Saturday, October 31, 2009

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Via Mark Athitakis's Twitter feed, I found this snarky little exercise from Colson Whitehead. The set-up is that Whitehead is thinking about what kind of novel to write next, and he's set up a dartboard for the purpose, with slices labeled "Encyclopedic," "Realism," "Ethnic Bildungsroman," "About a Little Known Historical Fact," "Fabulist," and a few others.

The one that draws the most venom and yet still seems (to me) the most accurate is Realism:
Take this test. When you read “These dishes have been sitting in the sink for days,” do you think (a) This is an indicator of my inner weather, or (b) Why don’t they do the dishes? Does the phrase “I’m going as far away from here as my broken transmission will get me, and then I’ll take it from there” make you think (a) Somebody understands me, or (b) Why don’t they stay and talk it out? What is more visually appealing, (a) a Pall Mall butt floating in a coffee mug, or (b) those new Pop Art place mats in the Crate & Barrel catalog? If you answered (a), do we have a genre for you.
Maybe I have my own rather unreasonably venomous feelings about dirty realism (or what Mark McGurl calls "lower middle class modernism"), or maybe the genre truly has tapped itself out, like the veins in a junkie's arm. Or maybe it's just a question of too many imitators—I mean, I liked Raymond Carver when I was seventeen too. Haven't read him since, and I'm not sure to what degree I would still like him. But…

These questions seem rather moot when it comes to this slim collection of short stories, now nominated for a National Book Award. The stories preserve all the forms, digging down to the human bedrock of destitution, despair, drug use, and desire. It's like Denis Johnson with all the cool rubbed off. While occasionally experimenting with form (the list-structure of "The Solutions to Brian's Problem"), or even trying to bootstrap itself into some third-person variety of stream-of-consciousness ("The Inventor, 1972"), most of the volume seems to be mired in a no-man's-land between detachment and bathos, a place where physical degradations can be described clinically but much care is expended to name precisely brands and conditions of irrelevant objects which by their specificity are supposed to take up the emotional weight—the make and model of a car supposedly more eloquent than its driver in attesting to his condition.

"Authenticity" has usually played a leading role in the success (or at least the praise) of dirty realism, operating as a sort of deus ex machina saving the story at the last moment; despite the often spastic dialogue, the dull, earnest details, and the unwinning characters, if there is a true moment of identification and transcendence near the end, authenticity wells up and flows over and through the bathetic elements that have preceded it, fusing them into an artifact of authenticity: this is what life is like for some people.

There is an inherent "there but for the grace of G-d go I" coupling of pity and terror to this type of storytelling, a fact which is not lost on anyone. The objective is not to create a class consciousness (like the proletarian fiction of the 1930s and 1940s), but to create a consumer consciousness. The specificity of brands and conditions of consumer goods is not an empty gesture toward verisimilitude but a means of removing the world of this fiction from the situation of the reader, a separation underwritten by the stratification of consumer goods: if I smoked, it wouldn't be Pall Malls (and when I drink, it's generally not Jim Beam), and that has made, one could say, all the difference. I am defined as not being a part of the story but rather its reader because the goods I consume are very different from those its characters consume.

Or worse, I am differentiated from the characters by their consumerism of completely unbranded items, trinkets and tchotchkes, like the following:
In the center of the master bed sits an ancient nest of twigs containing pale blue robins' eggs (collected and blown by a great grandmother), which forms a nativity scene with a pair of wooden dolls. A dozen old-fashioned clothespins are laid out side-by-side across the foot of the bed like children at a reunion lining up for the group photo. Figurines and portraits long invisible to the family on the hallway bookshelf in their old juxtapositions have suddenly reappeared: the rocks painted to look like trolls mingle with the miniature bronze pigs, goats, and dinosaurs. These creatures now gaze upon a framed photo of the daughter with her gymnastics trophy. (The daughter switched from gymnastics to swimming two years ago when she shot up four inches in height, right after this portrait was taken.)
A few words about the situation of this excerpt, taken from the first story, "The Trespasser." As one can see from the title, there has been a home invasion, and a family has returned to their house to find many things destroyed and many things dislocated (like those items above); their home has been used in their absence as a meth den. But the trespassers also, through their odd re-locations of the family's forgotten objects, provide a (grossly overdetermined and yet still somehow banal) return of the repressed, and so we get the family's life represented by these tasteless trinkets: "rocks painted to look like trolls," bronze pigs, goats and dinosaurs (a definite wtf-begging assortment), and a two-year-old framed photo of their daughter. This is what passes, I think we're supposed to understand, for art in this family.

