Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: August, 2010

Eric Hobsbawm: How to Change the World

I’ve just come across the cover of Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, to be published in January 2011. This is going to be an absolute treat – worth celebrating the new year already.

Derrida, Sartre and the Fictive Institution of Literature

What is the limit point that separates a ‘Marxist’ approach to literature from a deconstructionist one? If we were to deal in stereotypes this question would be easy to answer: Marxism’s ultimate explanatory ground is history itself, understood as the determinate social totality produced by labouring humans whose ultimate structure at any given moment is known as the ‘mode of production’. Literary phenomena can variously be described as ‘reflections’, ‘reflexes’, ‘effects’ or ‘reproductions’ of this ‘untranscendable horizon’.  Deconstruction, on the other hand, would reject the Marxist approach as a metaphysics of presence and would prefer to think of literature as a prime example of that which escapes any final reduction to some underlying structure.

But when we read Derrida – as I tried to show in my last post – the matter becomes more complex. Unlike the (Marxist) stereotype of deconstruction as an ahistorical textualism whereby material historical phenomena are reduced to so many instances of ‘textuality’, Derrida is resolutely ‘historical’ in his explanations of the origins of ‘literature’ as an institution: ‘The name “literature” is a very recent invention…The principle (I stress that it’s a principle) of “being able to say everything,” the socio-juridico-politico guarantee granted “in principle” to literature, is something which did not mean much, or not that, in Graeco-Latin culture and a fortiori in a non-Western culture.’ (All Derrida quotations are from the interview with Attridge in Acts of Literature). Moreover, in this interview Derrida thrice mentions Sartre’s What is Literature? as a work which, it is implied, guided his thinking on the paradoxes of the literary object. Given Derrida’s interest in literature as ‘the institution which allows one to say everything [tout dire], in every way,’ we should perhaps turn to a passage in Sartre which deals with this very issue.

In a central chapter of What is Literature?, entitled ‘For Whom Does One Write?’, Sartre constructs a dialectical history of the notion of ‘Literature’. There is no space here to recount the entire trajectory of that chapter (though see my post on Atwood for a bite-sized rundown), but it is enough to say that literature as we know it today is bound up for Sartre with the crisis of (industrial?) capitalist modernity. Until the 18th-century, literature was a matter of conservation and purification: it dealt with the commonplaces of a firmly integrated ruling-class, and constituted a mere rearranging of the mental furniture into pleasing new positions. Its content was determined by tradition. But in the 18th-century the writer’s public became split between the old-school ancien régime and the new rising class – the bourgeoisie. Positioned subjectively and objectively simultaneously inside and outside these two classes, the standpoint of the writer became effectively universal: ‘literature…became conscious in him and by him of its autonomy…[It] suddenly asserted its independence. It was no longer to reflect the commonplaces of the collectivity; it identified itself with [universal] Mind.’ The battle for formal freedoms was coextensive with the bourgeois revolutionary battle for political freedom.

Image by James Andanson/Apis/ Sygma/Corbis

But by the time that class had achieved its aims and had itself become the new reactionaries, the writer was in a bind. For Sartre, the revolutions of 1848 are the breaking point. The gifted bourgeois writer loathes his own class, but he cannot bring himself to write for the new rising class: the proletariat. To do so would have meant jeopardising the formal freedoms of the writer that had been won in the crucible of Revolution the previous century. Instead, literature enters its ‘reflective period’. In a nutshell, this self-reflexivity, this impotent assertion of literary autonomy (which is correlative to the lack of a specific public) is best manifested by its lack of specific content: the writer could write about literally anything – he could, in Derrida’s phrase, tout dire. Thus Flaubert, one day satirising provincial French mundanity, the next indulging in Carthaginian mercenaries.

