Today’s Version Of The Personal Essay Is A Dark Form


SINCE THE 1920s, the majority of US college applications have required, along with test scores and transcripts, a written personal statement demonstrating “character.” That such a subjective quality should be decisive in admissions is an odd, distinctly (though perhaps not uniquely) American practice that, at its genesis, was motivated by antisemitism and racism. As Jerome Karabel writes in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (2005), requiring applicants to demonstrate their “character” afforded a means by which admissions officers could discern racial and ethnic identity, shoring up the predominantly white, Christian, elite university demographic.

As it turns out, the requirement also advanced a different sociopolitical project—one that positions personal voice as key to resources, cultural capital, and even citizenship. In other words, the written requirement not only assumed “character” was knowable through a literary persona or pithy anecdote (something Merve Emre calls the “transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical” in her piece on the personal essay); it also prefigured the ballooning significance of “authentic” expression we see today.

Of course, the college admissions essay hardly expresses the whole truth of a candidate. An abundance of resources—some cost-prohibitive, others free—are available for students to help them hone their confessional acumen and “first-personalism,” to borrow Anna Kornbluh’s term from her new book Immediacy: Or, the Style of Too Late Capitalism. Private tutors who edit students’ essays come to mind, but so do the creative nonfiction courses offered by academic summer programs. In a different domain, YouTube influencers such as “The College Essay Guy” broadcast free writing exercises to a mass audience (upgrade for a premium option!). The admissions essay is thus a foundational cultural force steering media, pedagogy, and industry towards the cultivation of a student’s “authentic” voice.

Higher education is far from the only institution that rewards familiarity with the personal essay genre. Asylum applicants are often asked to construct trauma narratives demonstrating hardship and thus “worthiness” while, in recent years, the legal system has encouraged some impacted by crime to craft “victim impact statements.” The payoff that comes with being able to speak skillfully, persuasively, and artfully about your life—or make it seem as if you can—is potentially tremendous.

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Though the admissions essay is not a form literary critic Kornbluh explores in Immediacy, it could well have been, as the navel-gazey quality of the requirement aligns with literary forms of interest to her, such as memoir, autotheory, and first-person narration. These forms are topping bestseller lists (and syllabi), and Kornbluh stomps on them. Part of her attack—everything, actually—has to do with how she historicizes the dominance of these forms, which she situates within the institutional and sociological forces governing higher education but, more broadly, within capitalism itself.

For Marxist literary critics such as Kornbluh, there’s a trajectory to capitalism, and any given aesthetic form is a reflection of its historical position. Fredric Jameson regarded the self-referentiality of postmodernism—i.e., the notion that texts refer only to themselves rather than to the world—as a sign that late capitalism has eviscerated our capacity to sense our place in history. Kornbluh theorizes an even more advanced stage of late capitalism—“too late capitalism”—christening its corresponding aesthetic “immediacy style.” Abandoning metafictionality and self-consciousness, immediacy style embraces an immersive, overwhelming presence (selfie portraits, first-person narration, documentary aesthetics) that recklessly renounces art’s defining quality: mediation.

Kornbluh’s book is daunting and impressive, though mercifully readable. Liker her earlier The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (2019), Immediacy engages with a dizzying array of subdisciplines: Marxist aesthetics, media studies, psychoanalysis (primarily of the Lacanian variety), and the “method wars” within contemporary literary studies. It is not a coincidence that “mediation” operates as a key term across these subdisciplines. Indeed, Kornbluh’s unifying concept has a complicated, dense history, and it’s worth noting that what for her is a necessary force for collective political liberation has often been regarded as an inevitable, alienating aspect of subject-formation. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, for example, mediation conveys the way repressed realities (the “Real”) are articulated through fantasy (the “Imaginary”) or through language and culture (the “Symbolic”). Meanwhile, in the tradition of Marxist aesthetics, meditation offers Jameson a way to describe how histories (of class domination and class struggle) are imprinted upon cultural texts, and how historical truth becomes bound up in (or obscured by) narrative. These are, for the most part, descriptive theories of mediation—as Kornbluh writes: “[P]sychoanalysis enacts an unprecedented science of mediation.” And for the most part, these theoretical paradigms work to untangle mediation’s obscuring effects. Kornbluh’s work, however, is explicitly prescriptive—she calls both for more attention to mediation within contemporary theory (à la Hegel) and for more mediation within contemporary fiction, slightly different asks that are at times insufficiently distinguished.

