This Rhizomatous Bloat

in search of a criticism beyond the binary

Once every few attention cycles, a short piece of literary criticism gets under the collective skin. Usually a polemic or maybe just a hit piece, these essays follow a pattern. Whatever trend is beginning to compete for our attention—the essay is against that. Some are bold enough to claim this rhetorical position—Against, The Rejection Of—while others use more euphemistic language—Interrogating, Reconsidering, Who Cares?!—but the impulse is the same, to oppose this thing that threatens your values, or maybe just your taste, whether these are comfortably established or maligned to a proud fringe.

I feel it myself now, that impulse, thinking about these essays, which strike me as spiteful and shallow, just as I strike myself as spiteful and shallow, angered by what reads as reactionary propaganda in the literary equivalent of a culture war. It’s disturbing how easily the polemic divides people and thought into camps, among other orderly divisions. As a form, the polemic is increasingly codified, its production machinic. There is a cottage industry for this rhetorical approach, our squabbling over slices of the pie turned into its own pie. Equally disturbing though is how, despite my objections, I can’t stop reading these pieces. I love their righteous fervor, their snooty pretensions, their transparent motives. Their rambunctious gatecrashing and their fearful gatekeeping. My schadenfreude for the victim of good takedown and then for the piece’s writer when the inevitable backlash arrives. The backlash to the backlash. It’s a kind of reality television, this mess, one that reminds me my own worries are overblown, the polemic unable to contain the discourse it would rather shush.

This is one of many ironic contradictions of the form. A polemic, for its seeming partisanship, reveals a plurality of thought beyond its two definitional poles. Despite this, a polemic rarely convinces people to change their existing position. If anything it stands to reinforce these stances, including the one it opposes, forcing everyone to dig their heels in. Especially its enemy—a kind of definitional opposition Baudrillard called “operational negativity”: I am what I am not. It is thesis and antithesis without much synthesis, unless you’re the rare reader who likes the hard shove a polemic offers, how it forces you off your spot. Makes you seesaw as you work to regain your balance on this new, less stable ground, though maybe the seesaw is just another position to prefer, the deterritorialization always reterritorialized.

The hardest shoves I feel come from criticism that argues for a return to tradition from behind the armor of the objective or the moral. I think of James Wood’s genre-defining writing on hysterical realism (1,2) and, more recently, Merve Emre’s “Two Paths for the Personal Essay” and Jackson Arn’s “Against the Contemporary American Essay”, which are even more scathing. Among polemics, the traditionalists are more straight-faced and patrician, aiming higher than the pettiness that can drag down the form, though they aren’t above the occasional snide witticism, as if the entire position doesn’t scream of the cattiness they’d rather avoid. At times they aren’t biting or incisive or acerbic any other elevated flavor of antagonism, they are simply cruel, treating work that deviates from their rigid criteria as if it’s an affront to literature if not them personally, real literature’s self-appointed gatekeepers. “Somebody needed to say it!”, is a common response, and I nearly always share that sentiment, having my own reservations about trend and appreciating how smart and timely and pointed these essays can be, but I wonder: why did they have to say it like that? Not out of any sense of decorum, but because the polemic is such a limiting mode of inquiry, and of course this is the point, to rein in a breakaway.

For Wood, this runner would be the late twentieth attempts at “The Great American Social Novel,” by writers that tend to attract impressed descriptors like polymath and autodidact, names like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, and, newly anointed at the time of Wood’s writing, Zadie Smith. These large, wunderkammer novels, with their inclination towards breadth over depth—“their profusion of characters and plots,” two features that Wood elsewhere calls “caricature” and “paranoia,” respectively—are refusing the more genuine mode Wood calls “novelistic storytelling,” which he defines obliquely throughout his essays as an enactment of human experience, especially ones that confront some central, singular lack within individuals. Great novels are “human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary.” They represent consciousness instead of relaying information. He doesn’t condescend to the platitude, “show don’t tell,” but that’s only because he’s shrewd enough to adhere to his own rule.