Mark McGurl, in discussing this "lower middle class modernism" in The Program Era, quotes Robert Rebein as saying that "Carver's 'true and lasting legacy' was in teaching writers of his generation 'how to be a serious artist without taking art as his subject [matter].'" (275-6 of Program Era). McGurl finds this persuasive and so do I, but I think some more can be done with it. The place of art, its appreciation, and its practice in "serious" fiction is so well-established that this Carverian project cannot merely turn away from art as the subject of serious fiction but must find a surrogate for it, and the search for that surrogate is what we see going on in work like Campbell's. This is the force behind McGurl's use of the term "modernism" to name this genre: it is far more continuous with the fiction which did place art at its center than that fiction which placed "life" at its center.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pierre Bourdieu and Henry Higgins

One of the first scenes of the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion goes something like this (start at about the 7:00 mark):

Higgins shows off by being able to reveal anyone's personal history by means of precise phonetic analysis. This is at first judged with some suspicion, and then is taken as a sort of amusement, a parlor trick.

Higgins reduces his listeners to a bald set of major influences—in some cases (notably the lower class speakers), a single point, their place of birth; in others, a brief string: "Cheltenham-Harrow-Cambridge-India" (around the 8:30 mark). It is sort of fun, but also, as Clara says, "impertinent."

Pierre Bourdieu, it seems, is often also assumed to be impertinent—amusing perhaps, in the sense that it seems like fun to talk about how other people's tastes reveal the structures and institutions which have produced them, but nevertheless impertinent. No one likes the thought that they too can be reduced to a "Cheltenham-Harrow-Cambridge-India," that they can be read as easily as that. Partly, I think it's a resistance to the idea that we may actually be fairly simple people, that the unruly tangle of our thoughts and passions, rationales and rationalities can be hammered out into a straight dull line. Partly, it's a fear that our "accents" give us away too easily, that we are wearing our inner motivations too nakedly, that we cannot even tell how markedly visible they are. Do I really have a strong accent and I just can't hear it?

***
In the new n+1, Nicholas Dames reviews three works which he reads as post-"Bordelian"1: two works by Jacques Rancière (The Politics of Aesthetics and The Future of the Image) and Carl Wilson's Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The manner by which Dames introduces Bourdieu is notable:
Those of us in commodity-rich, artistically saturated, more or less urbanized Western countries, at the start of the 21st century, know all too well how these games [of semiotics and society] are played. We know it instinctively, so well that the kind of confession of musical taste offered above has become a drearily familiar part of everyday life. We also know it because we know "Bourdieu," whether we've read the man or not. Pierre Bourdieu's most easily translatable idea—that aesthetic taste, or judgment, is always a move in the cultural game of "distinction," whereby we disaffiliate ourselves from social inferiors—progressed with astonishing speed from a daring argument against Kant's third Critique to conventional wisdom…
Bourdieu, Dames later says, is "responsible for the ironic knowingness of our present aesthetic discourse." In other words, despite writing Distinction at the end of the 70s, Bourdieu is the spirit of this moment, or at the very least of the moment that has just elapsed and still largely coats the immediate present. This I find questionable, not so much because of the stretched chronology (which is possible if not rigorously plausible) but because I would think that there might have been some developments since then which might more accurately account for the "ironic knowingness" of our present state of affairs—aesthetic or general. Like, say, television, or, more exactly, advertising. Maybe ad execs are big Bourdieu fans, or maybe (as Mad Men might suggest) there is a longer durée to ironic knowingness in advertising, much less in society at large.

