full stop

In 2015 Full Stop published 30 feature essays, spanning topics from dinosaurs in philosophy to the privatization of the public university to hucksterism in American literature. Some of these features were works of fairly straightforward literary criticism, like Matt Bucher on the elusiveness of the “next Bolaño”, Frank Guan’s incisive review of Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level and Maxwell Donnewald’s look at Karl Ove Knausgaard and Atticus Lish. Our writers also explored the meanings of visual art in pieces like Anna Ricciardi’s essay on gender and the pursuit of knowledge in Victorian botanical cyanotypes, Helen Stuhr-Rommereim on conceptual artist Ed Fornieles and the labor of digital subjectivity, and Miranda Trimmier on the outsider art icon Rammellzee and a changing New York. Finally, we also published a number of pieces this year that skillfully blend criticism with personal narrative, such as Scott Beauchamp’s meditation on reading the Stoics while deployed in Iraq, and Anne Boyer’s essay about the illness literature she read while undergoing chemotherapy. Several of these essays first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, launched in 2015, which you can subscribe to here.

The features section of Full Stop is where we publish our longest, most in-depth and most labor-intensive pieces. We pay our writers for these pieces, well above the industry standard. We do this because we believe in cultivating literary and critical voices — our mission is to engage in and foster an earnest, rigorous, and expansive dialogue about culture. But we’re also a non-profit and we operate on a shoestring budget, so in order to continue this important work we ask you to donate a few bucks. If this list of features from the past year excites you, please consider making a contribution. We look forward to bringing you another great year of features at Full Stop.


The Weird and the Functional by Miranda Trimmier

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Her eyes tracked a crane hoisting metal beams to a floor several hundred feet above us. She grinned conspiratorially. She and her husband — successful illustrator and fashion photographer, respectively — had gotten into the neighborhood early, before it had gotten so expensive. I watched the crane for a while, too, and the beams wobbling ever so slightly, then grunted and took a vacuum to their white cowhide rugs.

This was absurd, of course. The woman whose toilet I had just cleaned was asking me to help her lampoon rich people. I was briefly pissed. The anger passed quickly enough, though, because in the end I liked the illustrator. She’d discovered I was a writer soon after I started working at her apartment, and we’d clocked good hours talking about all things creative: books of short stories, music documentaries, ideas for drawings, shows being mounted at the gallery around the corner. We weren’t friends, but we were friendly, which made me think her bit of commentary had been more than a misrecognition of class difference. It was also a hypothesis about one of our favorite topics of conversation. As though aesthetic sophistication equaled an oppositional ethics. As though liking art was the same as fighting the good fight. She’d looked to me to confirm it.


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Beyond Bolaño and Beyond by Matt Bucher

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The question always arises: why hasn’t Mario Bellatin or Jorge Volpi or Fernando Vallejo or Ricardo Piglia or Enrique Vila-Matas or Daniel Sada (whom Bolaño called “the most difficult, a radical writer if there ever was one”) or Rodrigo Fresan or Juan Villoro (“his stories are some of the best written in Spanish today” —Bolaño) or Sergio Pitol or X, Y, or Z attained the same status in U.S. publishing circles (and the American reading public) as Bolaño? And inevitably the answers are convoluted and usually involve the ignorance or lack of cultivation and discernment among American readers, or the sad state of the publishing industry, but the Occam’s Razor truth is often that those writers, whoever they may be, are simply not as good. And that’s okay. Many of these books still need a champion. The truly inventive ones, such as Luis Martin-Santos’ Time of Silence or Mempo Giardinelli’s Sultry Moon, still need a prominent advocate to stand up and say repeatedly, in more than one review: “This is a truly important book.” Which is what happened with the Boom writers and Bolaño.


