The Influence of the ‘Field’ on Literary Production

Two readings in the Sociology of Literature for today. The first is one an article by Frank de Glas entitled “Authors’ oeuvres as the backbone of publishers’ lists: Studying the literary publishing house after Bourdieu” published in the journal Poetics (Volume 25: 1998). The second, an article by Jeanne Barker-Nunn and Gary Alan Fine entitled “The vortex of creation: Literary politics and the demise of Herman Melville’s reputation” was also published in Poetics (Volume 26: 1998). Both make arguments regarding the influence of Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘literary field’ on the production of authors. Both, I think, fall short of proving their intended point, or if they have succeeded, the point they prove seems rather trite.

de Glas examines more closely a pair of publishing houses in order to draw conclusions about the influence they have in the production of their authors. He is interested in qualifying what he sees as an oversimplification in Bourdieu’s own analysis of the publishing house:

A further question mark set against Bourdieu’s analysis of publishing houses concerns the rather abstract level of aggregation of this analysis. Bourdieu divided publishing houses “according to the distribution of their commitments between risky, long-term investments (Godot) and safe, short-term investments, and by the same token, according to the proportion of their authors who are long-term or short-term writers”….Bourdieu was characterizing publishers’ lists in only a general fashion, but what is lacking is any further study of particular sections of an author’s body of works within a list. (p. 382, quoted text from Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief” [1993])

de Glas summarizes the work of Boschetti on two French publishing houses that were established around the time of the first world war, those of Bernard Grasset and Gaston Gallimard. The eventual success of Gallimard’s Nouvelle Review Francaise over Grasset, despite Grasset’s implimentation of “modern methods of recruiting authors and promoting literary books,” is attributed largely to Gallimard’s ability to unify his publishing house around a certain, younger, literary cadre, with an interest (because they were not well known) in defining themselves against the prevailing avant garde of the “fashionable salons” and “the ‘rive droite'” as well as the Academie Francaise (383). Boschetti posits this process of “social renewal” that accompanies the new, younger avat garde , can be explained as a very specific ‘position-taking’ by the younger writers within a field of positions that is largely established. She gives a further example in the Surrealists, who, several years later, define themselves against the very set of avant garde artists ushered in by the NRF.

Young authors define themselves against older authors, in the hope of creating their own ‘new thing.’ This all makes perfect sense, and (to me at least) really doesn’t need the sort flogging that it seems to get in the Sociology of Literature. The problem is that both de Glas and Boschetti (and Bourdieu, for that matter) seem to see this adolescent rebeliousness, this resistant position-taking, as sufficient explanation for the Surrealist project itself:

On this point, both Bourdieu and Boschetti criticize the approach of traditional ‘literary studies’ which have mainly approached the development of an author’soeuvre as the realization of an original authorial project. In reality, according to both, the reverse is the case. It is the structure of the literary field which determines the possible positions of authors (and, according to Boschetti, of publishers), not the other way around. (384)

Two things: First of all, the second half of the statement above is in no way the reverse of the first half, as de Glas states. Indeed, it is hard to see how the conclusion he draws at the end of the statement relates in any way to an author’s oeuvre or to their authorial project. Indeed, that the structure of a literary field determines the possible positions of authors (both established and new) makes perfect sense. However, in the end, this seems to say little more than “you can’t be Proust, we’ve already got a Proust.” More importantly however, is the assumption on de Glas’s part of the sizeof the role position-taking plays in the production of the actual literary work. This is the sort of reductive determinism of which Bourdieu makes me ever more suspicious.

de Glas qualifies the arguments of Bourdieu and Boschetti, and then states his thesis:

My central thesis is that the publishing house…is not merely a gatekeeper, certainly not the mere gate-keeper it is alleged to be [what horrible writing!]. It’s involvement goes much further. From the very beginning and in various ways the publishing house decisively influences the creativity of the author. (386)

He goes on to examine the publishing list of the Dutch publishing house W.L & J. Brusse, and shows (rather conclusively, I think) that it is a combination of long-term authors and new and emerging authors that make a publishing house successful. What he doesn’t do, however, is prove his thesis, that these trends have any effect on the work of authors themselves. It seems clear from his analysis that authors creative production influences the long-term success of the company, but how (or if) this process works in reverse (the point he sets out to prove) is not even touched upon.

The second article, by Barker-Nunn and Fine, examines the role of Melville’s contemporary critical establishment in destroying his reputation. The authors paint a picture of a young and rather culturally naive Melville who, after the publication of his first novel, was taken up as the spokesman for Young America, a democratic critical faction in New York. Melville took the theoretical underpinnings of Young America, which emphasize independence and formal risk taking, so to heart that he ended up isolating himself from the establishment. Near the end of his literary career, Melville found himself with very few critical or popular fans.

