The poem defines

This week (7-13 November 2016), it is International Working Out Loud Week. Simon Terry kindly invited Kenneth Mikkelsen and I to be interviewed about neo-generalism and working out loud. As a companion piece to that interview, the following post retrospectively shares ideas that informed how we wrote and structured the book.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest—
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

He will be more than the sum of his parts.
— Kate Tempest, Tiresias

Tiresias who sees what only a child could see
— Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament

At the centre of The Neo-Generalist can be found the chapter ‘Shoring Fragments’. In it Kenneth and I observe, ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’

In speaking for ourselves, in telling our own stories in the book, we discovered that we were simultaneously telling those of other people too. In recounting fragments of their stories, or highlighting examples from popular culture, we found again that we were telling our own stories.

Our ever-evolving selves, our sense of identity, are made up of these shored fragments. On a personal level, there are certain cultural artefacts that anchor me. These are my touchstones. The art through which I make meaning, and with which I gauge and assess other art and the broader world around me.

From poetry, there is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which shoring fragments alludes. From fiction, there is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which gave us another chapter title. From film, there is Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the screenwriter’s masterful script darkened and enriched by the director’s cinematic vision. From television, there is Northern Exposure, the subject of my last blog post and another cultural reference to find its way into our book. In painting, there is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

The touchstone of touchstones for me is The Waste Land. I can build a case for how each of the other works cited borrows from and is influenced by it. Indeed, in my previous book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, I made a case for the indebtedness of neo-noir films like Chinatown and Taxi Driver to Eliot’s poem. Similar arguments can be made regarding other novels, films and paintings. This goes far beyond shared motifs and an interest in all things Modernist.

Shored Fragments

The Waste Land has long tentacles. In 2018, its legacy on the visual arts will be the subject of an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery. Journeys with The Waste Land will feature at least one work by Hopper. The poem’s influence also lingers below the surface of the work of contemporary poets, as witness Sean Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament and Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos. Danny Denton’s dystopian 2018 novel also shores fragments from Eliot, overtly on the title page, then throughout the text, with character names and the themes of fire and water invoking the poem.

With The Neo-Generalist, The Waste Land proved to be a generous gift. Beyond the title of and opening to chapter 7, it provide us with an organising principle and an architecture too. Some of this was addressed head on, with our own fragmented assembly of business theory, cultural samples and interview material. Some of it happened unconsciously, inspired by constant reference to the poem while we were researching and writing.

For example, in the book we deliberately draw attention to the fact that both The Waste Land and The Crying of Lot 49 highlight their own artifice in the way they close. In the poem, Eliot concludes with his carefully crafted notes ending with the word word; in the novella, Pynchon closes with the book’s title. We opted to follow the latter in The Neo-Generalist. It was an in-joke, much like some of the images that adorn the book’s cover.

At the centre of The Waste Land can be found the mythological figure of Tiresias. Tiresias experiences life as both a man and a woman, is blinded by a goddess and given the gift of foresight by a god. In Tiresias, the polarities between masculinity and femininity collapse, while time and place become one. Tiresias embodies the continuum of our infinite loop. In Eliot’s poem, then, Tiresias becomes the vortex around which other characters and voices spin kaleidoscopically. Everything converges and collapses into the singularity of this man–woman.

It is a notion, consciously or not, that we borrow in telling the stories of our interviewees. One story bleeds into another. Boundaries are blurred. Delineation fades. Because our argument is that anyone can be a neo-generalist. No matter what you are doing now, no matter your educational background, no matter where you currently find yourself. We all carry the potential to both specialise and generalise. So the stories we tell, in the end, are our stories and your stories too. The names are just labels for ease of understanding. The shored fragments an indication that where you go is who you are; always beginning, always learning, always adapting.

Metamorphosis is generally more creative than that, not echoing but erasing forms and inventing other ones from the material, a kaleidoscope of atoms and molecules tumbling into new formations over and over.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

In every piece we write, we contemplate a world; and as that world would not otherwise exist, we create it even as we discover it.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination


Further reading: