Friday, April 13, 2007
Book Event: Amanda Claybaugh, The Novel of Purpose
Beginning today, the Valve will be hosting a book event devoted to Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Professor Claybaugh (Columbia University) has kindly agreed to join the mix of regular Valve authors and special guest posters. Scott Eric Kaufman and I will be starting things off this afternoon, with much more to follow over the next few days.
Is there a Web excerpt of the book available? (Amazon has one with its look inside the book feature, but that doesn’t suggest the best range of pages for people to read.)
Reading over the book’s description at Amazon, and just glancing at the introduction, made me wonder what Professor Claybaugh would think of Caleb Crain’s speculative and tenative answer to this question: “Do novels spread human rights and discourage torture?”
Crain’s thoughts are in response to a review of the book Inventing Human Rights.
What made me think of this was Professor Claybaugh’s claim in her book’s introduction that “Reform differed from earlier modes of social benevolence, such as charity, in its belief that social problems must be represented before they can be solved,” which seems to jibe with Crain’s suggestions.
Rich, there’s an excerpt here. Also, check your email.
Rich Puchalsky, I don’t think that there are any excerpts of my book available on line. I certainly wish there were!
David Haglund, Thank you for telling me about Caleb Crain’s essay--I just read it now with great interest. The short answer is, yes, I very much agree with Crain that novels can “spread human rights and discourage torture.” They do so, I’d say, by giving us practice in caring for others and thereby prompting us to expand our sphere of concern. (In my book, I show how this happened in the nineteenth century, but the story I tell could easily be placed within the much longer story that Lynn Hunt is telling about the eighteenth-century origins of human rights).
The longer answer is that I’d want to think further about the distinction Crain draws between visual and verbal representations of suffering. I tend to think about this difference in terms of how each represents the suffering person: verbal representations can give us a much fuller account of interiority or subjectivity than visual representations, and they thereby imply (I’d argue) that suffering is wrong not in itself so much as because it is endured by someone who thinks and feels as we do. Crain touches on this when he describes the pity that we feel for a woman who overhears her lover being beaten to death: we are moved not by his broken body, but by her sympathy and grief.
But Crain is ultimately less interested in how the visual and the verbal differently represent the suffering person than in how they differently affect us, their viewers and readers. He suggests that reading engages our ethical faculties, while viewing can override them. I hadn’t thought of this distinction before, but it seems intuitively right to me. I do wonder, though, whether others agree. Are there images of suffering that engage our ethical sense, that expand our capacity for sympathy, in the ways that Crain and I argue that novels can do?
Turner’s *Slavers throwing overboard the dead and the dying* is certainly one powerful example of an image that expanded its audiences “capacity for sympathy.” Picasso’s *Guernica* another; Goya’s war images probably the strongest.
Other, more problematic, images: the famous 1972 Nick Ut image of Kim Phuc, a little Vietnamese girl on fire. (What the image elides is the American soldiers who ran to help her and put out the fire. And Ut himself, who drove her to a hospital.)
Or Eddie Adams’s photograph of ARVN Gen. Loan’s point-blank assassination of VC Capt. Bay Lop. What the picture didn’t—in fact, couldn’t—tell us was that Lop had brutally murdered many Vietnamese families. Adams in fact died still regretting his Pulitizer-Prize-winning photograph, which destroyed the life of Gen. Loan by representing him as a merciless killer of defenseless men (when, in fact, he was actually executing such a merciless killer).
Goya and Guernica were the first words that popped into my head, too. As for moving images, The Pianist, for instance, makes us feel the suffering of another. And, while I haven’t read much pulp fiction, doesn’t, say, Mickey Spillane let his readers enjoy the suffering of others?
All of which would suggest that this isn’t medium-specific, but has to do with the qualities-- and perhaps the quality-- of the representation. It reminds me of a talk I heard by a Joyce scholar, whose name I can’t recall, arguing that true or great art is always hospitable to the Other.
That said, the experience of being a viewer is fundamentally different, I think, from being a reader, so I’m not willing to abandon the idea just yet. Perhaps it is simply easier for visual works to ignore the interiority of others, and so it’s a matter of tendencies rather than absolute rules.
David is right when he says that the qualitative properties, not the medium, of representation determines its ability to mobilize compassion and charity.
While it is true that literary texts are able to communicate interior states, that does not privilege them over visual media. If it did, we would be unable to be moved to compassion by events we ourselves witnessed, since these engage our senses rather than our readerly faculties (in the strict sense of reading a written page).
I grew up in the 80s, an era where iconic photographs were among the most visible means of inspiring compassion, particularly for the environmental movement and domestic aid to Africa. The history of the compassionate photograph in the 20th century also encompasses the Civil Rights Movement and the work of WPA photographers like Dorothea Lange.
I can certainly understand, as someone who just saw the film Grindhouse, the temptation to associate visual media with cruelty and sadism. However, I think such a move has to be put into historical context, and qualified by such efforts as Bamako and Killer of Sheep. (Even, arguably, by Grindhouse itself, to the extent that it is a satire of filmic gratuity and sadism.)
The history of the compassionate photograph in the 20th century also encompasses the Civil Rights Movement and the work of WPA photographers like Dorothea Lange.
Along the same lines as Luther Blissett’s complication of the Vietnam photos above, here’s an interesting and recent post on Lange’s most famous sympathy-eliciting photo…
Hmmm. . . I think it might be helpful to suspend the visual v. verbal distinction for a moment and think about some other distinctions instead. So far, we’ve been discussing reformist representations as if they all intend to do the same thing, namely put an end to specific forms of suffering. But I think it’s crucial that they seek to do so in several very different ways.
First of all, reformist representations differ in the cognitive effects they intend. Some representations seek to show us or tell us about something we’ve never seen or heard of before, such as the conditions on a famine-stricken continent or during the middle passage or on a battlefield (to cite just the examples that have come up in this thread). These representations seek to reveal. Other representations, by contrast, seek to draw our attention to conditions that are already so familiar to us that we tend to overlook them, such as the plight of a nineteenth-century domestic servant or of a homeless person in our own day. These representations seek not to reveal, but rather to defamiliarize--to teach us to see the world in new ways.
Secondly, reformist representations also differ in the emotional effects they intend. Some representations seek to produce sympathy, an emotion that depends on the viewer or reader’s identification with the sufferer. The Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” image would fall into this category, I think. Other representations, by contrast, produce something more like horror, and this emotion depends, I would suggest, on our partial identification with the perpetrator. I’m thinking here of the images that Luther Blisset describes. It seems to me (and I’d be interested to know whether Luther agrees) that we don’t identify in these cases with the man about to be executed and certainly not with the dying slaves being thrown overboard or with the young girl in flames. Rather, we recognize that these forms of suffering are being countenanced by our own government and that we are therefore complicit with the persons who perpetrate them.
To return, then, to the visual/ verbal distinction: my sense is that visual representations tend to be better at revelation and producing horror while verbal representations tend to be better at defamiliarization and producing sympathy.
But there’s another distinction to be drawn as well: the difference between what these representations intend and what they actually achieve. Luther has pointed to the unintended consequences of the Ut and Adams photographs, and the post to which CR links uncovers the unacknowledged consequences of the Dorothea Lange photograph that Joseph Kugelmass had mentioned. As these examples remind us, reformist representations are as likely to be distorting as to be clarifying, exploitative as sympathetic. And it’s well worth thinking about what the differences between good and bad reformist representations might be.
my sense is that visual representations tend to be better at revelation and producing horror while verbal representations tend to be better at defamiliarization and producing sympathy.