I’ll save for another post the role that style then plays in the formal unification of that disparate content, but by now it should be obvious that the strict division between Marxist (even if Sartre was never, strictly speaking, a Marxist) and deconstructionist accounts of literature is not as strict as it might at first appear. Derrida effectively takes this stimulating Sartrean account of literature, one which explains historically how literature came to be (potentially infinite), and runs with it:

…given the paradoxical structure of this thing called literature, its beginning is its end. It began with a certain relation to its own institutionality, i.e., its fragility, its absence of specificity, its absence of object. The question of its origin was immediately the question of its end. Its history is constructed like the ruin of a monument which basically never existed. It is the history of a ruin, the narrative of a memory which produces the event to be told and which will never have been present. Nothing could be more “historical,” but this history can only be thought by changing things, in particular this thesis or hypothesis of the present – which means several other things as well, doesn’t it? There is nothing more “revolutionary” than this history, but the “revolution” will also have to be changed.

Derrida takes Sartre’s historical account of the dialectical development of literature and transforms it into a questioning of historicity as such. It is here, I think, that the limit point between the two discourses – that of Marxism(s) and that of deconstruction(s) – is reached. I am not even sure that the two can be thought together.

Frank Kermode Interviews Iris Murdoch

Frank Kermode interviewing Iris Murdoch in 1965 on the relation between form and freedom – part of ‘In Their Own Words: British Novelists,’ a great new literary audio-visual collection from the BBC Archive. This was originally targeted at Sixth Formers! Bit like Badiou’s Ethics being written for lycée students…(which it was, incidentally).

R. I. P. Frank Kermode

The great literary critic, Frank Kermode, has died, aged 90. Here is a recent interview with him. For a more in-depth discussion, see Life. After. Theory, a series of interviews with four of my favourite literary theorists/ critics: Derrida, Kermode himself, Toril Moi and Christopher Norris. For a taster of Kermode’s literary journalism, see his delightfully idiosyncratic recent essay for the LRB, ‘Eliot and the Shudder‘.

Derrida and Literarity

I’m currently reading an interview with Derrida conducted by Derek Attridge in April 1989, since translated into English in Acts of Literature (1992). (If someone could let me know where to get hold of the original French interview, I’d be grateful). Of all philosophers, Derrida is the most dangerous to quote out of context, but I couldn’t resist his definition of ‘literarity’:

…there is no text which is literary in itself. Literarity is not a natural essence, an intrinsic property of the text. It is the correlative of an intentional relation to the text, an intentional relation which integrates in itself, as a component or an intentional layer, the more or less implicit consciousness of rules which are conventional or institutional – social, in any case. Of course, this does not mean that literarity is merely projective or subjective – in the sense of the empirical subjectivity or caprice of the reader. The literary character of the text is inscribed on the side of the intentional object, in its noematic structure, one could say, and not on the subjective side of the noetic act. There are “in” the text features which call for the literary reading and recall the convention, institution, or history of literature. This noematic structure is included (as “nonreal,” in Husserl’s terms) in subjectivity, but a subjectivity which is non-empirical and linked to an intersubjective and transcendental community. (p. 44)

It takes a few read-throughs to appreciate the sheer brilliance of this passage. The tightrope Derrida is walking here is terrifyingly thin. On the one side, there is the gulf of full-blown literary essentialism, whereby certain texts are deemed Literary simply because they are Literature. (This is the conservative conception of Literature that goes along with the canon and a whole host of reactionary paraphernalia). On the other side, there is the abyss of pragmatism, whereby a certain text is only literary because a specific conjunction of material practices and institutions have deemed it to be so. (This is usually the radical conception of Literature, one to which Terry Eagleton subscribes more or less readily, and to which I have myself been warily partial up to now). If you fall into the essentialist gulf, you end up some sort of authoritarian typologist, guarding the boundaries of Literature against the riff-raff of pop culture and the surly brows of philosophy. But if you tumble into the abyss of pragmatism, you risk missing the subtleties of the subjective and objective constitutions of literature.