I have too many objections with this thinking to do any one justice. Why must we keep granting such primacy to humans, the individual, the serious, the reserved, the deep? The list goes on, but there is little mystery to Wood’s ideological position. He is not special in his assumptive belief in the liberal human subject and literature’s unique capacity to access and represent that experience, a capacity tantamount to a mandate. What strikes me as strange, however, if not simply ignorant or dishonest, especially for a pedant like Wood, is why he positions these books as failures of the social novel when they are also so clearly attempting to adapt this form to the postmodern, which, by the time Wood was writing, constituted its own tradition worthy of polemic defense. Did it really never cross his mind that these novels, despite similarities to the social novel in scope and comedic sensibility, might aspire to different means and ends than those of a genre codified in mid-1800s England?

Through a postmodern lens, the profusion, inhumanity, and hyperconnectivity Wood rejects is no longer an accidental misstep but a deliberate, maybe even canny decision. In fact, if Wood’s writing was turned on its head and drained of its bile, it would do a decent job of addressing how these books embody Fredric Jameson’s four primary features of postmodernism outlined in “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”:

Jameson Wood
A new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry
A consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal arts An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels
A whole new type of emotional ground tone—what I will call “intensities”—which can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the sublime Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.
The deep constitutive relationships of all of this to a whole new technology, which is itself a figure of a whole new economic world system but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan

Instead of considering how these novels are attempting to explore a then—and now only more—dominant social and psychological reality, one in which humans have been subsumed by systems to the breakdown of their individual subjectivities, Wood drags them for failing to insist on an entrenched form and value set, one that is ironically no longer equipped to represent his sacred cow: human consciousness. What better way to capture how the individual is pulverized by the sheer velocity of cultural production than to write a book in which “stories will develop, and develop wildly, but…characters will not develop at all.” In a culture dominated by the image, we can see how its characters might become caricatures, simulacra that possess “a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.” If anything, one could argue hysterical realism doesn’t go far enough, especially with its wishful turn towards a New Sincerity. Technocapital’s ability to rapidly capture and recuperate lines of flight away from it has only led to a blurring of opposing categories like sincere and ironic, human and inhuman, comedy and tragedy—again, the list goes on. A profusion.

Describing Zadie Smith’s writing, Wood quotes Orwell on Dickens—“rotten architecture but great gargoyles”—and it’s hard to think of a better description of life today. It’s as if Wood is conflating his distaste for the logic of late capital with that of novels attempting to reckon with it. He’d rather the contemporary novelist operate like a conservationist than an explorer, when there is plenty room for both, among many other functions, which is what strikes such a nerve with me. I don’t actually dislike Wood’s essays—they are engaging and provocative and do the difficult work of unifying an eclectic corpus under a useful banner—and I might be able to set aside the patrician stance were it not for his essays’ denial of the ambiguous and the multiple, a symptom of the polemic and conservative thinking in general. “One cult is convincing; three cults are not,” he says, and he is right in the way of a broken clock. One cult is convincing in the way a fable is with its clear, didactic moral. Three cults may be unconvincing, but only because in reality, there are too many to count and as many ways to represent them. This is much of what makes the polemic so reassuring. It reduces the multiple to a convenient binary and does so in high style, giving it the whiff of authority, like a British accent to American ears.

Increasingly, I crave a more equivocal, speculative criticism, something closer to the tendriling outwards of creative nonfiction, though both Merve Emre and Jackson Arn would caution against this impulse. They do more than caution; they are brutal in their condemnation of ambivalence and multiplicity in the essay, beating up, respectively, Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not in the Mood and the anthology The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Philip Lopate. As with the Wood, these essays are sharp and provocative and I agree with many of their points—e.g. the contemporary essay is littered with questions that could easily be answered if the writer weren’t looking to manufacture a searching affect—but I am frustrated by the great pleasure these two take in their takedowns, how it shunts their thinking into such narrow lanes.

Arn is the narrower of the two. Fitting, considering he opens by invoking James Wood writing on the essay as a form that, by 2011, had “been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of much mainstream fiction.” Arn’s complaint is with the contemporary essay’s mannered infatuation with its own ambiguity, which he ascribes to an autobiographical vanity further groomed by market logic to hedge against potential objection. A fear of critique has engendered an unwillingness to commit to any one argument. He goes as far as to tally every “perhaps” (81) and “maybe” (157) and even two rogue “perchance”s. In Arn’s estimate, an essay shouldn’t equivocate, but should possess “expertise, rigor, wit, enthusiasm, insight.” Further, he offers a prescription for how to fix the contemporary essay’s “bad habits.” Just two simple rules—1) ignore likability and the endless hedging it demands; 2) don’t explicitly stage one’s subjectivity in autobiography but let it suffuse the essay—which, to his credit, he follows in his own writing, more or less. His essay is a classical balance of the ingredients he advocates for plus a few he neglects to mention: conservatism, disdain, cruelty, aggrievement.

