In praise of family existentialism

Two enraged, thrilling epics of the everyday make the reader the equivalent of the algorithm, seeking patterns amidst the mess, but accepting that there's no causal grand theory. A review.

William Davies
27 August 2014

When it comes to the cultural injunctions of the Guardian and Radio 4, I'm pretty obedient.

When it comes to the cultural injunctions of the Guardian and Radio 4, I'm pretty obedient. In the past couple of weeks, I've seen Richard Linklater's film Boyhood and ploughed through most of the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.

The parallels are very striking, as many have noticed. On a superficial level, they include an attention to minor, arguably banal details of everyday life; a preoccupation with family and the parent-child relationship; a length that runs the risk of boredom; an absence of plot, conventionally understood; and above all, a heroic commitment on the part of their creators, that is perhaps more life-affirming than anything actually represented in the artwork itself.

It cannot be a coincidence that these two epics of the everyday were being created concurrently. Linklater's project begins in 2003, while Knausgaard's didn't start until 2008. But the desperation to convert ephemera into something monumental through sheer artistic commitment is very similar. In that sense, both can be seen as acts of rage against the torrent of social media and digital content, which render creation and 'consumption' of the aesthetic so easy, as to become pointless and worthless. Converting writing and filming back into something difficult, something involving major economic and emotional costs, is almost a raison d'etre in its own right.


Linklater and Knausgaard reject the Clay Shirky/Jeff Jarvis insistence, that there is no alternative but to live in a world of free-as-in-worthless data flows. The rise of social media is a constant sub-theme within Boyhood: Linklater would not have known that 2003 would later become marked as the turning point from 'web 1.0' to 'web 2.0', with all of the commodification of social connection that went with that. Given that, his film - concerned with friendship, family, love, failure of relationships - represents a thrilling act of resistance.

Whether or not it is deliberate (and one suspects that Knausgaard himself regards social media with a similar disdain that he regards bad writers and parent-and-baby groups), it is not irrelevant that both Boyhood and My Struggle concern themselves with issues that many of us now document remorselessly, thanks to facebook and instagram. Babies, poached eggs, children, holidays, grandparents, man on the bus is annoying me, on the swings, best curry eva, more babies, perfect holiday... We are mostly all doing what Linklater and Knausgaard have done, just with considerably less effort or artistic grace.

Their version represents a challenge to 'our' version of it, in a number of ways. Firstly, 'our' version is crippled by narcissism and dishonesty. We put up the photo of the sunset, the cuteness, the beautiful poached egg. They document the altercations in the airport, the vomit, the yoke that has spilled all over the cooker spawning an argument. They stop our self-branding in its tracks, and say: this is what honesty would look like, if you were brave enough to confront it. Knausgaard comes across as an arsehole most of the time. But who's to say that most of us wouldn't, if we used facebook in the same way he uses novels?

In that respect, this is (for want of a better word) a normcore aesthetic. In an age when people are desperately trying to distinguish themselves through being special and beautiful, the epic is found in the mundane and the occasionally ugly. Linklater and Knausgaard are leaving the 'genius' rat-race to the likes of Dave Eggers and Christopher Nolan, ducking out, and achieving far more by so doing.

Secondly, Linklater and Knausgaard are resolutely modernist, in quite an old-fashioned sense. Social media has arrived two stages after modernism, that is, after post-modernism. Boyhood and My Struggle are epics of two early twentieth century artforms, which they seize and apply to our current instagrammed preoccupation with the banal. One of the most extraordinary things about both Knausgaard and Linklater is quite how seriously they take the possibilities for the novel and the feature film respectively. Is the novel dead? Is cinema dead? They render these sorts of cheap panel debates wholly laughable.

As the publishing industry has become more commercialised, but the capacity to publish less commercialised, one outcome has been the tired old format of doing something every day for a year, then writing a book about it. I photographed my dog every day, then turned it into a short film. Alan Rusbridger spent a year trying to play Chopin, then published a book about it. I begged a publisher for a book contract every day for a year, then wrote a book about the rejections. This is where things have got to. From 2003 to the present, Richard Linklater has been secretly upping the stakes in this game, to the point where everybody else might as well give up.

So much for the effects of the digital on our artistic forms and sensibilities. But why family? Why parenthood? I think there are a couple of things going on here. Again, I say this as a cultural interpretation, rather than because I think Linklater and Knausgaard are doing this intentionally.

Firstly, it's not insignificant that the family has become increasingly targeted by rationalist forms of policy and economics. From Gary Becker through to contemporary state-funded parenting classes, the act of raising a child has been increasingly viewed through the lens of economics and investment in human capital. Today, that project is now largely viewed through the language of 'resilience', backed up by neurosciences which can explain how your child's brain benefits from the experience of being cuddled. Mothers have been relieved of the burdens that Freud placed upon them, and given a new set of economic responsibilities, of producing adults who can manage their own careers, finances and emotions adequately. The lunacy of the neoliberal view of the family is that it wants love to become a functional investment, with a measurable return, thereby eradicating those things which make it love in the first place.