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Pale/ontology: The Dinosaurian Critique of Philosophy by Sam Kriss

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Dinosaurs are too big to fit in any of our conceptual categories. If we’re to conceive of a noumenon, a real world as it really is, outside our experience, the previous existence of dinosaurs on the earth is the most important single fact about that world. They stand for the sheer unimportance of human subjectivity: reality was around for millions of years before we arrived to ponder its nature, and it did fine; even without a human subject to give meaning to its objectivity it was still full of life and danger. In this light, the strange refusal to talk about dinosaurs is so pervasive and so consistent that it can only be read as a neurotic symptom. If we don’t discuss them, maybe they won’t come back to claw our fragile distinction from the world of objects into shreds. It’s not just our finely wrought society that the dinosaurs threaten; it’s the idea that human subjectivities and the world beyond them can face each other as two equal halves, evenly matched. It’s the fantasy of an inert world, one without gargantuan teeth. It’s the idea that humans are subjects, always subjects, and always humans.


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Dismantling the University by Nika Knight

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As a result of neoliberalism’s disdain for the public sector, when it arrives in a public institution such as a state university it actually works to shrink that institution’s power and its reach. For example, rather than ask for more (public) funds from the state, neoliberal administrators tend to raise students’ tuition, fire well-paid tenured faculty in favor of hiring tenuously-supported adjuncts, and seek out partnerships and programs funded by the private sector, which then gives private corporations the power to determine curricula and programmatic offerings at the university. Given its grip on our society, it’s not surprising that neoliberalism is transforming the public university, and this trend has long been noted by academics, activists, public intellectuals and journalists alike.

Yet what has often gone less explored is that the manner in which neoliberals are trying to reshape public higher education exposes the idiosyncratic nature of their philosophy — that is, the way that a philosophy that claims to be the only way to shape society, aninevitable choice, for the betterment of all, is, in fact, almost always undemocratically forced, often mistaken in its predictions, and destructive in its outcomes. In few places is this more obvious than in those institutions created in the spirit of a particularly American democratic ideal: the public land-grant university.


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This Imaginary Half-Nothing: Time by Anne Boyer

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My time in the time of illness has been unmeasurable or ir-measured or a-measured. Yet despite how this time can no longer steadily or predictably submit itself to clocks and calendars, for survival’s sake I still have had to try to measure it. Sick time is always escaping the institutional technologies invented to contain it, and it remains immeasurable despite the measure of treatments, the measure of lab work, the measure of diagnostics, the measure of the work day, the measure of arriving bills, the measure of electronic communications, the measure of deadlines, the measure of paychecks, the measure of an employer’s measure of sick leave, the measure of caring for dependents. That’s a lot of cracked hourglasses.

Chemotherapy is as difficult as you think, and it isn’t as if sickness abandons its temporal weirdness just because the bosses have refused the sick worker enough time to rest. Pain continues to stretch out the seconds while also obliterating them as it has for the human forever. And for the very ill, death still feels, as it apparently has for centuries, both much too near and sometimes too far — like walking through a blizzard to a warm shelter which you know to be the jailhouse to which you are finally turning yourself in. Sick time, despite all of Capital’s inventive temporal bullying, is its own stubbornly and uniquely distorted experience. It is just that in these days, along with sickness’ regular deformations, there is also contemporary life, which is incongruous with living, also with staying alive.


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The Corpse Singing on the Radio by Scott Beauchamp

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Returning to base from a mission, stiff with exhaustion and sweat, I would flip through the Stoics with nicotine stained fingers. They eased my suffering. They calmed the existential hum that is amplified by violence, trauma, squalor, and brief moments of exaltation in alien worlds. But what I didn’t know then, and what I hadn’t anticipated with the Stoics, is that war is much longer than a deployment. It isn’t always the future Fati that we need to arm ourselves against — or resign ourselves to. Most of the war comes after the war. Waves reverberate from a single point for an entire lifetime, rocking you. After a certain point it wasn’t an acceptance of the future that I needed to steel myself against; it was a reckoning with the past.

I had seen terrible things done, and done them myself in turn. None of them felt necessary. The entire imperial enterprise didn’t seem necessary. And like in Robert Bly’s poem about the “drop of Indian blood preserved in snow” beneath the cement of the Pentagon, the image of the body I’d seen during my first deployment was preserved in me. It refuted the ancient arguments, thwarted my attempts to bury the specter of violence under a veneer of staid rationalism.


