Pathology Reports

The second volume of Cured Quail

Early in the pandemic, I googled “community” and “solidarity” and other common words whose purpose I could no longer feel. When I entered “Communism,” I got a page of self-published MAGAroni books detailing the failures of Jon Stewart and then, a few pages in, actual Communists popped up. This translation of Théorie Communiste’s piece on conspiracism brought me to Cured Quails blog. (I later quoted this piece in an essay for New York Review of Books about Adam Curtis.) Because I liked the name of the journal and they seemed committed to difficulty in a general sense, I ordered the first volume of the Cured Quail journal, a more official project than their blog.

Their love of obstacles was deeper than I expected—the first volume has no bylines or article breaks and the text is center-justified. (It’s also professionally printed and perfect bound—some sugar with the salt.) The first volume is a long, hectic rant, taken thus, about a modern subject spavined and distracted and unable to resist an inherently hostile culture apparatus. Imagine Adorno, but looser, or, more concretely, another iteration of the Freud and Marx combo platter that has become (or become again) popular in the last twenty years.

As Benjamin Crais puts it in his review of Volume II, one “reigning concern” of Cured Quail is “psychoanalysis and the pathologies emerging from the impoverished culture described in the previous essays.” They abandoned the chaotic typesetting and now present bylines and other helpful text markers.

Christopher Crawford writes in Volume II that if “culture as sublimation could be described as a realm of non-regressive dreams, dosing culture is what results when our realm of images can no longer manage to dream up any other world. Bion’s description of psychotic life as dominated by the ‘inanimate’ is reflected here not simply because objects are manufactured in a ‘mechanical’ way, but because our inner life is structured as a constant mimesis of death.” That’s what I want to hear right now.

Over the summer, I zoomed with the editors—Veronika Russell, Juan Chabrier, and Eric-John Russell—and exchanged several emails. Here is a crunched and mulched version of all that.

SASHA FRERE-JONES: When you did Volume I, why did you make it so difficult for the reader to figure out what it was they were reading?

ERIC-JOHN RUSSELL: The concept that looms over the journal is the question of what impedes or stands in the way of taking cultural life seriously, or to theoretically understand the ways in which the failure to critically evaluate culture, as an index of a social situation, assumes a positive and unifying force within society today. Our name for this problem is illiteracy. However, we don’t mean illiteracy in the conventional sense as the inability to read or write. For Cured Quail, illiteracy is a more expansive concept and names the historically specific obstacle for fully and objectively experiencing cultural phenomena, coherent and difficult ideas, or works of art in all of their particularity. As a social critique, illiteracy fundamentally concerns our reified relation to the world. It is the antinomy between subject and object and the failure of their mediation. In such a situation, we either adapt to objective forces regarded as static and timeless, or narcissistically project the centrality of our subjectivity onto all that surrounds us. If we translate this dilemma into the realm of industrial culture, we find that in many ways works of art or culture itself become wholly inaccessible. Or rather, that there is a collapse between the contemplative space that separates us from what would be objectively meaningful.

Now, with all of the essays in one way or another addressing this general issue, the question of the journal’s design became its own theoretical problem. One strategy was to avoid the techniques of what designers call readability or accessibility. Most book and web designers take for granted that a book or website should be used to extract information functionally. They then use a set of standards for how to organize and display text and images. Yet for Cured Quail, this was a schematism we believed assisted in emaciating human perception and so the thought was, how can the specific content of our critique manifest itself in the form of a collected volume. How can we dissuade people from simply skimming the book, or cherry-picking only what already corresponds to their interests, and instead present the challenge of actually reading it. In a word, we tried to minimize any tendency by the reader to distractedly approach the volume, but instead commit to reading it as a whole.

VERONIKA RUSSELL: And the illustrations embedded at the bottom of each page act as puzzle pieces. These are cut-up fragments of the nineteenth century engravings of Rodolphe Bresdin. They help to distinguish the individual essays of the volume. Each engraving is divided into the number of pages of each essay and at the back of the book, there is a separate section with each author and essay title alongside the corresponding illustration that is distributed throughout the book as puzzle pieces.