Derrida, obviously, avoids the essentialist trap: ‘Literarity is not a natural essence’. Instead, literarity is an ‘intentional relation’. Thus far, then, he seems to be opting for pragmatism: no text is in itself literary, but has – in the famous phrase of Eagleton – ‘literariness thrust upon it’. A text is literary if I intend it to be literary, if I treat it as literature. But at this point Derrida turns to the language of phenomenology. Literarity can’t be found in the text (object), and nor can it be located in the reader (subject), so where is it? It is, he tells us, in the ‘side of the intentional object, the noematic structure’. Now, I’m no great phenomenologist, but if we simplify we could say that in his analysis of intentionality Husserl distinguished between ‘noesis’ and ‘noema’. Noesis (adj. ‘noetic’) is the act of consciousness, the act of perceiving. ‘Noema’ (adj. ‘noematic’), on the other hand, is the intentional object, the object as perceived. (Remember the mantra of phenomenology: all consciousness is consciousness of something). So both the noetic and the noematic are internal to the structure of intention – in other words, they are both aspects of subjectivity. The noematic is the objective aspect of subjectivity (intentionality): it is the object-within-subjectivity, the object-of-intentionality (which must not be confused with the real object in the real world; indeed, for Husserl, the noema is not reell).

In other words, literarity is a no-thing, a sort of ghostly passiveness immanent to intentionality. And the phantom imagery is not coincidental, since the ‘spectral logic’ that Derrida would later develop arguably began with the essays included in Speech and Phenomena, in which Husserl’s being haunted by the real irreality of the ‘noema’ becomes the self-differing origin of différance. The noematic structure is the undecidable, phantasmatic objectivity through which the (dead?) voices of the ‘intersubjective and transcendental community’ ‘call for the literary reading’: literarity is an essentially ambiguous realm on the border between singular intention and communal constitution.

The Condition of Mediocrity: Part II

The condition of mediocrity is not a material tragedy (or, rather, tragic-comedy), it’s a spiritual one. To a certain extent, it goes hand in hand with the class which gave rise to it: the bourgeoisie. Effectively, it entails the vast majority of the world’s population slaving away in absolute misery to provide a privileged few with enough free time to develop neuroses.

Now, as I’ve written before on this blog, part of the problem today is the demise in the West of the two great communal traditions: the Church and Communism. Not only did these institutions provide structures of meaning through which one could actively make sense of one’s life within a given community, but they also provided transformative outlets for mediocrity. Of course, they produced their share of Bonhoeffers and Barths, of Lenins and Gramscis – the outstanding individuals – but they also made being average redeemable. To be mediocre in the Church is something less of a burden when God himself instructs the world that those who are first are last. Likewise, those unheroic, everyday tasks of political organisation are somehow ennobled within the context of realistically bringing about social revolution.

The downfall of these pillars of communal activity, however, did not necessarily result in the withering away of the desires they created. The condition of mediocrity, such as I described it in yesterday’s post, might be said to be the effect of the ghost of Community wandering lost through the tended gardens and the (obsessive-compulsively) shiny cars of suburbia. The danger of such a condition is that the lack of outlets, the lack of redemption for one’s middling contributions to the world, might begin to warp the more honourable desires into an egotistical lust for ‘greatness’ at all costs (hence the dubious tone of yesterday’s post). This then generates those middle-class ‘radicals’ who are radical only in the sense that they long to be the centre of a dramatic revolutionary scene (Romanticisers of the Barricades, we should perhaps call them). It also generates snobs, since snobbery in this context is a sort of internal yanking of the soul such that it can hoist itself above the mire of mundanity.

Those who need meaningful communal life but who are trapped in rows of identical detached houses and work in separate offices; those who long to overthrow the capitalist system in all its brutality (whilst maintaining its benefits) but who live in positively reactionary times; those who want to commit to everyday life, but not to compromise themselves by a life of occasional dinner parties, admiring friends’ new kitchens, discussing decor, idolizing one’s children, relying on alcohol, indulging in a ‘little sport’ and so on: this, too, is the middle-class condition of mediocrity.

Perhaps the only radical response is to keep on keeping on.

