Tag Archives: Jacques Derrida

A Derridean account of literary style

The boldness of the title here needs to be put in check immediately, I’ve only read the Grammatology recently, and though this was the first reading where I think I made the sense of it, I still haven’t read Lévi-Strauss or Rousseau, so in actuality, my reading can g.t.f.o.

Helpfully, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak provides one of the better introductions of all time, which allows us to get underway in terms of considering style.

It could be said that Derrida’s philosophy launched a thousand styles, much to David Foster Wallace’s chagrin; his MFA students had an uncanny capacity to encourage many of them down the route of irony-poisoned multi-vocality, typographical playfulness, all in the name of his casting adrift an economy of relativised meaning, at the expense of bourgeois, post-Enlightenment certainty. This led him eventually to begin each semester by writing the names of the doyennes of deconstruction on the chalkboard, to announce ‘I’m read all these guys. You don’t need to remind me of them’.

However, we must not mistake the historicised post-structuralist movement for Derrida’s stated views on style, which, as far as I can see are unfortunately absent from the Grammatology. But, if we say that Derrida viewed the pursuit of stable meaning sceptically, it’s probable that seeking to discover a single, unified style in any textual artefact, would be likewise wrong-headed, as Spivak points out in her introduction

The desire for unity and order compels the author and the reader to balance the equation that is the text’s symptom.

A single authorial style is a romantic contrivance, and violates Derrida’s sense of textuality, which is autonomous from such concerns, and does not answer to ‘proper names.’

We know that the metaphor that would describe the genealogy of the text correctly is still forbidden. In its syntax and its lexicon, its spacing, by its punctuation, its lacunae, its margins, the historical appurtenance of a text, is never a straight line. It is neither causality by contagion nor the simple accumulation of layers. Not even the pure juxtaposition of borrowed pieces.

Of all the words in this rather dazzling paragraph, it is ‘layers’ that strikes me most forcefully, if only for the reason that ‘layers’ is the way in which I decided to envision and visualise literary data in the course of my thesis. There is a risk in giving into Derrida that one would merely come away with some nebulous kind of radical indeterminacy, rather than a constructivist paradigm, which would be more necessary in the carrying out of quantitative analytical procedures. In fact, the kind of theological everything/nothing that Derrida, ironically tends to engender, is exactly what I want to avoid.

What does stand out in this paragraph, is the text’s interconnectedness, and every part’s responsiveness to every other part. This is a key feature of Derrida’s mode of critique; in later chapters, he will locate minor, or tangential sections of Rousseau or Lévi-Strauss, minor details or afterthoughts, that reveal themselves to be the precise juncture at which their systems of thought lapse into incoherence and uncertainty. A ‘total’ view of style then, one which reveals it to be wide-ranging and prone to upset, composed on a granular level of fragmentary particles, is something that Derrida might offer us in comprehending style.

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A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style

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This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Geology of Literary Style

When I was drafting my PhD proposal, I read a few sources on literary style, in order to come to a working definition of style, or an academic consensus on the matter to rail against. I didn’t want something simplistically formalistic that referred to vehicles, tenors, modes or what have you, but I also didn’t want a post-Derridean account, that described style as a limit-case/fault line/discourse rupture, an everything and nothing at once. These kind of critical stymieings, excessive nuancing to the point of inertia have gotten a bit wearying after five years of seeing them deployed, so I was hoping to get to some kind of working definition. Emphasis on ‘working’ considering I would be carrying out pragmatic actual tasks, via computation, which were to be finalised once I had my definition.

It was surprisingly challenging to track one down, and more often than not I was thrown back onto my own reflections on literary style, and what we talk about when we talk about it. Here, I think we stumble across its primary shortcoming as a delineator. People talk about Virginia Woolf’s interior, lyrical style, Jorge Luis Borges’ staid, cold style and Ernest Hemmingway’s staccato, pared back style. The difficulty with these simplistic accounts is that an author’s style generally encapsulates what it is that makes them unique in literary discourse in general. This isn’t necessarily surprising; most of what we detect in a writer’s style is what throws us out of our reading habits. When Foster Wallace frenetically re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style.  But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like “She tied the tapes,” in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such “filler.”

This dearth of attention directed to the ‘particles’ of literary materials, is a lot of what digital humanities projects present themselves as a corrective to, by looking at the macroeconomic, we can transcend our human fixation on shiny objects (read: pretty sentences), and gain a fuller understanding of a text’s style, liberated from the shortcomings of our usual reading habits.

Of course, this newfound command over an entire text does not prevent the critic from mounting flawed arguments; many digital humanities projects from its earlier experiments in literary analysis too frequently gave into Rubik’s cube thinking, attempting to tame indeterminacy, by solving a text via enumerative techniques. This is exactly the kind of objective approach I didn’t want to fall into when visualising and narrating data trends.

