Lauren Berlant & Kathleen Stewart (eds.). 2019. The Hundreds.
Durham: Duke University Press
In writing condensed, we amplified through subtraction, tightened up thought through a detour, leaching words. A new sentence arrived just because it had seven words. We were trying to make theory descriptive. We became differently averse to reductions and foreclosures, to certain namings of politics or the real. At times, the privileging of representation or ontology would set us off. Some poems pursued the collapse of dissociation and association. There were sharp cuts, a surprise funny. Others tried to align words to the conceptuality of ordinary things, to build muscles of response to the suggestion of color of tone.
—Berlant and Stewart, 2019, 43
The Hundreds is a collaboration between Kathleen Stewart and Lauren Berlant and brings together the ideas they have been developing in their respective fields: Berlant as a feminist literary theorist in The Female Complaint (2008) and Cruel Optimism (2011), and Stewart as an anthropologist and cultural theorist in works such as A Space on the Other Side of the Road (1996) and Ordinary Affects (2007). As the quote above describes, they composed words into sentences and then into paragraphs that are roughly 100 words long. At first glance this looks like a gimmick or perhaps an attempt at ‘microfiction’, but the paragraphs do not follow a typical narrative structure. The intention of the authors is to capture singular moments of connection between people, and, as occurs in the real world, these might be just a fragment of a conversation. The one-hundred-word limit is offered as a way of focusing the mind and disciplining the work of a writer.
Stewart’s essay ‘Writing Life’ opens with the line ‘Once, I needed the perfect time and place to write’ (186). Many of us grew into our writing life believing Virginia Woolf’s mantra that as women we needed ‘money and a room of our own’. If only we had the luxury! Stewart captures what the writing life is for most of us now: ‘making money, making dinner, taking care of things, having problems, having an encounter, having a body, getting into swimming, or Deleuze, or fish tacos, or the habit of gazing at houses online’ (“Writing Life”, 186). In The Hundreds the authors tell us ‘I can write anywhere now but not for long’ (10).
The Hundreds are stories of intimate moments of being, observed and experienced, that point to the social and theoretical interests of both Stewart and Berlant. They describe Berlant’s ‘intimate publics’, singular experiences, inconsequential details, ‘the emotional transactions that take place at home, on the street, and between intimates and strangers’ (Berlant, 2008, 8), generating a sense of belonging. The sharp focus on singularities is what Stewart believes creates a sense of regionality, a sense of place. They create a sense of contemporary lifestyles in the United States: long drives through empty landscapes in Kansas, breaking down by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, summer camps by the lake, working out at the local gym, and meeting a friend in a cafe. But the intimate conversations relayed and feelings they evoke resonated with my own, all the way down here in Australia.
I like to interpret this as relating to the universality of our experiences (at least in the West) but there is also something about the universality of American culture: I’ve driven through Kansas and experienced summer camps vicariously through hours of absorbing American TV and movies. Although in the Female Complaint she wrote about culture in the United States, Berlant claims that her work is applicable more broadly. She provides “ways to encounter and produce an account of the multiple affective registers of collective life that keep people loosely knotted together (attached to themselves and to the social) while the ground is shifting” (Berlant and Prosser, 2011, 183). In this sense The Hundreds is also transnational; it describes conversations, experiences and feelings we may all have felt or witnessed.
The vignettes meander through stories of people the authors encounter, or conversations overheard, with advice on how to write (from writing groups they have attended), or reflections on how they wrote this book. Writers are eavesdroppers, and retelling stories overhead in coffee shops, at the gym or airport is one way of capturing the ordinary aspects of living and of writing how people deal with the day to day struggles of being: people who ‘seem to be in the middle of something they somehow ended up in’(41). There is an undertone of the tragic in the writing, but also signs of hope, of people making the best of their lot:
It’s like the adrenaline-coasting your body does when you dent a newly purchased car, launching it forever as a loser’s possession. Then maybe you find a way to reattach to life, or it’s the last straw. You can always shrug. You could notice that on the horizon there’s sunlight and the world running toward you, and that’s a happiness that will more than do. (43)
Deborah Levy, whose book The Cost of Living (2019) I was reading at the same time as The Hundreds, states ‘[a]ll writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world’ (115). There are similarities here with Levy’s book: paying attention to singular events, reflections on the writing experience, and the sense of ordinary people just struggling to get through everyday. Levy’s own life and personal struggles inform The Cost of Living. Stewart and Berlant’s voices merge in The Hundreds. Their voices are so closely entwined, I could not identify who wrote which sentence (though I think one of them might swear more the other!).
Much of the book resonates with me and my art practice. The format reminds me of a studio diary or memory board where an artist collects all the objects and ideas that inspire them. The studio diary is also used to smear paint in order to note the pigments used to make that particular tone. The Hundreds is also a curation of ideas, emotions, situations, all the things that triggered something in the writers, and these are interspersed with notes on writing practice. The style and substance of the paragraphs range from the autobiographical, biographical, theoretical to reflections on social and political issues. I didn’t pick up on an overall narrative structure; the book makes as much sense if you start in the middle or work backwards from the last page.
