Wednesday, February 10, 2010

From "The Grey Area," by Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti has a wonderful analysis of Ibsen and the bourgeois world in the most recent New Left Review. Ibsen figures for him as the great chronicler of a field of dissonance between morality and legality which is proper to bourgeois society and, more directly, to relations within and among the ruling class, where "[i]ntra-bourgeois competition [i]s a mortal combat: and since life is at stake, the conflict easily becomes ruthless, or dishonest; but, and this is important, ruthless, unfair, equivocal, murky—but seldom actually illegal."

Moretti deploys the common term "grey area" to designate this field of competition, but does so under some taxonomical frustration:
As far as I can tell, there is no general term for these actions, which at first was frustrating; for I have often found the analysis of keywords illuminating for understanding the dynamic of bourgeois values: useful, serious, industry, comfort, earnest. Take ‘efficiency’: a word that had existed for centuries, and had always meant, as the OED puts it, ‘the fact of being an efficient cause’: causality. But then, in the mid-nineteenth century, all of a sudden the meaning changes, and efficiency starts indicating ‘the fitness or power to accomplish . . . the purpose intended; adequate power’. Adequate; fit to the purpose: not the capacity to cause something in general any more, but to do so according to a plan, and without waste: the new meaning is a miniature of capitalist rationalization. ‘Language is the instrument by which the world and society are adjusted’, writes Benveniste, and he’s right; semantic change, triggered by historical change; words catching up with things. That’s the beauty of keywords: they’re a bridge between material and intellectual history.
"A bridge between material and intellectual history": quite a claim, and one which may have increasing currency of late (I'm thinking in particular of Jenny Davidson's excellent book Breeding).

I like it a great deal; it is an excellent, pragmatic rationale for the study of literature, assuming (and I think one can assume) that a convincing argument can be made for a privileged position for literature in registering, preserving, and activating these "semantic change[s], triggered by historical change[s]; words catching up with things." And it offers a sturdy, ready-to-wear methodology which, though it may look a bit pedestrian and blunt at the outset, actually can, as Davidson certainly demonstrated, produce quite subtle results and multi-textured, sophisticated readings of a diverse set of texts.

My only question here would be precisely what Moretti means by 'material'; while this keyword has its own rather torturous history especially within Marxism, even within those allowances, Moretti's sense of materiality often seems a bit nebulous. One might quite reasonably (and I think accurately) translate his "bridge between material and intellectual history" into something like a "bridge between histories of production and histories of expression" as this would continue the spirit of the pair from the previous sentence: "words catching up with things." This threatens, of course, to fall back into a simplistic base-superstructure relationship where changes in the meanings of words mechanically arise from changes in the relations of productions (this particular phrase "catching up with" even seems to flirt with a revival of the notion of temporal lags), but I don't think that is what Moretti intends at all, and it would be interesting to position this keyword approach within Volosinov's philosophy of language.

At any rate, there's more to think about here, but I just wanted to draw some attention to this provocative paragraph and retain it for possible future use.

1 comment:

Tony Christini said...

Technically interesting. On the other hand, why not look forward rather than backward and study not "words catching up with things" but "things catching up with words" or failing to. Or what is vision and imagination for in literature and scholarship?

Of late, the establishment laments or at least notes the lack of utopian fiction in recent decades yet fails to mention serious left progressive works that might best repay a study of the nature and degree of "things catching up with words" or failing to.

Such study may be as technically interesting as anything else, and probably more vital, not least for being more unthinkable, more taboo.

For example, one may read and consider in the recently released Liberation Lit anthology, Do US soldiers "die for all of us"? or do they "die because of all of us"? What are the normative and other technical implications of the appearance of this phrase in literature (and larger life), and how and what might it mean that things may not have caught up with words, and as compared to the inverse?

Surely would serve as basis for a fit article for the New Left Review, one would think. Or does one talk to the ocean and the wind in these matters?