JANUARY 29, 2013
UK LOCAL NEWS recently ran a story about an academic accused of keying 24 cars on a wealthy street in Northern England. According to reports, residents woke to find that phrases such as “very silly,” “really wrong,” and “arbitrary” had been etched into the sides of their luxury vehicles overnight. When I heard this story, the professor’s actions — righteous, quixotic, likely inebriated — immediately made me think of Lars Iyer. “Spurious” would have been a welcome addition to the graffiti trail.
Iyer’s books began as a blog that documented the adventures and nonadventures of Lars and W., two philosophy professors working in the UK. Their mutual affection is relayed primarily through the medium of insults, an art form they pursue with dedication and creativity. Besides the often-noted lineage of literary double acts (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Vladimir and Estragon, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer) their relationship owes much to the antagonistic friendships of British television, particularly Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and perhaps even current series such as Peep Show. Iyer is emphatic about the entertainment value of his books, but Lars and W. are good on the intellectual precedents. Nietzsche provides one of the pair’s many mottos: “In one’s friend one should have one’s best enemy.”
Exodus is the trilogy’s final installment, but the end had been hanging over Iyer’s project from its very beginning. As W. observes at one point, “The language of the Last Days is wholly appropriate to our times.” The duo’s apocalyptic banter is continuous, and by the close of 2012’s Dogma they are steeling themselves for the inevitable. Still, they are disappointed: “It’s time to die, says W. But death does not come.” So what kind of calamity will await in Exodus, the actual final resting place of W. and Iyer’s Lars? Iyer builds his stories on anticlimaxes, and so followers of the series might assume that the end of this fictional world is going to whimper more than it bangs. But somehow, it manages to do both.
Spurious, which started the series, is emphatically a book about nothing. Our heroes bicker, drink gin, talk about the end times; they feel symptomatic of some great collapse, try to respond sincerely to that apocalyptic feeling, and bicker some more. Some narrative tension is provided by the damp affecting Lars’s flat, a fungus which occasionally attains a hallucinogenic beauty but mostly just makes the place smelly and uninhabitable. Lars lives there all the same, providing the damp with its metaphor, or vice versa — each is depicted as an ominous, dumb, incomprehensible force of nature. W. senses messianism in both friend and fungus, without really understanding what messianism is. They await the coming catastrophe, but in the end, of course, nothing happens.
Spurious also introduces the singular construction of Iyer’s books. Lars is the narrator, but his speech mostly consists in reporting what W. has said, and how W. has insulted him. Frequently the voices blur together. In this, Iyer’s writing recalls an alternative lineage, of stylistic experimentation in the history of philosophy: Nietzsche’s neobiblical fables, Kierkegaard’s split personas and alter-ego arguments, Blanchot’s fictions and blending into other writers. These are all innovations towards nonliterary ends, towards producing rather than transmitting thought, and putting into practice specific intellectual projects. And although Iyer parodies the grandiosity of such figures, in a small way he is part of their tribe.
Spurious has a light, aphoristic quality that belies its depth. In one of his books Deleuze notes (also via Nietzsche) the extravagance of asceticism: “The philosopher approaches the ascetic virtues — humility, poverty, chastity — and makes them serve ends completely his own, extraordinary ends that are not ascetic at all, in fact.” Which is to say: big things can come from stupid men in moldy flats eating stale sandwiches. In another motto, Lars and W. agree: “In a world gone to shit, peripherise yourself.” Feeling pretty peripheral already, they berate each other for their stupidity, their insignificance, their failures, their terrible books. Some things are funny because they’re true, and these laughs are colored with a genuine despair for themselves and their world. And as much as they relish predicting the end, they feel silly for doing so, silly for believing it, undercutting one other down into the peripheries.
A little like the first wave of idea-based visual artists, Iyer is adept at theorizing his own work. These ideas often exceed what appears on the page, or as W. puts it: “A book must produce more thought than it itself has.” Even a book about nothing; especially a book about nothing (to channel another of W.’s repetitions). Repetition is the basic way Iyer’s books develop: Lars and W. riff endlessly around their favorite topics, such as stupidity (their own), despair (their own), and the apocalypse (theirs and the world’s). This gives the writing a kind of musicality, a series of repeating themes and figures which replay themselves over the incessant thud of their conversations. Insults recur like mantras, with new inflections and emphases every time: tragedy is pushed into farce, then back into tragedy, then again into farce, and so on. Usually the book settles for a space somewhere in between, as W. observes, “After farce? This. Us.”
