The frailty of human bonds: towards a poetics of precariousness by Alex Williamson

A still from Force Majeure (2015: Dir. Ruben Östlund).

In the film Force Majeure (2015), a family on an Alpine ski break witness the terrible power of an avalanche. Watching the falling slab of snow and ice from a panoramic balcony, their casual interest shifts to nagging unease and then acute panic as the roaring tumult grows closer. The father, taking photos, remarks ‘look at that power’ and holds his son’s arm as he tries to run away. As the avalanche reaches the balcony, the father flees, snatching his iPhone from the table as he blunders from the balcony, which is all but obliterated by the vaporised snow. Slowly the snow cloud disperses, and the scene resolves into their new reality, a future severed from the certainties of the past. When the father returns, with sheepish bravado, his family refuses to speak to him.

The film, by Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, is emblematic of a new narrative commitment to addressing the attenuated relationships of our fissiparous, atomised contemporary: what we might conceive of as a poetics of precariousness. Östlund focuses principally upon a family crisis facing disruption, destabilisation and possible dissolution. Östlund bare the cracks in the parents’ relationship through the trigger-event of an avalanche, he illuminates their anomie and mutual disaffection. The equipment-laden and physically-demanding routines of the skiing holiday place further strain upon familial bonds, while the Ikea-stylised cinematography of Fredrik Wenzil re-symbolises their isolation within a series of hyperreal wintery tableaux.[i] In place of action and incident necessary for narrative movement we have the emotional-psychological fallout of, in this particular case, a man-made natural event, a singularity unassimilable to consciousness. We, the audience, become voyeurs of this postpartum dysfunction.

Östlund deploys this nascent poetics of precariousness visually, but his ethos is distinctly literary. For some, the novel remains the go-to form for addressing the ‘illegibility of the present’: a ‘privileged vehicle’ solely capable of investigating and effectively representing the cultural conditions of our ‘twenty first century predicament’ in all their fragile, fragmentary complexity. (Boxall 3) By attempting to isolate and reflect upon these forces of fragmentation, Force Majeure shares common thematic ground with recent novels by David Szalay (Spring [2011]) and Rachel Cusk (Outline [2014]), tacitly reaffirming Zygmunt Bauman’s commentary upon our liquid modern ‘epoch or sensibility’. (Boxall 2) This poetics of precariousness develops the poetics of postmodernism described by Linda Hutcheon by departing from the ironic detachment of the postmodern mode for a remodelled ethical concern with the unbounded ‘instantaneity’ of our digitised present. (Bauman LM11) These texts move beyond historiographic metafiction to become purposefully recalibrated zeitroman, in which ‘one finds this absence from the present, this estrangement from a time that seems to pass’. (Boxall 38)

Zygmunt Bauman (Photo credit: Samuel Sanchez for El Pais)

In our temporally- and territorially-unbounded contemporary, materiality has ceded ground to liquidity, the communal to the individual, and certainty to precarity. Our rapidly transformative present gives new shape, and meaning, to the temporal-spatial slowness of the past. We live, according to Bauman, in an ‘individualised, privatised version of modernity’, at the ‘end of the era of mutual engagement’. (Bauman LM11) For Bauman, ‘liquid life is a consuming life’ which casts ‘the world and all its animate and inanimate fragments as objects of consumption’. (Bauman LLi9) Liquid modernity engenders ‘the uneasy frailty of human bonds, the feeling of insecurity that frailty inspires, and the conflicting desires that feeling prompts to tighten the bonds yet keep them loose’ (Bauman LLoviii) Nowhere is this more painfully registered than through our subjective-emotional responses to liquid modernity, with Bauman proposing that ‘relationships are perhaps the most common, acute, deeply felt and troublesome incarnation of ambivalence’. (Bauman LLoxi)

Spring, Szalay’s third novel, returns to the anthropocentric considerations of his labour-centered debut, London and the South-East (2008). With Spring, Szalay offers a closely-observed chronicle of a triangulated love affair between three Londoners.[ii] The history of their contemporaneity is defined by its absence of a discernible present, its ‘brute thereness’. (Boxall 10) Our apparent temporal stasis is neatly addressed in a scene where James’ academic father Alexander critiques the ‘political, social, ‘even spiritual’’ effects of what he perceives to be the slowing of progress since the mid-twentieth century:

Now he was saying that technological and social change had for a long time in themselves provided us with a sense of purpose, of progress – and this sense was definitive in its way. It was an important part of our self-definition as a society. It was what we were about. It was what we did. We progressed. (Szalay 39)

Time, Alexander concludes, was once a ‘vector of progress’; in our era of instantaneity, progress feels incremental, insubstantial and incomprehensible.[iii]

As the novel’s title infers, the personal circumstances of Szalay’s characters are determined by the precarious effects of our liquid society, and the ‘politics of recognition’. (Atkinson, Roberts and Savage 1) The identities of the three main characters are defined and determined by their socio-economic ‘use-value’: James is a former dotcom millionaire and part-owner of a racehorse; his lover Katherine a Cambridge graduate and luxury hotel assistant; her ex-husband Fraser, a washed-up paparazzo with fine art aspirations. They are, arguably, fully paid up members of the middle class, yet their precarious identities transcend class: theirs is a ‘class-in-the-making’. (Standing 7) Over the course of Szalay’s narrative the triangulated relationship reaches towards empathic closure, even alterity; but their intersubjective exchanges are characterised by banality and insubstantiality, miscommunication and misrecognition, and a ‘looseness of attachment and revocability of engagement’. (Bauman LLi4) Like Tolystoy, Szalay wants us to care about his characters, but not too much. [iv]

Spring traces James and Katherine’s love affair from a calamitous first date (a sexual encounter referred to as ‘the fiasco’) to its entropic endpoint. Initially Szalay withholds their names from us, and indeed this sense of interchangeability, of insubstantial identities and emotionally-charged uncertainty, endures as the narrative of their ultimately-doomed liaison unfolds. Even in the early stages the relationship barely-functions, being hampered by what James labels ‘a strangeness’, an inauthenticity, an unfolding is characterised by reluctance and resistance, denial and disavowal, concealment and uncertainty, positions which play out through their disaffected dialogue. (Szalay 6) 

Returning to London after a city break in Marrakech with Katherine, James recalls a miscommunication from earlier that day, a miscommunication initially prompted by his need to answer an email, and reinforced by, unseen to him (and unknown by us), her ex-husband’s unexpected intervention. The subsequent dialogue is fraught with unspoken desire and barely-concealed anxiety: their questions and responses are emotionally redundant, banal and ambivalent. James is ‘worried that things are not okay’; Katherine professes herself to be ‘fine’ which James reads as ‘mysterious evasiveness’ (Szalay 3-4) Scant coincidence, given Bauman’s trope of liquidity, that what James identifies as the ‘strangeness’ of their relationship begins here, as he watches Katherine ‘lying in the pool with her arms stretched out on the side her shape wavery in the water’ (Szalay 5).

Liquidity has an extraterritorial constituency, pursuing them from Marrakech to London and later Bruges, intruding upon and disrupting the progress of their relationship, the contemporary history of their mutual mutability. At times this liquid presence recalls Graham Swift’s observations from Waterland, identified by Hutcheon as a novel of historiographic metafiction in the postmodern mode: ‘we are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here.’ (Swift 8) For Swift, the clarity of the present, like water, is hidden in plain sight; or muddied by memory, it’s eddies of silt. Spring’s characters, like those of Waterland, are surrounded by liquid, steeped and soaked in it; but it is the instantaneity of their predicament, the deepening impossibility of apprehending their present, which differentiates postmodernism’s highly ironic mode from this new poetics of precariousness.

