The Privilege of the Sponge

Clemens J. Setz and Metamodernism

In 2007 Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz entered the literary spotlight with a much appreciated debut novel. In four loosely connected episodes he transposed the peculiar and sometimes tragic relationship between fathers and sons into the astronomical and surrealist allegory of Sons and Planets (Söhne und Planeten, 2007, Residenz)[1]. The rhetoric span between modernist dichotomies, scientific juxtaposition and postmodern play has been Setz’s program ever since. As such it cannot be explained in mere postmodern terms but has to be viewed in a new way that in Setz’s case has to do as much with the ambition of the historic avant-gardes as with the insight into their irreversible descent into the museum of artistic movements. Setz shows that the historic development does not necessarily mean that contemporary literature is able to deal with pre-postmodernist concepts only by way of irony and the constant reference to its symbolic constitution and discursive strategies. But, on the contrary, to move beyond postmodernism we need to take a look at the basic goals and structures of literary endeavour and to relocate it in a broader context of a communicative act from which meaning can be gathered only in front of a painful but inevitable social horizon.

Lately, since the decline of l’art pour l’art and Walter Benjamin’s essays on modernism, observers of the literary scene have argued that we have reached a point at which artistic means have become accessible as such in their historic total: as a catalogue of devices aimed not only at delivering a message or making the familiar look strange, but also critically at the very constitution of art itself. From Robert Musil to David Foster Wallace, writers have made use of this in an elaborate fashion, laying out and transcending the social, mental and artistic inventory of their respective times. The literary genre of the novel, which was sentenced to death several times, remained the predominant vehicle for their general approaches.

The ambitious project of Clemens J. Setz shows that it still is. He sets out his own novelistic stance with an epigram taken from Robert Musil’s Man without Qualitites: “Anything permanent loses its power to make an impression.” The things that constitute the backdrop of our consciousness, Musil argues, are bereft of their ability to play a role on the stage of our consciousness. According to that basic guideline, Setz not only puts our quotidian reality into question, but the literary development of the last century and the recent permanence of postmodernism. Setz’s oeuvre is a poetological quest and the overt quotation of literary father figures like his famous countryman Musil is already a part of it. The young author is as aware of the hubris of that attempt, as the critique of the alleged lack of coherence and the essayistic and seminar-like character of his second and so far most important novel, The Frequencies (Die Frequenzen, 2009, btb), was harsh.

We enter the voluminous novel via the (usually blank) very first page and an entry in the fictional “Dictionary of Afterlife-Myths”. It states Setz as the author of the book at hand and, besides giving a basic inventory of the novel’s characters, it designates the novel to be “a huge declaration of love to the non-linear character of time”. Accordingly, The Frequencies bursts open the linearity of narration and scrambles its numerous episodes across 700 pages. Setz uses the alternating stories of two school friends that lost sight of each other, and the murder of a therapist in today’s Graz to re-evaluate from a post-postmodernist perspective the avant-garde’s ambition to defamiliarize the quotidian and to destroy the conventional or organic work of art: how strong do the boundaries hold between art and life today? Can you combine the spiritualism of the surrealists with the anti-metaphysical stance of the postmodern period?

While you would expect the reunion of former schoolmates Alexander and Walter to be the story’s point of culmination, and the murder to initiate a crime story along which the plot gradually unfolds, neither the two times when the two adolescents accidentally stumble into each other, nor the whodunit offer any key to the novel. Rather, coherence lurks in the side plots and conspicuously arbitrary knots by which the characters (and episodes) are tied together: the childhood of Alexander and the sudden disappearance of his father; the second marriage of the father decades later; the famous family of Walter imposing pressure through a stunningly contemporary imperative to be creative and become an artist, or if that does not work at least a journalist. Alexander begins an affair with the therapist Valerie, whereas Walter seeks help in her “Institute for Conduct of Life”, and instead of getting a treatment there, leaves to pursue a job as an actor in one of Valerie’s unconventional sessions. Here he meets Gabi who suffers from a neurosis that reveals its tragic effects by being passed on like a baton, evolving symbolically until it recurs as a metal bar with which Valerie is beaten to death.