This again seems rather trite. A circular argument, even: Melville was critically unpopular because critics didn’t like his work. The more ambitious claim in this article, perhaps, and one which mirrors that of de Glas, is that this critical atmosphere had a significant impact on the way that Melville wrote, as well as the things he wrote about. Barker-Nunn and Fine say things like “The content and form of Melville’s work was affected not only by his being a Young American writer but by his being a New York writer as well…” (88), but they never actually tell us how it is that Melville’s form reflects the influence of the Young Americans. Certainly, he had taken from them parts of his writing philosophy. He had probably taken also from any number of people, and not least of all the crew of the whaler that inspired Typee in the first place, but the crew of the whaler doesn’t fit into anyone’s concept of a ‘literary field.’ It seems more clear though, from their growing displeasure with his writing, that Melville was less inclined to ‘toe the line’ than the Young Americans would have liked. That he ended his career in relative obscurity suggests that whatever formal approach he was employing, people in the mid-19th century just didn’t get it. Whatever it was, they thought it was bad.

And so we are back to our facile Bourdieuian mantra: Melville asavant garde can be explained in his position-taking as resistant to the ‘main line’ of literary production, as represented both in the Young Americans and in the New England poets. I fail to see the profundity. Nor can I understand how this helps us understand anything about Moby Dick, any more than I can understand how the fact that the Surrealists were young and resistant to traditional production avenues helps us understand the motivations for Un Chien Andalou. An author might easily define himself against the ‘main current’ in literature: he might simple produce utter nonsense, words and phrases and sentences that don’t seem to fit together at all (Dada, anyone?), and we could make the same arguments about his position-taking that seems continually to be made in Bordieu-inspired Sociology of Culture. It just seems reductive, or banal, or both, and needlessly so. Surely, there are ways of accounting for a broader understanding of networks of influence than that put forward here.

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Reflection

Reflection – December 13, 2010

This course has been hugely beneficial. One of the reasons I came back to school was that I, as I was teaching Language Arts, found myself increasingly unsure about my own convictions with regards to art in general, including the arts both of teaching and of language. This course has given me a language with which to interrogate my understanding of art, and a language with which to teach it. It has also, along with the other courses I took this semester, effected an expansion of the concept of art beyond the realm of individual objects or production to include a broad complex of both ideas and behaviors.

It is perhaps telling of the influence of this course that those theorists who we studied early form a foundation for my understanding, and those we approached near the end of the course are the ones with which I feel and ongoing engagement. I am ever drawn back to Kant and Hegel for the theoretical underpinnings of modernity. It feels as though Kant offered an ideal rationalization for art, that Hegel grounded it in a method. The importance for both of these is necessarily ongoing, but there is a certain strain of the mythological in later theorists, a certain suggestion that some new turn in human consciousness is upon us, that I just can’t help being attracted by. Ironically, my ongoing interaction with these later theorists, my uncertainty and interrogation of their ideas at a level more immediate to my own interests, has translated into a relative dearth of address in these journals. Whether this is due more to the mounting responsibilities in other classes later in the semester, or to my ongoing uncertainty and curiosity with regards to these theories, I can’t say (though I’d be willing to bet it’s a bit of both). In this final journal entry, therefore, I’ll attempt to address some of these later theories briefly, and with an eye to the ongoing influence they are having on my own theories.

Kristeva looks below language for rhythm, and understands rhythm as a truly organic phenomenon. It is thus through the chora, the “discrete quantities of energy” which move through the pre-oedipal subject who is “always already involved in a semiotic process” that language arises (2071-2). The chora is the “essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral states” (2072). Kristeva’s theory effectively does away with the issues of “incitement” that arose in Freud and were preserved in Lacan. Kristeva understands that the subject needs no incitement because it is always already involved in meaning-formation, and that Saussure’s langue, vocal language systems, are just a product of the “various constraints imposed on this body…by family and social structures” (2072). Kristeva seems to suggest a potentially biological underpinning to notions of the self when she traces the development of our perceptive apparatus back to the mother, the biological well-spring of our very material existence. She follows systems of meaning all the way to the genetic level, suggesting that “genetic programmings are necessarily semiotic: they include the primary processes such as displacement and condensation, absorption and repulsion, rejection and stasis” (2076). The place where these deep codes are communicated is “enigmatic and feminine,” “rhythmic, unfettered,…musical, anterior to judgment” (2076). It seems like Kristeva’s description of pre-linguistic meaning could be equally applied to pre-linguistic man. The poet who can channel the chora is one who communicates the depth of being, the mythical source of humanity.

Barthes makes no excuses for his Mythologies, which come to seem like a telling of the story we tell each other when we might not seem to be telling each other anything. In this way he relates to Bourdieu, who wants to demonstrate the power of these untold stories to shape our ideas about the world, and Michel de Certeau also suggests that the smallest actions constitute an entire mythological system which works below reason and intellectual action.

I was convinced, even after the short readings that were assigned in class, that I would find myself inevitably involved in an ongoing relationship with Frederic Jameson and Michel Foucault. I added their books to my Amazon wishlist even before I had decided on my courses for next semester. Jameson’s Marxism seems to offer a wonderful mode of ongoing historical interaction and politically conscious critique. And while Jameson himself criticizes Foucault for the ‘no-way-out’ paradox of his system of knowledge, I can’t help but agree with Jameson also that the post-structuralist project is a product of its own historical moment, and this moment seems crucial in the development of Western thought. If we can understand Kant in relationship to his ‘author-function’, that his philosophy was inevitably a product of his historical moment, little more than a vocalization of things which were, by the time he wrote, on the very tips of everyone’s tongues, We might understand Foucault’s work and that of the late Marxists (I’m thinking also of Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment which, though I have not read it, I understand to be negative in its treatment of Enlightenment philosophy since Kant) to be equally a product of some ‘new era’. The very fact that Foucault can put his theory into words, as Donna Haraway suggested, may signal its own obsolescence. I am inclined to take Jameson at his ‘word’: we are ‘post-modern’ also in the sense that many of the structures of human thought and social interaction, structures which presented themselves in the phantasmagoria of modernity as inevitable and timeless, have fractured under the weight of their own responsibility. This is perhaps the ‘awakening’ that Benjamin seemed so interested in effecting, and that it is an ongoing crisis in contemporary history surely might speak to his resurgence in critical interest. Foucault does seem to lock us into a mode, but he cannot account for the ways that just our knowledge of being locked in might suddenly burst the lock, in a lightning-flash insight. Nor does he seem, at least so far as what I have read, to realize the power-relationships moving in the opposite direction. I have been reading a little Michel de Certeau, who seems to understand that, although we may live within a system of power and discourse which is largely beyond our individual control, we do control it, even if at the most ‘negligible’ scale, with our very habitual existence. The ways in which individuals interact with the Foucault’s web invariably shifts the balances of power, if ever so slightly. In creating an inescapable web, Foucault also offers us the tools which we might use to shape the web more ideally.

Indeed, it seems at times when Foucault uses words like “discourse” and “power,” he is simply substituting more menacing-sounding terms for earlier notions of “language” and “culture”. He is interested in highlighting the ways that our ‘language’ plays into the established power-structures. In this way, his project would seem to accord with that of Jameson and other Marxists, since it demonstrates the ways in which our system is organized in order to perpetuate itself. We might understand language from a Saussurian perspective to be just such a system, and Hayles ideas about information are likewise structured. If we drew a line from N. Katherine Hayles to Julia Kristeva, we could conceive of the ways that, in a very strictly biological sense, communication has always been a matter of information systems. Kristeva’s chora derive from genetic and biological systems, which have the potential of quantification in the same terms of electric impulses that we use to describe computer systems. Of course, this is all beyond current science to demonstrate concretely, but it is within the capacity of the system itself. Perhaps the way out of the system, as Derrida might suggest, is to plumb its depths. Science seems in some ways to epitomize the system of knowledge that Foucault understands as our web of power and discourse.

Indeed, it might be from this perspective that we approach the work of Hayles and Haraway. It is through technology that science vocalizes itself in our everyday existence. Our interactions with technology create what Benjamin casts as our perceptive unconscious, the ever-changing mode of perception through which we evaluate our surroundings. To this end, science fiction contains a mythologizing impulse; it is a mythologizing of the future, but of a future which is also ever present.

I might even be inclined to argue for the presence of a mythology in Jameson’s concept of the ‘postmodern’. Could we conceive of pastiche as a mythology which has been driven by the increased speed of modern change to address ever more contemporary moments in social memory? When our entire mode of perception is being acted upon at an ever-increasing rate, the temporal depth of our relationship with the world around us must decrease, if only because we find ever fewer connections in times which seem increasingly far away. For pre-historic and classical man, lengths of time between significant change were long, and so epic myth attempted to encompass a global depth, explaining in its origin stories the existence of contemporary phenomenon. For post-modern man, our origin seems rooted ever more contemporaneously, and so when we look for our foundations, we can’t help but look not to ancient history but still to the earliest moment which seems to accord with our own. That these images of history don’t necessarily look anything like real historical circumstances speaks to their power as ‘myth’, even as it seems to call for their examination in light of dialectical history or the history of the seats of power.

