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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How Novels Think - About Bad Subjects, For Example

Posted by John Holbo on 03/22/06 at 04:23 AM

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me the novels-cause-subjects thesis is - at just those points where its speculative character might look questionable - withdrawn into vagueness or exchanged for bland trivialities.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.

Now, some close reading. A couple bits from the Introduction:

This book argues that the history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are, quite literally, one and the same. The British novel provides the test case. (p. 3)

I do not see how the history of the novel and the history of the modern subject could be - literally, as opposed to by metaphoric extension - the same. The former is more a history of books, the latter more of people. I can of course see that these two could be locked into a dialectical relationship; the qualities of each reinforcing those of the other. I don’t mean to be obstinate, refusing to see what the author is clearly getting at. I harp on this point because such a vague and metaphoric identification as Armstrong makes here is precisely the sort of thing that cannot possibly be ‘tested’, per the next sentence. Indeed, in the book Armstrong does not invite anything like testing. She does not seriously entertain alternative hypotheses. She invites speculative embrace of her perspective. (And really I don’t mind that so much. I don’t think literary criticism can turn Popperian. But Armstrong could be clearer about what she is, in effect, just assuming at the start.)

Reading on:

It [the novel] came into being, I believe, as writers sought to formulate a kind of subject that had not yet existed in writing. Once formulated in fiction, however, this subject proved uniquely capable of reproducing itself not only in authors but also in readers, in other novels, and across British culture in law, medicine, moral and political philosophy, biography, history, and other forms of writing that took the individual as their most basic unit. Simply put, this class-and-culture-specific subject is what we mean by "the individual." To produce an individual was not only the narrating subject and source of writing but also the object of narration and referent of writing. To produce an individual, It was also necessary to invalidate competing notions of the subject - often proposed by other novels - as idiosyncratic, less than fully human, fantastic, or dangerous. The result was a cultural category and a bundle of rehtorical figures that were extremely fragile and always on the defensive yet notably flexible and ever ready to adapt to new cultural-historical conditions. (p. 3)

Armstrong’s argument presupposes something: namely, its conclusion. How so? Armstrong does not specify why writers ‘sought to formulate a kind of subject that had not yet existed in writing’, but she assumes it cannot have been because that sort of subject already existed in the flesh (so why not put it in books?) Armstrong must be assuming this. Otherwise how could she be sure the novelistic ‘individual’, in her sense, virally infected authors and readers - and everything else - with its nature? When there are apparently other possibilities. For example: everyone was naturally an individual to begin with, and they infected the novels and everything else they made with their nature. Reading Miriam’s post, I can put the point even more specifically: Armstrong is simply assuming that, in The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt is wrong to treat the novel as an expression of individualism, rather than its cause. She begs the question.

At this point I anticipate a misunderstanding. I may seem to be saying that what Armstrong fails to consider is the possibility that the ‘modern subject’ has some pure, Platonic existence, independent of the cultural and social circumstances of modernity. (We were all always already modern subjects, only we didn’t notice until we read Jane Austen. Something like that.) It may be thought that it is fine to ignore this thought because it is patently naive. But no: granting that subjects produce, and are produced by, cultures and societies - that is, granting that ‘the subject’ is socially and culturally contingent, no sort of timeless category - why take the further step of placing the accent on the novel as the cause of individualism, rather than on individualism as the cause of the novel. For that matter, why not regard individuals and novels on an equal footing - neither is more  primary, in an explanatory sense?

Reading on:

To put conceptual flesh on this hypothesis, we might think of the human body much as John Locke thought of the human mind: as a "cabinet" or "storehouse" emptied of all innate qualities and waiting to be furnished with information from the world. (p. 3)

This is rhetorically clever. We are softened up to assume a very strong doctrine of constructivism about personhood. The invitation to ‘think like Locke’ may be given a pass as a healthy invitation to enter into the thinking of the period we are to consider. But in fact there is no obvious reason why I, John Holbo, should ‘think like Locke’ about Nancy Armstrong’s hypothesis - not unless I think what Locke said about minds actually is true of bodies. (Is it true the human body has no innate qualities? I doubt it.) And, after just a few sentences of this, the ‘if’ in ’if we think of the body a certain way ...’  has discretely faded and we find ourselves talking as though this Lockean view is right. We find ourselves talking as though human nature is infinitely plastic. With the result that the hypothesis encased in this plastic conceptual flesh ceases to look like an hypothesis at all, though it certainly still is one. Reading on:

This evacuation of the body’s intrinsic value raises the question of how and under what conditions such a body could accrue social and economic value. Much as the mind, in Locke’s theory, acquired information through sensations of the world and then converted those sensations into ideas against which it measured subsequent sensations, so the body, in the fiction of Daniel Defoe and other eighteenth-century novelists, acquired social experience and converted those encounters with the world at large into self-restraint and good manners.

You see what I mean? A strong view about the constructibility of human nature is rendered superficially plausible by this ‘what if Locke were right?’ conceit, plus focus on bodies in fiction - which are better candidates for social construction (by authors) than are real human bodies; plus focus on ‘value’, as opposed to, say, biology. (It is more plausible the ‘value’ of the body is socially constructible than that bodies have no innate qualities, e.g. being made of carbon.)

I realize all this may seen like unnecessarily stubborn and elaborate balking at each and every rhetorical nudge from Armstrong, as she strives to get her cart rolling. Maybe I should let her get a little momentum before trying to interfere. But it seems to me worth noting that this is a highly characteric - and suspect - style of argument: drop a vast quantity of rhetorical hints on behalf of a highly speculative metaphysical view of human nature, producing the impression that at some point a ‘test’ of the ‘hypothesis’ was run; when in fact it was not.

There’s a lot more to be said about the introduction, but I’ll just jump to chapter 1, quoting and commenting as I go:

Contrary to prevailing critical opinion, modern secular morality did not draw the extraordinary power it exercises to this day from any institutional religion, the Bible, or even a general sense of Judeo-Christian ethics. Its power, I believe, comes from and authorizes those works of fiction where morality appears to emanate from the very core of an individual, as that individual confronts and opposes socially inculcated systems of value. From this perspective, what I call bourgeois morality cannot be considered a value in and of itself so much as a way of reading, assessing and revising both the prevailing categories of identity and whatever cultural apparatus may authorize them.

That first sentence exemplifies the problems I have with Armstrong’s style of presentation. (Miriam has already flagged it with a big question mark.) Let me anatomize what is happening here. Armstrong elides the crucial question of degree and quality of influence. So we can’t be sure what she is committed to. Is Armstrong merely denying that ‘religion, the Bible and Judeo-Christian ethics’ exlusively and exhaustively explain modern secular morality? If so, labeling this eccentric view as ‘prevailing critical opinion’ is misleading. (See Sean’s post.) Surely the roots of modern secular morality look - to the extent that we can pull them up - many, varied and thoroughly tangled; religious, but also philosophical, cultural, political, social, economic, etc. etc. Likewise, Armstrong’s careful denial that bourgeois morality is ‘a value in and of itself’ is either a claim too vague to assess, or else a misleading hint that prevailing critical opinion fails to notice that the middle class has pretty sharp elbows, aimed up and down the social ladder.

Taking it again from the top, trying a different line, Armstrong might not be stating the obvious but denying it. She might be denying that modern secular morality has anything whatsoever to do with religion. This is not really even coherent. In fact, Armstrong is not asserting anything so bizarre. I bother to mention the possibility just to highlight that all the ‘all or nothing’ views of the explanatory relation between religion and secular morality are absurd. Yet Armstrong does not qualify her claims so as to make clear what non-absurd, i.e. qualified view, she is taking, hence which ones she is opposing.

Let me underscore this point by quoting a footnote that marks the end of the above passage:

I accept Max Weber’s claim that many of the elements of what he calls "the spirit of modern capitalism," commonly known as the Protestant work ethic, "are the same as the content of the Puritan worldly asceticism, only without the religious basis." But this similarity does not mean the secular ethic of industtrial capitalist cultures "was born ... from the spirit of Christian aestheticism" [sic - that should be ‘asceticism’] (The protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [London: Routledge, 2002], 120-21). On the contrary, I argue, fiction rhetorically appropriated certain elements of Christian asceticism - specifically, the "sanctification of work as a calling," which entails delayed gratification - for an entirely new purpose: the harnessing of desire to serve the material ends of an emergent middle class (121). The secularization of morality, from this perspective, is not the mechanism or wish on the part of that class to exploit the labor of others so much as the symptom of a cultural hegemony inducing members of that class themselves to embrace that rhetoric as truth and live out its master narrative.