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The Indescribably Real: Epic Memoir and Barycentric Fiction by Maxwell Donnewald

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Representations of the solar system often depict a planet’s moons as though they twirl around their host like a ball around the center of a roulette wheel, conquered by the larger’s mass. The planet itself appears fixed in its steady arc, and all the smaller stuff just buzzes around. But this is a fiction. Hubble observations of Pluto in 2006, which led to its reclassification as a dwarf-planet, showed it wobbling with its moons around an empty space, the center of mass of a system of celestial objects in which it simply happens to be the largest. Despite its relative size, the gravitational center of Pluto’s trajectory is dislodged by its satellites outside its body. In truth, any object hosting the orbit of another is engaged in a dance like this, even in cases where the difference in mass is quite large. The earth too, entangled with the gravity of its moon, rotates around a barycenter, as it’s called in astronomy, a few thousand miles off-center. It’s just that, from here on land, it doesn’t look that way. In contrast to the epic formula of Knausgaard, where motives are exhaustively laid bare, such that characters surrounding the author are either entirely present or altogether absent in their influence, there is an oppositional manner of composing realities, in which even if a character is missing from a certain scene, as Auerbach notes, “the influence of his will and his feelings continues to operate.” In such a world, the trajectory of any one character, however prominent, never escapes being warped by the gravity of another. Even if, as in Preparation for the Next Life, these background figures are no longer alive. Just as marginalization cannot reduce them to zeroes, neither do destruction and disappearance — Skinner’s friend Sconyers, mortally injured in the same blast which leaves Skinner permanently disfigured, and Zou Lei’s father, whose life is mysteriously sacrificed in “a war to modernize” for the Chinese military, haunt the story constantly. And likewise, with this remainder of narrative mass looming in the background, no one ever quite manages to take charge of events. The weightless occasionally flicker into form, and so too are the main actors subject to sudden disappearance. Nothing can be traced independently, disentangled from its distorting factors. A continuous self, around which all events are organized, is impossible in this reality.


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I Don’t Actually Know Where My Faculties Are by Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

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It’s a common feeling, and not just after too many high ABV craft beers. Persona happens when a very concrete word picks up a little lost a on its end, and with this opening up and out it floats free as a loose, fizzy shadow, cloaking and uncloaking, transforming the corporeal intransigence of the physical person it’s attached itself to. Shifts in persona are an essential part of being in the world, maybe more so now than ever. As we are mapped onto social networking platforms and their templates for self-representation, we dissolve into names and titles, photographs, likes, dislikes, and collections of relationships. Some things become more fixed, and other things more fluid. Working and maintaining personal relationships — romantic, familial, friendly — have always required some level of performance, but now this performance takes place on multiple platforms and in very close physical and temporal proximity. What you show and what you hide, and when and to whom, is a complex game. Every space has its own social norms and linguistic codes, and the phone in your pocket can act as a portal to all of them at once. Code-switching happens in the half-syllable, in the dropped g at the end of a texted word. Sometimes it’s hard to keep a firm grasp on exactly which self is supposed to be doing what when.


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I’m Not You by Frank Guan

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When we consider why some Americans become artists while others do not, it may be helpful here to think, the nation’s history and baleful work ethic being what they are, of the artist as a kind of symbolic criminal, and of art as a form of illegal employment. The romance of the artist and the mystique of the outlaw are closely linked in American culture, nowhere more so than in the rhetoric flourishing within its most vibrant, influential field, that of rap music. Perhaps the legal definition of what constitutes a criminal — motive, means, and opportunity — can shed some light on what makes for an artist; in that case, the reason why Neyfakh didn’t become a popular musician would be, as he implies, largely because his highbrow immigrant parents weakened his motive, reduced his means, and limited his opportunity. Regardless of their degree of support, it’s obvious that first-generation immigrants make exceedingly poor pop culture guides for their children, who are left to figure things out alone, more or less (they get by, generally, with a little help from their friends).