As I hope is evident in this collection of journals, this course has given me both a theoretical framework in which to work and an (at least initial, if still rather vague) understanding of the ways my own ideas, about art as much as about contemporary existence generally, fit into and grow out of this broader framework. As far as a course with which to begin my graduate study, I can’t imagine one that would have been more helpful.

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Derrida’s Frame and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Derrida’s concept of the frame, the perergon, which he uncovers in his deconstruction of Kant’s 3rd Critique might bring into focus some of the issues regarding Midsummer that I have been struggling to put into words. (Strange, perhaps, that Derrida might bring anything into focus.)

Derrida constructs the frame as the middle ground which Kant gives us as a directional tool, pointing us in the direction of the true aesthetic object. The frame is perergon, it is outside the work, but it is essential in telling us that a work of art, in fact, exists (ostensibly, within the frame). However, Derrida exposes the empirical regression that such a dichotomy–of inside and outside, artwork and pererga–must necessarily introduce. We can never be sure that we have, in fact, set all extraneous details aside in our pursuit of the object, and so must eventually put the object of beauty itself aside in order to finally determine its beauty. Self-defeating, to say the least.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, this same concept of liminality is turned inside out. The play itself is structured so as to make the audience successively uncertain as to their position with regards to reality. Kant’s aesthetic (for Derrida) suggests a continual movement inward toward the object, while at the same time necessitating a continual ‘reframing’ of the object in relation to those things external to it. Derrida’s hypothetical artwork–a framed painting of a building surrounded by columns shaped like clothed statues–points up this continual reframing. Shakespeare’s play also seems to point continually outward to a reality, while continually reframing that reality with regards to the ‘art’ which is theatrical performance.
One of the most ingenious aspects of the play’s structure is that it must necessarily be in play before the play itself actually begins, and it extends itself outward again from the play’s ending. In between, it plays all sorts of games with the concepts of interiority and exteriority. Here, very quickly, I’ll breakdown how I see this being achieved.
The audience of the play has, upon entering a theater, set aside certain assumptions about ‘real life’. There is a tacit understanding that ‘entertainment’, whatever else it may be, is a diversion from the real. While I am being entertained, there are no jobs to worry about, no familial concerns, no pressing external circumstances (the fact that I have come to the theater suggests that I have made arrangements for my work, my kids, etc.). In this respect, the theater itself acts as the first realm of unreality into which the audience is drawn. While this is true at the play’s start, it is made explicit as the play ends, when Puck offers the audience the opportunity to cast the play itself off as nothing more than a dream. By vocalizing the option, however, Puck extends the plays action beyond that played on the stage, in order to incorporate, at the very least, the action of the audience as they leave the theater and return to the ‘real.’

Within the action of the play itself, however, this same structure is preeminent. The play opens in Athens, which is at the start to be considered the realm of unreality, when compared with the perceived reality of the actual people in their actual seats in the actual theater. That Athens is being played before them on the stage offers the audience the opportunity to reframe their concept of the real: perhaps they had considered that entering the theater was a diversion from reality, perhaps not, but now they are clearly being asked to draw a frame around the artwork, and to place themselves, externally, in relation to it. I am real, Shakespearean Athens is fake, is fantasy, is artwork. It is key, however, that in this section of the play certain elements of the ‘reality’ of Athens are also established. Patriarchy is in full effect, gravity works, death is possible, social interactions are fraught with complications; things are not ‘ideal.’