Emre follows a similar recipe and agrees with Arn on most counts. Her 2017 essay pits two then-recent essay collections against one another—the aforementioned Durga Chew-Bose, and Mary Gaitskill’s Some Kind of Hammer—a kind of emerging writer vs. established voice slugfest that is rigged in Gaitskill’s favor. Emre is merciless with Chew-Bose’s book, which she singles out as the representative of a disturbing trend. Essayists are refusing to organize the confusing complexity of their lived experience, instead presenting it in all its glorious mess, celebrating it to the point that it infects the prose with its imprecision. She sees this rhetorical strategy as a form of oblivious bourgeois posturing, putting the self and identity above all else (see Arn: “Personal experience with the subject at hand...must be announced wherever possible, and if it’s not possible, you’re probably better off writing about something else”). Gaitskill, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the artifice of this performance and admits to the limitations of self-knowledge, focusing instead on describing the machinations that construct this artifice. If possible, this admission should be delivered with a colder, more clinical tone, like the ones Deborah Nelson explores in her book Tough Enough, a “study of the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality” in the hands of “icy, unsparing, and acid-tongued female artists who were committed to ‘looking at painful reality with directness and clarity and without consolation or compensation.’”

To Emre’s credit, she writes through the polemic, discovering a more faceted form on the other side, though it is often flattened in service of an agenda. She believes an essay must adhere to a clear, ethical position backed by its aesthetics, preferably one that follows after the women of Tough Enough: “simple, yet powerful, insistence,” “a respectful pose,” “brutal, prose style that stresse[s] concrete detail over abstraction”, “to isolate the truth,” “the evacuation of emotion from art”, “strict management of desire,” and “moral toughness.” She believes this and yet many of her talents sit on the opposite pole, an irony that pulls the rug from beneath Wood’s writing too. While Wood comes across as one of his gargoyles, hurling entertaining invectives from his crumbling perch, Emre is as “proudly mannered” as her punching bag, her prose riddled with “metaphors that substitute nonsense for sense, preciousness for persuasion.” This very phrase is its own rejoinder, how it makes reason out of rhyme. As if meaning isn’t fuzzy like that, built from innumerable competing assays at representation. It’s only when institutions communicate an official narrative with their “simple, yet powerful insistence” that meaning crystallizes and even then, rotate it and it will glint with a plurality of interpretation. Hold it to the light just so and it will diffract the white into a rainbow.

At some level Emre’s inconsistencies are simply an occupational hazard, maybe even axiomatic to all thought, but behind her leaky rejection of the florid, the multiple, melodrama, and mess, I can’t help but see a writer afraid of failing her own lofty ideals, ones developed as a corrective to some perceived lack in the self. Instead of stripping her prose of sentimentality, she plasters it in contempt, which she mistakes for the “icy, unsparing, and acid-tongued.” I can’t help but see this because this is something I constantly grapple with, the gulfs we manufacture between talents and taste, instincts and intent, theory and praxis, all in search of a better art and, in turn, a better self. I want to be multiple because for much of my life, I have been instructed to stay within lanes when I’m clearly too restless and combative for that—polarizing, I’ve actually been called. Multiplicity becomes an emancipatory tool, but if it’s the only tool, it becomes self-defeating, pathological. I think I want multiplicity, but my enjoyment of the polemic very often tells me how much I enjoy its enemies—the univocal, the authoritative, the superior—and, like Emre, my talents might lie more within the judgmental conservatism I was raised with. As Arn invokes in an essay on Geoff Dyer, “the thing that bothers you most about other people is really the thing that’s wrong with you.” Or is this too personal, verging on the solipsistic? Maybe, perhaps, perchance, I’m just projecting my own “recognizably middle-class…neuroses” (Arn again) on an unknowable other and would be better off copping out, pinning the blame on an inherent contradiction.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I have some possibilities. As I have a few times already, I reach for Deleuze & Guittari, whose rhizome offers an alternative to the binaries of the polemic. The rhizome, named for the root structure that inspires it, is a decentralized structure, a multiplicity of nodes connected by its shoots. These shoots grow omnidirectionally, responding to resource concentrations in the stratum they inhabit. If they encounter areas of weak concentration, they continue to explore until they find ones with stronger concentrations, enabling the shoots to develop into nodes that in turn send off their own explorations. A rhizomatic essay (or any other text) would move freely among different contexts, analyses, metaphors, and even media, latching onto whatever is fruitful and then sending out new shoots from there, only some of which will find their own concentrations. A rhizomatic text doesn’t take sides because it knows no ethical or aesthetic axis across which it might see its antithesis. That doesn’t mean it can’t be impassioned, forceful, even convincing, more that these attributes will emerge naturally, almost autonomously from the text, rather than being predetermined by ideology. I can feel it happening now with this essay as it mutates from meta-polemic to something more speculative.