This sense of liquidity – of slipperiness rather than adhesion, of relations where we ‘stick-lightly’ – (Bauman LLi5) is enfolded within a sense of lightness, of dissolute materiality. Szalay’s language, like that of Swift, has a diffuse precision which indicates the unsettled and unstable: windows are ‘scuffed’ and ‘keyed’, streets are like ‘passing spokes’, trees are ‘faint-shadowed’. (Szalay 3) The author makes frequent repeated references to the light: in the opening paragraph alone the phrase ‘London light’ is deliberately repeated three times, (Szalay 3), while a sense of weightlessness is deployed in economic, social or even emotional terms, extending to the use-value of a given individual. Describing her former husband during a doomed minibreak intended to rekindle their marriage, Katherine observes:

Since this morning, he had been trying very hard to be light. Unfortunately it wasn’t light. He was heavy…He was forty-eight and lived on his own in a studio flat, scraping a living from menial photographic work. He saw his daughters once a fortnight or less. Physically, he seemed to be losing it now – his hair, his shape, his je ne sais quoi…He still smoked. He had no savings. No prospects. (Szalay 194)

Lightness offers choice, flexibility and freedom, yet it lapses into indecision, constraint and indeterminacy for Szalay’s characters – the difficulty of establishing emotional equilibrium; or as Katherine pointedly tells James ‘I don’t feel we’re together…I feel very separate from you…I don’t feel I’m really with you’. (Szalay 158) Their fleeting affair slides towards an entropic denouement, with James leaving Katherine ‘leaning over the pummelling tap’ while ‘stirring the water with her hand’, picturing her departure from London the next morning, her arrival at the ‘light-filled airport’. (Szalay 261)

‘Travelling light,’ reflects Bauman, ‘is now the asset of power’. (Bauman LM13) Cusk’s ‘travel’ novel Outline opens in an equivalent transient attitude. A nameless narrator – self-identified as a jaundiced writer who does not ‘want to persuade anyone of anything’ – (Cusk 19) meets a London billionaire software developer with ‘liberal credentials’ – credentials to which we may add the prefix ‘neo’. (Cusk 1) Our neoliberal contemporary forms an underlying critical referent within Cusk’s narrative, which opens in the presence of a nameless member of the ‘nomadic and extraterritorial elite’ who rule the ‘settled majority’ through the techniques of ‘escape, slippage, elision and avoidance’. (Bauman LM13; 11) Cusk's opening foregrounds the impact of the late capitalism on the literary-academic sphere, and the apparent marketisation of interpersonal relationships:

We were meant to be discussing a new literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at this subject. I wondered in fact if he wanted to be a writer, with the literary magazine as his entrée. A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think that you couldn’t buy your way into it. (Cusk 3)

The arch-persuader billionaire embodies the limitless choice that extreme wealth affords those fortunate enough to accrue it: ‘This man had bought himself into, and out of, a great many things…He was easily distracted, like a child with too many Christmas presents’. (Cusk 3-4) Literature, Cusk infers, is but one more self-gifted present for Bauman’s homo eligens, or ‘man choosing’. (Bauman LLi33)

By contrast, the writer finds her own ‘truncated status’ enfolded within the global precariat who are forced to live in the present, ‘without secure identity or sense of development through work of lifestyle’. (Standing 16) After meeting the billionaire, Cusk’s narrator boards a flight to Athens, where she is to teach on a course titled ‘How To Write’. By teaching others to write she is ceding the very ‘work-based identity’ that secures her socio-economic and psycho-emotional selfhood. (Standing 16) The tropes of lightness and liquidity reappear in Cusk's narrative: the narrator describes a ‘silver thread of motorway that ran and glinted like a brook’, and the moment of the plane taking off holds a ‘feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth’. (Cusk 5-6) Like Szalay, Cusk deliberately withholds the name of her narrator, lending her an indeterminate identity that reflects her conception of subjectivity:

I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through that other person. I thought the whole idea of a real self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist. (Cusk 104)

The fluid nature of selfhood and other-relations are not simply deconstructed in Outline, but continually recalibrated and at times almost eradicated. Subjectivity is built upon shifting foundations; consciousness is watery, restless, inconsistent and indeterminate. In liquid modernity, according to Bauman, ‘people are haunted by the problem of identity’, (Bauman LLi6) enacting an ongoing reincarnation in the daily lives: nothing less than the ‘reconditioning, refurbishment, recycling, overhaul and reconstitution’ of the self. (Bauman LLi8) Cusk uses this expositional early encounter with the billionaire to establish the narrative’s intersubjective sensibility.