The escape from the city again brings into focus the dual nature of the Derridian frame: the lovers move outward from the city, away from civilization and toward nature (and thus, ostensibly, toward some deeper biological reality–for Freud and Lacan, the dreamworld is a little bit more ‘real’); however, in doing so they draw the audience, once again, into a deeper sense of unreality. Now, the audience must conceive of Athens as ‘real’, insofar as it is opposed to the ‘dream’ of the forest. Thus far, the audience has stacked their frameworks: The world outside the theater is real, I in my seat am real, Athens is real, and it is the dream-forest that is the center of unreality. It is from this point that art springs. And yet, in the Mechanicals rehearsal, a further level of unreality is suggested. That a play could be performed in the dream world itself suggests that the dream world is not so much different than our own. We, after all, are watching a play right now (although the play itself seems intent on obscuring this very simple formulation). As Quince goes about the forest clearing pointing out the stage, the tiring-house, he is surely indicating the actual stage, and in the Elizabethan theater he might as easily indicate the actual tiring-house, which immediately collapses the framework thus far established. Indeed, the entire rehearsal, which takes place at the center of the audience’s frame, is built around exposing the inner workings of the illusion of theater. Here, in the ‘reality’ of the dream-forest, the Mechanicals discuss stage lighting, prop difficulties, the writing of the play, the fact that characters are just actors in costumes. It seems as though, right in the center of its artifice (Act 3, Scene 1 is the center of the play, both by scene, and–more or less–by length), Midsummer performs a sort of deconstruction on itself, pointing out through characters at the center of the artifice that it works to sustain the ‘mechanics’ by which that artifice is sustained.

Bottom’s dream, which we experience as the reality of the dream-forest, is indeed, the bottom of our dream as well. From the moment he goes to bed with Titania, the play moves increasingly back out of the frames which it has constructed. It seems interesting to note here, however, that the devices by which things are ‘put right’, in the play’s interest to get the lovers back to Athens, to move back to reality, all seem to involve a ‘putting to sleep’ as well. This offers the opportunity for the image of awakening to reality–the lovers awaken to the reality of Athens, bottom awakens to the reality of the forest–but it also suggests that the move to that reality contains within it the same qualities of ‘putting to sleep’ that are associated with dream.

By ending with “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the play repositions its audience to consider the framework in which they experience art and artifice. They have, along with the lovers, been reintegrated into the reality of Athens, but even this movement is one which must certainly recall the original, and more immediate, disintegration into the false world of Athens with which the play began. If this suggestion is missed by anyone the first time around, the play-within-the-play drives it home. The audience now is asked to respond to pure artifice (we saw it under construction in the forest, and we see it fall apart in “Pyramus and Thisbe”), but we are responding to this pure artifice alongside Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers, with whom we must both identify (we watch what they watch) while we are immediately distanced from them (we watch them watching). (Does Derrida’s regressive frame not suggest itself further: who watches us watching them?)

Of course, as I have already suggested, Puck’s final monologue points outward once again. If the implication was not taken up by watching the audience on stage, Puck leaves no doubt that the audience, too, has been complicit in this artifice. “That you have but slumbered here” suggests that you, too, must now wake up. However, as in the play, we may question what it is we are waking up to. No one in the play could quite shake off their dreams, and we might expect to have the same experience. Oberon’s final speech, indeed his final existing in and presiding over the manor house at Athens, makes clear the role which fantasy plays in the propagation of reality.

All this very quickly.

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On Aesthetic Theory

Aesthetic theories seem to fail insofar as they forgo their obligation to accept themselves as subjective. Kant seems least to attempt to disguise this fact. Judgment as a word retains its true subjective uncertainty. As used in court (and at court, perhaps?) to judge is to weigh the basic facts and come to some conclusion, a conclusion which context gives the weight of some specific set of ethical standards. But if aesthetic judgment is to avoid populism (as it ever seems so determined to do), it must take on a belief in some true standard of objectivity while simultaneously and steadfastly refusing to subject its conclusions to testing.

Kant exposes this. He knows that no matter what conclusion is drawn by another regarding beauty, we are always inclined to a personal experience. The desire to test for ourselves. In this way, social conceptions of beauty, which characterize much of the interest in popular culture, act as aesthetic conduits. And so any totalizing aesthetic theory acts as nothing less or more, in any logical sense, than a preference for the movies of François Truffaut over those of Jean-Claude Vann Damme. It seems to me, then, that the denigration of the opposite opinion must necessarily be based on ethical grounds. According, that is, to some idea of the ‘right’ or ‘just’ way, to some act of judgment. To do so in the name of aesthetic theory, then, looks like just the type of political aestheticism which Benjamin warns us so vehemently against. From here my concern regarding Adorno arises. By drawing such a large part of human artistic production under a single net, and then condemning it outright, Adorno draws a most personal line between himself and any concept of mass. Mass is the medium with which Benjamin (and Marx) were so fascinated. Mass is the medium of the revolution, and yet for Adorno, the masses have been massively mislead, and his aesthetic theory attempts single-handedly to ‘right’ their course. I am lead by Benjamin to suspect such a presumption. For Benjamin, the masses which arose as a result of the industrial revolution will necessarily lead to their redemption. He mostly avoids any attempt to make judgments regarding the objects of consumption, except to acknowledge them as significant, and to acknowledge in technological change an infinite capacity to shock us. His love for movies stems for their capability to appropriate masses. He understands that mass reaction contains something qualitatively different than that found in individual contemplation. He may well lament the relative scarcity of human contemplation (many like him still exist, Adorno), but he understood the potential for change to reside not in an individual understanding, but as the result of mass (re)action.