Although all the episodes seem to happen accidentally, Setz is a meticulous mechanic at the temporal motor of narration. It is here that he skillfully loosens the screws and manipulates our perception while the novel, once its narrative fundament shakes, strives towards the limits of unity and coherence in an avant-garde-like fashion, setting in motion the relationship of its constitutive elements to the whole. At the same time the text reflects upon its precarious composition in a way that would by and large go under the name of postmodernism. The realm beyond the work of art, the truth behind its sentences and words, which for the surrealists was supposed to be unmediated life itself, remains within the narrative frame and is not simply there to be discovered by those sensitive to it – “be aware of storytellers”, one of the characters says after summarizing the story of Scheherazade. In the nonsense-apparatus of the “Rube-Goldberg-Machine”, Setz found a poetological concept that comprises both the avant-garde aesthetics of chance and subconsciousness aimed at an unmediated truth, and the postmodernist awareness of the narrative frame and discursive field. In combining both, Setz subverts the ways in which we make sense of the world, showing the major role narration and literature – be it modernist or postmodernist – play in that process.

Along the way, Setz manages to turn the concept of the novel inside out. The countless coincidences dissipate the narrative logic and point to a connection of the different elements that lies in the deep structures of the text. They take on the prominent role in the text. The hidden becomes the meaningful, while the meaning in the obvious recedes to the swampy lands of nonsense as soon it is looked at closely, or any explanation asked of it. Just as with the razor blade cutting the eye in Buñuel and Dalí’s Le Chien Andalou, in this novel we are confronted with a biting miniature horse or a painful solar eclipse. The text exposes the mechanism of literature in connecting disparate events in a reality that constitutes no meaningful whole – thereby also affirming Frederic Jameson’s axiom of history and its constitutive elements lacking any meaning prior to their textualization. Setz shows that it is us, in the process of narrating, who make sense of the events that have no obvious causal or logical connection – in the text as in our lives.

So far, so postmodern. Then what makes Setz’s young oeuvre go beyond? Many contemporary authors are masters in “surpassing each other in putting metalevel upon metalevel”, as the German critic Jörg Magenau remarked in 2011. In the end it is “nothing but a game that runs empty because it only aims at the text as a text and never at the society in which it emerged.”[2] In The Frequencies, Setz discards the endless play of self-referentiality as “a ghost writing: something that has to occur in every novel”. It has become a backdrop of our current situation that lost its ability to make an impression on the reader. At the same time, the historic example of the avant-gardes shows that we cannot simply discard postmodernism’s insights altogether. Instead, one could argue, Setz uses a metamodern strategy of oscillation between “a modern desire for sense and the postmodern doubt about the sense of it all”.[3]

In Setz’s prose, the notion of subjectivity is jeopardized in the face of a world that seems governed by chance; an overwhelming destiny that “plants its coordinates into the here and now and leaves us behind stupid, without any help”. In consequence, Setz uses his novels as an interrogation in the ways in which we still generate a coherent picture of ourselves and the ties to our environment. There is help, we could say in Setz’s terms, The Frequencies showing that we do not need to turn into helpless tragic figures like Walter, who struggle to develop an identity of their own. Rather it is a question of a consolidation of two sides. When Alexander remembers his childhood, he realizes his social side that longs for recognition, while at the same time an “earth turned away side” is further ahead and sees through the mechanisms of life. Alexander’s musings on how these two sides are joined together leads to the concept of the “as if”: “These two inconspicuous words, as if – maybe they were the keyhole through which you had to look at my life”.

While in Metamodernism the as if is turned positive as a way to accept the narrative character of history and still “progress morally as well as politically”[4], Setz shows the difference between the knowing inside (“that always was a bit cleverer than the visible side”) and the expression, i.e. behavior which is oriented towards society. In poetological terms, subjectivity in Setz’s novels is located between Brecht’s concept of “estrangement” (something Alexander had to learn in school as the text informs us) and Heinrich von Kleist’s “Marionettentheater” (“In front of whom should I have been ashamed, if my puppet theater [Marionettentheater, A.W.] was what everyone called Alexander Kerfuchs?”). While Brecht undermines cathartic effects by establishing a distance between actor and role, Kleist one hundred years earlier criticizes the self-awareness of modern man, who loses his gracefulness as soon as he recognizes himself as being watched. In other words, Setz’s concept of subjectivity is an oscillation between the acknowledgement of playing a role and a self-identical, immediate being. The social is Setz’s corrective here; in order not to turn away from the Other, individuals have to negotiate between their self-aware distance and a naïve grace in their longing for social recognition – echoing Vermeulen and van den Akker’s suggestion of the metamodern sensibility being an “informed naivity” and “pragmatic idealism”.[5]

