"Jobs of the Great Misery"
A roundtable discussion of Aaron Winslow's writing with Chris Alexander, Josef Kaplan, and Kim Rosenfield
Of all the new writing I’ve encountered in the last few years, Aaron Winslow’s is certainly a favorite. It’s post-apocalyptic, full of body issues, and the prose itself, the way it's written, is hilarious — it’s the kind of comic relief I need after a long day at my own job of the great misery. Aaron himself is pretty funny but also pretty humble, so instead of interviewing him I convened a roundtable. I didn't tell our panelists why I chose them — didn't want to put any pressure on — but each of them delivered here exactly what — even more actually — than I had imiagined. I knew these three would produce a great conversational balance together — and you'll see below they did. I also knew they had similar bawdy senses of humor, also on display below. In addition to all that, I asked Kim Rosenfield because her position as a practicing psychoanalyst made her a good candidate to address the seemingly endless opportunties Aaron’s work provides to bring in Freud, Lacan, Melanie Klein ... let's just say there are more orifices and sucking objects in the work of Aaron Winslow than an ordinary person like me can keep track of. Josef Kaplan I knew would bring his quick wit and an anarcho-marxist analysis, and Chris Alexander I knew had a reading of Aaron's prose as a play on science-fiction. But pulling these three together is all I can take credit for. The conversation below, and the analyses therein (and also the many jokes) far exceeded my expectations. But of course the great conversation could just as well be credited to Aaron Winslow, for giving us such a rich cube of text/flesh to suck on. I hope this conversation will bring lots of new readers to this work.
Kim Rosenfield: So I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron's work during this trauma conference I've been going to this weekend, and just how exciting the idea in his writing is of having no ethics and not having to worry about morality and consequences—all you need is just inserted into you! It made me think about Melanie Klein—the idea of part objects and split off objects being introjected (the good and bad breast) but Aaron's writing is actually taking this idea to the next level in terms of how we are integrated with our electronics. Like, your electronic media, instead of an emotional experience, is inserted into you. There's no hatred of your mother—instead, it’s just you and the devices you insert—I love this idea it’s so easy and clean.
Chris Alexander: I have some questions. I know Melanie Klein from a distance.
Josef Kaplan: You mean like watching her from the bushes?
Chris Alexander: Not since I discovered she has a security camera. But what you’re describing, Kim, sounds as much like early Cronenberg as psychoanalysis. Can you gloss the Klein a little?
KR: It’s been quite awhile — but the idea is that in early infancy the infant is exposed to the mother — this theory was written in the 30s I think, so it’s always a mother — the mother is either a good breast or a bad breast, and the infant’s psyche begins to build on this idea of taking in the breast, the good and the bad breast. The infant struggles between good and bad, love and hate and struggles to integrate these two forces. So I'm thinking relationships are objects and language is objects so we’re all objects. And a healthy integrated person can take in all objects but if you’re paranoid-schizoid or whatever, you can only take in part objects. Part-object introjects form your personality and so you live in a fragmented state. That’s super-reductive and probably totally incorrect.
So when we talk about this in psychoanalytic circles these days we talk about what the patient " puts into you" psychically. What gets deposited into you — and I keep thinking of that in terms of Aaron’s work, all these slits and slots, and anal gills, so what is excreted but also pushed back in. Just a way of managing good and evil as energy values inside the body that isn’t really a body. All these transmutations of … there’s no psychic process, things are shoved in and taken out and broken down, which is sort of to me, it’s like an evolution, or a de-evolution of humanness. We’re beginning to break down but not all the way yet.
CA: So the boundaries of the self and the body are fuzzy in the universe of “Job of the Great Misery,” because they’re continuously augmented or supplemented, disassembled, parceled out or broken down.
KR: Well there is no self in Aaron’s work, just the body. Which is so interesting.
JK: That’s one thing that seems to happen in a lot of Aaron’s work – there are these insertions, mutilations, etc., but to what end is never really explained. None of the objects being inserted or being used to modify the body are ever fully described. One thing might be a “tracker,” or a “gill,” but there’s never the sense that anything is being introduced to the body for any reason other than to modify it. There’s no cultural or social context. It’s simply, “Oh, bodies in this world are taken apart…”
KR: … it’s just mechanisms …
JK: … that’s as far as it goes in terms of function.
KR: That’s why I think of this sped up idea of evolution. There’s certain parts that work better than others, there’s a sense of needing better things or things that work better, but without any humanity in it. It’s just purely mechanical. It’s just gas station …
CA: And the difference between, say, a functional addition and an attack on the existing form of the body is unclear.