More consequentially, Dames doesn't exactly protest that Bourdieu's known-without-being-read status is at all detrimental—to him or to the person who invokes him. In fact, Dames's treatment of Bourdieu strongly suggests he thinks that there really isn't anything more to Bourdieu than what has already been absorbed into a more general stance of "ironic knowingness," that we wouldn't get anything more out of Bourdieu by reading him than we would by osmosis, from hanging out with other people who haven't read him either but refer to him and generally cop the pose which evidently emanates from his work.

Dames, no doubt, has read a great deal more Bourdieu than I have, but I do feel that, based on what I have read, the above is not true; we would benefit from returning to the text in the same way we acknowledge it is vital to return to the texts of Foucault or Derrida or Marx to get their ideas right, or at least to try to get some more ideas out of them that we didn't pick up the first time. Moreover, the correspondence Dames leaves unquestioned between what Bourdieu's project was and the posture it supposedly produced might be broken up a bit.

***
This post has already gotten a little long, so I'm not going to be able to dig too far into the text yet. I do want to direct you to the Introduction, which is mostly available on Google Books. Unfortunately, page 3 is not, and that's the one that's pretty crucial, but first we need to deal with something on page 2.

A large part of Bourdieu's larger argument is figured at the very top of the page: "The manner in which culture has been acquired lives on in the manner of using it: the importance attached to manners can be understood once it is seen that it is these imponderables of practice which distinguish the different—and ranked—modes of culture acquisition, early or late, domestic or scholastic, and the classes of individuals which they characterize (such as 'pedants' and mondains)." This division of modes—the scholastic/pedant and the domestic/mondain is elaborated: Bourdieu first takes the scholastic theory of consumption as "reading." He finishes this brief description by concluding that, for the scholastic, "the encounter with a work of art is not 'love at first sight' as generally supposed, and the act of empathy… which is the art-lover's pleasure, presupposes an act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code" (3).

All well and good perhaps—the scholar/pedant's emphasis on codes/decodings and sharply defined "acquirements" seems like the perfect ground for sociological analysis, practically ready to be pinned to a graph or sent through the tight mesh of a filtering survey. But then we turn to the art-lover herself:
The typical intellectualist theory of artistic perception directly contradicts the experience of the art-lovers closest to the legitimate definition; acquisition of legitimate culture by insensible familiarization within the family circle tends to favor an enchanted experience of culture which implies forgetting the acquisition.
This complicates things. Whereas the pedant is basically aiding the sociologist through her emphasis on nearly quantifiable status markers (what codes one can decode, what "acquirements" one has, what "cultural competences" one finds ways to demonstrate), the mondain seems to resist not only this particular kind of self-evaluation but also the very idea that the cultural competences she possesses are acquired at all, that the codes she implements are conscious at all. Or, as Bourdieu says later in the book,
The ideology of natural taste owes its plausibility and its efficacy to the fact that, like all the ideological strategies generated in the everyday class struggle, it naturalizes real differences, converting differences in the mode of acquisition [e.g. between learning about culture at home vs. at school] into differences of nature; it only recognizes as legitimate the relation to culture (or language) which least bears the visible marks of its genesis, which has nothing 'academic,' 'scholastic,' 'bookish,' 'affected' or 'studied' about it, but manifests by its ease and naturalness that true culture is nature—a new mystery of immaculate conception.
Although Bourdieu can, as with that last remark, be a bit snippy toward the ideology of "natural" taste, it is this basic structural asymmetry between the aesthete and the pedant, I think, which creates the perception of the Bourdieusian sociologist as a Henry Higgins-like disposition, impertinently fond of telling you that you are, in fact, quite easy to see through and quite easily reducible to a scant string of major influences—"Cheltenham-Harrow-Cambridge-India," or maybe in this case something like, "lower-upper-middle class parents, public high school, private liberal arts college, state-university medical school." Ah yes, so that's why you like Ian McEwan!