Then what do we make of our current situation? How do we deal with the distance once established by Brecht and extended to the inevitable by postmodernism? For Setz it belongs to the overabundance of information and meaning the world has to offer. It leads in the wrong direction in a Nietzschean sense as pure knowledge. Setz, who began to make a name for himself also as a poet, seems to have an infinite source of analogies for this stance: Like a rainbow has many “sub-bows” in the ultraviolet and infrared ranges we cannot see, some birds can see these frequency ranges and “maybe that is the reason why so many of them lose their minds. Out of fear of that vast colorful spider web.” The title-giving frequencies, as Gabi illustrates in her vain attempt to identify the cause of her noise-neurosis, do not offer any meaning in themselves. Instead, Setz locates their significance in the space between two persons, where the medium still is the message, and a son can understand his mother just by the tone of her voice: “for any situation there was a particular pitch and in it the meaning was contained.”

The postmodern has shown the loss of a telos behind social and historic development together with the self-referentiality of any symbolic act. Setz knows about the ever-retreating chain of the signifier and a constructivism that seems to relativize everything once it enters the realm of language. The younger Setz finds poetic allegories and simple answers where the Setz of The Frequencies elaborates on the problem in narratological intricacies. The trick is to do it like the sponge in the puddle. In Sons and Planets, it says in an anonymous letter to the editor of a literary magazine:

The argument of relativity is strangely pointless to me. It might simply be a privilege that I assume, like I make use of my privilege as a Catholic to go in the cold in the earliest morning hours to the first mass. Or like the privilege of the sponge, that lies in the puddle and thinks it’s soaking with the clouds and treetops that are mirrored in the dirty water.

Simple is that. But for the sake of paraphrasing it: the possibility of transcendence refused by postmodernism lies within an individual pragmatism that turns the admittedly and a priori impossible into a privilege.

Under these preconditions, Setz can install the postmodern at the heart of his prose as one perspective of the “Möbius strip”, yet another concept in his cabinet of poetological figures. Like the two sides of subjectivity, literary endeavor can be seen from at least two angles that nonetheless run together on the möbius strip, that is non-orientable: as a questioning of the narrative generation of meaning and as a communicative act itself, art as an exchange between human beings. Setz’s metamodern quality lies in his ability to first make all the poetic devices accessible in their historic dimension, and second to refer them back to a social context in which they take on another meaning. They account for aesthetics as much as for ethics. In an award acceptance speech he says, “in a certain sense any literature consists of nothing but letters from someone misunderstood.”[6]

In all its plethora of reflections on literature’s proceedings, one of the novel’s successes on the rediscovered stage of our mind is its ability to illustrate family ties while directing our attention to the poetological connections between part and whole, sense and nonsense. The transparent structure of the novel, in other words, is one angle from which we look at the Möbius strip. Looking at it from a second angle, we start to fathom the hidden workings of familial relations: “the most extreme case of cling together, swing together”. Like the text is a mesh of hidden and overt narrative ties that holds everything together, “the family is a mesh within which everyone pulls everyone else down with him when he falls”, so it says in the second part of the entry in the “Dictionary of Afterlife-Myths”. With it the book ends on the (usually blank) very last page. That these ties do not account for a happy end, as the sinister rhetoric shows, is the result of a careful handling of pathos and an insight into the human abyss that keeps good family novels from being boring. It is that which constitutes the “steady background noise” of the novel. Setz’s project was to put these Musilian latencies on our consciousness’ agenda again. And it is his metamodern sensibility that, at the same time, gives us a glimpse of what a post-postmodernist literature could look like.

[1] All quotes and titles in the text are translated from German, translation mine, A.W.

[2] J. Magenau: „Hier bin ich und leg dich flach“. In Süddeutsche Zeitung, 6.12.2011, P. V2/9.

[3] Notes on Metamodernism P. 6.

[4] Ibid. P. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] „Dankesrede von Clemens J. Setz“, in: Bremer Literaturpreis 2010, 26. Januar 2010, Rudolf-Alexander-Schröder-Stiftung, [28.7.2012].

Photo: Clemens J. Setz by Lukas Beck ©