KR: So maybe there is an idea of evil then. That Doctor Scab. Like you’re not sure if he’s doing something malicious, so maybe there is still a touch of evil.
JK: Those letters are hilarious because… well, first of all, they’re “jelly-memos.” “Jelly memos.” But also because they’re written in this arch formal style: “Dear Schmitt, I hope this jelly memo finds you well.”
CA: Doctor Scab’s whole delivery is so stilted.
KR: His speech is so full of all these insertions from the early twentieth century, like toward the end he says so-and-so was "a fine boy", all those weird moments also seem like an invasion of language insertions.
CA: I’ve been thinking a lot about science fiction and its sub-genres in reading Aaron’s work and, for me, those aspects of the style — the ham-fisted delivery, the stiltedness and occasional awkwardness of the language — really pull toward fan fiction. You find this not only in the characters’ address to each other, but in the narrative voice itself. Aaron more or less consistently angles for the most awkward statement. Right on the first page, for example: “I survive on the strength of my prevarications.” That is simultaneously hard-boiled—recognizable as the voice of the hard-boiled narrator, at a moment when the conventions of detective fiction have become an important driver for science fiction—and totally, totally dorky. It’s Philip Marlow with two different shoes on, blown up to superhuman proportions and deflated at the same time.
KR: I thought of Jane Eyre and Rochester on a crazy post-apocalyptic mission. It’s like an emptied out romantic novel superimposed on a sci-fi story.
CA: If I think about where I’ve encountered that kind of genre-bungling, ham-fisted prose—the inappropriate formality and the limping convention—it’s not really happening in commercial science fiction. But you do find it in fan fiction all the time. In fact, I’d say that’s part of what defines fan fiction as a sub-genre, what makes it recognizable as fan fiction: the moment when a writer’s ear betrays him, when he’s trying too hard to be literary—just trying to “be literary”—but the tone and the address to generic conventions and the grasp of the vernacular just give out.
KR: … it’s not intentional …
CA: Right, it’s not intentional. It’s a bid for a certain kind of legitimacy. But to someone who is actively in contact with writing and has an ear for prose, it just seems totally ridiculous. And Aaron touches on it consistently in this work. He turns it into a form of bathos that undermines the narrative at every turn. As I was reading through the first few pages, I marked all the places where this was happening, and the page is just bleeding purple: “comported herself lushly on a nearby vacant Ottoman,” “within such a vast swath,” “alas,” “always at the peak of style.” Even the arcane choice of seating, an ottoman—even the capitalization of the word “Ottoman” — is infelicitous. But this isn’t just an unreliable narrator we’re dealing with. Aaron is deliberately working from a debased form of the conventions that drive the work, so the narrative and the world it constructs are placed on a deep fault line. The question isn’t, “Can I trust this narrator?”; the question is, “How can I take this seriously as a piece of fiction?” And this is an acute question, especially since — as Samuel Delany says — science fiction and fantasy are the only genres of adult fiction that take place entirely in the subjunctive: “This has not happened.” All you have are the words to make the world. So this kind of bathos is very destabilizing.
JK: And it should be said that these interruptions, these moments of heightened, clichéd discourse, happen themselves across a range of styles. There are moments of Victorian politeness, then there’s this whole section in the middle that’s like a western, and then it slips into this salty maritime dialect. Like these moments of genre, or literary history, are being “plugged” into the story, in this very crude way, in the same way that all of the biological elements are: grotesque, over the top, overdone. The literariness is itself a kind of gross, gaudy, I don’t know… eruption.
KR: And when you think of those literary appendages being added on, at least on my first reading, I kept thinking oh that’s gonna anchor me in some way, there’s gotta be some guideposts here, but there are none! The literary insertions are just as gross and oozing as the operations of the mechanical parts. The literariness is totally bankrupt.
CA: I think the connection you two are making between the content of the work—these bodies which are modular in a disturbing way—and the style of the work, which is also modular, in disturbingly clumsy way, this is a powerful connection. The prose style at the surface is just as grotesque as the world that’s being described.
KR: It’s just as flesh cubed as the flesh cubes. The actual writing is embodied in this very visceral way.
CA: It’s a highly sophisticated style, but Aaron has also chosen the most degraded materials to work with. So there’s a junk art or — better — a pop art element.
KR: I love this interchange of materials, like you don’t know whose material is whose, like whose bodily material, whose fluids …
JK: … you don’t know what anything is. Half of the time, when things are introduced, they’re just this bizarre amalgamation of terms, none of which are explained or given any kind of function or context.
