On Modularism / Science and Capitalism in Louis-Ferdinand de Céline’s “Death on the Installment Plan”

2/9/20175 min read

001.1—Twentieth Century Modularism

I have gotten about two thirds of the way through Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan, a novel I first became aware of via an oblique reference made in Beck’s 2006 song The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton. First published in 1952, and then translated into English by Ralph Manheim in 1966, Death on the Installment Plan follows the childhood and adolescence of Ferdinand, the son of an abusive antiques salesman in the filthy slums of Paris. Described in the book jacket as “creative confessions,” this novel uses ellipses to stitch together narrative and emotional fragments that often turn extremely lewd. The book is full of shit and vomit, written in such a manic and sometimes slapstick way that reminds me of the baroque sadisms of writers like William S. Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon.

Given such a style, the book may present itself to some as nothing more than a French nihilist comedy excoriating against the dumb absurdity of existence, but much of the novel’s vitriol is stitched together around a more material concern: the social and material realities of capitalism in the early 20th century. So much of this novel’s first two thirds concerns itself with Ferdinand’s painful assimilation into the labor market, which early on leads him to write off the whole world of work in disgust:[2]

To tell the truth, my main pleasure in life is being quicker than the boss when it comes to getting fired … I can see that kidney punch coming … I can smell it a mile off … I can tell when a job is folding … I’ve got some other little racket sprouting in my other pocket. Bosses are all stinkers, all they think about is giving you the gate … There’s only one kind of real lowdown fear, the fear of being out on your ass, flat broke and no job … I’ve always had one on hand, some lousy meal ticket, it doesn’t matter what kind … I nibble at it, kind of like vaccinating yourself … I don’t give a shit what it is … I lug it through the streets, the mountains, and the muck … I’ve had such cockeyed ones they had neither shape, size, nor taste … It’s all one to me … It’s no skin off my ass. The sicker they make me, the less I worry …

I hate all jobs. Why should I make distinctions? … You won’t catch me singing any hymns of praise … I’d shit on the whole lot of them if I could … That’s what it is to work for hire …

Here, Ferdinand firmly identifies himself as a member of the 20th century precariat, lacking any semblance of job security and as such, constantly on the lookout for new gigs to take on after his current boss inevitably fires him. Ferdinand’s missive anticipates something of the anxious and flexible subjectivity of the 21st century freelancer class, except where the anxiousness of freelancers often translates to practices of meritocratic self-investment—collecting contacts, building a C.V., maintaining airs and practices of professionalism—here precarity breeds a sense of nihilistic detachment, a conviction that self-investment is meaningless in a world where work is synonymous with exploitation. In a sense, Ferdinand here expresses the id of every freelancer and laborer who feels (in suppressed or not-so-suppressed form) that their position in the labor market is precarious, and that their needs are survival are contingent on bosses and clients who ultimately care only about what profit or value can be squeezed out of them.

Later in the novel, Ferdinand takes up an apprenticeship with an eccentric inventor named Courtial des Pereires, a man with an extreme work ethic and a staggeringly prolific body of work, including a self-published magazine named Genitron. Courtial fits a certain archetype of the early industrial-era inventor, and was apparently based on a turn-of-the-century French polymath named Henri de Graffigny, who, like Courtial, published over two hundred books, on topics as diverse as electricity, organic chemistry, and hot air balloons. Courtial’s special talent is the ability to translate esoteric knowledge into terms assimilable to a mass public, thus instrumentalizing the workings of cutting-edge science into a semi-profitable pedagogical career: “It took him only an hour’s effort and furious concentration to knock the damnedest damnfoolishness, the most pretentious quadrature into shape for the Genitron, to make it accessible to the recalcitrant understanding of the most hopeless dolt, of the most boneheaded of his subscribers. … By sheer force of conviction he’d have made a flash of lightning pass through the eye of a needle and light up a cigarette lighter, he’d have put thunder into a tin whistle.”[3] The character of Courtial evokes an era when science in Europe and America was full of charismatic individuals hawking their research as commodity and spectacle. Figures like Thomas Edison—inventor of the industrial research lab—come to mind, as do the 21st-century permutations of such figures, those thousands of engineers who, following the mold of such titanic figures as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, habitually pitch new digital inventions to eager entrepreneurs in the hopes of launching their very own billion-dollar start-up company.

Courtial represents a world where the production of scientific knowledge is inextricably linked with emerging capitalist ideologies, including that of what I have called “modularism,” that neoliberal paradigm which bluntly asserts the ontological stability of a flexible individual or “self” in the face of its apparent mutability and disintegration. Modularism, an ideology most characteristic of the twenty-first century, takes premonitory form in Courtial’s invention of the “All-Purpose Cottage,” a house made of modular components that may be re-assembled at will: [4]

“Your own house,” absolutely detachable, tippable (that is, transportable), shrinkable, instantly reducible by one or more rooms at will, to fit permanent or passing needs, children, guests, alterable at a moment’s notice . . . to meet the requirements, the tastes of every individual . . . “An old house is a house that doesn’t move! . . . Buy young! Be flexible! Don’t build. Assemble! To build is death! Only tombs can be built properly. Buy a living house! Live in a living house! The ‘All-Purpose Cottage’ keeps pace with life! . . .”

Here, the house serves as a potent image of the way capitalism encroaches ever more into the scaffolding of daily life. Houses signify the distinction between public and private life, a distinction that capitalism both produces and eventually dissolves, at least for the lower classes. The “All-Purpose Cottage” demonstrates one of the ways that this dissolution takes place: through marketing campaigns that first mobilize a positive desire (in this case for flexibility and personalization), and then mobilize a negative anxiety by reframing the situation as a decision between life and death.

Img[2]: Thumbnail for YouTube video “How To Build A Lego House A Digital Manual

The “All-Purpose Cottage” is presented as a corrective for the stifling immobility of permanently-built housing, but, ironically, the form this corrective takes opens up to a much more oppressive future. It is in the advertisement’s mobilization of anxiety as an imperative—“Don’t build. Assemble! To build is death!”—that this new capitalism reveals its true face as a duty rather than an option. Courtial, who, throughout the novel, is constantly engaged in endless and exhausting forms of labor—he’s always either exercising, furiously writing books, hiding from complaining customers, piloting his decrepit hot air balloon, or having a nervous breakdown—becomes the model for how all subjects must live their lives. From the upper echelons of science and business to the most profane domains of the house and the individual, entrepreneurialism asserts itself first as a seductive promise and secondly as a grim obligation. From an open vista of freedom, to total austerity and daily insecurity: this is the telos of modular capitalism. As far as I can tell (and I wouldn’t know for sure, because I haven’t finished the novel), Courtial ends up a failure, his miniature kingdom eventually crashing down on him. His vision of the future implodes, ground down by its foundational instability. In the 20th century, someone like Courtial is still something of an eccentric and a crackpot. But he marks something of a change to come, setting the seeds for a future we all know too well.