I say this with a determined optimism, but the reality is a rhizomatic text is unlikely to survive in a literary environment where the multiple isn’t left to its own devices but actively antagonized, often in ways that are difficult to detect or at least repel. When James Wood cautions the talented, young hysterical realists to “get the balance right” between their flashy postmodernism and a serious, moral humanism, he’s only pretending to be on their side. It’s a familiar rhetorical move, the gatekeeper flattering the upstart’s audacity in the same gesture he asks them to knock it off, but for writers looking for affirmation from the literary establishment (or any other industrial complex), it’s a difficult proposition to say no to. This is why the rhizome can only survive at the fringes of empire where it’s not at risk of recuperation.

This means the writer themself must be multiple too, able to move fluidly among underdeveloped, resource-scarce landscapes; adapting to local conditions, finding one’s own resources and forging barterlike relationships with other nomads; being willing to recycle the waste of empire and learning how to go without. Practically, this could mean reading orthogonal or agnostic to establishment: small, independent presses or reading the mainstream independently: out of print books, pirated copies, against the grain of authorial intent, etc.; publishing sporadically and nonlinearly so as to make it difficult to trace your migrations; connecting to other writers using alternative or outmoded networks (e.g. mailing lists) or using the dominant ones “incorrectly” (e.g. no autobiographical posting on social media).

What might this look like in the body of a text? I think of books like Jean Baudrillard’s America, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, in which the writer’s obsessive attention to a single object unlocks the multiplicity within the object and the observer, often facilitated by an ecstatic, searching prose style that, like a rhizome, can break long-standing, concrete structures on its way towards what it seeks. Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading David Kuhnlein, especially his film criticism, which is not so much an antidote to the polemic as it draws blurry lines between medicine and poison, “keeping everyone simultaneously sick and nourished.” Appearing online and collected in the zine SIX SIX SIX, these essays on horror movies are dense and surreal to the point of poetry. Though he doesn’t primarily write about body horror, his prose functions that way, a web of ruptured and stitched membranes between writing about the film, reenacting the film, and departing entirely. An essay tangents to speculate on the phenomenology of a dog as it kills: “sharp bursts of chemical odors sped through the tramway of a snout, olfactory maps unfurled, refreshing the nuanced scent of death rattles; each smell arriving with timestamp and a half-life, as if the eyes were equipped with a retractable microscope.” Another opens on a dream of a businessman splitting his skull open to reveal Shiva has been wearing him like a skin and will now consume the dreamer with “[h]is mandala of a mouth, layered with knifelife teeth, swirling and inflated to the size of a bus.” Writing on the botched familiarities of the recent adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, he follows the folk fears of the book further than the movie is willing to.

Scary Stories is concocted with fabled ingredients. The open-ended logic of Winnebago legends is somewhat explored here, since each child — hollowed out and stuffed with straw, fused into the belly of an obese mental patient, or dragged into a place between floor and wall — does not return. No answers exist. A loop between folklore and war. Tarsal claws crunching out a future, we’re all stunted by the trauma of birth. Uncured meat, hunting for a hook that fits who we are, that fills the holes in our hearts.