Essentially, the fact that the "aesthete" or art-lover (or mondain) is constructed as inherently resistant to the type of analysis Bourdieu employs (she is, instead, "enchanted" and eager to forget the less ethereal realities of cultural acquisition) requires the sociologist to pay a different kind of attention—what comes to look like a more sharply critical and "disenchanting" form of attention—to the aesthete, and to exert more effort to "de-naturalize" the idea of taste to the extent that the additional effort comes to seem like an excess, like either supercilious reductionism or coolly calculated meta-gaming. This excess causes the Bourdieusian sociologist to look like someone who is trying to "outdo" everyone at a game of status that he insists we're all playing.

But this perception depends tremendously on whether we agree or not that something like an ideology of "natural taste" exists—if it doesn't, then the extra effort required to de-naturalize it does become unnecessary and even crippling to the Bourdieusian standpoint. I am fairly certain such an ideology does exist, if for no other reason that on some bad days of my early collegiate career I tried very hard to put it into practice (not to mention that I seem to run into it in other people with considerable frequency). But at any rate, this, I think, is the place to stage a debate—does something like an ideology of natural taste exist as Bourdieu describes it? Does it exist in a strong enough form and with enough frequency that it merits the extra effort to de-naturalize it? Is the U.S. case different from the (arguably much more overtly class-stratified) French one (with which Bourdieu is dealing) to the extent that it substantially alters the dynamic of the pedant/aesthete conflict?

Looking over what I have written, I probably have not given enough of Bourdieu's argument for an adequate appraisal of the claims he makes. I will try to post some more on Distinction at the very least (unless this is completely uninteresting to everyone). Maybe I can get to some of his other work—there are a couple of essays in this book which might be useful to this discussion as well.

At any rate, I hope that I've at least made the start of a case for the value of actually returning to the text and not simply resting on what we "know" about Bourdieu, or about the cult of "ironic knowingness" which is unfortunately too synonymous with him.


1Evidently there is a discrepancy regarding the adjectivization of "Bourdieu"—Garth had "Boudieuvian," the sociologists I've heard use "Bourdieusian," and now here's the dark horse candidate "Bordelian." The Google Test awards the honors to "Bourdieusian"—there are "about 12,000 results for that, and just 677 for "Bordelian" and 694 for "Bourdieuvian."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Let's Talk About Taste: Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta (or Not)

Garth Risk Hallberg finds it necessary once again to justify the Millions Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) list, or at least the concept of the list. I don't mean simply to re-hash the argument I made about the list (or the subsequent contretemps with Edmond), but there are a few additional points I'd like to make which I hope will expand rather than just extend the conversation.

First of all, Hallberg takes the "we started a conversation and conversations are good" line of argument. I would offer that there is an important distinction between starting a conversation and hosting a conversation. By its actions, The Millions was clearly hosting a conversation, and therefore had some additional obligations to uphold. More than just kicking things off and seeing where they rolled, I feel that there needed to have been more of an effort at engaging voices from different sectors of literary activity—not just writers and critics, but translators, booksellers, librarians (a group I didn't even think of in my first post), academics, and publishers. So, yeah, it's great that some conversations got started, but that could have been done with a single-line post: "Best Book of the Millennium: discuss." By assuming the authority of a host, The Millions needed to do more than get people talking.

Secondly and maybe more significantly, Hallberg takes issue with what he calls "the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism," which he ties to Bourdieu, although it could probably be more generally tied to the "hermeneutics of suspicion," a fellowship which also numbers among its members Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Here's what Hallberg finds aggravating about it:
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by an a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.

To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian [sic] posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
As much as I dislike the plumped-up "I know you are but what am I" tone of the argument, let's just take a step back and ask what really happens when a critic attempts to account for another person's taste by means of situating them within specific social formations. Hallberg's argument for how to account for taste is not exactly coherent (it reduces to a sort of "if I say I like it, I just like it, okay?"), but his assumption that the Bourdieusian stance is primarily a way of setting up an "anything you can do, I can do meta" game seems to be a common one, and a difficult feeling to shake off.

