Archive | September, 2012

What I talk about when I talk about what Murakami talks about in “What I talk about when I talk about running”

14 Sep

If you’ve read the previous two posts you’ll see pretty clearly that I’ve forced myself into a logical corner.  I might want to carry on with my initial focus on the manifold faults and myths of ‘the market’, but I’ve reached the point where some engagement between lived experience and the theoretical explanation (and therefore modification) of it is inevitable.

Or, as my friend Shady would put it, “shit just got real”.

This is where Murakami comes in.  What I talk about when I talk about running is predicated on a lie.  The lie is either that he’s going to spend the book talking about running (as you might expect if you were reading the title too literally), or that he’s going to talk about writing, love, alcoholism or lung cancer (as you might expect if you’d noticed the resemblance  to Raymond Carver’s book What we talk about when we talk about love, and knew something about Raymond Carver.  If you didn’t, don’t feel alone.  You’re not alone).

Or, possibly, that he’s talking.  He’s obviously not, however hard he works at putting the words together so that we have the illusion of listening directly to his voice.  He does this so well that one blogger is driven to addressing precisely the ‘voice’ of the book in order to explain its appeal:

But, just ’cos there’s a reference, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

It isn’t.

The hesitations and distractions and obstacles to clear  communication that characterise everyday speech are missing, and we are left with a clarity like mountain air.  He is open about this trick, writing about a speech he’s going to give at Harvard, the partly non-verbal way that he intends to connect with the audience, and the simplicity of words he will work with because he is working in a second language.  Obviously, speech is different.  The perfection of writing as opposed to speech is fascinating in itself – and has been instrumental in helping more than one minority language to survive past its destiny.  But it’s not what I want to talk about, write about, here.  At least, not now.

Because I think the most useful generalisable lesson that can be drawn from What I talk about when I talk about running is about the centrality of conscious discipline, and its co-constitutive relationship with social awareness in cultural production.    Let’s boil that bit after the last comma down a little –  discipline is made out of an understanding of how the social world helps and hinders being disciplined, whilst stuff in the social world is made by people creating stuff out of organisation and discipline.

Note I don’t say indiscipline.  Murakami and I are pretty much at one on this one.  There may be talented individuals who are simply geniuses and do not need discipline.  But more often – I believe this is my thought rather than Murakami’s, even if it is implicit in his riffing on the theme of his lack of ‘natural talent’ for writing – these are individuals who have created a myth of spontaneity and inspiration around themselves and the things they make.  Or nearly make.  Or would make if they just got round to it.  Or made during the time that they were working on both their technique and the myths that they needed to build in order to make their technique invisible.

Murakami lays out an obsession with routine and preparedness that is quite the opposite of the one-time picture of the writer as an habitue of cafés and taverns, throwing down thousands of words in fits of manic inspiration squeezed between lifetimes of lassitude and indulgence.  (We should have known the older picture was a filthy lie.   Kerouac, after all, died on his mother’s porch, and at his height was observed to be the fastest and most practised typist anyone around him had ever seen, with a daily word quota that he refused ever to fall short of.  This is why, you’d presume, he became readable after his dire early work.  ‘Dean Moriarty’, on the other hand, wrote nothing anyone remembered, despite – because of – embodying that wild-eyed spirit that the Beats sometimes wanted you to think embodied their spirit).   Our Haruki, on the other hand, is open about having lost friends simply because there is not the time in life to meet every invitation.  Especially those invitations that disturb the sleep, dietary requirements and sheer repetition that is required to sustain a life based around running and writing.

Or writing and running.

The two activities are inseparable for him, although there is no accessible physical or mental nexus that he can explain to us as the connection.  I’m not about to attempt to supply one for him either.

I’m not that talented.

I will try something less ambitious, and suggest two.