Adorno’s aesthetic, because it positions itself in opposition to the entire realm of popular arts, because it qualifies every potential artwork in relationship to its status as a commodity, leaves literally no object to judge but the viewers own mind. We might justify this in the music industry by some concept of ‘selling out.’ Such and such a band were so dope, man, until they sold out. Now they just make music for the masses. But not only does this justification seem to suggest its own two-dimensional quality, it also does not help us with regards to other artists, nor in the ever-growing complexity of other media. For example, what do we make of a film which gets maid by a major motion picture company, under a descent but not unreasonable budget, for an all but non-existent audience. If the film is sophisticated (say for example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it might merit Adorno’s classification as art. Here it is, it has navigated (as it must) the evil, collusive complex of the culture industry, and it has retained some aspect of its resistance to commodification. It represents itself as a hero to the cause of the worker. It represents itself as art by denying itself. So far so good; until such a movie gains a wider audience. Friends tell friends, and in true Gladwellian style, the fashion tips, and suddenly everyone is watching it. Now the film seems to defy the nature of Adorno’s aesthetic. It seems that it is not nearly so difficult as everyone supposed, and so perhaps does not resist in the way that we thought it might it’s own easy consumption by the masses. What are we to make of this? Adorno’s aesthetic again seems reduced to no more than some petty and conflicted notion of ‘selling out’.

This tendency is seen on a broader (read: more massive) scale in the social tendency to deny the quality of a film that has been made based on a favorite book. While there my be a relatively small number of people who lament the fall of literature from Franz Kafka to Dan Brown, there are many more who might lament the shift from page to film for works such as The Lord of the Rings (or even more democratically, for Harry Potter). Here we have a much broader group of people making what is ostensibly the same judgment that Adorno makes, but in order to distinguish between a group of aesthetic objects all of which might be classified by him as pure commodity. I can hardly see Adorno granting Harry Potter the status of art object. (If he might perhaps for Sorcerer’s Stone, than certainly not by the release of The Chamber of Secrets–obvious as the product of an industrial complex.) However, someone who decries the movie versions of these books invariably does so by recourse to some notion of difficulty as related to mass appeal. It doesn’t allow for your imagination. It changed some of the best parts. The movie just got Voldemort all wrong. A fan of the book pre-film-adaptation qualifies himself as such through his reaction to the film as much as through his reaction to the book. To say nothing of the millions of new readers who flock to the book as a result of the movie. Adorno may well point to the conspiracy between J. K. Rowling, Scholastic, and Warner Brothers, it would be harder to explain away had the original book qualified for him as art. Suddenly, with a million new readers and a revived printing cycle, the book doesn’t seem so steadfastly to refuse its commodity status.

Equally relevant to this problem might be the Oprah effect, which, while initially reserving for itself books that might fall well short of Adorno’s critical gaze, more recently has adopted some titles which before might have found their way onto his list (2005: The Sound and the Fury; 2007: The Road, Love in the Time of Cholera). Adorno might only explain this extreme commodification by making some claim to his own ‘correct’ reading of the texts, as opposed to the message of subjugation which is inevitably inscribed upon the texts by the culture industry. But to do so is either to call into question any immanent critique which may have lay dormant in the work while it was still difficult and unpopular–while it still seemed to resist its own commodification–or to admit Oprah Winfrey (the culture industry might find no one better qualified for its own embodiment) as a potential disseminator of objects of true aesthetic quality. Either of these options seems to undermine Adorno’s entire point of view.

Benjamin celebrates the transition from the primacy of the page to the seduction of the screen, not because he understands film to be in any way a better medium (I think he still might hold the opposite opinion), but because he understands in the transition to mass-media an entire revolution in the patterns of human thought. He glimpses the fact that, in a mass-media environment, recourse to any single medium, or the patterns of thought required in the processing of single media (of which he mentions contemplation) might seem antiquated, quaint, and tirelessly ideological.

This is the trap into which Adorno seems to fall. He fails to recognize, to inhabit, the shift in consciousness which is afforded–insisted upon–by the advent of mass-media. He insists upon a hierarchy of art which is grounded equally–and no more innocently–in ritual and its power structures as is the body of work which he casts aside with a grimace by employing his epithet, “the culture industry.” And so he comes across sounding like a crotchety grandpa lamenting the music of ‘kids these days!’, with no more grounding for his disparagement of Weezer than they have in their distaste for Glen Miller.