But how, exactly, could we arrive at a moment when mediation, a concept so central to art and theory, comes under threat? Our current moment, Kornbluh argues, is distinguished by the fact that we have passed the point of no return. Too late capitalism is characterized by the reality that we can no longer reverse many of capitalism’s most pernicious effects, particularly its irreparable environmental impact and unequally distributed ecocidal effects. The term also references capitalism’s slow, drawn-out end, which Marx argued would eventually come. Indeed, too late capitalism should also be understood as the stage during which the “rate of profit” begins to fall irreversibly, such that the capitalist system becomes unsustainable. Kornbluh draws on Marx’s (hotly contested) “tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” along with the work of other critics, to suggest that we have entered into the “secular stagnation” Marx anticipated. And as production stagnates, circulation surges.

For Kornbluh, recent changes in tech and industry crystallize this circulation-forward moment (and distinguish it, say, from the neoliberal turn of the 1970s). Tweeting a take, ordering an Uber, and pumping oil cross-country all exemplify circulation’s lightning speed, no longer mediated by time or space. Transactions happen in a split-second and workers are “on” 24-7, while manufacturers rely on “point-of-sale data” to produce new goods before we realize we want them. Images, from selfies to emojis to pop-up ads, move fastest of all (more on this shortly). In nearly all these instances, computer code is vital, as it facilitates this instantaneity while hiding itself, enabling the compression of “information, behaviors and words” into data. As a consequence, the medium—the “middleman” typically facilitating these communications and interactions—fades away.

Because other leftist economists such as David Harvey have adamantly contested Marx’s predictions about the rate of profit, Kornbluh’s rationale for and characterization of our current crisis raises some questions. In short, it is by no means certain that the rate of profit is declining, nor do theorists believe that a decline necessarily signals the end of capitalism; the crisis might in fact be cyclical. And how might we establish empirically that we are in a circulation-forward moment? Is production definitely falling?

At the same time, we don’t really need to agree on the precise economics of the crisis to recognize the distinct power of circulation in this moment and appreciate the implications of Kornbluh’s argument. At the broadest level, Kornbluh historicizes and denaturalizes what she calls immediacy style—something media theorists often regard as inevitable. As she persuasively demonstrates in a hefty footnote, thinkers from Longinus to Henri Bergson have understood the “waning of medium” as media’s destiny; Longinus, for example, writes that “[a]rt is only perfect when it looks like nature.” Yet Kornbluh argues that these are the effects of capitalism, rather than of media, reaching its telos.

By framing circulation’s dominance as capitalistic consolidation, Kornbluh is also able to link our contemporary mental health epidemic with structural conditions. That there are structural causes for psychological maladies is a long-standing consensus among a range of thinkers. “Public Feelings” scholars, for example, ask, “How does capitalism feel?” And literary theorist Lauren Berlant famously described a dominant paradoxical fantasy—“cruel optimism”—in which a subject’s “attachments” are an “obstacle to [her] flourishing” even as they also make life “bearable” for her.

But while Berlant emphasizes how our attachments fuel and are fueled by imagined feelings of collectivity (national, social, etc.), Kornbluh explores how our attachments have been so deformed by contemporary media culture that we no longer cling to anything outside ourselves. Instead, we worship the image and, in particular, our own image. The result is self-absorption and isolation. We have an unquenchable thirst for self-affirmation, an obsession with what Lacan calls the “ego ideal”—i.e., a false, profoundly aspirational view of self; in short, narcissism. We’ve heard aspects of this story before, but Kornbluh posits a direct correlation between present-day image proliferation and the ballooning “imaginary.” She thus not only invites us to think of narcissism as produced by the “hyper-functioning of visuality” under too late capitalism (self-image curation, brand management, etc.) but also, via psychoanalytic logic, suggests that the outsized Imaginary has eroded the Symbolic (i.e., language, culture, and the social).