First of all, there is buried in Hallberg's argument a deep resistance to thinking of taste as anything that we consciously manipulate (or try to manipulate), an assumption that all manipulation is beady-eyed calculation. We are "moved" by some art, and the set of unmoved movers forms our taste; I find this a fairly narrow view of appreciation. The effort to comprehend a work which does not initially appeal to me often leads to a deeper integration of that work into my way of thinking; wrestling with its lack of appeal or mixed appeal is, I think, stronger grounds for what could be called "enjoying" it than an automatic rush of pleasure when I first encounter it. Taste is absolutely a conscious process because it is precisely how we discern between things that are unappealing and things that are bad which forms what we mean by taste, and the only way you can make that discernment is by active conscious manipulation.

Secondly, the resistance to an idea of active manipulation of one's taste leads directly to a fear of the unconscious self-manipulation of taste—the idea which he thinks Bourdieu is trying to get across, that some unconscious or half-conscious desire to look good guides all our decisions about what to like and what to dislike. (Bourdieu's is considerably more complicated than this, but I was hoping to post soon on a section of Distinction I just read for a class, so I'll get back to what's in fact more complicated in a bit.) The "Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes?" posture he says characterizes this mode of criticism is just this: a fear that my conscious rationales for my taste aren't accurate, that "your lying eyes" see what I cannot—my unconscious attempts to like only advantageous things.

There is certainly a malefic cross-pollination which sometimes occurs where a critique of taste gets spliced with good old vulgar-Marxist thunderings about "false consciousness"—the "you only like that because you're deluded" argument—but I think that Hallberg assumes that this splicing always happens and is, in fact, more of a feature than a bug—for him, it seems analyzing the way that taste is formed is always an accusation of false consciousness.

But I think you'd only think that way if you do believe that taste has got to be something entirely visceral, something you don't (and don't want to) consciously manipulate. Otherwise, false consciousness doesn't need to come up—if I think of taste as something that I work on or work over, is a critique of my taste an accusation of delusion or a commentary on the work I've done? Obviously the latter.

I think of the judges on The Millions panel as active participants in the formation of their taste. Obviously some structural boundaries are placed on what they're exposed to (and to some degree the manner or timing they are exposed to it), but I assume that they are just as active in working on and over their taste as I am. It is just that in a fairly homogeneous group (like the panel), there aren't going to be so many different ways of working on/over taste represented. Writers, in part because their structural boundaries overlap to a substantial degree (being subject to similar situations and possessing similar goals), are going to work over their taste in broadly similar ways—the space of the workshop shows them one way, the market shows them another (or maybe the same way), and many of them accept one or both. That was what I was pointing to in flagging the number of hybrid-fiction books and the number of short story collections on the list; the members of the panel had largely worked over their taste in a similar fashion and had produced a specific kind of list, one suited to that fashion.

Critiquing taste isn't about trying to ride just ahead of the wave and looking back to tell everyone behind you that they're just pathetically trying (consciously or unconsciously) to be cool. Analyzing how taste is formed isn't an aesthetic Ponzi scheme; handled correctly, it produces real dividends, even if some people are unhappy seeing it work.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Jameson and Form"

