so-called ‘systems’ novel of which 2666 is a paradigmatic example, which precisely attempts to imagine the social totality as a network of relations–a making visible that is typically seen as part of (and not counter to) a left-wing critique of things as they are. Consider William Gaddis’s JR (literally a book about capitalism and alienation in the technologically advanced state), or Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, which is about the ecological violence wrought on a small town by the unethical business practices of the local company which employs the townspeople, or Mathias Enard’s Zone, a 517-page reflection on European violence in the 21st Century, or Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity which examines the violence of the legal system, and those are just examples taken from books sitting on my desk.

  21. Well, it’s possible to like a lot of different things, even John Cage and literature. I primarily write about performance, eg. But because you don’t especially like or value literature doesn’t mean that the things you critique it for not having aren’t in fact there. They manifestly are. They just don’t speak to you. That’s a different kind of problem.

    I actually have a lot of problems with literature as a category, to the point where I’ve been in a kind of rolling crisis with it for the past few years, as a practitioner. But somehow none of them seem to have been articulated here, or only foggily. Maybe this is why I’ve been posting so much here, in the hope of clarifying something for myself. Maybe it’s clarified what my problems are not. Thanks for your time, and for the negative theology!

  22. Just a couple of small clarifications: I wasn’t making transcendent claims for literature in saying it covers everything you can think of. Something rather more banal & literal: I was noting that it’s an enormous category and an enormously diverse (and therefore highly contested – is fanfic literature, eg?) category of human activity. Also, I don’t mean anything transcendent by saying literature IS something. I mean that as expressive language, it is an enactment of meaning(s), which occur through sensual as well as cerebral reception, rather than a vehicle for the direct transmission of ideas/whatever that point exclusively beyond the work itself. Not having a moral, btw, is not the same as its not being concerned with morality or ethics. Possibly it means the reverse of that. Fiction has often been considered suspect for those very reasons – eg, the moral panic about novels in the 18C.

  23. Recently I was asked what violence is, on a facebook post. I said I would have to think about it and reply later, and it would have some relationship to other ideas like power, force, agency and love, but then I never got rond it it. I still wonder about this. I’m not looking for a dictionary definition (yo, I know I can google this). Rather I’m wondering how to think about violence in ways that don’t replicate the structure of violence (if we take violence to be a bad thing – which I do; I reserve ‘force’ to mark out the neutral idea of the energy that can, or does, change the state of things, whereas ‘violence’ seems to be force applied such that it contravenes some form of agency in ways that don’t respect/love that agency). So I think Stephen I’m thinking about what you are meaning by this term: what it is that you are wanting the term ‘violence’ to stand for? I’m feeling it is implicit in what you are blogging here and previously, but I’m wanting something more overt if possible.

    A note to everyone in this discussion: I think it is important to distinguish between ideas like “not / interested in”, “dis/like”, “not / having faith in”. Stephen, you seem invested in literature (or what literature might leverage) whilst also not interested in particular typical forms of literature (Eg novels, short stories) and don’t have faith in the discourse that holds onto any a priori importance of literature. Have I got the sense of that?

    • In regards to the second part of your question Luke, yes. I mean novels and short stories hold no real interest for me anymore. But there are writers who write imaginatively, write – as I said in my last post – of the real as though it were imaginary who are of more interest.

      In regard to violence and its definitions: there many different kinds of violence I think, on many different scales. The most pernicious kinds I have seen are those that involved pretending to look after someone while we in fact are doing something else. To talk about violence we have to have a strong sense of what has been violated. It makes no sense to do otherwise.

  24. Okay, what is violated? I suppose what I said was that violence violates agency. But that might sound like, violence violates being in control and in-control might itself be a violence-generating idea. So know I thinking about violence as violating the ability for anything to experience the growingness of living (which is a type of agency? or what we mean by agency?). Okay, growingness-of-living is a made up phrase but I’m trying to open up my thought here so some making-up-phrases is one way to help do this. Could even say that ‘consciouness’ or ‘mind’ or ‘sense of life’ is what an experience the growingness of living is…

    • Violence has to be contextualised I think in its definitions. Hannah Arendt famously struggled with this. When looking at family violence, the definitions tend to be quite legalistic for obvious reasons. But yes, I think there is a link to agency and the prevention of agency. That’s the most obvious place to start, because it can cover animals as well as humans. It can also cover assumptions as to what agency is, which can be interesting when one discusses violence and children.

  25. Yes, violence seems to be something one can do to living things (and i mean living in broad and precise ways, I guess). Living things might experience the effects of force from non-living things as a kind of violence (or at least, as trauma) but only living things could inflict violence. Would that be right? So violence and living seem super connected.