Reading The Hundreds is like walking through an exhibition of small paintings, looking at the finished work as well as the preparatory drawings. You may start at the door and work your way through the gallery; you might stop and ponder one work for a while, or go back to the beginning to study something you saw earlier. To write this review I started at the beginning and worked my way through the book page by page. I read on my ipad, at my desk, on the couch, and standing under a tree in the bush while my partner packed up our camping gear. As I write this review, my finger scrolls to different pages and as I read the text again, I find things I missed during the first reading. I want to get a hard copy so I can read a page before sleeping, like a short story or a haiku. This might be old-fashioned, but I prefer the materiality of an actual book, so that I can stick post-it notes on the pages I want to go back to. It is not the same as making notes on an electronic version.
The similarities with art practice continue in the bibliography, which is titled ‘Some of the Things we thought with’. The list includes the expected list of theoretical works as well as things like ‘A phrase in circulation’ or a popular television show like Star Trek. The list reflects more accurately the kind of things that go into creating a multi-modal activity that draws on a range of experiences and objects an artist may collect over their lifetime (see Pigrum, 2012).
In the collaborative spirit of the book, Berlant and Stewart use the section ‘Indexes’ to invite others to create their own index to the book. Accordingly, Fred Moten writes a poem, and Andrew Causey and C. Thresher divide their ‘Not-Index’ into subheadings such as ‘Part of this story you have to tell yourself’ and ‘Hapless Humming: a good sign’. Under each heading they include some search words and page numbers, and sketches commenting on parts of the text. Stephen Muecke writes in his index to the book,
who needs a long narrative arc anyway, when fragments have their own subjective affordances […] here there are hundreds of glimpses, flashes like opals from Lightening Ridge. A glimpse, a figure half seen in the mist, is an emergent concept or feeling that has its value in its evanescence. (154)
Pages are left blank at the back of the book, so readers can create their own index as well.
Fragments appeal to me as an artist. The glimpses they provide into ordinary lives leave me space to complete the story and find the meaning I need at the time. The authors intended the book to look and feel like Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (20). However, the subject matter is broader than the topic of Barthes’ text, collected from many ‘things’: ‘encounters, a word, a world, a wrinkle in the neighbourhood of what happened, and a reading we wouldn’t shake if we could’ (20). In a section called ‘A Skeletal Thought’ the authors advise: ‘Write down all the resonances the ordinary holds for you, its senses, practices, accidents, things. Set a timer: otherwise you’ll never to get to any other kind of exercises.’ (64)
The collaborative nature of this experiment is exciting. Individual style is subsumed by the collective voice. Berlant and Stewart worked together by writing ‘back and forth with variable commitment to active uptake: we are separate people trying to stay in sync and to take in what isn’t, to work with the heat of a proximity that echoes, extends, or hesitates into forms of life’ (28). The only constraint on the work, described as ‘poems (makings)’, was for each ‘exercise’ to trace ‘the impact of things (words, thoughts, people, objects, ideas, worlds) in hundred-word units or units of hundred multiples’ (ix). What if they didn’t agree on style or substance, or as they pose the question, ‘what do we do in the event of the force of clashing taste?’ (20). Their answer was to
look for points of precision where something is happening. We don’t presume what’s going on in a scene but look around at what might be. We tap into the genres of the middle: récit, prose poem, thought experiment, the description of a built moment as in The Arcades, the Perecian exercise, fictocriticism, captions, punctums, catalogs, autopoetic zips, flashed scenes, word counts. (29)
In conversation with Jay Prosser, Berlant has commented on the autobiographical nature of her blog, which is both a research blog and a form of life writing. She uses the blog to ‘learn how to write’, figuring out how to make sense and stretch the ‘reader’s attention out across a series of lines, paragraphs and entries’ (Berlant & Prosser, 2011, 186). This is also the work of The Hundreds, a fusing of personal experiences and affective responses, ideas and theories, with words carefully crafted to ask
our readers to perform the jamb when language overruns the mental breathing that reading leans on. We cannot know for whom the text will become a riot, a notice, a wormhole, or mote. We prompt attention with an extra phrase or a subsentence here and there. The point is to jolt the eye and the flow of things will turn out to have detours, despite the editing. (85)
I haven’t finished with this book. There is more for me to find in there. The writers state in ‘Preludic’ that they do not want to be prescriptive about the ‘kind of event or encounter the book can become’ (x). I think I will read it when I experience writer’s block, when I need some inspiration, or maybe when I have five minutes spare waiting for bus. I would recommend it to people who love writing for the sake of writing, who are interested in finding new ways to write about politics and social issues, and those who are looking for a guide on to how to write.
Berlant, Lauren. 2008. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berlant, Lauren, and Prosser, Jay. 2011. “Life Writing and Intimate Publics: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant”. Biography 34 (1): 180-187.
Levy, Deborah. 2019. The Cost of Living. London: Penguin.
Pigrum, Derek and Hayes, Anthony. 2012. Teaching creativity: Multi-mode Transitional Practices. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Stewart, Kathleen. 1996. A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an ‘Other’ America. Princepton: Princeton University Press.
Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stewart, Kathleen. 2018. “Writing, Life”. PMLA, 133 (1):186-189.
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