Thursday, December 8, 2022

The other day, almost three years later, I remembered I had wanted to read more of her so I looked her up at my public library and was surprised to see every copy of every book they have by her is checked out, and each with multiple holds. Oh, did she die?, I thought. On January 29, 2020, I wrote in a notebook:
Annie Ernaux, Exteriors

Chronicle of the social by someone who has (unknowingly?) rejected the social?

A trajectory from Steve's "Munro Doctrine" to this to [what I thought while reading] Tove Jansson Summer Book - presuming to present the interiors of others is imperialism -> is a mistake -> is authorized by empathy and social relations.

Author's preface, pp. 7-8: "I have done my best not to express or exploit the emotion that triggered each text. On the contrary, I have sought to describe reality as through the eyes of a photographer and to preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered. [...] In actual fact, I realize that I have put a lot of myself into these texts, far more than originally planned - memories and obsessions subconsciously dictating my choice of words and the scenes I wished to freeze. Moreover, I am sure that one can learn more about oneself by embracing the outside world than by taking refuge in the intimacy of a diary [...] It is other people - anonymous figures glimpsed in the subway or in waiting rooms - who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us."

1. Why is this "on the contrary"? (my own emotions/mystery and opacity of others)

2. Why is it only about "myself" that one seeks to learn?

3. Why do these "figures" remain "anonymous"? (because you've ruled out speaking to them from the beginning)

But this is an accurate representation of the book - its attempt, its failure, its interest. Which, that last comes primarily from the failure - e.g. it's not the description of the girl with ribbon in her hair auditioning or even of the nervousness of the parents that interests but rather (p. 23) "It was an old-fashioned dream come true in the heart of the New Town, with the rituals and pomp of yesteryear's salons. But the parents were not speaking to one another; each family wanted their own child to be the best, to fulfill the hope that one day he or she would belong to the elite, of which tonight they had witnessed only the theatricality."

On which point - she sees everything as a performance - people at the butchershop buying meat, people talking on the train, people begging (here she's correct) but also homeless man thoughtlessly exposing himself (insanely she thinks this is an expression of power!) - a symptom of isolation and of her class. Social life is a put-on, a fake.

It's also baked in to her methodology, "preserving opacity" etc - back to Steve, it's easy to mistake this as respect for one's "objects" but it becomes clear that in effect it treats them as existing for me - to the extent they have their own reason for their behavior it's to put on a show for me.

As with people so with objects - p. 78 "Our relationship to things is so moving" - It's an extreme commodity fetishism both in the true sense & how it can be misunderstood due to contemporary usage of "fetish" - e.g. of a fancy underwear store, pp. 85-86: "Wanting to have some of this beauty on one's skin is as legitimate as wanting to breathe fresh air." (Do I trust the choice of "legitimate" here or is it a dishonest stand-in for "natural"? What is the difference? At any rate it is not so much the applicability of a concept, "legitimacy" - of course it is legitimate to want to have beauty on one's skin - as the choice of comparison itself that strikes me.)

For all the attention to class and to workers at work (though all [?] service workers) and even the presence in the book (even if by absence) of the producers of commodities - pp. 66-67 the black woman in a boubou "whom one suspects has come to the wrong store [or... the wrong book?], who doesn't realize she is out of place," or the now demolished housing for "the immigrant population of the sixties" (p. 83) - she treats commodities as an "opaque" part of the world, natural, not products of labor.

p. 41 "In the newspaper Libération, the historian Jacques Le Goff remarked: 'The subway is quite a curiosity.' Would the people who commute every day feel the same way about the Collège de France? There is no way of knowing." As sarcasm it's a decent line, in the style of a dunk, but again: Why is there no way of knowing? Class, access to media, sure, of course; but also once again because you've ruled out talking to people.

So ultimately though she's not treating people as commodities, she is essentially treating them the same way - opaque objects which function only in relation to me, and which are otherwise mute. Dramatic display of the fundamental problems with this type of approach!
The first sentence of that last paragraph was obviously mangled somehow en route from brain to paper, but the point is as clear as it's going to be, I suppose.

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