Terry Eagleton has a wonderful appreciation of Fredric Jameson in the most recent New Left Review. Because subscription is required, I'll post a few of the really fine paragraphs:
It would be hard to imagine Jameson writing an extended piece of straight political or economic analysis. What fascinates him, as a kind of phenomenologist of the mind, is the business of imaginatively reinventing ideas, as his prose lingers over their flavour and texture. Ideas in his writing come saturated in sensibility, and the sensibility in question is as distinctive as that of an outstanding poet or novelist. He is not, like George Steiner, a hedonist of the intellect: the truth value and practical force of ideas are by no means a matter of indifference to him. His strength, however, is less that he coins new concepts, though he has of course done so, than that he provides us with imaginative objective correlatives for our knowledge. In Shelley’s fine phrase about the task of the poet, he enables us to ‘imagine what we know’.
And later,
Jameson’s suspicion of the ‘deep’ individual subject of modernism goes hand in hand with his animus against morality. There is an unexpected reference to Vice in The Modernist Papers, but it turns out to be a misprint for Vico. Subjectivity, morality, the personal or interpersonal life: these in Jameson are neuralgic points, places where the emotional temperature of the prose is momentarily raised, and as such, one suspects, symptomatic of something at all costs to be avoided. No doubt this is one reason for his affection for some of the more impersonal products of postmodernism, despite his belief that such culture represents the late flowering of a political system he opposes. Since I have taken issue elsewhere with Jameson’s aversion to the moral, I do not intend to rehearse that argument here.13 I want rather to suggest the relevance of this allergy to ethics to questions of form and style in his work. The point at stake is a question of critical practice, not of philosophical outlook. It can be claimed that form operates in Jameson’s work among other things as a kind of psychical defence against the ethical, in the sense of emotional, psychological and behavioural content.
But the issue is not just whether Jameson should give the ethical more credence; it is rather that his refusal to do so results in an undue dismissal of the empirical or phenomenal appearance of the literary work. In quasi-structuralist fashion, the empirical presence of the work is too quickly bracketed. Reading the essays on Thomas Mann in The Modernist Papers, with their wonderfully innovative investigations of irony, allegory, mimesis, polyphony, genre, narrative structure and the like, one is struck by the realization that Jameson says very little about what the common reader, even the common leftist reader, will surely carry away from The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. What has happened to the explicit content of these novels—to the motifs of sickness, suffering, love, evil, unreason, humanism, Eros, mortality, barbarism, sacrifice? Why does Jameson appear so loth to tackle these common-or-garden thematics head-on, telling us what he thinks about such momentous questions, where he stands, what judgements he himself would pass on the various pressing subjects that come up? Throughout The Modernist Papers, as well as elsewhere in his work, he has something of a cavalier way with such matters, referring somewhat disdainfully to the standard interpretations of Kafka’s fiction (roughly, Oedipality, bureaucracy and religion), and inclining as early as The Political Unconscious to write off with chinleading provocation such notions as character, event, plot and narrative meaning as so many ‘false problems'.
The last four or five pages which constitute Eagleton's critique are masterful, incisive admonitions for what good criticism must include: "Yet rather as Jameson discerns a form of repression at the heart of a Cézanne canvas, so his own astonishingly adventurous re-writings of works of art in terms of form, structure and history, in which such works are estranged almost to the point of being unrecognizable, would seem based on a repression of the subjective, empirical and psychological, all of which needs to be rigorously, almost contemptuously banished by this otherwise most generous, inclusive of thinkers." A paragraph later, Eagleton admits that Jameson's repressions are the preconditions of his extraordinary successes, but his point about what is lost nonetheless registers.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

I had a variant of this conversation with a friend yesterday after a class in which the professor claimed that "David Foster Wallace" was the moral position she would like to claim as her own. While we didn't refer back to that remark, we discussed the role of hyperbole in talking about books. For many (though not, or at least very rarely, for me), hyperbole seems to be the only adequate mode for describing one's feelings about a small set of books which one feels must be lifted out from the basic continuum of comparison and evaluation. These are the books which "change one's life."

That locution—"that book changed my life"—has always puzzled me, as its literal meanings seem generally dubious. If I were, however, to assume that a literal meaning is possible, it seems like it could mean all kinds of things: my behavior changed after I read it (I began recycling more, I watched television less, I became a vegetarian); the way I perceived things changed (I became cynical, or religious, or existential); I felt older or more mature or wiser; or (perhaps as a subset of one or more of these) my ideas of what fiction can be or what fiction is changed. I'm not sure the last would count for everybody as a life-changing event, but for "serious" readers, I think it probably does.

Or, more likely, the book happened into our hand at a moment when we were already re-directing our steps slightly, and we conveniently use that coincidence to narrate and make more definite our account of ourselves. "Life-changing" is less a property of the book than of time, of the narrative of maturation, Bildung, disenchantment, etc. The Catcher in the Rye doesn't make you a nihilistic smartass; you just recognized that you were one after you read it, and you remembered it as a cause, not as a coincidence.