Is one to supposed to solve the puzzle?

VR: Yes. Each individual illustration is divided up into how many pages each essay is in length. So at the bottom of every page of the journal, there are strips which all correspond to an individual illustration and essay. So there are clues for how to distinguish one essay from another, but you’re only going to make the connections if you really sit down with the thing. Even the dimensions are intentionally designed so that it’s really better read while sitting down at a table and not shoved in your pocket while taking the subway.

Was the design a way to present an idea of literacy and failure?

EJR: Considering the content of the social critique embedded in the journal, the form should, in some way, correspond to that content. And we’re not surprised by the result, which is that most people probably will not read it. But for a journal premised on the ideas that it is unlikely to be read, we’ve confirmed our own hypotheses. It’s nevertheless interesting to see how people respond, to see how they navigate the journal, to see what are the ways in which people are less inclined to jump into something challenging versus something that’s just designed for information extraction. And this is a book that’s definitely not designed for information extraction.

VR: You can distinguish one essay because the height of the image strip at the bottom of the page changes. The clue is in the typeface. So you have to look at the typeface of the title in the back of the book. And the first letter of that essay will correspond to the same typeface.

We’re three years away from the first volume. How would you rewrite that particular intro of that volume? Is the idea of illiteracy still an animating idea?

EJR: It couldn’t be more pertinent. The diagnosis of illiteracy became especially crucial during the pandemic. This was a moment in which the increasingly standardized ways we communicate with other people through predominantly digital and immediate interfaces, that had already been accelerating over the last decade or so, suddenly emerged as the only regular opportunity for socialization. It was no longer simply a matter of using these platforms to coordinate other aspects of our social life. Instead, and immensely abruptly, our lives became permanently situated within positions that fostered social illiteracy, or that the ways in which we began to reorient our everyday life during the pandemic intensified the precepts of the concept of illiteracy. These changes are what also prompted the journal to more strongly bring in an engagement with psychoanalysis. We can say that Volume II advances the issue of continual cultural impoverishment characteristic of modern society, but now with a more serious investigation into its concomitant psychological injuries.

JUAN CHABRIER: This is connected to the project of critical theory whose tradition Cured Quail is attempting to uphold. Modes of open and instantaneous communication, advances in media technology, and the larger atmosphere of so-called liberal or late-capitalist society with its advance of globalized democracy—all of this was supposed to deliver a more rational society. And obviously, the past few years have shown us the exact opposite. The new volume is carrying on in some way the critique of literacy as embedded in these developments, but also giving it a new assessment since the world is rapidly changing at an unprecedented rate.

I’m curious as to how you guys think of being a collective and how Cured Quail fits into the project of critical theory.

EJR: Perhaps it is first apt to make clear that the interests and focus of Cured Quail aligns strongly with what is often described as the theoretical postulates of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theory. We refer here specifically to a particular and multidisciplinary social theory that brings together, at once, aspects of cultural theory, Marxism, aesthetics, sociology, history, political economy, art history and psychoanalysis. The imperative here is to make sense of and understand this thing called society as something which reproduces itself precisely through its own inherent social antagonisms, contradictions, and forms of irrationality.

VR: This is the general approach of how Cured Quail attempts to understand the disasters of the day—that is, by having a concept of society hardly harmonious, but one which is riddled with misery, misfortune, and mediocrity at all levels of everyday life. Whether we’re talking about ecological collapse, the farcical nature of contemporary politics, or even just the socio-psychological damages that we incur on a daily basis, in all cases we uphold the importance of a multidisciplinary critical theory of society for understanding where and what we are.

Christopher Lasch has become sort of a hot topic. How does he relate to Cured Quail’s new volume?

