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Hymn to the Ikea Factory. On the Capitalist Realism of Karl Ove Knausgaard.

“I know you are, but what am I?”

— Anonymous (Of uncertain origin, but dating back at least to the 1970s, as reported in Lee Thayer, Communication (1974). Often attributed to Pee-Wee Herman.)

 

 

This is not a review. This is a kind of belch.

Normally when reviewing a book the first requirement is to have read the book. In this case we have dispensed with that requirement because we are not reviewing a book, My Struggle by, Knausgaard, but are reviewing what is obviously the unspoken truth of the book’s success and it’s reason for existing.

The book is the triumph of Socialist Realism in the Capitalist West. That is, Capitalism which absorbs everything, has absorbed Socialist Realism.

Capitalism, as is so well known as to be banal, absorbs everything. It is, in a sense the Borg from Star Trek. It assimilates and makes use of anything and everything, but in doing so strips it of its identity. This is however not quite a complete analogy. If the writers and producers of Star Trek the Next Generation had been truly creative, thus courageous, the Borg would have assimilated and eliminated individual identity, but would have kept the imitation of the individual. A hand puppet, with everything except the fingerprint of the soul of the individual, but retaining everything that on the surface makes the individual, would be far more terrifying than simply a powerful brute devoid of feelings. And while the Borg offer a scare, the truth is that Capitalism is far more sinister.

As is Knausgaard.

The books, totaling six volumes, and several thousand pages, have been turned into a fetish and a kind of cult. Autobiographical but not; fiction but not, diary but not, novel but not.

Publishing, which sells the idea that it retains its autonomy (within the vast entertainment empires that have colonized it) and remains essentially a small batch, artisanal concern, where reputations occur organically, and talent rises, (but in truth is better understood as a dead fish, belly up, atop an algae bloom) markets Knausgaard as a phenomenon precisely because he is, they claim, unique.

In literary terms he is hardly unique (a kind of up-market Flaubert but devoid of the angst or the passion, however stunted) but what goes missing is that as a tool of the marketing machine, he is not unique at all, but is a kind of bespoke Socialist Realism typical of the leaden, dead hand of Soviet state sanctioned writing, where the individual does not exist and only forces, objective and certain, exist, and one is either inside the system or a symptom of some sort of illness. The chief psychological characteristic of this fascist art , is that the world is defined by being – that is devoid of any of the alternative systems we use to define the experience of the uncertain (and uncertainty itself is one of these systems). We mean here, the mystical, the religious, the psychological with its contradictions and its darker recesses; its synchronicities, its chances, its idea that perhaps time flows in different directions than only those defined by the dialectical certainty. Being, by Knausgaard and Marketing, is then defined as a hermetically sealed condition devoid of chance, or anything remotely like, freedom.

For example, in contrast, Milan Kundera’s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an insult to the Soviet totality, takes as one of its central gestures, Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return; that all of life, down to the smallest most poignant and absurd detail, will repeat endlessly. This is a terrifying idea, and when by Kundera, attached to love and Eros, within a hermetically sealed totalitarian system, it becomes Kafkaesque but Kafka as a jazz riff – Kind of Blue on endless repeat.
In Knausgaard we have the exact opposite – a synthesis; a dull inventory of details  designed ultimately to strangle the idea of the Novel and the novelist, as well as the reader, into submission. But, of course, crucially Marketing cancels out all criticism and proclaims Knausgaard as original.

Here is Sartre, 50 years ago, describing Flaubert:

“His sentences…close in on the object, seizes it, immobilizes it, and breaks its back, wraps itself around it, changes into stone and petrifies its object along with itself. It is blind and deaf, bloodless, not a breath of life; a deep silence separates it from the sentence which follows; it falls into the void, eternally, and drags its prey down into that infinite fall. Any reality, once described, is struck off the inventory”

Here is Frederic Jameson on Knausgaard:

“What about the rest of it? Can you tell the truth by listing what you buy in the store? (Would it be lying if you left something out?)

“I … turned to the shelves of fresh-baked bread. They had seven rolls for ten kronor, so I took one of the paper bags meant for loaves and put the rolls inside, scrunched the top end together and dropped it in the basket, then moved on to the milk and dairy, grabbing a packet of coffee and a one-and-a-half litre of Pepsi Max on the way.”

Now it would be dishonest to leave this passage without saying that it includes history, that it is preceded by the memory that there were once at least five or six kinds of bread with their own names, and followed with a memory of the supermarket of his childhood and what that was like, before it returns to the present day as he picks up a carton of milk etc.”

Jameson adds that this inventory style had already reached a high-water mark in the 19th century with Zola and that the Germans had a word for the style(Sekundenstil)  demonstrating that it had become a thing – incorporated into understanding, part of the Gestalt and thus, not (or no longer) innovative. Jameson adds, tellingly, that Joyce’s Bloom, would have been “embarrassed to have navigated a store like this in so literal and impoverished a state of mind.”

But, fear not! The marketing trolls unencumbered by the facts, or history, have declared Knausgaard, an original; fresh, like a new set of furniture. And the customers (distinct from, readers) have lined up to purchase the product.

Scandinavia has long been an outlier in the West, as it combines a deep seated socialism with consumption culture. After all, alongside the omni-present “nanny state” one finds, Volvos, and Saabs, sleek stereo systems, and elegant furniture and odd ball eccentric genius film makers – and all combine to form a strange uncle residing in the attic of the more banal Western Capitalist dictatorships.