Franco Moretti’s work in the Stanford Lit Lab proved beneficial in opening me up to more diffuse and multi-perspectival digital methodologies; by visualising a text on a number of different textual levels. Moretti’s contention that the data shows the activation of different stylistic features scale is directly correlated to the differentiation of textual functions is positively invigorating, as it is as far removed from the Rubik’s cube mentality as is possible to get; it essentially concedes that what we see when we look at a text depends on the way that we’re looking at it. Yes, Moretti is talking about topic modelling rather than style, but for my purposes I’ll ignore that. I also enjoy that it seems to be a computational analogue to the psychedelic nature of literary criticism – the longer we look at a text, even a shorter one, perhaps even especially a shorter one, the more we see. Diversifying our means of approach therefore provides the critic with a disparate sequence of differentiated visualisations, Enright may be meaningfully analogous to, dunno, Proust from the perspective of the entire text, but on a word to word, sentence to sentence, chapter to chapter, etc. comparison, we may turn up more unexpected results.

I still lacked a conceptual, theoretical system to connect this approach with, until I read the third chapter of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, ’10, 000 BC: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)’ In this chapter, Deleuze and Guattari make use of the discipline of geology in order to outline a number of theories concerning form, content, ideology and the articulations thereof.  The unorthodox appropriation of geology is part of Deleuze and Guattari’s wider usage of theories and concepts outside of traditional philosophy, in order to subvert the staid formula of normative philosophical argumentation, wherein a summary is given of problem 1, why the solution A posited by philosopher z is insufficient and why solution B posited by philosopher y is even more so, and how both (and every other philosophy in the history of the discipline, by extension) have overlooked a solution that I alone have realised. This is all beside the point and I mention it only to indicate how smart I am.

In any case, the earth, and, for my purposes, a literary text is composed of a number of strata, differing layers, which contain, compose and construct otherwise transitory particles, making them subject to more macroeconomic structures of order. In this way, they simplify their contents, as particles move between these strata erratically. One should think of strata as totalising senses of an author’s style, whereas the particles are more subtle, granular features that disappear and re-appear in and outside of particular strata. Form and content are singularly intermingled on the level of the stratum, and are merely a function of primary and secondary articulation.

Strata in turn are composed of epistrata and parastrata, which further undermines any attempt someone, like a mad person, would make to get a stable grasp on exactly what it is Deleuze and Guattari mean when they lay out this seemingly intractable schema. The strata model is a challenge to systematic modes of thought, such as structuralism, so it offers no stability, but for me, this is precisely its appeal. Any interpretation on a particular textual level, such as stratum d, which we could equate to word choice, for instance, samples one among many protean strata, composed of other strata, made relative to a machinic assemblage, itself a stratified metastratum, which becomes involved in its, the strata’s dual articulations along the lines of form and content. Simple.

The key here is that it avoids closure, it is a theoretical construct that is anathema to pragmatists, and on that basis, even if my numbers add up, any conclusions I reach with them will be, by virtue of association,  strictly provisional.

Reading Lessons from Martin Heidegger

Trying to derive an aesthetic system or outlook from Martin Heidegger’s writings on art in Poetry, Language, Thought is an errand for fools; Heidegger explicitly rules out the idea that his hermeneutic philosophy, or at least, his philosophy which inclines itself towards hermeneutics, is concerned with aisthesis, or the apprehension of an artwork. Instead, he subsumes it within his wider philosophical task, to get to the nature of Being, note the capital B.

For Heidegger, Western philosophy has insufficiently grappled with ontology. René Descartes made a mistake in trying to determine what is, Heidegger thinks he should have thought a bit more about what is is. What exactly we mean by Being is complicated by the alienating processes of industrialisation, mercantilism and urbanisation, which have left us with an increasingly utilitarian sense of things in the world. Instead of enquiring into the nature of what something is, we define it relative to its use-value. Heidegger writes that art is also part of this wider enquiry into Being, that this is the primary function of ‘poets’ – which I decide to extend as a catch-all term for artists in a more general sense – to do exactly what it is that Heidegger is doing, and reach a more nuanced definition of Being. This might seem like a self-involved or solipsistic manoeuvrer, but if you came from a national literary tradition as philosophically inclined as Heidegger (Rilke, Goethe) you might well agree with him.

So how would one read a text in a Heideggerian way? Well, Heidegger was always more interested in the posing of further questions than in proposing resolutions. There’s very little in Poetry, Language, Thought that one could hope to derive a positive methodology from, unless saying something like ‘The answer to this has six primary components,’ and providing a long digression on said components is your notion of pragmatism. Interestingly, one of his students, more invested in heremeneutic philosophy as an autonomous branch of philosophical enquiry, Hans Georg-Gadamer, is similarly anti-systematic, perceiving the work of art as something that makes you subject to its meaning-makings. In this schema, the process of interpretation is something that leaves the putative reader behind, meaning overtakes your agency as it establishes itself. Which I think could be productively linked with the writings of Heidegger which attempt to justify National Socialism. Digression for another time.