The Condition of Mediocrity

To be clear-sighted even through the mist of tears – even then to have to understand, to study, to observe and ironically discard what one has seen – even at moments when hands clasp and lips touch and eyes fail, blinded by emotion – it’s infamous…it’s contemptible and outrageous.

These words come from Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903). The story is about the impossible task of being both fully human and fully artist (not to mention being a bourgeois artist). For Kröger, contrary to the Romantics, the artist is inhuman, someone inflicted with the bane of an irremediable, calculating distance, a constant rationalising gaze. Even in the midst of great emotional upheaval, he cannot ever let himself go, he is always weighing up how to form the vital, chaotic formlessness of life. An artist is the living dead, incapable of giving himself over to the superficiality of life’s joyousness; he is a social outcast, even while surrounded by his fellow men:

And with the torment and the pride of such insight came loneliness; for he could not feel at ease among the innocent, among the light of heart and dark of understanding, and they shrank from the sign on his brow.

And yet, how he longs for life! How he longs to be just like those ‘dark of understanding’ who sense his secret alien nature! Indeed, a man has no right even to call himself an artist ‘if his heart knows no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth…the bliss of the commonplace!’ On the one hand, then, Kröger loathes the bourgeoisie for their superficiality, their philistinism and their mediocrity; but, on the other hand, he has no time for bohemian cultural elitists with their cold-hearted disdain for good old, down-to-earth bourgeois life. It is only at the end of the story that a precarious, just-about-liveable balance is struck: ‘my deepest and most secret love belongs to…the happy, the charming, the ordinary…In it there is longing, and sad envy, and just a touch of contempt, and a whole world of innocent delight.’

Sculpture by Jane McAdam Freud

The agonies of Tonio Kröger are profound, Mann’s presentation of them masterly. But now imagine this: Tonio Kröger never was and never will be a great artist. He develops this delicate balance, continues his life feeling like a marked man who can never truly fraternize with his fellows, he subdues his alienation long enough to write a novel, but this novel is average at best and he knows it. Imagine, in other words, if the crises of Tonio Kröger’s inner life could not be redeemed by artistic greatness. Would this not be an even greater agony, a far more ignoble condition?

This is the condition of mediocrity. And artistic mediocrity is only its mildest form. To share the essential loneliness of the great modern writer, the absolute alienation from all mankind, but never to sublimate this desolation into the glory of a great work of art: this is a terrible fate. But there is a worse one. Imagine the selfsame loneliness, the same alienation, the same desire for artistic glory, but add to that a desire for critical greatness. (Greatness, by the way, being that for which only the inhuman strain). Not only do you desire renown in Hades, but before you even get there you want to beckon the great shades, to dazzle them with the light of critical intensity in the hope of transforming the aesthetic into truth. But your voice falters, your gaze drops away into despondency, because the call to the shades must be knowing and deep and sure, and you are ignorant and shallow and doubting: you have all the desire of the giant with none of its capacity. The tombs of the glorious dead remain closed to mediocrity.

Edvard Munch, Melancolia

And now the inner circle: radical mediocrity. You will never be a great writer, you will never be a great critic (again, you know that greatness should not even be desirable!), and you will never be a revolutionary. You have the passion of a communist but you live in a suburb; you defend the tenets of Marx with only the vaguest of historical knowledge; you write average Marxist theory in the shadow of better men than you. And still you plod on.

And it is not even tragic! It cannot, by definition, quit the realm of the comical, because it is too mediocre! In a constant trail of self-deprecating caveats and deflationary anti-rhetoric, the Sisyphean daily toil trundles on! It is unstoppable, it is pathological and it is trivial, painfully trivial. To read and write (obsessively) about the most communal of human activities, and to be all the while stricken by non-illusions of grandeur which render you an outcast.

The way to life blocked by a fear of finally, wilfully succumbing to the very mediocrity which is nonetheless your fate; the way to art, philosophy and revolution blocked by averageness, reading too little too slowly and – ultimately – by history itself.

‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Response to Mitchelmore: The Guilt of Modernism

It is only after a third, close reading of Steve Mitchelmore’s recent essay (see yesterday’s post) that I have come to appreciate how profoundly interesting and problematic what he is saying really is. The best way to begin my response might be to recapitulate what I take to be his principal points.

Essentially, he is making a case against those who argue that recent ‘creative non-fiction’ (mainly war-reportage) is usurping contemporary fiction. First of all, he rejects the criteria by which new non-fiction is judged to be superior: excitement, intensity and cultural relevance. These factors already presuppose a definition of what literature is, does and should be with which he cannot concur. Mitchelmore points out that the likes of Dyer and Siegel are essentially after good old storytellers, someone who can tell a rip-roaring yarn about ‘the big stories of our time’ (9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan). These books may well irradiate an ‘existential urgency and intensity’, but, as Mitchelmore rightly argues, this is more a result of their subject matter and severely limited perspective than of any more profound self-probing. Ultimately, then, Dyer and Siegel may well be right on their own terms, but these very terms of debate mask the larger existential issues at stake.

At this point, he offers the alternative of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Because of the story’s structure, in which the governess’ letter intervenes between the narration and the events, ‘the plot…becomes the lucidity and obscurity of the governess’ experience. James uses the distance between the real words and the real world to create the ambiguity of the children’s innocence’. And here is where I find his essay takes its most impressive turn:

The complexity of this ambiguity may be easily correlated to the narration of writers embedded in an occupying army among the ghostly, recalcitrant servants of Afghanistan. The governess becomes the imperial force invading an alien land, seeing danger and evil everywhere except in itself. In fiction, however, the reader is astute enough to recognise the governess may not be reliable.

Henry James between light and shade

What he does here, though without using these terms, is to draw a parallel between traditional, non-self-conscious story-telling techniques, whereby the narrator simply gets on with telling it how it was, and empire. Or, to put it differently, between empire and empirical observation. That there is no apparent moral vision at work in such war reportage is, so Mitchelmore tells us, precisely the moral vision itself: ‘Their evasion is as necessary to the books as it is to the military action itself. In their forensic attention to detail and narrative drive, they match the military’s unflinching prosecution of executive orders’.

Far better, then, to follow the likes of James and Kafka. James, as Blanchot tells us in a fine phrase, was a master of ‘the art of stalking a secret which, as in so many of his books, the narration creates’. In other words, the very inner structures of these works tend towards a realm of absolute moral and existential ambiguity, a realm of which Mallarmé might be said to be the dubious guardian. It is a place (again, the phrasing is mine) of paradoxical identity of opposites: there where Kafka’s innocence was at its most absolute was precisely there where the shadow of his guilt was darkest. It is a place of ‘pure indeterminacy’, where the very act of writing itself casts its own shadow, and it is precisely this intense doubt that the likes of Dyer and Siegel have ignored and shunned at their peril.

Now, a simple way of summarising Mitchelmore’s view might be that ‘creative non-fiction’ isn’t as good as modernism. Judging from the examples he cites, it is clearly those texts (James, Kafka, Proust) which lend themselves to different types of self-referentiality that appeal to him. He reads this self-consciousness on the part of the text – one severely lacking in the new non-fiction – as the locus of whatever morality might still be possible today: not an absolute moral judgement, nor an ‘infinite meaninglessness’, but a ‘nagging ambiguity’.

by Francis Bacon

This is fine as far as it goes, but one can’t help but think that Mitchelmore’s determinedly modernist tastes are in themselves rather limiting. It is difficult to tell whether his argument is simply that non-fiction war reportage is incapable of this sort of ambiguity, or whether such ambiguity should be an aim for any fiction worth the name. In other words, is he offering a description of non-fiction or a prescription for fiction? If the former, then one is inclined to agree with him since it is merely an important and interesting observation; if the latter, then one would surely have to disagree and point out the complex origins of literary modernism and their being bound up with various historical pressures, such that to continue writing in such a way might be politically and morally dubious.