We may as well place a stretch of the Weber itself into evidence. Continuing on from where Armstrong quotes (I find the passage on p. 123, not 120-1):

One has only to re-read the passage from Franklin, quoted at the beginning of this essay [’"Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on"], in order to see that the essential elements of the attitude which was there called the spirit of capitalism are the same as what we have just shown to be the content of the Puritan worldly asceticism, only without the religious basis, which by Franklin’s time had died away. The idea that modern labour has an ascetic character is of course not new. Limitation to specialized work, with a renunciation of the Faustian universality of man which it involves, is a condition of any valuable work in the modern world; hence deeds and renunciation inevitably condition each other to-day. This fundamentally ascetic trait of middle-class life, if it attempts to be a way of life at all, and not simply the absence of any, was what Goethe wanted to teach, at the height of his wisdom, in the Wanderjahren, and in the end which he gave to the life of his Faust. For him the realization mean a renunciation, a departure from the age of full and beautiful humanity, which can no more be repeated in the course of our cultural development than can the flower of the Athenian culture of antiquity.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.

The footnote tries to do better at qualifying the degree and kind of influence religion has on secular morality, but I don’t see what the clear difference is between Armstrong’s position and Weber’s. Armstrong seems to be suggesting that she sees the capitalist system extracting from religion - as from some ancient deposit, decayed into fuel - something it can use to turn its engine over. She seems to read Weber as claiming modern morality is just ‘born from the spirit’ of religion (its mother? No father? Immaculate conception, but convenient for capitalism?) But obviously Weber isn’t saying anything so crude. And doesn’t Weber appear to be saying something rather similar to what Armstrong is saying about the social function of certain literary works? (Does anyone else see Armstrong as clearly distinguishing herself from Weber here?)

So I find the Armstrong’s initial self-positioning unclear, and I don’t find that it gets clearer as we proceed.

Often suspicious of pleasure, unconcerned with profit, and heedless of life’s little necessities, this peculiarly modern form of morality appears to be nothing more nor less than the assertion of individuality itself, the objects one desires, and the means by which one pursues them.

Here, it seems to me there is an attempt to slip another questionable equation through unquestioned: some modern personality type = the assertion that humans are individuals with desires, who pursue those desires by instrumental means. Why is this equation plausible?

In opposing the values sustaining a blood-based hierarchy, bourgeois morality lends value to qualities within an individual that entitle him or her to a social position more gratifying than any station in life defined by wealth and rank alone. Indeed, we might see bourgeois morality as a rhetorical device that exists for the purpose of convincing us that such an alternative source of value is already there in the individual, waiting to be recognized by modern authors and readers.

Here again the failure to qualify a claim that surely cannot be absolute produces an equivocation between the obvious and the obviously wrong: on the one hand, bourgeois morality is obviously, to some degree, class self-flattery. On the other hand, it isn’t plausible this is all bourgeois morality is. What more is Armstrong asserting than the obvious bit, short of the obviously wrong bit? It isn’t clear.

For it to be missing in some, the moral sense has to be present in most. This was not always true.

Now we get another footnote, and again I don’t find it clear. It says that, in another paper, Armstrong (and Leonard Tennenhouse) argue "that by cutting the operations of the mind free, John Locke’s epistemology effectively renders obsolete the early modern passions, as described, for example, in Thomas Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)." What exactly does that mean?  Are we assuming that Locke’s epistemology is true? (This is particularly delicate in light of the introduction.) Are we assuming that, once upon a time, English people believed it was true. What is it to ‘render passions obsolete?’ To show that they don’t exist after all? To arrange a new sort of life in which they have no function? Obviously I should just go read this other paper, if I am so curious. But this style of presenting philosophical claims seems to me too vague to be functional.