Scholars Kornbluh cites, such as Slavoj Žižek and Byung-Chul Han, contend that the Symbolic is in decline, and, of course, a host of critics, from Harvey to Wendy Brown, have lamented (in non-psychoanalytic terms) neoliberalism’s attack on the public sphere. Kornbluh’s argument, though, foregrounds contemporary image modes as the key force here (one among many, to be sure), infusing them with psychoanalytic significance. “Trapped in the reflective one-to-one chamber,” she writes, “images eclipse signifiers, presence forecloses absence, and plenitude averts lack.” Though not necessarily intended this way, Kornbluh’s anti-image campaign feels almost like an attack on the internet itself. As such, it perhaps overlooks the solidarities marginalized communities find online (an argument Brandon Taylor makes in his critique of the “internet novel”). Still, it is hard to argue with the empirical evidence Kornbluh lays out. Our visual cortices are simply not prepared for the quality and quantity of stimuli we are consuming today. There is an impasse here that Kornbluh’s approach can’t quite address (and is, frankly, endemic to psychoanalysis): what to do when lived experience is so at odds with psychoanalytic and empirical analyses?

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In “Writing,” the longest chapter of the book, Kornbluh exposes the anti-mediation bias at the heart of contemporary literary production. Dominant genres such as autofiction, the personal essay, and memoir are prime targets, but so are more subtle trends such as the rise of first-person narration and a “swelling of the abject.” These seemingly divergent aspects of the literary world are all related to too late capitalism’s obliteration of the public sphere, which entrenches a “broader culture of privatization and personalization,” Kornbluh argues. The popularity of the personal essay is a consequence of the downsizing of journalism and the rise of the freelance economy. If there is no advance to fund investigative reporting, “me” becomes the only financially accessible subject. First-personalism more broadly should be understood with reference to the devastating mental health crisis that has tasked literature departments, desperate to stay relevant, with an implicitly (and at times explicitly) therapeutic mandate—aiding students’ self-actualization and developing their voices at the expense of teaching “forms, concepts, and canons.”

Kornbluh’s commentary on first-person narration is particularly interesting given the style’s explosion in recent years (which she convincingly demonstrates through computational analysis) and the relative dearth of criticism theorizing it. While early novels such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) occasionally used first-person narration, the majority of novels in the latter 18th and 19th centuries—what scholars often consider the “golden age of the English novel”—are third-person narratives. Unlike first person, third person is a style that “stretches away from phenomenal subjectivity, toward speculative objectivity,” operating as “a mode of thought unavailable to us in everyday lived experience.” Hence third person proves “definitional for the novel form,” Kornbluh writes, and certainly a significant amount of canonical criticism of the novel centers this narrative style (e.g., Ann Banfield’s 1982 book Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction or D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style from 2003).

While Kornbluh’s admiration for third person is not atypical, her antagonism towards contemporary first-person narration is unique among critics. She denounces this popular mode as an “overarching mutation” in the history of the novel, arguing that its effacement of “literary objectivity” operates as a “gesture of privatization” endemic to too late capitalism.

Self-consciously going after critics’ darlings such as Rachel Cusk, Tao Lin, Sheila Heti, and Ocean Vuong, Kornbluh argues that these authors of autofiction have disconcertingly turned away from fictionality (and thus mediation) as they insist that their characters are real people and proceed to catalog their every bowel movement. “Fiction, narrative, impersonality, and collectivity withdraw” in these texts, Kornbluh asserts, while “reality, voice, personality, and atomism ascend.” Thus, for Kornbluh, autofiction is not a radical life-writing through which minoritarian groups render the personal political; rather, it models a therapeutic project for reader and writer (a position advanced by critics of therapeutic culture such as Sara Brouillette). Overall, this loss of fictionality has devastating consequences, diluting “literature’s potential to immanently criticize the known world.”

It is here, I think, that Kornbluh’s logic wobbles. Is all contemporary first-person narration, autofiction included, really as unmediated as she suggests? Narrative theory, particularly Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (1978) and the array of scholarship that builds on this pathbreaking monograph, invites us to consider the incongruities between a first-person narrator’s “narrating self” and her “experiencing self.” Cohn argues that any given narrating self provides varying degrees of access to an experiencing self, and that critical work must be done to examine the relationship between the two. This is not just a question of an “unreliable” narrator but rather of different types of mediation, such as a narrating self who relays her experiencing self via “psychological vocabulary” (Cohn’s example feels more relevant today than ever). Consider Tao Lin’s Taipei (2013)—one of the autofiction novels that dissatisfies Kornbluh—which is famous for its portrait of drug-induced consciousness. Often the narrating self, Paul, defaults to the adverb “vaguely” to describe something he (his experiencing self) is feeling—e.g., “Paul felt vaguely, uncertainly amused.” What is Paul feeling? What does he want? Who is he, really? These are questions that Taipei leaves unanswered, suggesting that not all autofictional portraits are as transparent as Kornbluh maintains.