As regarding the relative validity of the cultural hierarchies Neyfakh invokes, the first thing to say is that both their sheer multiplicity and the fickleness with which Neyfakh is able to pick up and discard each of them testify to a profound uneasiness regarding the center of power in America, cultural and otherwise. Taken individually, each of the five binaries corresponds to a social division: between the upper-middle class and everything below it (refined over raw), between black and white (cool over uncool), between college students accepted to top-tier schools and those rejected (genius over critic), between the working class and everything above it (raw over refined), between hipsters and consumers (taste over preference). No one knows what to make of them when they are taken together, as we inevitably do, any more than we can pin down our distance from the center of society or predict our future within it.


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Art & Algae: The Work of Anna Atkins by Anna Ricciardi

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Victorian culture produced other distinctions too, pitching botanical specimen collecting as moral and “polite” amusement for women, against the more substantial and serious male study of botanical sciences. By the 1830s, botany was a contested space in which the voices of women were starting to gain prominence. Yet, it was women’s “amateur” involvement, from field work in locating specimens for male experts to popular writing on the subject, which seemed to problematize and trivialize those very same contributions.

A similar historical precedent for the display of moral respectability through domestic containment is found in still life and flower painting, a genre which had acquired a feminized reputation as the parlor pursuit of respectable ladies. Female artists were commonly tutored by brothers and fathers, painting the wildflowers gathered on chaperoned walks. These didactic, paternalistic concerns for safeguarding moral value as educational and social capital within the family were still active in mid-19th century society. In the long shadow of the slave trade and with the unresolved “problem” of the poor in post-industrial revolution Britain, Victorian obsessions with moral duty, sanitization and progress migrated away from the intimate space of the home to the masses, or public body, in the “civilizing” discourses of philanthropic “giving” through the arts and culture.


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The Perils of Optimism, with Zeppelins by Marshall Yarbrough

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Henry Miller once wrote that “As a people, we Americans have submitted to some perilous experiments.” The quote comes from Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Miller goes on: “Ever since 1914 we have been trying to patch things up for the world. Not with a clear, clean conscience, it is true, but not entirely in hypocritical fashion either.” Miller was writing in the ’50s, and by then the notion of America as world leader was old enough to have lost its novelty; in the decades to come, it would turn altogether sour. Miller could still pull off punchy lines — “All we seem able to do is to give ourselves more injections and arm to the teeth” — but for the most part he sounds resigned. The film Dr. Strangelove might be the last attempt at humor about that state of affairs, and its humor is undeniably dark. Likewise, the slapstick in Thomas Pynchon’s novels can’t mask their sense of apocalyptic dread. After a certain point, American hegemony just wasn’t funny anymore. It was simply the norm; short of oblivion, there was no alternative scenario. Trying to make a joke of it would be like trying to crack wise about the weather.


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Honeychild, Fly Away Home by Andrew Mitchell Davenport

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On the front porch of 100 W. Leigh St., that home my illiterate granddad Ben Franklin built — home of Orpheus and Morris, Ben Jr., Alice and Clara, Granny and Mim — thoughts flooded my mind. I been there before, as Huck Finn said. These living ghosts inform my waking hours, accompanying me throughout the years just as certain poses are transferred from canvas to canvas, or sculpture to sculpture, as artists quote master predecessors.

Down Leigh St., at my family’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist, congregants told me, You a man ahead of time. Calling me by my Richmond name — Kersey — they asked me if I wanted to move back South. Deacon’ll put you up while you’re looking for a place to stay.While I was there, Yvonne, a woman of Native American heritage stopped me, placing both hands on my shoulders, a gesture which previously had only been used by my sports coaches when my head was bowed, and looked deeply into my eyes. She said, I know my own. I protested, politely, as best I could. Was she laying claims on me? I’m not Native American, I said. My family is black, we’re from here. From way back.


 

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