To work with this notion of the term "morality," however, I want to push it two steps further. For one thing, I see the novels’ apparent discovery of a source of value already there within an individual as a means of adding something distinctively modern to the very notion of the individual. Contemporary critical theory uses the figure of the supplement to describe an additive so different from and culturally so incompatible with its host category that it cannot be incorporated without a thoroughgoing reorganization of that category. [Footnote to Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 144-5.] No matter how many features the entity so supplemented seems to share with its earlier form and rhetorical behavior, the supplement in this aggressive sense changes the character to which it has been added into something with new and different properties and potentialities. I believe that it took this "something" in the form of a rhetorical additive to convince a readership that ordinary individuals were capable of acting and, if capable of acting, then also capable of refusing to act on desires independent of their social position, desires that presumably came strictly from within the individual. This chapter shows how the misfit incorporated the rhetorical power of the supplement to transform the British subject from a state of being, or position, into a process of becoming, or performance, whereby that subject could achieve a place commensurate to its desires and abilities. (p. 28)

I find the notion of the ‘supplement’ - here, as in Derrida - excessively mystified. What we have is the suggestion of a ‘slippery slope’. For example, you allow gay civil unions and you no longer have any principled grounds for disallowing gay marriage. So you allow gay marriage and next you will have polygamy, so forth. Eventually the character of the institution is radically transformed (you might think); but each stage only involves the addition of something that seems to share all essential characteristics with what was already there. Whether you accept this example or not, it seems to me that such cases can be discussed more clearly than Armstrong is managing. For example, I would want to distinguish (though not sharply) the dynamics of a situation in which there is lawyerly tactical wrangling, from those of a case in which, say, an art form is being transformed by the addition of a new work that causes its genre to appear in a new light. A legal decision may constitute a ‘slippery slope’, with respect to some class of future judgements. Beethoven’s ‘da-da-da-DUM’ may put us on a ‘slippery slope’, running from the classic sonata form to versions of romanticism (Yes, I realize I’m probably the first to say that ‘da-da-da-DUM’ is a slippery slope argument. But you see what I mean? And please pick your own example of a pregnant artistic innovation, if you don’t like mine.) Both the decision and the theme may be ‘supplements’, if you like. But they are very different sorts of cases, and just talking metaphorically about ‘somethings’ being added to ‘characters’ seems to me to obscure rather than reveal the relevant details about what actual individuals are really doing in these cases, and how and why. When we talk about ‘incorporating rhetorical power’, exactly what sorts of practical activities are we thinking about?

The somewhat mystified language seems to me to obscure, once again, the moment when the speculative seed is planted: Armstrong hints that, before they read novels, people did not think of themselves as individuals whose desires and actions are only contingently aligned with their social position. Let me illustrate, Platonically, why this might be thought not such a new thought.

Plato starts Republic with a meditation on ‘the supplement’, if you will. Cephalus is a nice old man who thinks the best thing about money is that it allows you to ‘give everyone what they are owed’ - i.e. you can ‘speak truth and pay your debts’. His son, Polemarchus, believes the same principle, but he understand it in a way that gives it a rough edge: ‘giving everyone what they are owed’ means helping friends and hurting enemies. And the supplement to Polemarchus is Thrasymachus. Plato’s point seems to be that, if you start with ‘give everyone what they are owed’ as the basis of your institution of justice, it will be hard to avoid an unwelcome trip down the slippery slope to ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger’.

And now that we have slid down with a bump, Thrasymachus seems like a clear case of an individual who is thoroughly aware of himself as one whose desires and actions may or may not be aligned with his social position. He’s the Becky Sharpe of tyranny - only in many ways he isn’t, of course. Essentially, he advises that, for the sake of fulfilling your desires, you learn to ignore conventional morality. You should study to be ‘the bad subject’. Which is, uncoincidentally, the title of the next subsection of Armstrong’s chapter 1.

The assumption that the modern subject is the product rather than the source of fiction is of course a version of the signature move of all the major strains of poststructuralism. What Louis Althusser calls the "ideological state apparatus," for example, performs a similar reversal of individual identity and linguistic attribution. According to his account, the early modern church gave the individual freedom only to submit to external forms of authority, authority as different from that individual as day is from night. By contrast, the educational institutions of the modern secular state stress the freedom of subjectivity and conceptualize the individual, in the words of Althusser, as "a centre of initiatives authors of and responsible for its actions." For Althusser, a modern society depends for coherence on the education of individuals to locate them within sociocultural categories and to induce them to observe - without threat of force - the constraints defining their respective positions. Thus the modern state creates a contradiction within the subject between the ideology of free subjectivity and the fact of social subjection. No ideological apparatus is ever foolproof, and this mechanism of "hailing," or "interpellation," however expertly and repetitively performed, occasionally fails. What Althusser calls "bad subjects" are individuals who take the ideology of free subjectivity too much to heart and do not freely consent to their subjection. Bad subjects, he explains, on occasion provoke the intervention of the army or police. (p. 29)