  26. So in a weird, weird way we can celebrate the possibility of violence even whilst we consider now to avoid it. I mean: if violence is conditional upon being alive, then to celebrate our aliveness is to acknowledge that this aliveness could be violated, could endure and conjure violence… to be thankful one is alive is to be thankful one is the sort of being that could give and receive violence. I say in a ‘weird, weird way’ because I want to point at the seeming oddity of this and also let’s be clear that celebrating the possibility of violence is so NOT the same as celebrating violence itself. This link between violence and living is not something I’ve consider previously to now, so I am really wanting to hold this door open ajar to see what weirdness and insight flow through.

    • Isn’t violence just another word for the awareness of death in this interpretation? And aliveness very similar to the notion of the soul? You’ll be Christian before you know it! (If you’re not already. Other religions not excluded.™)

      • No, I’m not a Christian, Penelope. And I also don’t subscribe to the idea of souls. I think that creative wiriters could do well to consider the conditions under which they write, politically speaking; collapsing ecosystems, identities amenable to neoliberal exploitation, etc etc etc etc. Perhaps we could write as though whatever we are working on is the last thing we will ever write.
        Violence may often bring death, of various kinds. But it’s not just about dying. It’s having someone else decide whether you live or die, and deciding for reasons which are arbitrary or based on extreme falsehoods. Or just because they can, or don’t like you, or because you are in the way, or because they like it.

        • I agree with the consideration of the circumstances under which we write Stephen. All of the things you mention, and particularly gender. I don’t want to give the impression that I think a lack of engagement is a good thing. But I think that writing everything as if it’s the last thing we will write is, perhaps, putting unnecessary stress on ourselves, unless you mean just experiencing the act of creation as fully as we can.

          Self harm is a form of violence too.

          • Except the pressure is already there. How can I know that this comment is not the last thing I will write?

      • Hi Penelope. If violence is violation then I’m not sure how being aware of death qualifies – unless someone forces you to become suddenly aware of death through some violation of one kind or another. I was suggesting that aliveness including the possibility of being violated, which means if we want to really live we might need to really consider what is and isn’t violate-able and what has and hasn’t been violated.

        Actually, having a decent relationship with and awareness of death might be something of an antedote to being violent… if I didn’t have much time to live (and as Stephen suggest, who actually knows, it is always a very real possibility) then I don’t want to be living it with violence; I want to be living it with an open non-threatening conversation that allows the other in, to be with whatever emerges.

        All well and good, except what if the large-scale and long-term structures and dynamics I live in are somehow biased towards or structured around some form of violation, Then I can’t help but live within and be implicated by violence. I think Stephen is very much putting this case. And I think has also suggested the people who identity with ‘being Leftist’ would think so too (it’s a classical critique of modern society, economics, power etc) but that just thinking this to be the case is hardly a way to get out of it. So what happens when some Lefties put on a literary event or publish literature – is there ways of thinking about what it means to be caring rather than violent and does this actually get tried out for size? Or do we all just join in the love-in of things like prizes etc which assert privilege and the majoritarian over humility and the minoritarian.

          • Yer yer, I get your point… but I would rather celebrate the possibly of not violence. And I think it is a tragic state our current existence that aliveness includes the possibility of being violated.

  27. Just finished the stylish John Dos Passos novel, Manhattan Transfer; nice to know there are worthwhile novels to read still, and that world literature hasn’t caved in after this post. Regards.

    • Not that any of this decries the personal relevance of this post, from which I have derived more critical appreciation of literature than most stuff I have read for many years.

  28. @Kylie, if would be great to celebrate the possibility of not-violence, and moreso, to celebrate and practice not-violence (caring, compassion, whatever).

    But I was suggesting that it is a structurally condition of all types of being alive that one’s living/life could be violated. Just in the same way that it is a structural condition of sensation/perception that there is the possibility of pain.

    Now, it coud be that our current existence is more geared to violence/violation, and that would be tragic. But all life, even in the most wonderful conditions, would be something that *could* be violated, otherwise we wouldn’t be alive (we wouldn’t have the sentient agency of living that is the very thing that violence violates).

  29. Hi Luke. Like I said I do get your point , …and agree with it. I do think though that we can’t conceptualise of a possibility of not having the possibility of being able to be violated. We operate within these dualisms of this is possible because of the existence of that… I would prefer to consider a valid possibility of there being a space in which the possibility of being violated doesn’t exist simply because the possibility of not being violated also doesn’t exist , and therefore a new possibility , which currently is not possible, is created. And that is what to me, is to be celebrated.

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