And the humor cuts broad and deep. The book doesn’t expect you to have read a lot of impenetrable texts, but neither does it pretend that you needn’t. The thoughts are more important than their thinkers: Prince Far-I and Gerrard Winstanley are quoted in the same breath, saying exactly the same thing. Despite an obvious affection for British humor, Lars and W. are outsiders, thinking against Britain from within: “The British have the worst possible attitude to intellectual speculation, W. says.” I remember writer Mark Fisher once describing “pubbish levity” as a symptom of all that is wrong with British culture. (Fisher was talking about the autobiography of Mark E. Smith, another master of “the three Rs”: repetition, repetition, repetition.) Yet Iyer manages to force pub banter beyond this point: the satire spears a kind of pretentiousness, an assumed loftiness, whilst somehow maintaining those lofty ideals. British working class deprecation taken to continental heights.
2012’s Dogma punctured the self-contained, parochial world of Spurious with some small activity: a lecture tour of the United States. The pair return, having learned nothing, but in search of a new project, a task to fulfil the doomed potential of their collaboration. And although such escape routes are a bit of a running joke (that is, everything would be alright if only they could master Ancient Greek/Hindu theology/advanced mathematics) on this occasion they come up with something. They call their intellectual movement “Dogma,” after Dogme95, and produce a manifesto.
At this point another set of questions, questions around just what is going on in these books, collide rather magnificently. For the manifesto, again, is Iyer self-theorizing: the Dogma movement is to be plainly and simply spoken, sincere and collaborative (what could be more so than documenting pub conversations between friends?). Dogma is to be full of pathos — we may laugh or, as W. declares, “weep without end!” Maybe both. The subsequent presentations of the Dogma group, W. and Lars, are increasingly drunken and desperate, and the manifesto starts to get out of control. And this is also the point at which Iyer’s sincerity begins to overtake his jokes. The Dogma movement is bombastic and ridiculous, but it has a strange dignity too. Is their fervent belief in philosophy and literature, in ideas, really so hilarious?
Around the time Dogma came out, Iyer published a real life manifesto of sorts, “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss.” It is subtitled “A Literary Manifesto after the End of Literature and Manifestos” and expands on this general premise: literature is long dead, along with the kind of culture where writing manifestos would make any sense at all. All that’s really left for us — a diminishing circle of word-lovers — is to pick over the bones and write the decline.
It is significant, of course, that the “real” manifesto, the Dogma manifesto, only appears as a fiction. It is precisely Iyer’s claim that, outside this parodic world, manifestos have no place: at best, what is possible is a self-defeating non-manifesto, done in service to your publisher (as Iyer has volunteered in interviews). As he writes in the introduction to one of his “illiterate, terrible” scholarly books: “[Blanchot’s] work seems to reach us from a distance beyond the world we inhabit, from a time when, amazingly, literature seemed important, when bands of friends could ensure the publication, review and distribution of books like Le Bavard and there was something at issue in combating a commodification of art that is now more or less complete. If this seems implausible, utopian or anachronistic, this is our failure.”
As Dogma progresses, the pair’s urgent apocalypticism is borne out, and their intellectual pratfalls become harder to dismiss merely as jokes. The action dates the novel to the late 2000s, with the pro-market reforms of Tony Blair and New Labour and a global economic meltdown eroding UK public services. Humanities departments are being cut back and closed down, W. is being threatened with redundancy, and the institutional future for the humanities (literature, philosophy — ideas) looks bleak. W. foresees the tragicomic future of educational institutions as privatized sports colleges, teaching “shot-put metaphysics” and “badminton ethics.” And in a political climate where it makes sense to run education for profit, as a business — not to mention housing, health, general welfare — that is a kind of apocalypse, isn’t it?