Near the end of Immediacy, Kornbluh identifies three exemplary authors who resist first-personalism and model the genre fidelity and world-building that the novel does best—Diana Evans, Brandon Taylor, and Colson Whitehead. But what would happen if we looked to texts that interrogate first-personalism from the inside? Novels such as Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend (2018), Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (2019), and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021) are all first-person fictions problematizing first-personalism and, more broadly, confessional culture. Relatedly, critic Sunny Xiang explores another important strain of the contemporary anti-confessional tradition, examining, in her book Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability During the Long Cold War (2020), what she calls “self-representing Asian subjects,” including various first-person narrators such as Kathy H. in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). Xiang’s argument is, at least in part, that this “Asian inscrutability” interrogates the Orientalist lens mobilized to examine these objects of study. Might it not also be the case that it is via first-person narration that contemporary fiction puts pressure on the style and the demand for—or presumption of—immediacy and transparency?

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If contemporary fiction’s capacity for objectivity and thus critique is threatened by first-personalism, these failures are consolidated, Kornbluh argues, by a broader celebration of “formlessness” that manifests as genre-blurring and “medium swirl.” “Formlessness” is not a new preoccupation for Kornbluh, whose 2019 book outlines a “political formalism” and demonstrates how form is both spontaneous and essential to human social life. Kornbluh argues that vital “social forms” are modeled and interrogated in canonical Victorian novels, as well as in Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Kornbluh’s insistence on form runs against dominant trends in theory that situate “law, language, and interdependence” as overwhelmingly constraining. Immediacy is another attempt to persuade us that form can liberate. Though contemporary formlessness is touted as “aesthetically and politically radical” (consider the many reviews that praise a work’s “genre-defying” quality), Kornbluh argues that genre-blurring and medium swirl do not enhance fictionality but rather curtail it. Overwhelmingly popular modes such as prose poetry, autotheory, screen dramedies, and adult cartoons have imploded genre and, with it, perspective and reflection. “If genre manages expectations,” Kornbluh reasons, “immediacy as the dissolution of genre leaves us without expectations,” generating an “engrossing disorienting flow.” Now this is all we have, and thus no politics.

A different perspective, however, might focus not on the inadequacy of these formless forms but rather on the inadequacy of our critical vocabulary to describe their workings. Throughout Immediacy, Kornbluh makes demands that the readership of her book cannot really fulfill. My job, at least as I understand it, is to analyze contemporary literary production, not direct its content. And in that sense, I cannot avoid autofiction or dramedies; in fact, I need more tools for describing what’s happening in these contemporary bestsellers and more models for close reading these texts (Michael Dango’s “Meme Formalism” and Mitch Therieau’s anatomy of personal criticism are useful for this, as are the close readings of TikTok videos offered by various critics). Kornbluh’s work could do with a bit more of this taxonomizing for, as she writes, immediacy style merely “imagines itself unstyled,” and formalism helps expose this veneer.

When Kornbluh does offer us terms, though, they are brilliant, and “Video,” her penultimate chapter, shines in this regard. Video is a foundational object of analysis for Kornbluh, as it “famously courts medium dissolve” and has, since the advent of streaming services, consolidated its status as circulation champion par excellence. Indeed, circulation, always an aspect of video given the medium’s “essence as instant relay,” defines the streaming era: watch anything, anywhere, anytime. Streaming is thus inherently about immediacy. Meanwhile, the explosion of content facilitates binge-watching and highly customizable experiences. Streaming also erodes distinctions among media: the stream is how we consume everything (shows, games, documentaries, and movies), thereby generating a “new homogeneity.”

Just as the conditions of production and consumption leave an imprint on literary style, so too does the streaming era generate “looping” and “surging,” as well as “immanentization” and “genre fluidity.” Loops, for example, describe “labor-saving devices for animators,” “cost-saving devices for production,” and “commands for repeating lines of code.” In an era of constant content­—emphasized by the 2023 writers strike against inadequate compensation for creators—“looping” describes the ubiquitous recycling of TV plots, character networks, worlds, and brands. “Prequel, quel, sequel, quel surprise,” Kornbluh quips. Fascinatingly, she demonstrates that looping also happens within contemporary shows and films remarkably often, when the same scenario repeats again and again (think films like 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or the 2019 Netflix series Russian Doll). This “homogenous and low risk” content doesn’t seem to bother viewers, though, who embrace “ambient TV” and flock to Disney sequels.