Note first that ‘product not source’ is now being labeled as an assumption about the relation of individualism to fiction - not as a hypothesis to be tested. Second, notice that the category of ‘fiction’ is being expanded to include ‘ideological state apparatus’. Later, it will be contracted to include only certain novels: British realism, not the gothic ones, among others. This elasticity in ‘fiction’ is problematic. Third, notice the manner in which Armstrong introduces Althusser’s claims, then simply proceeds to discuss as if these are somehow authoritative. (That is, notice how Althusserianism is interpellated into Armstrong’s account and we, the readers, find at a certain point we have been hailed as good Althusserians.) Finally, think about the degree to which this account of the ‘bad subject’, if we accept it, would apply to a figure like Thrasymachus. I think the answer is: in some ways yes, in others not at all. The bad subject, like Thrasymachus, is a highly, self-consciously individualistic figure, focused on the mismatch between what he wants and what society would let him have. But the bad subject is ... well, he is more of a romantic at heart than Thrasymachus, due to his taking an ideology of free subjectivity more to heart. This is a huge topic, and I hardly know what to say about it, except that it seems to me that Armstrong is running together something like literary romanticism with a conception of humans as individuals with desires whose attempts to maximize the satisfaction of those desires may put them at odds with society; who may choose - or not - to seek to fulfill those desires. Consider one thread you would probably want to pull, to see what might unravel. One might want to talk about the ways in which Socrates dramatizes the problem posed by Thrasymachus’ character. They are positively ... gothic. The Ring of Gyges. There’s an earthquake, the earth opens up. There’s a bronze horse - like that helmet crashing down in Walpole, if you like.  Now you can have sex with whomever you choose, kill the king, take over the country. You are a veritable vampire of power. Well, why shouldn’t I want to be such a character, if I could be? Armstrong talks at length about these sorts of cases, as they are dramatized in gothic fiction, then held at Austenian arms’ length in ‘realistic’ novels. I don’t want to say that everything she says turns out to have been anticipated by Plato. It is clear to me that is not the case. Plato’s response to Thrasymachus is hardly the same as Austen’s to sensibility. (Sense and Sensibility is not just footnotes to Republic.) But I think Armstrong does not really distinguish which bits are plausible candidates for true modern novelty.

I have more to say ... far too much. So I’ll stop and hope there’s some discussion. Then perhaps I’ll pick up again later. [And I may see fit to tweak this post a bit later as well, time permitting.]


Often, people use the term “literally” in a figurative sense—sometimes even with intensifiers.

By Adam Kotsko on 03/22/06 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t I know it!

By John Holbo on 03/22/06 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Althusser’s point isn’t simply that there are excessive individuals, a la Thrasymachus, but that they are in fact produced by the machinery that is supposed to keep them in their place. No, excessive individualism isn’t distinctive modern, but the sense that our excessive individuality is fostered by the same system that teaches us to repress it is.

In other words, the interest of Althusser’s ISA essay is the claim that the very thing that seems to make us most ourselves is that which ultimately deprives us of agency. We get our name from the cop on the street. The production of the “bad subject” marks a breakdown in the machine that brings to light, perhaps, how the machine works.

By CR on 03/22/06 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, CR. I was going to go on about that. The problem is - well, there are several of them. First, the more Althusser we introduce, the less plausible is the simple presupposition of these details. There’s a difference between just sort of invoking ‘bad subjects’, impressionistically, and imposing the whole ideological state apparatus of Althusser’s philosophy, in all its stern majesty. Some of the time Armstrong seems to be talking about excessive individualism - individualism at all - as though it is distinctively modern. As I said, and as you agree, that seems implausible. And sometimes she seems to be saying something more specific about the production of that individualism, perhaps along Althusserian lines. The problem is that Armstrong presupposes a very strong brand of social constructivism of individuals; so, for her, the claim that excessive individualism is fostered by the same system that teaches us to repress it is a trivial consequence of the fact that that the system fosters EVERYTHING about us. It’s hard to argue with her, then, because it isn’t really clear what she is prepared to argue about, and on what basis.