JC: This very recent rediscovery of Christopher Lasch by social commentators is fascinating and something we address in the editorial and I explicitly attempt to investigate in my own essay, “The Cave Where Echo Lies.” Lasch’s idea of a narcissistic society, the claim that Donald Trump is a pathological narcissist—there is a whole popular literature and treatment industry established around this “social narcissism.” Every major kind of book review had an essay on narcissism in the past few years. We argue that this old explanatory tool is useful today because it represents a similar grieving over the loss of literacy that Lasch bemoaned in the ’70s and ’80s. This was intimately tied to the loss of the family and other remnants of traditional bourgeois institutions. In this sense, Lasch updated certain strands of critique in Adorno and married it to contemporary psychoanalysis, in particular, Otto Kernberg and the Kleinian tradition. In this way, he continued the project of tracking the fate of the ego, the psychic seat of the bourgeois individual.

VR: You don’t have to be a traditionalist to understand that the ego and its corresponding social institutions were violently eroded by much larger global political-economic changes. It was also marred by this massive consolidation of bureaucratic administrative society in the post-war period. The result was what Adorno called the “new type of human being,” born without access to the old symbols and values that gave everyday life direction.

JC: This loss was accompanied by a sort of flattening of the psychic structure. These important “traditional” institutions mediated objective reality and the ego formed within that psychic shelter. Our contribution here is to kind of track the fate of the new type of human being and point out where the attribution of narcissism is still adequate, but also trace areas of everyday life where social institutions have become so regressive that their psychic counterparts deserve a new examination, beyond Lasch.

If we’re talking about a reassessment of that narcissistic character, how does this reassessment connect with illiteracy and where you intervene?

JC: There is such a fundamental distrust today that people have on all fronts. Whether it’s politicians, residual family structures, the economy, the weather, or even our historical memory. Most of our work in the psychoanalytic sequence of essays in the second half of the volume try to contribute to these contemporary observations. What does it mean to be literally raised by the narcissistic profile that Lasch sketched so many decades ago? There are new symptoms that represent a kind of crisis for mainstream psychology, from a methodological perspective as well as treatment and recidivism. We chose children to speak about often in these essays because some of these social tensions are so obviously apparent in children and the pitfalls and promises of society are most markedly obvious there.

EJR: Illiteracy is a more general framework with which we’re trying to understand contemporary socialization and the contemporary experience of cultural life. This of course opens the door to psychoanalytic questions, but the relation between culture and cultivation has undergone a profound transformation. Culture no longer cultivates. In the history of their association we find an idea of culture that contains the notion of development, of personal change, of maturity. Yet once an outlet of sublimation, culture appears now to have been almost completely supplanted by diversion. It no longer evokes literature, visual art, or even moving images on film. Instead we think of YouTube, live streams, podcasts, tweets, serial TV shows, twitch streams, pop songs, shareable “content” on platforms like Instagram or TikTok, and franchises. Culture here affronts us in an endless stream we must be prepared to consume without ever really digesting anything. The content keeps coming, but the process of consumption, being ceaseless, must be made so habitual and effortless that nothing sticks. We only have to keep up with it. Culture now is something we receive in an endless series of microdoses. You’re meant to get a shot of it, to get it coursing through your system so that you can relax and feel something. We use it to fill up the emptiness of time and existence, to help us reboot after the workday or to get us through it in the first place. Huge swathes of culture today are just technologies organized around ceaseless, interminable, addiction-like dosing.

Is Cured Quail an alternative or a response to this dosing culture?

VR: Without any pretensions to be prescriptive, or provide any alternatives, we’re only attempting to better make sense of a seemingly chaotic and incoherent social and cultural situation.

What was it that made you want to have a house for what you guys are talking about instead of writing a bunch of pieces for other people?