Firstly, both writing and running for him are profoundly concerned with the concrete and true.  If you’ve ever been struck by the astonishing power of his authorial imagination, you were wrong. Virtually nothing in his work is imagined. The jazz club owner  who recurs throughout his work?  It’s Murakami. The writer  of adverts and technical manuals? Murakami. The unikely investigator of religious cults?  Murakami.  The twin moons of 1Q84?  A staple of science fiction, and one of the better lines to feature in the lyric writing of Michael Stipe.  The frighteningly self-disciplined female assassin?  Come on. She’s Murakami more than anyone.

It isn’t because he couldn’t imagine anything – it’s because he has an aversion to lies.  Not the intriguing little stylistic lie of the title or a nice linguistic touch that we noted already, but the lie that exposes the hypocrisy of a life.   This jumps off the  page in What I talk about when I talk about running when he expresses genuine shock that someone might be interviewed for a running magazine without doing the run that they were interviewed and photographed for.  Indeed, he couldn’t even grasp how anyone could contemplate it.   If only we were all so honest.  Although, if that was how the world operated, then every novelist would be running marathons or cycling forever or telling the taxi driver to shut up or watching dozens of televisions simultaneously so they could begin to see truth in all its infinite detail.  Instead, perhaps as a substitute for the work involved in those things, they imagine.

Second, I’d suggest, it appears that Murakami has hit upon what you might call a binary mode of life.

He has made his existence revolve around two poles and they are dependent upon the mutually reinforcing forms of discipline in running and writing, as well as in the small details of everyday life he obsesses over which provide the material for both.  For mindlessness and void, run.  For thought, write.  For both, have the right shoes (pen), the right room (route), the right research, and the right nutrition.  And let the people and places you pass as you run be the people and places you write from, without some long and conscious effort, but in whatever way it is that your brain feeds back what you have seen into the story you write of what you have seen.  The material becomes the ideational.

There’s two more (obviously, what other number was I likely to use there?)  little points to note about this binary obsessiveness in a life.  One is that it avoids the dread ‘multitasking’ illusion that it is possible to do everything.  It isn’t. As is noted here:

Not even the things that need doing are now necessarily possible.  But it does guarantee doing something, which is of far greater importance, and that thing will be what the doer chose, rather than a random item on an enormous list selected by the external structures of power.  Or, which is the same thing, selected by “the market”.

Another, almost the opposite point, is that it avoids the trap of single-mindedness.  Nobody is truly capable of sustaining a singular obsession without some time out.  If you attempt simply to hammer through your plans without some constructive pause, without achieving something else, then ominous feelings of desperation and failure already hang over them.  Remember all those times in your life when that thing you wanted didn’t work out because you were “trying too hard”?

I wouldn’t want that to happen to us.  You’re a good listener.  Reader, that is.  Come round again in a week or so.  It’ll be fun.


Before I go, though, here’s some pointers – or maybe teasers – on where we’ll be going on future visits:

  • Discipline and enlightenment in Zen, Murakami, and the work of the RZA.
  • On faith and the potential for invisibility.
  • The possibility and impossibility of Marxist music.
  • Musical gravity and the feeling of home.
  • Moral and logical problems in  Murakami’s binary ethic.
  • Ghetto logic and the meanings of Manchester.


…but, of course, there are ‘markets’.

9 Sep

I said in my last post that there was no such thing the ‘the market’ in the way that economists and politicians use the term.  And that there are markets, each with their own ways of functioning.

None of those many markets operate in the way that free market theory predicts.  This has been the cue for free market economists and moralists to secure vast state support (via academies, military force, state-sponsored ‘think-tanks’ and campaigning charities etc) for rejigging their essentially flawed ideas.  Prime developments that have resulted in the sphere of economic theory have been F.A.Hayek’s reworking of the abstract ‘free market’ to represent a morality of ‘freedom’.  His failure to condemn Chile’s brutal military coup of September 11, 1973 issued from his attachment to an idea of freedom as subsisting solely in the economic sphere, and meaning only narrowly economic ‘choice’.