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to add a little to that: one problem that I think I see - although I would have to go look and see again - is that Armstrong seems to taking as distinctively modern the proposition that the ‘bad subject’ is not just something standing over and against conventional morality - justice - but is something constitutively required for its sense and operation. There is no such thing as the virtue of justice without the impulse to ‘excessive individualism’ as its root. We need justice not because we are good but because we are bad. Kant says that even devils would need it [Armstrong quotes that bit]. Isaiah Berlin says angels wouldn’t. See also: Hume and Rawls on ‘the conditions of justice.’ Justice as a game theoretic strategy, possibly entailing the advantages of motivated irrationality. Of course this is modern stuff. But hell. Read Herodotus. How the Persians came to be ruled by Deioces, who coveted power and so practiced justice until everyone depended on him, then he refused to practice it further until they made him king. And, of course, Plato figuring out what is to be done about Thrasymachus. Fiction, in the form of myths, as solutions to problems. Again, it’s not that everything Armstrong is talking about is already there in the Greeks. But some of it is there, and she isn’t sorting that out, I think.

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 02:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But that blurring - between individualism and constructivism - of course has been the central concern of not just “theory” but the novel itself. (And not just the novel - “Make it new!,” “Tradition and the Indvidual Talent,” Wordsworth v. poetic diction, etc...) Even the terms we use to describe various schools and periods of the novel - realism, naturalism, etc - encapsulate different fictional stances on the question. Is it really that baffling or controversial what Armstrong is up to here?

It’s not trivial to realize that there’s nothing so constructed as our feeling of unconstructedness. This paradoxical realization feeds into every important question of aesthetics, politics, ethics, etc…

Or if the problem is that the Greeks did it first, well, we modernists are used to that. That’s the first crank question we get at the MLA panel or after the job talk. Sometimes it goes, “Have you ever read Tristram Shandy? Everything you said, it’s in there.” But you can insert the English Renaissance, Chaucer, the Greeks. Things can be both distinctively modern and age-old. That’s not news. The emergence of democracy in the USA is still modern despite the fact that there had been democracies before, no? It’s still an “invention.”

By CR on 03/23/06 at 02:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo in the box. 2 minutes for cross-posting.

By CR on 03/23/06 at 02:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Is it really that baffling or controversial what Armstrong is up to here?” Not sure why you think I’m baffled (does something seem to be baffling me?) As to controversy: it depends on how much you are willing to assume. If you are willing to assume, without argument, the truth of a very strong doctrine of social constructivism, then Armstrong’s thesis will not be controversial (but it may risk being trivial.) If you are not willing to presuppose such a view, the book will appear very controversial indeed. “It’s not trivial to realize that there’s nothing so constructed as our feeling of unconstructedness. This paradoxical realization feeds into every important question of aesthetics, politics, ethics, etc…” I certainly never suggested that this realization is trivial. In fact, it’s controversial. The idea is, of course, familiar. But how do you KNOW that, in ‘realizing’ this, you are not mistaken? Maybe you are just culturally acclimatized to it, through reading books like Armstrong’s. (What’s the argument?)

As to my ‘crank question’ - I think you may be projecting/blaming the victim. Put yourself in the shoes of the poor reader/audience: yet another paper/book arguing that something that is already in Plato originated much later. And no it’s not any defense to hem and haw about how things can be ‘modern and age-old’. That’s vague to the point of uselessness. No one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to advance strong novelty claims to which there are obvious counter-examples. It’s hard to defend a thesis like Armstrong’s against objections like mine. But that’s the fault of the thesis. Her thesis is very strong, so it’s going to be hard to defend.

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 03:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I don’t find a strong notion of social constructivism controversial. The interest is, as always, what to do with the excessive individuality that runs along side of it. You do, so we’re bound to disagree. You think I’m acclimatized, I think you’re mystified. Let’s just leave it at this: fiction writers themselves have largely believed in it, to one degree or another. So if we literary scholars are acclimatized to anything, it’s to fiction.

Crank: the relationship between the individual and society is an age old question, but one that obviously takes on distinctive (though not entirely unprecedented) forms in modernity. It’s not necessarily the critic’s duty to tip her cap in the direction of every almost the same, sort of parallel, but also very different situation she can find.