EJR: There was something about the journal and the essays we were collecting from our friends that were neither academic nor journalistic, that is, without any professional fidelity to the box-ticking of academic discipline, nor to the convenience of having your essays announce at the beginning—as is so customary now—the time it will take for you to read them. As our commencing editorial describes, the redundancy of already existing publications devoted to the nomenclature society-art-culture presented us with a challenge; foremost derived from the experiential chasm nourished by the refreshing content of curated feeds that, in its rapid-fire shots of interest, prepares any but the most recondite reader for a diet of distraction. So part of our initial impulse was in asking what it would mean to release a journal with the explicit provocation that the conviction to read will likely never exist again, or that we have entered an era of reading in which the meaning of words seldom resonate further than the font or peer-review they are bathed in. This is why the journal itself was premised on the idea that, in all likelihood, it will never be read.

VR: People are slowly beginning to read it, though, especially with the change of design in the second volume.

The second one is very handsome. I’m a sucker for some gold foil.

VR: We’re very pleased with it. But the question remained: how do we justify publishing a journal on the premise that we live in an illiterate society? It seems like an obvious tautology. Yet nevertheless, it is a contradiction worth loitering in, a conundrum worth reflecting upon and worth writing about. All the better if we can make some friends along the way. And this is actually what happened.

JC: In a way, it’s almost too early to tell since Volume II is really so much different than Volume I, most notably with the deep engagement into issues surrounding psychoanalysis. We won’t know how to move forward until we fully assess the response from Volume II. There is also the important point that the world is changing so rapidly, and our thinking, like everyone’s, can barely catch up. This means that even the tumultuous last two years will require some retrospection. Everyone wants things to get back to normal while being fully aware that everything is forever changed. Yet the damages inflicted upon human beings as of late, not the scars but the open wounds still fresh, both socially and psychologically, haven’t yet received the full balance sheet they deserve. This problem, the inability to come to terms with our own historical present, will likely guide our discussions as we move to Volume III.

VR: The point isn’t to publish or produce as much as possible, as fast as possible, as if mimetic to the logic of capital accumulation. It was a conscious decision of Cured Quail to never commit to arbitrary cyclical deadlines, but rather allow for the material to dictate the pace. Even now, we’re still coming to terms with the open questions posed by Volume II.

You’re talking about friends and conversations. I assume this network of friends must have some kind of character because your journal has a character. You originally mentioned two cohorts: the communists and the art world. Maybe it’s only those two, but I’m wondering if you could flesh that out further.

EJR: At its core, the incentive of Cured Quail, especially in the present moment, is to assess and adjudicate the fact that despite all the clamoring of greater democracy and universal accessibility, industrial culture evades responsibility for its lies, part of which includes its psychological ramifications on human subjectivity, wherein thinking becomes an act of identification with abbreviated compulsions of token retention. This isn’t simply a question of the machine overtaking the creative process of the human mind or that it is simply these technological developments in reading that are to blame for the degradation of human sensibility. These are real developments in both the objective conditions of a society divided into classes and in the forms of subjectivity and identity adequate to that separation. But for Cured Quail, to simply take measurement of these developments, through an immanent critique of cultural and social life, is to consider a social situation and relation to culture where the reader who thinks the end of the sentence before it even arrives, or a viewer who cannot bear more than five seconds in front of a painting. These are socio-historical dilemmas not simply epiphenomenal to the “bigger” issues of election cycles, riots and class struggle more generally. The repression of the proletariat is also at once its cultural infantilization. Rather, Cured Quail contends that qualities of taste—as both a faculty of the subject and a corresponding feature of the object—remain important registers of social experience within capitalism. This does not mean simply extracting whatever political or social message or subject matter they promote. It also means taking seriously the technical composition, form or medium in which they appear also as registers of a social situation. For example, this might mean considering the editing techniques of a film, the temporality of music, the materials and technologies used in the pictoral or performing arts, or even the forms of writing and the status of language within the standards of publications today, whether journalistic, literary or otherwise.