I'm quite skeptical of the other possible meanings for "that book changed my life." Feeling older or more mature or wiser because you read a book is probably somewhat valid, but again, I'd argue it's less a causal relationship and more of a correlation: you simply find the reading of a book a convenient milestone for marking your maturation, not an actual producer of more mature feelings or ideas. Books, like poetry, make nothing happen; they confirm what has happened or what we think has happened, in us as much as in the world.

I imagine there are cases of sustained self-induced behavioral modification that have been caused by reading, but the key word there is "sustained." Who doesn't stay away from McDonalds for a few months after reading Fast Food Nation? But if fast food was a solid part of your life before the book, it probably will be again, and if it wasn't—if you already did not eat fast food often, can your new resolution not to eat it at all be said to be life-changing? Similarly, I find it likely that if L'Étranger turned you into an existentialist, then something else will soon turn you into a nihilist, and Brideshead Revisited will probably Catholicize you if you read it when you're old (and not when you're young and just think rich British people of any religious persuasion are awesome). A convert is rarely a convert to just one thing.

Similarly, reactions to a book which could be described (in a not entirely pathologizing manner) as 'obsessive' strike me as unlikely to form without a supporting structure in place. In the linked example, Greg Carlisle describes his experience of reading Infinite Jest as the cause of his writing Elegant Complexity, a guide to Infinite Jest, and to his further reading of Vollmann, Barth, Gaddis, and Pynchon. The hyperbolic narrative Carlisle gives is that this prolonged activity is the consequence of reading Infinite Jest, as if the chance encounter with the novel which he describes contained within it the entire complex of motivations, energy, and even education necessary for the production of his guide and his further reading—it taught him about and impelled him toward all these other things. In fact, we can see in his account the outlines of some deeper motivations (dissatisfaction with his job and his location, positive reinforcement from fellow Wallace fans) that might provide the necessary grounds for sustaining a form of activity of this duration and intensity.

But what about the last possibility: that a book alters what we think of as the bounds of fiction: what it can do or what it is. I think this possibility is more likely, but it may mean something different from what we habitually mean when we say it. Given that few readers—even few serious readers—have explicitly articulated conceptions of what fiction can do and what it is, I think we have to acknowledge that the reaction "this book changed my idea of what fiction can do/is" would be more accurately re-phrased as "I hadn't thought of fiction as connected to that realm of experience." When we say our idea of fiction has been changed, we mean that we find fiction standing suddenly between us and some aspect of the world that we were either unused to interacting with in the first place or were used to interacting with in a manner unmediated by fiction.

Some of the reactions in the Infinite Summer wrap-up post demonstrate this sense pretty well: Avery Edison notes her sudden interest in tennis and her sudden disinterest in caffeine; Eden Kennedy simply says, "I’m certain little connections between the book and my life will continue to click together over time" and flags a particular interaction with her dentist which was mediated by IJ; Kevin Guilfoile (and Avery and Eden as well) speaks to the way IJ has entered his thoughts about time management and attention. (Matthew Baldwin doesn't so much affirm that IJ changed his life as admit that he can understand why people would say that sincerely.) In each case, Infinite Jest has newly stepped between an aspect of experience and the reader, and it is this new experience of mediation that counts as "life-changing."

Yet this mediation effect (which I find the most compelling description of the actual experience of having one's life or concept of fiction changed by a book) is so much less dramatic than the forms of expression it commonly takes that I feel there must be something other than the real intensity of the experience which necessitates hyperbole. That is, if what we actually feel about a "life-changing" book is that it has suddenly come to stand in between us and a realm (or more than one realm) of experience previously unknown or unmediated, this feeling seems insufficiently powerful to justify the expression "life-changing." Hyperbole is employed because it seems like it is the best approximation of the feeling of excess, effusion, effervescence that characterizes our full experience, and I have trouble finding that effervescence in my account.