Among the more recent and forceful of these social gestures is Ikea. As McDonalds is to food, Ikea is to aesthetics. Take European Modernism, with its sleek, playfully self-aware seriousness, that combines the terminal authority to project an idea (a gesture that is an idea of how life should be – a functional but elegant condition, versus the dead on arrival functional but boring Soviet anti-style or its Western mirror, Brutal Realism derived from the neo-fascism of Bauhaus) and the sense of being fun and add mass production at a relatively low rate, and you have, “Ikea.”

“Ikea” is the idea of the actual company, Ikea. “Ikea” is the idea that you are purchasing something so similar to the genuine article that the differences are negligible. You cannot afford genuine Modern furniture, where an Eames chair might set you back $20,000. But you can afford something that looks very similar to an Eames chair for $200. “Ikea” is the purchasing of an imitation aesthetic. It is the simulacrum of Modernity but in truth it is the seed of endless adverts on Craigslist, as impoverished perpetually anxious paycheck to paycheck worker bees, move from one generic apartment to the next.

Knausgaard is an inexpensive Eames chair mass produced to give the impression that you’re reading a ground breaking, and thus inventive, creative, work of art but (and this crucial) it is also encoded as being utterly without the moral requirements of a work of art. It is an anti-novel, a Borg drone that has assimilated “Art” (subcategory, the “Novel”) and offers the end phase hostages of Capitalism  (suffering through a mass case of Stockholm Syndrome) the “experience” of a “Novel.” But at the same time, precisely because it is stripped (strip-mined) of the aesthetic conventions of art (i.e., the provocation of experience that produces introspection which is a feeling, which is emotion, which is summed up by Conrad’s dictum that the purpose of the novel is to force you to ask questions that you had forgotten to ask of yourself) it requires of its buyers only, obedience and fealty to the cult – first of “Knausgaard,” secondly and more importantly, to the apathy of being a hostage of end phase Capitalism. It is, in the end, essentially a passive aggressive temper tantrum that ends with the imitation irony and the (non) writer, declaring that he was happy to at last be free of being a writer. Now give me a big fat royalty check!

Precisely because the book is stripped of artifice, the experience of the book is stripped of the authenticity of emotion which is of course a direct threat to the collective. To read a genuine novel is to be captured, seduced, provoked by that which is both not real (it is, fiction) but is, paradoxically authentic because through its mysterious alchemy, the fake thing is itself genuine. The Novel, the story, is the experience of the inauthentically authentic. The fiction produces the authentic experience which is itself, through its paradoxical nature yet another provocation. How, one asks, can this fakery, make me laugh, or cry, or stay up all night and fall into a reverie or produce anxiety. To read Knausgaard, in contrast is not only to be taken hostage but it is to volunteer to be taken hostage, which of course is the SOP of consumption culture in end phase Capitalism.

Knausgaard, like a proper State Socialist baby bottle, gives the opposite. It is authentically banal because that is what the system is selling – the anti-heroin, the SOMA of Huxley’s Brave New World with the inverted truth that the absence of provocation is it’s chief provocation.

Knausgaard is here to be a cheerleader of the great Capitalist bladder that absorbs everything and defecates nothing – the anti-novel the strips away everything that previously made the novel interesting and thus dangerous is here replaced with a perfectly calibrated yawn. But, crucially, that yawn is then sold as part of the entire point. Knausgaard is arrived to ring your door bell and in the manner of the artist transformed into an (un)emotional GPS, give you directions to nowhere of any importance because, everywhere is the same – with interior design by Ikea.

Obviously Capitalism is in a death spiral. It is such a clear cut situation that it teeters on the banal to say it, and what prevents it from being banal, is the slaughter house reality of the environment collapsing.

The migrant exodus from the Southern hemisphere, after centuries of colonization, exploitation, abuse by both imperial powers and indigenous tyrants, is in conjunction with the destruction of the environment the manifestation of every apocalyptic fantasy of the last fifty years. All of those zombie films, those plague outbreak films, the cheep paperbacks on which they are based, the alien invasion end of the world films, are all now arriving in blunt force reality.

But here’s Knausgaard, who, “ha ha” isn’t it cheeky, titles his work after Hitler’s turgid if terrifying manifesto because, after all, everything is a product and everything is a marketing trope. But says Knausgaard’s readers, you have to understand how he’s so brilliantly deconstructed the idea of the “Hitler mythos” and turns it on its head and…

Damien Hirst encased dead animals in formaldehyde and said: work of art, and the decadent and depraved art world, self sustaining within the autonomous bubble conferred by wealth that was created by exploitation, and enforced through the state terror system of end phase Capitalism, and which controls the marketing that is disguised as independent art criticism, defines itself and says, this is art that explodes and deconstructs…fill in the blank.

Both bolted to the facts and yet elastic and amputated from any honesty, it becomes whatever is wants to be – it sells itself as fetish, a provocation, as freedom to choose, as product as product imitating the sale of a product and laughs all the way to the bank, which is a casino, teetering on the brink of collapse. In other words, a Weimar whorehouse but without the charm.

Since it is nothing more or less than a tumor growing on and within the Capitalism system it can declare itself anything it wants. Since it is a controlled world, devoid of anything but sleek Borg Drones, it can produce slick magazines and online articles that take the party line and serve the system.

Hymns to the furniture factory.

Knausgaard.

 

 

For a look at Jameson’s “review” or if you prefer, inventory, and itemization of Knausgaard, see the following:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/

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