Nor does immediacy style seem to bother critics, which is perhaps Kornbluh’s most pointed complaint: those who are meant to expose contemporary anti-fictionality and its larger historico-materialist foundation are instead some of its biggest proponents. Contemporary theory—much of which Kornbluh disparagingly calls “antitheory”—is allergic to distinctions, abstraction, impersonality, and concept formation. These aversions can be located most explicitly in autotheory, with its “gushing form and unargumentative beat.” Autotheory proves nearly impossible to argue against (something that has dissuaded me from teaching these texts more often than I’d like to admit) and, in that sense, often fashions itself as data, as taxonomy, and as voice. More worrying, however, are the political problems associated with this sort of writing: how can one organize, build coalitions, or imagine a “we” when “I” is the only possible unit of thought? At its most extreme, this “individuation of epistemology” has disturbing resonances with the “anti-expert populism” energizing the American Right today.

Kornbluh is at pains to distinguish contemporary autotheory from its predecessors. She contends that these older iterations centered “invention” rather than “documentation,” blurring fact and fiction. Though perhaps more could be done to elaborate these formal distinctions (some of that happens in a 2021 essay on feminist abstraction Kornbluh published in the journal Diacritics), the book explains this in terms of the profession’s acutely deteriorating materialist conditions: there are no jobs, and the freedom of those with jobs is quickly diminishing. Scholars today circle around autotheory, Kornbluh argues, as they are pressured to generate “public humanities” content and writing with “crossover appeal”—meaning that, while autotheory may seem like a radical choice, it should actually be understood as a disturbing sign of higher education’s financial crisis.

These pressures also infect theory beyond the “auto” variety. Tracking a fascinating contradiction, Kornbluh points out how the critical investment in description (e.g., charting “attachments and entanglements” à la Rita Felski) attempts to reduce literature to “empiricist knowledge.” At the same time, an equally renewed critical investment in a “dissolutionist nihilism” shuns methods approaching empiricism. Here Kornbluh engages Kathryn Yusoff, who explicitly condemns “description of the world,” suggesting that it resembles “property” and “captivity.” In both of these cases, theory malfunctions: in the latter, theory refuses the analytic tools that come with critical distance; in the former, it refuses critical distance altogether.

Ultimately, Kornbluh’s theory chapter is an homage to a declining form that is inseparable from a call for radical politics. For Kornbluh, theory is fundamentally about mediation:

Theory effects distance, abstraction, movement away. […] Theory takes us out of a situation. […] Theory cultivates and cooks, constituting new nourishment for flourishing. Taking distance and cutting distinctions, lineating formations and daring construction, theory risks something other than absorption or blur.

That these qualities belong equally to effective political organizing is a refrain throughout the chapter and undoubtedly the point Kornbluh advances with the greatest urgency, exposing the wide-ranging implications of her elegy.

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There is enormous cultural and institutional pressure propelling first-personalism and immediacy style more broadly. Many speculate that the college admissions essay will become even more decisive in light of the 2023 Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. The court’s decision to render affirmative action unconstitutional has generated more fervor—and even more instruction—surrounding the essay (once again, distributed unequally), as counselors advise how and whether to disclose racial identity, which can no longer happen via a box-check. First-personalism is thus often experienced first and foremost as a demand, unequally burdening historically marginalized groups.

What Kornbluh offers in Immediacy is not separate from this analysis but contributes a much broader historico-materialist contextualization of immediacy style, one that feels more abstract, perhaps, but also illuminating, profound, and relevant. The book’s prescriptive quality is at times overwhelming, distinguishing it from something like Sianne Ngai’s arguments regarding contemporary “aesthetic categories,” and aligning it with “method wars” work (e.g., Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network from 2015 and Elizabeth S. Anker’s On Paradox: The Claims of Theory from 2022). It distinguishes itself from this latter category, however, by Kornbluh’s expansive theoretical paradigms and objects of study, as well as by her commitment to value judgments regarding contemporary stylistic choices.

At its most powerful, what this prescriptive quality does is precisely to forge the “we” that Kornbluh values (“a mediated subject of collectivity that urges flourishing”), one essential to the hopeful current that pervades Immediacy. We are, on the one hand, far too late; on the other, we must act/read/write/theorize/direct/teach—and right now, comrade.



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