KR: It’s so fantastic cause you have to really road warrior your way through. You have to work your way through this like cavemen and cavewomen, there’s no clear meaning, just these odd symbols and …
JK: Cave men and cave women reading Aaron’s story?
KR: Of course, yes! There is something really primal in it. Think of the infant not knowing anything about the world and there are no real guidelines to the world yet, you just have to infer it and intuit it. There are these supposed guides, the Doctor, and the Ancient Mariner, but they’re just empty archetypes. They all could destruct at any moment. So not knowing where you are, what anything is, it’s a fairly intense thing to navigate, you’re in the terrain...
CA: You’re in the “black-air.”
JK: It should be said: for all the sexuality in the book, no “sex” actually ever happens. Like, sex as we understand it. Everything is sexualized, but basic sex, like, something that could be recognizably a sex act, I’m pretty sure it just doesn’t happen. There’s one part where a cord is inserted somewhere, but it’s an energy cord.
KR: oh yeah, like with the young seamen, when he’s on board? And the guy plugs into the plant boy and he’s dying and then he inserts a cord? Yeah, that’s pretty erotic.
JK: But it’s not under the rubric of sex. The exchange is different. It’s an energy exchange, in a kind of hyper-material sense. It’s erotic, but metaphorically.
CA: There’s no genitality, right? Genitality is multiplied over the surface of, well, everything.
KR: It is fairly porno, though. I know there are websites like ‘women who fuck machines.”
JK: I’m sure you know all about that.
KR: Oh yeah. Ask me anything.
JK: How convenient that we’re talking about this and here you are!
CA: There are also surgery fetish sites and medical fetish sites, which occasionally break through into mainstream culture—for example, in the Resident Evil franchise. The early shots of the first film show Alice waking on a surgery table, in a state of undress, in a highly vulnerable position, and there’s no one around. It’s all done in these lingering shots, very lurid.
KR: Right, there’s a lot of stuff like that. I think it’s our way of trying of anchor to our own humanness to try to find the porn in it, or to try to find the erotics. But I think it really is all just mechanistic. But I find myself trying to anchor in something recognizably human but there isn’t really … and there isn’t much gender, or I guess it’s all men.
CA: It’s very Tom of Finland in that way, it’s men in professions. Do you know Tom of Finland? The men in those drawings are almost without identity, unrecognizable except for the marks of their trade and position—cops, bikers, sailors, cowboys, rangers and mounties—and their sometimes grotesquely exaggerated racial characteristics. It’s pretty cheeky.
KR: It’s pretty gay, guys.
JK: So, like the Village People, where there’s a fireman …
CA: Right, so imagine the Village People—but everyone has a horse-sized penis hanging out of their pants, and they’re usually flaccid and like so wrongly proportioned so they end up just looking like a hose at a gas station.
KR: That would make such a good cover for this book!
CA: The weird thing is that despite the hard boiled trappings, this work doesn’t feel particularly masculine to me.
KR: Really? I thought it was very masculine.
JK: I like talking about it in terms of this “men in professions” thing. The over-performance of classical masculine behavior and professions.
CA: It’s a thing about Golden Age science fiction, at least, that it’s often about men on jobs on space ships.
JK: Well, the story he gave us is from a book called “The Jobs of the Great Misery.” And it’s interesting, the ways and degrees in which people are experiencing either discomfort or pain while performing these jobs – it’s often incoherent. It’s really almost impossible to determine if anything in this world is harmful or not. Even with something self-evidently harmful, the response is often just detached affirmation. “Yep, and then half my face fell off. That’s how it is out here in the planned zones.”
KR: Yeah so what holds things together here? I keep searching for what are the ethics of this land, what if your face falls off, what does that mean? But there’s no logic, there’s no recourse. Well, I guess there is, the Doctor tries to make sure the protagonist, as it were, is comfortable.
JK: Oh, right, the Doctor wanted to make sure he was healthy. The Doctor freaked out when he thought something might be going wrong with the procedure.
CA: There are some hints, like on page 3, there’s a moment when the narrator says, “the low bio-electrical murmurings of the flesh-cube, so much like the tortured mumblings of the damned, prompted me to ponder what poor jobless miscreant had been subjected to the torments of flesh-cube modification.” So there’s suffering at a distance—the suggestion that someone has suffered—but the suffering doesn’t ever seem to be narrated by those experiencing it.
JK: The plant boy is miserable too.
KR: Oh my god, yeah. But it’s just a matter of biomechanics, he just needs …
CA: … more things plugged into him.