But then Exodus starts and — like a good sitcom — everything is right back to normal. W.’s university has reinstated him on the basis of a legal technicality (the university fears the bad PR) and Lars is still moldering in his flat. But the sameness is only temporary; for one, the heroes are starting to become more self-aware, if only a little bit. Despite the appeal of end-times talk, they begin to realize the ridiculous position they are in, how useless it is to the struggles ahead. After one of their presentations they reflect: “We were altogether too pathetic for our Middlesex audience […] Our vague communism. Our messianic pathos: what need had they for that?” And with the benefit of hindsight, we know they were doomed: scandalously, the Middlesex philosophy department was forced to close in 2010 amid an uproar of occupations and protests. Lars and W.’s bickering remains constant, but through it some valuable thoughts begin to coalesce.
The series also begins to loop back on itself at this point, and into real life again. The pair start a group blog and Lars begins posting incessantly. In a moment of generosity W. suggests publishing it, for its “symptomatic value […] Its monstrosity.” (He then realizes, “It’s an example of the bad infinite, as Hegel would call it. The spurious infinite … It just goes on and on …”) At times, Exodus seems also to understand itself as a symptom, and to collide with the real-life success of Spurious and Dogma. Lars talks about the books he has written — “Not real books,” he says — and his hope that someone would pull him up on his failures — “But no-one cares.” Yet Lars is referring to his scholarly works, producing another meta-punchline: what then of these nonserious works, these blog-books, how bad must they be!
In a recent essay Nicholas Dames identified a “theory generation” of mostly American authors including Teju Cole, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. In it he describes the mixed victory of “Theory” — “right all along, but in all the wrong ways” — in that all its crudest and most brutal lessons were borne out, but it left its adherents politically paralyzed. For Iyer we might propose an alternative family tree, of fiction-as-thought, authors who attempt to think through their fiction, who use their lives as fiction in service of some larger idea (Chris Kraus also springs to mind here). As philosophy professors, Lars and W. understand their position structurally, that is to say, they understand their role as actors within a larger agglomeration of social and political forces. At this self-knowledge they despair, which is a rich source of humor across the three books, not least because of the sting of truth.
But in Exodus the characters begin to edge towards some kind of redemption, with W. and Lars leading the postgraduates’ escape, out of the academies and into the desert of neoliberal Britain. They feel hope, but not for themselves — they were right about the End Times, but wrong about what was coming next. The book fills in a bit of backstory: Lars’s youth spent biblical backpacking, squatting, living with monks, and W.’s coming of age in a group of prodigious philosophy postgrads, “the Essex generation.” Another real life decline is also implied here: from the “great generation” of Blanchot and friends, to their friends and associates visiting Essex, to “the Essex generation” (academics, art-world philosophers, writers of study guides), to Iyer, to the young, doomed postgrads. Yet what if, contra Iyer’s general thesis of decline, the kids are moving in a different direction? Rather than vague communism and messianic pathos, the doomed generation might look elsewhere, to the book’s insights on friendship, specific politics, solidarity, collaboration and nonheroism, as well as perhaps just how bad things really are.
So if Exodus is a departure from the other books, and less ironized than the other books (it is still very funny, maybe funnier) it is in order to make this point. Importantly, and fittingly, the climactic intervention is also a banal one — their escape is ignored, the police never come, and still they carry on regardless. Politics is always more boring than it is heroic, and it is the banal act that saves the pair from their grand ambitions, as well the despair of never fulfilling them. Their power lies at the level of the ordinary, the everyday, as W. points out in another moment of lucidity: “All really profound conversations are about ordinary things.”
At 6:02 a.m., towards the end of Exodus, having stayed up all night at the Essex occupation, drunk but still articulate, W. tells his friend: “To think is to stray. To think is to err greatly: who was it said that? […] Well, there’s erring and erring. There’s straying and straying.” And this half-joke seems to be the crux of the whole thing, the point where divinity meets idiocy, thinking/erring meets erring, until it is impossible to tell them apart. Like Lars, Iyer’s trilogy is as stupid as it is sublime. A successful book series “about nothing” ought to end as it began, unremarkably. Then again, there are books about nothing and there are books about nothing.