Kuhnlein doesn’t write on films so much as from them, using them as rods to divine occulted wells of language, image, and meaning that reside deep within and beyond the text, into a kind of collective unconscious. What he discovers there is strange and specific enough that the essays constitute a text that can survive on its own sans film, though, again, the boundaries are ambiguous. The “tarsal claws” and “uncured meat” discovered at the end of this paragraph’s exploration might be from the film or from the place the film takes the essay. He is “too plugged into meaning gleaned from cinema” to separate the two, speaking to the confusing reciprocity between art and world. Art draws from a well of desires and fears it is constantly replenishing, ever more so in a culture dominated by the image.

When I do recognize images, they appear transformed, not to the elucidate or decode like criticism normally does, but the way a musician might flip a sample into something uncanny, vocals chipmunked or chopped and screwed to the ghostly. Sometimes his fingerprints are wiped clean from the sample as when the father in The VVitch speaks, “[his] voice crunch[ing] gravel underneath his prideful tongue.” These are two near-clichés, literalized and compacted into a visual that forces an uncomfortable but nail-on-the-head accurate zoom on the character, a kind of hyperfocus that draws the man’s ethos into extreme relief, but one still indebted to the voice of the film. Other times, Kuhnlein’s authorial presence is overwhelming, representation pushed to its limits of intensity and associative departure. The mother in Hereditary is described as the family’s “auto-decapitating praying mantis matriarch,” which demands a more poetic parsing of an idiosyncratic system of signification that is as hard of a shove as criticism can offer: into another’s world.

Wood, Emre, and Arn might champion this approach—how Kuhnlein aligns his aesthetic and ethics, embodying his and the text’s thinking in the essay’s prose—were it not for how far these essays stray from the tastes of the traditionalists. Where Wood speaks of human experience in essentialist, almost sacred terms, Kuhnlein is profane, describing the human by its relationship to non-human systems, ones teeming within and without: “Human desire is a micro-organismal haunt loaded into the skin by viruses and bugs that outnumber us ten to one.” Where the traditionalists argue for a defined side, Kuhnlein drifts from intensity to intensity, explicitly aware of the artifice of sides and how our attempts to enforce them are more likely to backfire: “The books parents protest about are the best in converting children into bookworms. They create a lightbulb moment for art as an outlet.” Divisions are interesting insomuch as they allow for rupture, a source of attraction and reservation, opportunities that are compromised in some way: “The compound fracture of a boundary becomes a pettily tangible light source.”

Maybe the only thing Kuhnlein shares with the traditionalists, and the thing that produces the work’s most discernible ethic, is contempt. It drips from his prose like venom, excessive and milky, almost refreshing after so many careful barbs. Where the traditionalists go to great lengths to restrain their contempt in formal attire or an appeal to ethics, Kuhnlein’s resentments are dressed naturally, albeit with a warped sense of style. He directs his contempt like arterial spray, splattering anyone or thing complicit in an oppressive monoculture: helicopter parents, “crystal-sucking millennials,” woke browsing history revisionism, family friendly bowdlerizing, performative victimhood, and so on, the body count rising. If there is a dominant motif in these essays it is the witchhunt. The facile read is that Kuhnlein is a witch, his writing a hex to repel his would-be hunters, but Kuhnlein acknowledges a symbiosis between the two parties, the hunt, “an attempt to halt stray belief,” actually manifesting the witch by “paradoxically enforcing the validity of an unwarranted concern,” a witchcraft of sorts and another of the many syzygies in Kuhnlein’s writing. The hunter isn’t an enemy—the very idea of an enemy is limiting, a trap set by logic to ensure both parties are locked into an infernal dance of co-creation. Instead any animus the would-be witch expresses is dispersed, almost ambient, delicious curses cast into an uncaring ether. A polemic that defends and admonishes in the same gesture, including its unmoored self. “This rhizomatous bloat, wrench[ing] the foundation apart.”

. . .

File Under

ambivalence, the contemporary essay, deterritorialization, gargoyles, hysterical realism, literary criticism, multiplicity, the polemic, postmodernism, the social novel, traditionalism, rhizome as form

Further Reading

  • Jean Baudrillard - America
  • Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guitarri - “Introduction: Rhizome” from A Thousand Plateaus
  • Brian Dillon - Essayism
  • William Gass - On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry
  • Fredric Jameson - Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capital
  • David Kuhnlein - SIX SIX SIX
  • Maggie Nelson - Bluets
  • @PaperBird