By CR on 03/23/06 at 03:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To clarify slightly. CR writes: “The emergence of democracy in the USA is still modern despite the fact that there had been democracies before, no? It’s still an “invention.” No, the emergence of democracy in the USA is modern because it was a development that occurred in modern times. Even if US-style democracy were exactly like Greek, it would still be modern simply because of when it happened. This is important because Armstrong doesn’t have a similarly solid (since trivial) point to make: the modern individual is modern because he/she lived in modern times. That said, plausibly you can describe US democracy as a novel ‘invention’, because it has distinctive features. But if you just say: ‘in my paper I will argue that democracy was invented in the USA’, that is either false, because there were democracies in ancient Greece; or it is unclear to the point of being analytically useless, because you are not explaining what peculiar sense of ‘democracy’ is in play. So on what basis can anyone agree or disagree? It seems to me that Armstrong is saying ‘individualism’ is modern, then not qualifying that claim to avoid more or less trivial falsification by ancient writings. This isn’t to say that what she is thinking is wholly mistaken. She just isn’t refining her thesis. To put the point another way, it’s seriously hazardous, it seems to me, to start regarding counter-examples as just some cranky or passive-aggressive debating trick. No, it’s how we refine our hypotheses, and it’s a contructive procedure, even if we know that there will inevitably be some degree of sheer speculation in these large questions. You don’t want PURE speculation, unmoored from all constraints of disconfirmation. Counter-examples are how we hammer out questions like: what is distinctive about ‘the modern subject’? Which is certainly an interesting question. And Armstrong does have interesting things to say. I’m probably being too negative (and now Armstrong is somewhat caught in the CR/Holbo crossfire.)

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 03:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Crossposting achieved!

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 03:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, you say I’m mystified, but is there any non-mystified way to unmystify myself? Is there an argument for strong constructivism that is not just a speculative invitation to come around to this way of seeing? You write: “fiction writers themselves have largely believed in it, to one degree or another.” Well, I’m not sure that’s true. Have fiction writers largely believed a very strong doctrine of social constructivism about human nature? But let it be true. Is this really what you rest your case on: an allegedly democratic poll of the fiction-writing community?

“It’s not necessarily the critic’s duty to tip her cap in the direction of every almost the same, sort of parallel, but also very different situation she can find.” But you need something stronger than this. You need the claim that one must emphasize difference, and downplay sameness, on pain of ‘crankiness’. Why would that be? Similarities can be just as interesting as differences, surely

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR on Althusser: “The production of the “bad subject” marks a breakdown in the machine that brings to light, perhaps, how the machine works.”

If it really did work this way then it wouldn’t be a breakdown in the machine.  The police would not have jobs without bad subjects to pursue, after all.

But perhaps I should point out at this stage of the argument that there is something very ordinary and professional about Armstrong at second hand that ties in to the arguments about Theory that John Holbo and CR have so often participated in.  Perhaps it will be more easily seen in a bad short story by a writer of genre fantasy.

In the story, _The Button Molder_ by Fritz Leiber, the protagonist and thin veil for Leiber himself has written a portentious one-page philosophical essay about how, among other things, all of our social reality is stories: “Stories take many forms: a scientific theory or a fairy tale, a world history or an anecdote, a call to action or a cry for help—all, all are stories.” But Leiber’s protagonist, not perhaps having quite the professional commitment needed to bamboozle himself over a long time period, quickly sees through his own BS:

“To begin with, it was so much a writer’s view of things, reducing everything to stories.  Of course!  What could be more obvious?—or more banal?  A military man would explain life in terms of battles, advances and retreats” [...] “Or a salesman see everything as buying and selling, literally or by analogy.  I recalled a 1920’s book about Shakespeare by a salesman.  The secret of the Bard’s unequalled dramatic power?  He was the world’s greatest salesman!”

I have extended the quote above a couple of sentences past what was needed in order to make a “Bad Subjects” in-joke.  But you get the point—isn’t it just a little too convenient when an expert asserts that their area of expertise just happens to create the world?

One of the reasons why I’m interested in genre fantasy is because there the claim is a bit more convincing, by the way.  Fantasy writers have their own terminology for world-building, and can indulge in it without insistance that their worlds are the real one.

By on 03/23/06 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...imposing the whole ideological state apparatus of Althusser’s philosophy, in all its stern majesty.”

I enjoyed this turn of phrase.  This is the kind of thing that keeps people coming back.

By Adam Kotsko on 03/23/06 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking of people coming back, where the hell is CR? He can’t be sleeping the clock around.

By John Holbo on 03/23/06 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmmm, someone left a comment inquiring whether I am a body thetan. Apparently one of my fellow valvesters deleted it as spam before I could turn it on. I would have. I think that’s sort of a funny idea.

By John Holbo on 03/24/06 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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