Milton Friedman’s work took up the theme of ‘choice’ as a consumer good and basis of morality in everything in a way that is central to how the contemporary world now works.  We are now routinely invited to ‘choose’ between an array of essentially bad economically-driven options, with our failures to ‘choose’ the best option – for which we should read afford the best option – becoming the rationale for our failures in life.  More oddly still, the state now exists to promote ‘The Market’ and ‘choice’ in every area – except the existence of the free-market-promoting state.  Even deviations from this pattern, four years on from the collapses that demonstrated the vacuity of choice, are framed within the rhetoric of markets and of choice.

There are many markets, however, as I started out observing.  They are worth studying, both for how they actually work and for how ideas about how they actually work might be more broadly applicable.  Or even, perhaps, testable and generalisable.

The money that governments – some of which have been elected by the votes of those who have intelligently and correctly discerned that the current market-driven discourse is nonsense – could realistically be redirected away from economics departments that failed to warn of the coming banking crisis in 2008.

Deserving recipients of the money freed up might look at the actual functioning of fruit and veg markets in provincial towns in, for instance, Ireland or Senegal.  Or the real mechanisms by which private competitors for local government contracts in, for instance, Mexico and China are chosen.  Or how record buyers truly arrive in, and make decisions in, a single record shop down a side street in Manchester.  Of course, the types of expertise required and developed in the course of such study, and the theoretical understandings that might emerge from those observations, are not limited to the economic.  Expertise in farming, cooking, languages, law, architecture, urban planning & design, music and music technology, cultural studies and the sociology of subcultures would all suddenly acquire a new potency  and regard.

The new research would reconnect with the real world of lived experience, and force researchers – many of whom would have to come from backgrounds and allegiances outside the traditional privilege of the academy and of the governing classes in order to understand the minutiae of such subject areas – to learn to listen to actual people as they exist outside abstract models.




There’s no such thing as ‘the market’

2 Sep

You might gather that the title of this post and this blog is intended as a kind of riposte to Margaret Thatcher’s silly claim that there is ‘no such thing as society’.  Those of you who want to make out she was being more subtle than that clearly have a problem with divining meaning in words.  Look again.  Or, actually, just look anywhere but here.

But, actually, there really is a case that there’s actually no such thing as ‘the market’.  I can feel your hesitation – it’s a little bit like the young atheist who is scared to shout up to the sky that there is no God.  Get over it, just like you got over God.  ‘The market’ is nonexistent in the same way exactly as God.  It’s everywhere – and therefore nowhere.  It’s all-powerful – and therefore controls nothing.  It knows everything – and is therefore blind.

The market, when we look at it as a single entity, has no actual existence.  It is simply the combination of factors that impinge on the economic sphere at any given time – whether political or cultural or social or military or technical.  Indeed, even this is a little favourable to the market because there is, using words accurately, no economic sphere that is not impinged upon by separate modes of life.  The field of reality held to be that governed and constituted by the market is itself a chimera.  It is just the interplay of other modes of life.

This is not splitting hairs.  The idea of ‘investor confidence’ or shareholder confidence that underlies the fortunes of the myriad financial ‘markets’ is a political and cultural thing.  A failure to analyse those factors is key in the failure of ‘economics’ as a discipline.  ‘Political economy’ means something, although something wide and difficult and involving words and doubts.  ‘Economics’, on the other hand, is narrowing the understanding into narrow certainties and claiming that they can be mathematecized.  They can’t.

The absence of the (singular) market from reality means that governments that trust it to rule them – or even merely their ‘economic’ arrangements – are in fact handing power to institutions that aim to determine the systemic arrangements that economistic myths leave to ‘the market’.  And generally, the point at which the vacuum of the market is given a free hand, is the point at which already-dominant cultural, social and political institutions choose to shut out all other contenders for power.

And maybe that is why Thatcher did not, after denying that their was such a thing as society, move on to point out that she was serving a God that was infinitely further from human experience.

There’s some caveats to be made relating to this argument.  I’ll be dealing with some of them shortly.  The most important – the difference between the market and ‘markets’ – will be my starting point next time.