Rather than describe how the work of art works on us, Heidegger divvies it up into increasingly thin components, the allegory of the form/content binary, within which there is the form-matter, which is distinct in itself, the process of ‘worlding’ that a work of art inaugurates, ‘the earth’ on which the work dwells and many, many other features which contemporary literary critics would probably understand, rightly or wrongly, as relating to a work’s context.

There is a tendency in the wake of Jacques Derrida, particularly when he seemed to be such an attentive reader of these philosophers supposedly foundational to post-structuralism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, that within these philosopher’s works are the germs of Derrida’s system of thought. Therefore Heidegger’s insistence on the context being made up of these manifold sections, interdependently and intricately linked, may create a sense that this structure is about to be deconstructed, and lapse into its own angst. In fact, Heidegger is very clear that these sections retain their formal integrity, each may be articulated relative to and within the other, as is the case in Derrida’s re-formulation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential networks of meaning, but within this mutual articulation, they remain solid. This comes across in a very interesting passage that describes the process of building a bridge:

“It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge lies across the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge…With the banks, the bridge belongs to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape around the stream.”

By coming to an understanding of what is outlined in this perhaps wilfully obtuse paragraph, Heidegger hopes that we may come to an understanding of art which will provide a place of dwelling rather than merely a refuge, a place that we can authentically ‘live’ within, rather than merely taking refuge. Hear, hear, I say, probably.

A Defense of Pragmatic Approaches to TEI Markup

A Defense of Pragmatic Approaches to TEI mark-up

Against Hypertext: Digital Literature and its Antecedents

Hypertext essay

William H. Gass’ ‘The Tunnel’ and the Sad Man Monologue

William H. Gass’ novel The Tunnel strikes me, in one way, by its similarity to a particular kind of fiction written by a particular kind of novelist of a particular age and gender, a sub-genre I call ‘The Sad Man Monologue.’ This form was, I would argue, pioneered by Samuel Beckett in his Trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt and L’innomable, though I am open to being corrected on that, (damienrants at https://iscriptorblog.wordpress.com/ suggests Goethe, Heinrich Von Kleist and Fyodor Dostoevsky as plausible pre-modernist progenitors) and is practiced nowadays by the aforementioned Gass, occasionally by Paul Auster and exclusively by John Banville.

Below are some key features of the genre, for your perusal and edification:

The narrator is a middle-aged man – This is a fairly consistent feature of the genre, as these texts generally depict the narrator as writing the account as we read it, hopping back and forth in time, from a bathetic present to a Kodak-distant youth in which feelings were felt intensely. The neither/nor in-between space of middle age is crucial for bringing together the pathos of departed days with the anxiety of a more proximate death.

The writing is of an extremely heightened sort – More so, I think than any other invented sub-genre today, the authors of sad man monologues embroider with densely worded baroqueries. The reason behind this linguistically charged and seductive register is that the sad men are, generally speaking, shits, and often unrepentant shits at that, probably necessitating its glossy surfaces and (sometimes) exquisite proliferation of sub-clauses.

The narrator complains about the unattractiveness of their spouse – A bugbear I have as regards this genre is that each sad man finds time, ample time in fact, to denigrate the attractiveness of their wife and log their resentment over how little gratifying sex they get. I find it so bizarre that in the works of these writers, time and time again, half the novel is devoted to the fundamental pain of the human condition, epistemological, phenomenological uncertainty, the unreliability of memory, the indignity of having an infinite intellect yoked to a decaying body, yet the narrator still finds time to harp on his petty domestics chauvinistically, as if this had some sort of universal significance. This annoys me because 1) I suspect the narrator is no spring chicken, 2) I have no idea what they expect, holing themselves away authoring the story of their life and being so angst ridden all the time, 3) it comes across like a male author getting a dig in at their wife.

The narrator is an erudite and studious sort, well up on contemporary thought – These novels are shot through with flirtations of references to The Jacques. This is fun, but wears quickly, especially when one reads Gass, who makes the effort to traduce this theoretical terminology into his own inimitably mad register, then returns to these other authors, who make use of phrases like ‘unconscious,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘fracture,’ or god help us, that familiar clattering of the undergraduate, ‘signifier.’

Scanning my bookshelves for a gender counterpoint, the sad woman monologue, (again, examples please), I come away with J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both bring productive knottiness into the formulae above, Enright’s Veronica moves back before her own birth, introducing impossible pre-natal perspectives, just as Coetzee’s Magda, allows others to speak their own pieces in dialogue, committing a cardinal sin against the genre. This is complicated by the fact that both narrators inflect what they see or narrate to suit their own interests; their supposed capacity to deal in heteroglossia in fact points towards a more insidious variant of monomania.

The Gathering is class. Read The Gathering.