It seems as if psychoanalysis is playing a role, theoretically, that it hasn’t played in a while. When I was at school in the eighties, we definitely, we were talking about Freud and Lacan and then that conversation went sort of quiet, though obviously not for everyone. My view will be biased and I’m sure I missed a lot. Is my take off here?

JC: I think there’s a yearning for meaning and interpretation. There is also just a massive failure of psychology and so-called mental health and this desperation that we saw in the seventies and eighties with mindfulness, neuro-linguistic programming, hypnotism and all these new kinds of machinations just to get us back to work. There really are new symptoms today that need to be explained that aren’t explained by the reigning modes of behaviorism and even so-called psychodynamic psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy and all that.

EJR: There is a limited sensuality to the photographic image or JPEG: a lack of spatial depth, of absolute scale, and the absence of movement or dynamism, which must be instead hallucinated and projected by the observer. We give to photographic images content they do not possess. Within the infinite abundance of information residing in an image like that, the ability to extract significance out of the tiniest detail of sensorial content is thoroughly obstructed. As a mode of sensorial deprivation, the detail of this kind of image expresses less the residue of the free human hand, than the technical imperatives of the camera or of photochemical processes and pixel saturation. In contrast, within a painting, the human trace is abundantly contained within the tiniest detail, the result bearing no relation to normal calculations of means and ends. Within a photo, the wandering eye is obliged to compete with the situation depicted. Photographic details are always completely defined by the purpose they serve within the schema. Unlike a painting, such degraded imagery will not put the eye to work. Everything is reduced to recognition, therefore stunting the power of discernment in an absolute emaciation of perception. Photography becomes a substitute for the contemplative or reflective act of observation and instead amounts to a mechanical process that leaves little room for imagination. At best, photographic images are a means of base communication, meme fodder, journalism, or reportage, not that of aesthetic construction.

VR: The clichéd response is that it’s not productive or progressive and anything else is a conservative position. If you suggest to someone that viewing Delacroix’s Medea as a JPEG is grossly inferior to looking at the painting, you’re probably going to receive the charge of elitism. And they wouldn’t be strictly wrong insofar as there is at present an abundance of reasons for celebrating cultural accessibility provided by mass reproduction. But nevertheless, even the suggestion otherwise, especially to the American mind, will evoke animosity and suspicion. This relates directly to Juan Chabrier’s point about today’s inability to tolerate ambiguity and strikes at the heart of what Cured Quail is trying to think about.

EJR: I don’t believe it’s out of line to say that speed is inherently fascist.

VR: Speed is one of the crucial components also in the production of art. Even imagination is now too slow and too perplexing to be a productive resource in making an artwork. Though there is a revival in representational painting, there is no revival in cognitive skills, that is, in the ability of recreating something “realistic” directly from one’s memory or observation. This ability is viewed as archaic if not embarrassing, partly because our reality never appears to us as three-dimensional, and partly because familiarity with technologies is understood as “progressive” and artists are there to ensure that the technology is in the service of humanity, or, in other words, culture. The argument goes that the use of projectors and photographic images is expected, normalized and significantly improves the speed of the creative process.

Who makes this argument?

VR: Those fully embracing the presumption that digital technologies unquestionably improve the productivity and skill of artistic momentum. It is directly related to the idea of an artwork’s approachability. From both points of view: as a viewer or as an artist. While an artist wants to avoid the accusation of elitism, the viewer or collector wants to be able to adequately apprehend a work of art from a smartphone screen. This is where the translation of digital media onto a canvas and back into a digital form reigns supreme and elicits mass appeal and satisfaction. I also suspect that the discontinued use of varnishes in painting is informed by the difficulty of taking photographs on one’s phone of paintings with too much reflection.

EJR: You can go to a museum and avoid all that by putting on those edifying headphones. You’ll receive some salacious biographical detail and feel satisfied knowing that, allegedly, you’ve seen and experienced the painting. But in reality, you’ve taken the photo and submitted to the standardized schema by which we are supposed to register a painting by Delacroix. The JPEG here makes for a strong competitor.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.