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Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think: A Valve Book Event
For the next three days, we will posting and commenting on Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. This book event is the latest in our series that includes Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, as well as the anthologies Theory’s Empire and The Literary Wittgenstein. This time we Valvesters will be joined by Jason Jones of The Salt Box.
Ms. Armstrong is a Professor of English, Comparative Literature, Modern Culture and Media, and Gender Studies at Brown. How Novels Think “argues that the history of the novel and the history of the modern individual are, quite literally, one and the same.” Armstrong places the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel at a central position in both the history of thought and history in general, granting the novel power to create and regulate individualism as wide-spread social phenomenon.
As with our Moretti event, we will examine Armstrong’s work in itself and in its significance for literary studies in general.
How vs. What
I would like to start off our discussion of How Novels Think with some considerations that might seem both painfully obvious and annoyingly obtuse, or at least off-topic. Instead of taking up the specific details of Armstrong’s argument, I would like to isolate one of its presumptions. Actually, something even more basic than a presumption, and something almost universally accepted in literary studies. It is my belief, though, that remembering basic facts, and pointing out what goes without saying, can help keep our pursuits oriented.
I am entirely unfamiliar with Nancy Armstrong’s work, but was quite attracted by the title of this book, as it raises the possibility that literary artifacts have agency. And Armstrong explores this possibility throughout. For example, she almost always attributes arguments to books, rarely to their authors.
Whether or not one is interested in such a pursuit could be a matter of taste. Those taken by the idea of Modernist impersonalism might find if more intriguing than those enamored of Augustan rationalism. But the pursuit need not be an expression of partisanship. It might be considered as a means for ascertaining what degree the medium of thought (novels, poems, etc.) determines the kind of thought. This experiment would be in theoretical formalism, not just describing the features of literary form, but attempting to ascertain form’s function.
My primary desire when I took up Armstrong’s book was to see what if offered in the way of theoretical formalism. & as with any desire, mine has distorting effects. For me these distortions began before I even opened the book. When I read Armstrong’s title, I immediately considered it as making a distinction: how novels think vs. what they think. This of course is not a fair approach to any work. There’s the typical respondent at a talk whose response to the paper amounts to a selfish complaint: “you haven’t made the argument I would have made if I were up at the podium.” & I expect Armstrong would be wary of the how vs. what distinction, if for no other reason than how the how so easily bleeds into the what, and vice versa. It can seem a practically impossible distinction to make.
Still, pursuing the distinction can be informative, similar to pursuing (even if per impossible) the possibility of textual agency. & I believe Armstrong’s book has an actual answer to the question, though a humble one. & the humility, I will suggest, albeit cursorily, does not reflect on Armstrong as much as it does on the novel itself, or at least its general reception by literary critics.
How Novels Think
To think about Nancy Armstrong thinking about the novel, we need to begin with Ian Watt.Continue reading "How Novels Think"
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
How Novels Think - About Bad Subjects, For Example
Let me articulate two concerns about how Nancy Armstrong’s book, How Novels Think, thinks. Then, a generous spot of close reading. (I’ll transcribe some long passages, in part just so our readers have a bit more actual Armstrong to consider, in reading these reviews.)
Armstrong discusses two things: 1) the formation of ‘modern subjects’ and, by extension, a considerable swathe of material that might be lodged under the heading ‘political and social theory’; 2) British novels. My first concern is that the desire to talk about both induces speculative exaggeration: British novels cause modern subjects. This is never asserted baldly. But rather than being judiciously qualified in some definite way, it seems to me the novels-cause-subjects thesis is - at just those points where its speculative character might look questionable - withdrawn into vagueness or exchanged for bland trivialities. (No one will deny that British novels have had effects on people, for example.) Armstrong equivocates about key terms like ‘fiction’ and offers cumulative rhetorical nudges amounting to serious question-begging.
My second concern is that many allegedly distinguishing features of the ‘modern subject’, according to Armstrong, seem to have been discussed in (for example) Plato. Which does not speak well for the thesis that these features are caused by British novels. True, you can find everything in Plato if you squint. So I hope I won’t just be overplaying that old ‘nothing new under the sun’ card. My point will be: Armstrong is not distinguishing strong from weak candidates for the status of ‘truly novel features of the modern subject’ - whether caused by novels or not.
Since I am going to focus on shaking the overall philosophical frame, I am probably going to sound extremely ill-disposed towards the book. Actually, it has quite a number of nice bits; particular observations about particular works. But I thought a good shake was in order.Continue reading "How Novels Think - About Bad Subjects, For Example"
Thinking about novels thinking
I’d like to begin, as custom requires, by thanking my hosts for the invitation to participate. It’s not every day that one’s readership jumps a decimal place or two.
Jonathan Goodwin invited me to participate in this event because he remembered that I’ve assigned How Novels Think this semester in a course on temporality in modern British narrative. The course has a mixed enrollment of graduate (MA) and undergraduate students; all the undergrads are English majors, and most are seniors. The book is required for graduate students, and recommended for undergrads. I chose How Novels Think for a few main reasons:
Thursday, March 23, 2006
I quite literally woke up one morning and decided …
Our Armstrong event is a bit ... quiet. Well, here’s something:
Brown resolved to become a writer when he read Sidney Sheldon’s The Doomsday Conspiracy while vacationing in Tahiti. “Up until this point,” he writes, “almost all of my reading had been dictated by my schooling (primarily classics like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, etc.) and I’d read almost no commercial fiction at all since the Hardy Boys as a child.” The Sheldon book was a revelation, swift and merciless where Shakespeare, etc., had been slow and cumbersome. “[L]ife seemed to be trying to tell me something,” Brown notes, adding, “I began to suspect that maybe I could write a ‘thriller’ of this type one day."
What follows is an intriguing account of how novels think ... or whatever. “Brown has done a lot of thinking about what makes a successful Dan Brown thriller. He has found that it requires a few essential elements: some kind of shadowy force, like a secret society or government agency; a “big idea” that contains a moral “grey area”; and a treasure.”
On a more serious note, and at the risk of dragging a serious question down into Dan Brown ridiculousness, I’d like to compress and generalize a question from my first post. Basically, I critique Armstrong for putting forth a big chunk of unsupported metaphysical speculation about the constitution of the human subject, and for failing to consider possible counter-examples. CR responded that offering counter-examples to this sort of hypothesis is “cranky,” and that Armstrong’s position is “uncontroversial.” This is two points but they really reduce to one because - well, you can imagine what I’m going to think. It has something to do with ‘theory’. But first I should state explicitly: I’m not confident Armstrong herself would appreciate this defense being offered on her behalf. It makes her book one big Tholian web argument. (Me: this elaborate attack is easily disrupted by the least bit of defense. CR: but the target is defenseless. Me: then why bother with such an elaborate attack?)Continue reading "I quite literally woke up one morning and decided …"
Friday, March 24, 2006
How Novels Think & Why This Critic Can’t: Evolution (Sorta) in C19th EnglandContinue reading "How Novels Think & Why This Critic Can’t: Evolution (Sorta) in C19th England"
Like Lawrence , I was initially drawn to How Novels Think by its title. I hoped to find an argument on behalf of the notion that novels do think (even if only by analogy to how people think), an analysis of fiction that would provide us with an alternate way of approaching novels beyond the traditional conceptions of fiction as either aesthetic object or a form of subjective discourse (an expression of the author’s sensibility or “ideas"). Some middle ground between the view that literary art is autonomous and the view that literary texts can be reduced to propositions or assertions. I expected to reject this alternative view, but I was nevertheless curious to see it explained.Continue reading "Natural Excess"