‘Point of view’ in the novel, for example, (of which James was perhaps the master), marks what Bachelard would have called a coupure épistemologique: the substitution of the unity of psychology for the unity of action. For Fredric Jameson, point of view ‘is something a little more than sheer technique and expresses the increasing atomization of our societies, in which the privileged meeting places of collective life and of the intertwining of collective destinies – the tavern, the marketplace, the high road, the court, the paseo, the cathedral, yes, and even the city itself – have decayed, and with them, the vital sources of the anecdote.’ The novel of ‘point of view’ is a literary expression of a historical problem (namely, bourgeois individualism, Weberian rationalisation, social atomization). If it enables James to edge towards a morality of absolute ambiguity, this is only because the form itself is already engaged in the politics and morality of a wider history. So, whilst Mitchelmore is quite right to suggest the inadequacies of the non-fiction war reportage, it must not be assumed that their rectification, especially their moral rectification, can be found in literary forms which are themselves in a sense already guilty.

In other words, unless we can achieve a more nuanced conceptualisation of the mediation between historical guilt, literary-formal guilt and existential guilt, we risk falling into the trap of subsuming all three beneath the same rubric and then passing it off as ‘human nature’.

Fact versus Fiction

Steve Mitchelmore has recently written a fairly lengthy meditation on ‘the surge of voices [esp. Geoff Dyer's and Lee Siegel's] condemning the worldly disappointments of contemporary fiction and instead advocating creative non-fiction’. Lara Pawson has since written a detailed and heartfelt response to Mitchelmore’s post. Each post deserves comment, and I shall try to provide that in the coming days, but what I’d like to do here is to problematise the distinctions between fact and fiction that run through their respective posts (sometimes using their own definitions, sometimes those of Dyer and Siegel).

Since I would only end up paraphrasing Eagleton on this matter anyway, I’ve decided simply to quote a few choice extracts from his recent How to Read a Poem. I hope they open up a wider discussion on the fact-fiction distinction, especially with Steve Mitchelmore, since his Josipovici-Blanchot angle may well provide interesting alternatives to Eagleton’s (Wittgensteinian) reader-oriented pragmatism.

Here are the quotations:

To ‘fictionalise’ is to detach a piece of writing from its immediate, empirical context and to put it to wider uses.

(In his Walter Benjamin; or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, Eagleton points out that, in this respect, fiction is not unlike ideology.)

‘Fictional’ does not primarily mean ‘imaginary’…If [they] are not the same thing, it is partly because not all imaginary experiences are fiction (hallucinations, for example), but also because you can ‘fictionalize’ a piece of writing which was originally intended as factual. Notes to the milkman are usually terse, to the point, and written in plain, economic style; but this would not prevent a poetically inclined milkman from noting that ‘Two skimmed, two semi-skimmed and one full cream’ is an iambic pentameter. The meaning of a statement is partly determined by what sort of reception it anticipates; but this does not guarantee that it will get that sort of reception.

Fiction, then, does not mean in the first place ‘factually false’. There are lots of falsehoods which are not fictional, and, as we have seen, there are also lots of true statements in literary works. The word ‘fiction’ is a set of rules for how we are to apply certain pieces of writing – rather as the rules of chess tell us not whether the chess pieces are solid or hollow, but how we are to move them around. Fiction instructs us in what we are to do with texts, not in how true or false they are. It suggests, for example, that we should not take them primarily as factual propositions, or worry over-much about whether what factual they do contain are true or false. These claims, fiction informs us, are there mostly in the service of moral truth; they are not present for their own sake.

The fact that what is mainly at stake in literature are moral rather than empirical claims means that writers can bend the latter to fit the former. Aristotle remarks that the poet, unlike the historian, does not have to stick to the way things are. Because literary works, including historical novels, are not obliged to conform closely to the historical facts, they can reorganize those facts so as to highlight their moral significance. Narratives usually reconfigure the world to make a point about it.

Finally, he points out that these ‘moral visions’ constructed by the author are not to be taken as necessarily true; they, too, may well be false. But they are not true or false in the same sense as statements of fact are.


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