Linklater and Knausgaard show that families are a bit of nightmare - but that they survive. Their nightmarish qualities are neither entirely destructive nor productive. They just are. It is true, as per the tedium of the social media 'stream' today, that having a child alters your relationship with time. An hour can pass incredibly slowly, whereas a year disappears almost unnoticed. That is partly what Boyhood and My Struggle point towards. But by declining to leave anything out of the parent-child relationship, they offer a beautifully untheorised portrait, neither psychoanalytic nor economistic. Just day to day crap.

In this sense, Linklater and Knausgaard offer Big Data without quantification, and therefore a very different spin on the 'end of theory'. Everything is included first, and the narrative emerges (if at all) second. I guess this makes the reader the equivalent of the algorithm, seeking patterns amidst the mess, but having to accept that there's no causal grand theory.

Linklater comes close to offering a theory, when he puts the words of John Bowlby in the mouth of the film's unsung hero, the mother (Patricia Arquette), while putting the words of B. F. Skinner in the mouth of one of the film's villains. Skinner's brute rationalism would depict child-raising as a training exercise, whereas Bowlby represents it as an imperfect, everyday commitment. Boyhood celebrates the latter. What there is not, at any point in Boyhood or My Struggle, is a 'rational choice' or an 'investment' being made.

There are, on the other hand, clear signs of existentialism in both Boyhood and My Struggle. Decisions count for a great deal, and Knausgaard has a strongly existentialist perspective on his own life, that occasionally comes across as adolescent (incidentally, the entire project of My Struggle - a 6 volume work about oneself - is precisely the sort of thing a teenage boy would dream up, but then not deliver). What drags it out of some Nietzschean mire is the fact that the existentialism is located in the family, that great scene of "I wish I'd never been born!"-type faux-Sartrean struggle. Knausgaard is locked in a battle between his adult life (father, husband) and his pre-adult desires (for fame, authenticity, machismo). Linklater's boy is muddling his way towards adulthood, encountering and abandoning desires and ambitions as he goes. We leave him aged 18 with his 'life before him', as people like to say, hoping (as adolescents) that he will avoid the mistakes of his parents, but knowing (as adults) that he will make mistakes all of his own.

I finally got round to reading David Graeber's Debt recently, and found myself asking the question: is David Graeber a conservative? The reason I ask is to do with his celebration of 'communism', as 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'. For Graeber, this is to be contrasted with norms of reciprocity, including the market, 'gift economies' and liberal morality. Communism, in Graeber's account, does not leave credits and debts, but is immanently justified in terms of what's available, and who needs it. You never have to 'settle up' under communism, because nobody's counting.

Immediately this made me wonder about my own domestic existence as a parent and husband. Trying to achieve equality in the domestic sphere (in the early years of a child's life) is a constant struggle, but would collapse altogether unless there was some type of commitment to the right of both parents to have a career, a social life and so on. Women are immediately and physically clobbered by having children, a fact that can quickly impact upon their other capacities such as capacity to earn money. It is not difficult to see how Graeber's vision of 'communism' could comply with pre-1960s domestic arrangements. In the absence of counting or reciprocity, who's to say what inequalities might result? Clearly the parent-child relationship is never 'settled up', but other relationships depend on forms of equivalence and balance.

On the other hand, appealing to things like 'rights' (with the deontological, public dimensions that the word implies) in the home is not necessarily a basis for happiness. Potentially, it leads towards arguments about how labour is to be properly accounted for, an issue that is rightly at the heart of feminist economics, and which couples with children implicitly have to deal with in one way or another, but which also has a coldness about it. The culture wars were not, by Graeber's definition, kicked off by a demand for communism, but for justice. The two things are very different. The former (as Boltanski and Thevenot stress) makes appeals to the common good, common rights, of everybody in society; the latter is about forming relationships between qualitatively different parties which are mutually beneficial.


Politically and culturally, the message of Boyhood and My Struggle appears to be the following. The Culture Wars are not over, and have not been won by either side. But we are exhausted by them. We are now at the stage of muddling through, hoping still for justice, but perhaps making do with the form of conservative communism that the family can still offer. Boyhood's chronology is punctuated by Presidential elections, none of which seems to have changed a great deal. Boyhood contains a fair amount of suffering, but people recover, not thanks to a righting of wrongs, but simply because people can do that. That's not a message that fits easily with liberal assumptions, but nor is it an endorsement of the current vogue for 'resilience' training. Linklater's vision of motherhood gloriously out-shines every bullshit injunction to 'lean in', to strive for gender equality through force of entrepreneurial will alone, though without offering any clear alternative politics either.

Make no mistake, Knausgaard is a sexist pig (or maybe he's just an excessively honest pig...), though not nearly as unpleasant as the male villain in Boyhood. He could no doubt give a 'communist' defence of his ability and his need to write, while his wife is caring for children; the problem with existentialists is that they apply Graeber's principle to themselves in isolation. Maybe Knausgaard's wife should document her own 'struggle', as Linklater documents the various struggles of the mother in Boyhood. What is moving and saddening in both Boyhood and My Struggle is the beauty and failures of such 'communism', but this is also partly about the lack of any larger hopes, beyond the struggling through.


This piece is reposted from Potlatch with the author’s kind permission.

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