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Offending Blake Butler: An HTML Giant Question

A few days ago, Blake Butler (master and commander of HTML Giant) asked the question: “Has any book geniunely offended you? Why?”

No doubt this was a talking point he corralled through a discussion with friends or after having finished some terrible, mainstream book. Despite its seemingly simple state, this question is embedded with some serious hermeneutic problems:

+ First, why ‘geniunely’? 'Genuinely’ is perhaps a way to distinguish between a bad fart joke or the use of unsettling language, etc. It also could be used to limit the discussion to more fruitful conversations about offensive works of literature. The problem us Philosophy Winners have is that it refers to an authentic status that is not clearly differentiated.

+ You may say, “Philosophy Winners, no problem. Take out the 'genuinely’.” But there remains the more pressing problem: What does it mean to be offended?

Elementary rhetoric in our society bubbles with language such as PC, respect, social conditioning, multiplicity, ethnicity, gender, marginal groups, subversive. If we expand the term, could not all of this be a question of offense?

The notion of offense comes from two separate meanings that combine to give a greater understanding of what is going on in this contemporary state of rhetoric. One, we offend when we cause pain to another. That is, we have offended them. Broadened, this could be from an unintentional act of misspeaking to greater and greater degrees of violence.

It is the second meaning, however, that reveals why offending/being offended has become a common occurence in our era; we offend when we break a rule. Consider Ben’s comment on the thread:

The Curfew by Jesse Ball.

I think it boils down to the feeling that Ball was just cherry picking lots of interesting devices, tricks, imagery from other great writers (Aldous Huxley, Kenneth Patchen) and preciously piecing it all together to make it seem like he had created something truly unique. It was as if he knew it too, as if he knew that he was full of shit, but expected me to carry on believing and weeping. I kept thinking while reading that book: this fucking author thinks I’m an asshole.

For Ben, Jesse Ball offended him by using expected tropes. This very easily aligns with our second definition: Ball broke a rule of writing by doing what comes easy whereas it is implied by Ben that writing must not come off as mechanical or too heavily borrowing.

Here is where we find the culmination of all our issues with offense.

First, the use of genuine is necessary in Blake Butler’s question as seen in Ben’s comment. We are dealing with a question of authenticity. Ben wants to point out that Ball did not write authentically. In this way, offense necessarily comes from a person not behaving in a way befitting what the offended deems as authentic.

Second, breaking a rule and hurting someone is intertwined. Ben is hurt (in a lighthearted sense as having read through something painfully written) first and foremost because Belle broke the rule of good writing. Here, we see that we are caused pain not by the offense, but that the breaking of the socially expected rule is what causes the offense/pain. In other words, I am not caused pain by your ineffective writing. I am caused pain by your inability to see that your writing is ineffective. Consider the offense of a racial slur. To be called a racial slur is not what is offensive. One is offended by the person’s inability to see that the slur is unacceptable.

Can someone/a work become less offensive in these terms? How much of this depends on the offendee?

What is authenticity’s relation to the Rule? Am I authentic in another’s eyes when I am aware and abide by the Rule?

How offensive do you find the other posts on the thread in these terms?



Praise for Ben Mirov: HTML GIANT

“There is a beautiful sadness in these poems. Mirov skillfully co-inhabits the realms of the physical and the metaphysical, the containment suit and the dark star. In a world both familiar and foreign, Mirov inquires as to the nature of the universe, as well as the absurdity of layering institutions over the void. We are keeping “busy all day.” We are running from something. What is it?”

We’re sure they’ll like ghost machines just as much.

The precise and evocative language of both novels is what lets us enter into these women’s minds, their neuroses, and their history. The details of the world in which Iris finds such solace and her story-like dreams are the most telling things about her. For Anya, it is her bodily reaction to the smells around her that holds the answer to what she truly wants and needs; how she feels about the smell of yeast, a man’s sweat on her sheets, homemade chicken soup.

These women, like many of us right now, are at a moment in their lives when their sense of reality is lost, and though they deal with this in vastly different ways, Iris and Anya look for renewal in the wind, in fire, in escape, in fleeting illusions. Where they look, ultimately, isn’t what matters, and is not the source of urgency that keeps us reading. What matters is the relentlessness with which they search for renewal at all. And their search, for now, will be my new definition of feminism.

—  From a fantastic essay by Sara Finnerty on Karolina Waclawiak’s How To Get Into the Twin Palms and Anne-Marie Kinney’s Radio Iris, over at HTML Giant.