KR: Right. Or an enema.
CA: As a result of reading this I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationships to all my various devices. Plugging things into other things, plugging things into my ears, caressing my various touch screens.
JK: Whether or not they’re on.
CA: Right, even just cleaning your phone — breathing across the surface, rubbing it gently but firmly with the corner of your shirt or a microfiber rag. I was just reading an article about how Apple has patented many of these touch relationships, the actual gestures. These physical caresses and swipes and drags that we use to operate our devices are now the property of Apple.
KR: Apple is the Great Mother. During Hurricane Sandy when there was no power downtown, the main student center at NYU had a back-up generator so people were flooding onto the sidewalk, plugging into outlets off the sides of the building, cords siphoning off of cords, outlets upon outlets, it was totally futuristic. People were splicing cords into each other—it was like people were feeding at the energy source. It was frightening.
CA: A few years ago, I read a piece of literary criticism that described Bram Stoker as a “cack-handed narrator,” which is this awesome British term …
KR: … like Ipecac, like what you take to vomit?
CA: No, c-a-c-k, it means like kind of awkward and clumsy, to be cack-handed, but it literally means shit-handed. It used to mean left-handed. I feel like that’s a good description for this, there’s s much awkwardness in this prose and there’s so little development. Aaron really eschews development …
KR: He’s a relentless cack.
CA: It’s absolutely completely excretory, right? I was thinking about it in terms of how sci fi usually works as a genre and how this work differs from mainstream science fiction in terms of development—“world building” in particular, which is famously the cornerstone of the genre—so I grabbed this for an example, Alan Dean Foster’s novel Spellsinger.
KR: What is it?
CA: So Alan Dean Foster wrote for example, the novelization of Star Wars. But he also has his own series. He’s just a pulp science fiction writer. So like listen to this passage:
"There was panic in Cugluch Keep.
Word of the troubles seeped down from servitors to attendants to
workers and even to the lowly apprentice workers who toiled in the
deepest burrows and worked endlessly to keep the omnipresent ooze from
flooding the undertunnels.
Rumors abounded. Workers whispered of a flaming rain that had fallen
from the sky and destroyed hundreds of brood platforms. Or they told
of tons of carefully hoarded foodstuffs invaded and ruined by spore
rot. Or that the sun had appeared for three consecutive days." (Spellsinger 1 220)
You can hear the resemblance between what Foster is doing and what Aaron is doing. There are a number of unfamiliar terms—“servitors,” “the omnipresent ooze,” “brood platforms,” even “Cugluch Keep” itself, and the word “Cugluch” in particular. We don’t know what they refer to, but they become part of the narrative through the magic of the performative, which is the magic of world building. At this level, Foster’s prose is basically like Aaron’s prose, with a strong nominative thrust.
But this is page 220 of Foster’s novel. For the past hundred pages at least, he’s been giving us hints leading up to this moment, and this is like the reveal. All along we’ve been hearing about this insectoid race that inhabits the other side of the planet, we’ve heard them talked about by the other characters, and we’ve even had glimpses of them. This is the moment when the narrative turns to that side of the planet, and so there’s this alien life form and all this alien technology and culture rushes into the prose at once. We finally “see” it. In commercial science fiction you only can do that once in awhile—that’s only part of a long cycle in the book—and what you do in the meantime is you build up expectations, you prepare the reader for that momentary reveal, and then you sort of normalize what’s been added to the world by continuing past it, showing or just implying that it fits into a narrative continuity that is consistent and can be followed and seems real and makes sense. But what happens in Aaron’s work is that every single sentence is operating at the level of the reveal. You never have any hints, you never have any build up, you never become accustomed to anything—you never know what things are or how they’ll work or whether they’ll continue to be the same things and work the same way—and so in that sense it’s really excretory.
KR: Yep, Yep, Yep. It’s exhausting to read! I’ve only heard Aaron read this in snippets. I don’t know what the whole novel looks like, but I bet it would be tough going, in the best way.
CA: I am also looking forward to it, but it’s bound to be arduous.
JK: I don’t read very much sci-fi, but this idea of a “new technology” that gets integrated, in a procedural sense, into a framework that I can understand, and that I can recognize as being projected from within a condition of the present… in Aaron’s work, it’s almost as if all of these “new technologies” are attending to desires that don’t even register to us in our present. They’re either attending to desires or necessities that we don’t have access to, or they’re creating desires and necessities that we don’t understand because our present is so removed from their world. In that way, it might be a very realist science fiction! Like, what a Conquistador would think of iPads… how Facebook would be totally inconceivable.