However, I find myself to be sympathetic to Adorno, if only because I perceive as well as he the capacity for Capitalism to produce ever larger amounts of self-fulfilling, self-actualizing, internally-promotional bullshit. I might even be inclined to associate my own ethical views with his, had they not lead him to so undemocratic a conclusion. As an attempt to recuperate what seems useful in Adorno’s theory, it might prove fruitful to consider artwork in general, even (perhaps especially) that class of artwork which seems most conducive to consumption, as containing within it something akin to Adorno’s immanent critique. This, to me, seems more dialectical: to wonder how a multi-million dollar blockbuster might contain within it the suggestion of its own denial. To tease out the ways that Spiderman 2 expresses a refusal to allow an identity between the universal and the particular, and especially the ways that it does this without recourse to pre-mass patterns of thought, through a Benjaminian reception in distraction. Capitalism, according to Marx, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. If we take him at his word, it seems unlikely that these seeds would not be germinating in the symbol-rich soil of the culture industry.

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On the History of Consciousness

On the Origin of Species (1859)
Capital, Volume 1 (1867)
The Interpretation of Dreams (1900)
The General Theory of Relativity (1915)
Course in General Linguistics (1916) – Lectures 1906-1911
Quantum Uncertainty (Heisenberg) (1927)

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Teaching Benjamin

“The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (reprinted in my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition) represents my first exposure to the work of Walter Benjamin. Since I first read it over the summer, in preparation for Dr. Rasula’s course on Metropolitan Modernity, I have read many more of his short essays as well as a large chunk of The Arcades Project. It was therefore exciting to revisit this essay in the context of teaching it to a group of students, many of whom may have been experiencing Benjamin for the first time.

It became clear to me as I reread the essay (my fourth reading, I think) just how it has become such a pivotal piece of writing in so many fields. Each reading, after time has passed and outside study undertaken, brings a whole new set of ideas to the fore, possibilities for understanding which had not exposed themselves until the current moment. In this sense, Benjamin achieves stylistically and rhetorically what he sets out to achieve historically, a series of discrete “dialectal images” which constitute “the relation of what-has-been to the now” (Arcades Project 462).

Benjamin begins the essay with an appeal to Marx’s theory of political economy, stating that when Marx set out his ideas regarding base and superstructure, Capitalism was still in its infancy. Benjamin asserts that only now (in 1936, almost seventy years after the publication of the first volume of Capital) can we begin to analyze the effects of the base on the formations of the superstructure. Benjamin acknowledges that Marx was acting as a prognosticator, and that his own work must also “meet certain prognostic requirements” (1052). This is one of those places where I feel like Benjamin is talking to us. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin explains that “history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state” (471). His interest in Paris in the nineteenth century (to which he dedicated a large amount of time and effort in compiling The Arcades Project) sprang from his understanding of a certain confluence between that time and his own, like a window into the past that might bring the present into clearer focus. This same window, I suspect, we sense when we approach much of Benjamin’s work, and especially the “Artwork” essay. He looks back 70 years to Marx; we look back 70 years to him. And so much of what he is exploring in the “Artwork” essay has become, in true prognostic style, central to the modes of our everyday existence.

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Lacanian Mathematics

Lacan asserts that language is a formulation only of “the correlations between signifier and signifier” with no recourse to any referent, either in the real world or at the core of our self, both of which are cut off from any true communicability (The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism, 2nd Ed., p. 1174). If we take him at his word, language is no more than an internally consistent system. This at first seems supremely ironic: the very system we employ to relate our ideas about our selves and the outside world is limited precisely in its ability to reference these two ‘objects.’ Language itself defines a ‘no-man’s-land’ of physical existence between Self and Other. However, it seems to make sense insofar as language is a social phenomenon, and so must have meanings which are in constant flux according to their current status in the social construct.

Lacan’s formulation effectively reduces almost every possible argument to a question of semantics. If we can make no reference to the real in our communication with other people, what we must essentially be arguing for is a specific set of relationships between words. That is to say, if I argue that a Jellyfish Sandwich from the Corner Cafe in Carrollton, GA is the best sandwich in the southeast, what I am really arguing for (as far as Lacan is concerned) is a certain relationship between the word (and conceptual utterances surrounding the word) “Jellyfish” and the word “best” and “sandwich” and “southeast” and “Corner Cafe” (along with their associated utterances–what Saussure might call the paradigmatic connections).