The life story of the narrator’s in-flight neighbour – a thrice-married Greek shipping magnate with whom she noncommittally embarks on a fledgling, abortive affair – is described in greater detail than that of the billionaire. Her neighbour enjoys the emotional and material plenitude of his first marriage, and divorces his wife ‘because he thought there would be more’. (Cusk 16). Later he craves what he perceives to be the authenticity of his first marriage, ‘a place to which he yearned to return’ because ‘the further he got from that life, the more real it became’. (Cusk 15) During his unhappy second marriage, he finds himself working against his will to maintain the lifestyle to which his new wife had become accustomed:

He was, in effect, manufacturing an illusion: no matter what he did, the gap between illusion and reality could never be closed. Gradually, he said, this gap, this distance between how things were and how I wanted them to be, began to undermine me. I felt myself becoming empty. (Cusk 22)

The narrator’s solipsistic response to her neighbour’s story is that it leaves her ‘dissatisfied’, and ‘lacks objectivity’. (Cusk 29) As with her earlier meeting with the billionaire, it serves to re-emphasise the intersubjective tensions of Cusk’s narrative.

Meeting her neighbour in Athens after the flight, the narrator complains that his ‘material reality…which up there had seemed so light, was concretised down here’. (Cusk 59) Their relationship, shorn of its transitory lightness, threatens a new immensity she is not prepared for. Taking her out on his boat – ‘his hermitage, his place of solitude’ – (Cusk 67) she finds herself ‘overcome with a sadness that was partly confusion’:

As though his back were a foreign country I was lost in; or not lost but exiled, in as much as the feeling of being lost was not attended by the hope that I would eventually find something I recognised. His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories. (Cusk 70)

It is a pivotal observation within Cusk’s novel, the first moment of self-recognition through the exteriority of her neighbour, a recognition then simply prompts a disavowal of the contemporary structures that condition selfhood: ‘what other people thought was no longer of any help to me. Those thoughts only exist within certain structures, and I had definitely left those structures’. (Cusk 70) The sense of weight, of mass and materiality, are reiterated here: the narrator notes her neighbour’s ‘broad and fleshy back’, (Cusk 70) and describes him diving ‘heavily’ into the water. (Cusk 73)

The moment of recognition on the boat is followed by another short scene where the narrator swims at length, foregrounding Bauman’s trope of liquidity, or liquefying selfhood. Like Katherine at the opening of Szalay’s novel, she isolates herself within the water, feeling that she ‘could swim for miles, out into the ocean: a desire for freedom…not the summons from a larger world that I used to believe it to be’, but merely ‘a desire to escape from what I had’. (Cusk 73-4) Her neighbour’s presence, and her immersion in the water, trigger a yearning for ‘anonymity’: ‘this impulse, this desire to be free was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory’. (Cusk 74)

Watching a family on a nearby boat, she returns again to the limits of independence, the impossibility of defining herself without the presence of others: ‘I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own’. (Cusk 75) Immersed in the water, the narrator is subjected to a ‘self-referential and inward critique’ predicated upon the precarious nature of her selfhood, on her ‘self’s dissatisfaction with itself’. (Bauman LLi10)

Bauman records the illusory, precarious nature of selfhood within liquid modernity as being determined by the ‘running battle and interminable struggle between the desire for freedom and the need for security, haunted by fear of loneliness and a dread of incapacitation’. (Bauman LLi30) In Spring and Outline the individual is reduced to a ‘permanently impermanent self, completely incomplete, definitely indefinite – and authentically inauthentic’. (Bauman LLi33) Szalay and Cusk are emblematic of a nascent aesthetic mode which seeks to subtly yet defiantly critique the loose bonds of our precarious contemporary by narrating ‘the story of its successive endings’. (Bauman LLi3)

What these novels highlight is the formulation of a putative poetics of precariousness: an aesthetic response to the belatedly precarious affect inculcated by instantaneity, and a critical mode of distancing and resistance to the avalanche of uncertainty confronting the denizens of liquid modernity.