KR: I feel like in having a teenager I have that experience on these micro-levels all the time. There’s just this chasm in our world views.
CA: Like her desires are generated by a different order than yours?
KR: Totally, she doesn’t understand mine at all, my functioning, my ethics or at least claims not to.
JK: Maybe you should give her this book to read.
KR: Coco loves Aaron! Right now in school she's reading Fahrenheit 451 and it’s very different, there’s all kinds of warnings about impending doom—but I love in Aaron’s work—forget it—we’re just done! All those philosophical components are just over—love, beauty, art...
CA: There’s no existentialism here.
KR: It’s toast!
JK: It’s just jobs [demonic laugh] shitty, shitty jobs.
CA: Endless jobs where you have to be continually physically modified to do them.
KR: It kind of sounds like a relief to me. No more thinking.
JK: I love how whatever pleasure, the moments of respite they do have, are delivered by the same things they have to use for their jobs. When they’re just like ‘give me a flesh crystal to suck on.’
CA: A bag of enzymes to huff.
JK: … which is like me now.
KR: Oh like with ADHD meds …
JK: The same things you use to facilitate labor are the same things you use to escape from that labor.
CA: Like how every facet of my life now runs through my laptop? So it’s like I’m constantly at work and I’m constantly at play and they’re always just one tab away from each other.
KR: This is interesting, the drugs are used to relieve someone from an unbearable situation, but it’s also used as a performance enhancer, we have that split. But in Aaron's text, it’s always performance enhancing, it doesn’t come out of a need for pleasure or for anything human. It’s only to contribute to the great misery.
CA: The moments of ‘pleasure’ here are more like moments of exhausted succor. Like the first scene, when the “Sexplicator Lead-One” is huffing enzymes out of a paper bag.
JK: And she just passes out
CA: And a pool of ooze forms around her. That’s as close as you get to pleasure. Or stimulation, the other side is when there’s like an orifice stimulator.
KR: You’re either passed out or working to stimulate yourself.
CA: And it’s also labor, to stimulate yourself.
KR: And it’s total self-stimulation. Like when he’s in the flesh cube he has to do all the work, he can’t just have other people working on him, he’s gotta self-improve.
CA: It’s super-neoliberal.
KR: Pull yourself up by your own flesh cubes.
CA: If you think about it, we’re very close here to Maurizio Lazzarato’s description of immaterial labor and the precarious worker—the contract worker, the temp, the freelancer, the adjunct—where he points out that participation in the labor market takes place through a continuous process of retraining and renewing contact with other workers. It’s not your employer who trains you to do your job, it’s part of your job to hone your skills and improve your performance in your down time; it’s not your employer who tells you who to work with, it’s part of your job to network and organize contacts so that you stay in the market. Self-improvement in service of the market, sociality in service of the market. So the pleasure of being a graphic designer, say, overlaps 100% with the need to retrain yourself in what the market needs from graphic designers; and your friendships with other designers, however genuine and far-reaching, overlap 100% with the need to keep yourself employed and employable. Lazzarato says that in the current order, the worker’s “soul”—her subjectivity—becomes a part of the factory.
KR: There was just an article in the Times about young people in the city freelancing and working like 5 jobs at once so the work is continuous. But then they love their jobs, too and want to keep current so it becomes a nonstop interface between work and improving their work just like what you’re saying.
CA: So this is the world of the freelancer—but also, increasingly, the world of the academic, the professional, even within an institutional context that seems to promise a clear route to continued employment and advancement.
JK: The one character who says, “No, I have this core, essential element of myself that is strong, despite these appendages falling off, despite being overtaxed,” the one who says there’s some kind of transcendence, the one character who believes in something, he just collapses into a puddle of ooze almost immediately after saying that.
CA: I think it’s interesting how long it takes before we even learn anything about the narrator. We don’t find out until about halfway through that it’s “Schmitt.”
KR: But then it’s in the title “A Most Invasive Modification [Schmitt].” You don’t know what it means at that point, but it’s interesting they’re totally equational. The most invasive modification IS Schmitt.
CA: His naming is phenomenal.
JK: The names are insane.
CA: Except for Schmitt, right? Schmitt is just like a German last name.
KR: Well what does Schmitt mean in German?
CA: Let me caress my device and find out.
[Meanwhile, pizza arrives]
Schmitt: an occupational name for blacksmith or metal worker, from the German word “schmied.”
KR: So, in other words, the quintessential worker.
CA: Like Smith, based on Smithee. Is that a poetry reading going on in the background?
KR: O God I hope not.