This fact might shed some light on Lacan’s interest in mathematical formulas. After all, what theoretical construct illustrates relationships more specifically than math? Instead of attempting to justify, in any more conventional (and more traditionally rhetorical–read by Lacan as ’roundabout’) way his ideas concerning desire, Lacan simply constructs the following mathematical relationship:

“…desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting” (1186).

Reduced in Lacanian fashion to mathematical symbols, this amounts to

D = d – a

Thus desire is by its nature unsatisfiable, if for no other reason than it is represented by the removal of our real appetite for its satisfaction. By this reduction, Lacan sidesteps the necessity to “argue” for his formulation, as well as all the difficulties which he perceives might necessarily result from trying to get us, the audience, to understand exactly what relationship between terms he is attempting to achieve. These mathematical formulas tend to come off as somewhat humorous, embedded as they are within pages of text, convoluted in its system of representation, ostensibly explaining the very complexities of language that they work ironically to undercut. However, what Lacan sacrifices in the these formulations in the way of ‘straightforward’ complexity, he more than gains back in ‘straightforward’ ambiguity.

Another benefit to Lacan’s recourse to mathematical formulas in his discussion of language is to highlight language’s status as an abstract system. From the time we experience complex algebra or Euclidean geometry, we grow comfortable with the idea that mathematics works only insofar as it depends on the rules of a system. Euclidean geometry does not need to correspond to the real world in order to be usefully applied. Part of its strength, in fact, stems from the regularizing effect that systematization has on the ‘real’ world of experience. By foregrounding mathematical formulations, Lacan is making the same argument for our ideas about language, which we are perhaps less inclined to think of as an abstract system if only because it is the system by which we must necessarily navigate our everyday lives.
That said, I think it might be fun to play around a little with Lacanian mathematics. By the application of the transitive property to the above formulation, Lacan also seems to set up a whole range of relationships which are achievable through simple mathematic maneuvering. Each term in the equation can be isolated:

d = D + a
a = d – D

What does it mean to suggest that our demand for love is simply our Desire added to our appetite for satisfaction? Perhaps in love we find our unquenchable Desire at least partially satiated? As interesting is the idea that our appetite for satisfaction is the difference between our demand for love and our unquenchable Desire to know directly, which suggests a familiar dichotomy between ‘love’ and ‘lust’, between ‘need’ and ‘want’. However, rather than opposing them to one another (as the more traditional cliche might be inclined to do) Lacan suggests that they are intricately related through the same conduit of Desire which shapes our relationship to language, and thus both to our inner selves and the outside world.

Lacan also represents the relationship between signifier and signified in terms of the formulation S/s. While it seems that a primary reason for this visualization is that Lacan wishes us to see the Signifier as Over the Signified, in prominence and importance as well as in the role it plays in language (the signified ‘reigns’, so to speak), Lacan’s obvious penchant for mathematics suggests that this might equally be read as “the sign = the Signifier divided by the signified,” or perhaps better: “the sign = the signified divided into the Signifier.” And Lacan’s use of big and small letters is also employed with regards to the Other, which is opposed to an inner self that Lacan terms “objet petit autre”, or the object of the little o. So we are left with a conception of the individual as represented by O/o, where O represents our outer self, the Other, which Lacan defines as “the very locus evoked by the recourse to speech” (1185). Once again we confront the bar, at which position Lacan locates the all-but-uncrossable gap between truth and symbol. It is all to tempting then, to set up an equivalency:

S/s ~ O/o

And a whole range of suggestions is evident from this formulation. First of all, the relationship of the Other to the Signifier is made clear, and the signified is consigned in the formula to a position equivalent to that of the inner self (o). This all seems to fit Lacan’s own pronouncements very well. However, what happens when we play our little mathematics games with this formula and come up with:

S(o) ~ O(s)

or further

S ~ O(s) / o

Perhaps we might read the first formulation as “the Signifier is multiplied through the objet petit a as the Other is multiplied through the signified.” If we take the two sides of the equation to be stating the same thing in different ways (in the same sense that 2+2=4 does not necessarily indicate an operation so much as a simple equivalency), we might achieve a clearer understanding of the relation of the signified as Saussurian “concept” to the multiplicity of things which each concept must reference. The multiple and fragmented Other from which all signifiers ultimately must spring is bound up by the seemingly singular signified concept. The inverse of this relationship is represented by the first half of the equation, where the signifying linguistic element becomes multiple and fractured as it attempts to enter the inner self.

The second equation manages to isolate the Signifier, which we can now usefully take to equal “the inner self divided into the Other as multiplied through the signified.”

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