My speculation is simply that this effervescence is provided by the desire to have one's life changed by a book, the desire to be a person whose life/identity/consciousness might actually be altered in a sustained and concrete way by a totally private experience. The hyperbolic expression "this book changed my life" is little more than a declaration of independence: I can change my life on my own; what I have inside me needs only the right key for its fulfillment. The frequency with which people (like Carlisle) avow the contingency of their encounter with the "life-changing" book is a strategy of minimizing the determinative structures which have brought you into contact with the book at all. Carlisle emphasizes the casualness with which Infinite Jest first came to him by his friend's recommendation, but this hides the fact that most people don't have friends who recommend Infinite Jest to them; being a person who does is not random or insignificant.

***
I imagine that all of the above may be considered a giant case of "missing the point," and I sympathize with that view to some extent. There is a communicative value to statements like "this book changed my life"—they are meant, I think, as sincere efforts to share something of the self with others; they are offers of a type of exchange which is intended as more than book-chat. The fact that this exchange is meant to reinforce the idea of an autonomous, largely self-forming self may, in the end, be somewhat incidental; so many of our activities, particularly our intellectual activities, are meant to reinforce the very same idea that perhaps it would be best to pass over this one, in the future at least. While I doubt I'll ever express myself in this hyperbolic manner, I certainly won't repeat this lecture if someone else does.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

From Ghosts, by César Aira

The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn't get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all—which technological advances have exacerbated if anything—isn't actually an essential part of cinema's charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie-making, in the form of pure daydreaming. It's the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.

In this sense all the arts have a literary basis, built into their history and their myths. Architecture is no exception. In advanced, or at least sedentary, civilizations, building requires the collaboration of various kinds of tradesmen: bricklayers, carpenters, painters, then electricians, plumbers, glaziers, and so on. In nomadic cultures, dwellings are made by a single person, almost always a woman. Architecture is still symbolic, of course, but its social significations are manifest in the arrangement of dwellings within the camp. The same thing happens in literature: in the composition of some works, the author becomes a whole society, by means of a kind of symbolic condensation, writing with the real or virtual collaboration of all the culture's specialists, while other works are made by an individual working alone like the nomadic woman, in which case society is signified by the arrangement of the writer's books in relation to the books of others, their periodic appearance, and so on.
A book as elegant as a syllogism, but not in the least mechanical. There is a baroque richness to the way the book develops, as Aira's dazzlingly assured voice wafts through the consciousnesses of his characters, remarking upon them acutely, but warmly. Thomas Mann is mentioned near the end (in a quote I'll pull in a moment), and there is a noticeable degree of similarity to him, particularly in The Magic Mountain. What Aira shares with Mann is a neoclassical solidity that grounds the philosophical fancies of the characters or the narrator; while Aira's characters are not so idly pedantic as Naphtha or Settembrini, they share an organic relationship to the thoughts they have which is integral to the progression of the novel, rather than digressive. What I think happens in each case is that the author is able to reproduce his own pursuit of an idea, or a set of ideas, and not just the idea-as-captive. Though the author knows what he is going to say, the path to what will be said is not foreshortened by that foreknowledge: ideas emerge, they aren't just spoken.

Here's another beautiful passage:
It might seem odd that this relatively uneducated young woman, who hadn't even finished secondary school, should entertain such elaborate thoughts. But it's not as strange as it seems. A person might never have thought at all, might have lived as a quivering bundle of futile, momentary passions, and yet at any moment, just like that, ideas as subtle as any that have ever occurred to the greatest philosophers might dawn on him or her. This seems utterly paradoxical, but in fact happens every day. Thought is absorbed from others, who don't think either, but find their thoughts ready-made, and so on. This might seem to be a system spinning in a void, but not entirely; it is grounded, although it's hard to say just how. An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don't think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it's simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a "thought," reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, not really from them. They are not the ground; you can't expect them to be. They're suspended in the void, like everything else. But there they are, they exist: you can't say that it's a complete void.