Works cited

Atkinson, Will, Steven Roberts and Mike Savage, ‘Introduction: A Critical Sociology of the Age of Austerity’ in Will Atkinson, Steven Roberts and Mike Savage (eds), Class Inequality in Austerity Britain: Power, Difference and Suffering (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Life (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).

Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Love (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).

Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

Boxall, Peter, Twenty-First Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Cleave, Chris, ‘Spring by David Szalay – Review’ in The Guardian (7 May 2011), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/07/spring-david-szalay-review [Accessed 28 September 2016].

Cusk, Rachel, Outline (London: Vintage, 2014).

Del Pont, Xavier Marco, ‘The Contemporary Historical Novel and the Novel of Contemporary History’ in Alluvium, (5:2, 2016): <http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.2.04> [Accessed 28 September 2016].

Hansen, John, 'The Ambiguity and Existentiality of Human Sexuality in The Unbearable Lightness of Being', Philosophy Pathways (194, 2015), <http://philosophypathways.com/newsletter/issue194.html> [Accessed 29 September 2016].

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 2003).

Standing, Guy, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Swift, Graham, Waterland (London: Picador, 2010).

Szalay, David, Spring (London: Vintage, 2011).

Williams, Holly, ‘Snow patrol: Lois Hechenblaikner’s photographs reveal the seamier side of the Alps’ in The independent (7 January 2012), <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/snow-patrol-lois-hechenblaikners-photographs-reveal-the-seamier-side-of-the-alps-6284859.html> [Accessed 28 September 2016]



[i] These tableaux remind me of the Tyrolean documentary series Winter Wonderland (2012) by the Austrian photographer Lois Hechenblaikner, who drily observed in a 2012 interview for The Independent: ‘Tyrol is my cultural background, but we have industrialised the Alps. Photography is my weapon to change something. The tourism industry only wants to show the fashionable side of it, the best side, an Alpine Disneyland. I want to show the [other] side, that tourists cannot always see.’ Holly Williams, ‘Snow patrol: Lois Hechenblaikner’s photographs reveal the seamier side of the Alps’ in The independent (7 January 2012), <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/snow-patrol-lois-hechenblaikners-photographs-reveal-the-seamier-side-of-the-alps-6284859.html> [Accessed 28 September 2016]

[ii] The novelist Chris Cleave, in a perceptive review for The Guardian, remarks: ‘To describe the plot as a love triangle would be to seriously misconstrue Szalay's relativist approach to human geometry, in which points certainly exist but the lines joining them – or not – are subject to an intricate and continuous redrafting from the perspectives of the points themselves.’ Chris Cleave, ‘Spring by David Szalay – Review’ in The Guardian (7 May 2011), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/07/spring-david-szalay-review [Accessed 28 September 2016].

[iii] Like Bauman, Guy Standing pushes this notion further, arguing that the contemporary preference for ‘instant stimulation and reflection’ stimulates within the individual a ‘precariatised mind’: ‘The literate mind – with its respect for the deliberative potential of ‘boredom’, of time standing still, for reflective contemplation and a systematic linking of the past, present and an imagined future – is under threat from the constant bombardment of electronically-prompted adrenalin rushes.’ (Standing 18)  

[iv] An apparent intertext for Szalay's novel is Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), with its ontologically-grounded preconception of the ephemeral foundationality of love, and refutation of Nietschean eternal recurrence. Kundera's novel, moreover, takes its title from the Constance Garnett translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace , which describes the 'strange lightness of being' as Prince Andrey dies. As with Szalay's narrative, lightness constitutes a form of freedom for Kundera's characters, yet this is freighted by an ambivalence inferred by its unbearable nature. Instantaneity in Szalay's novel  serves to advance this feeling of emotional and psychological ambivalence. (John Hansen, 'The Ambiguity and Existentiality of Human Sexuality in The Unbearable Lightness of Being', Philosophy Pathways (194, 2015), http://philosophypathways.com/newsletter/issue194.html [Accessed 29 September 2016].