The Stuff of Figure, Now

Edited by Caroline Lemak Brickman

The Stuff of Figure, Now: Introduction

Caroline Lemak Brickman

A Study in Upholstery

Caroline Lemak Brickman

Producing Totality

Aimée Lê

Paper, Scissors, Stone

Isobel Palmer


My senior year of college I took a seminar on apocalyptic literature. It was a course with a lot of social cachet on our small liberal arts campus. The flashiest heavyweight on the syllabus was Dostoevsky's Demons. For about a month the hip students who drank black coffee and rode fixed gears in the rain also had thick, yellow, quickly dirty copies of Demons beside their packs of American Spirits everywhere they went. Haunting campus somewhat. Like a conspiracy out of the novel itself.

At the end of the semester we were supposed to give short presentations to the class about our final paper topics. Serious, low-voiced religion majors writing about Heidegger's "The Thing." History majors in layered, faded pastels really hoping to engage with the erotics of the devil. The professor was pleased. We went around the table. There was a very pretty girl the year below me who was quiet for a while when it was her turn to present; she was clearly thinking deeply. When she spoke it was brief, and with effort: "Uhm, I want to write on," she paused, "the way language works. In Demons?"

Our professor nodded blankly and turned to the next student. But this was unfair. It was a literature course; surely we were all going to write about "the way language worked" in some or another text! And yet after the indignation I registered some envy on my part. She had gotten to the heart of it, she had put her finger on what, exactly, we were meant to be doing. She was going to spend finals week correctly: surrounded by heaps of language, working.

This .gif of a memory illustrates what the present collection of essays intends to achieve. Each piece is a deep reckoning with a basic, small, essential feature of "the way language works" and how it has changed our relations to each other and to the social order, how it has made political persons of us. Aimée Lê's essay treats details and commodities and totality; Isobel Palmer's, the materiality of metaphor and the legacy of Russian Formalism; mine deals with metonymy and with sex. In each essay the feature or literary trope is made to illuminate a series of host texts, from Nobel laureates (Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky) through the rockstars of 20th century theory (Shklovsky, Barthes, Lakoff, de Man) to land triumphantly in the stuff that makes up literary figure now: a 4am McDonald's Hash Brown photo shoot, the flames and rubble of the Notre Dame cathedral, the uncanniest line in Kanye West's corpus.

Caroline Lemak Brickman is an academic worker and labor organizer. She teaches composition at the University of Pittsburgh, and she is writing a dissertation about lyric and myth at UC Berkeley.

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