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?)
With that caveat in place, my concern: CR is too complacent about what I sometimes call ‘the Higher Eclecticism’. To me it looks as though something is out of order if there is, for example, just a touch of Althusser applied in passing. Because why should I believe what Althusser says? CR’s counterpoint is basically that - well, we all sort of believe what Althusser says. It’s ‘uncontroversial’. But this is, at best, a descriptive not a normative claim. Namely, there is a community in which objecting to being nudged along in this way is considered ‘cranky’. Well, yes, but why should I defer to this community wisdom? CR also hints at a different line: Armstrong’s metaphysical rhetoric harmonizes with that of modern fiction itself. “Let’s just leave it at this: fiction writers themselves have largely believed in it, to one degree or another.” This looks to me like a majoritarian twist on Yvor Winter’s good old fallacy of imitative form. (You must write romantically about romanticism, realistically about realism, mystically about mysticism ... and social constructively about those who are, mostly, social constructivists.) The problem with this, quite apart from the fallacy, is that falling for it reduces what is, ostensibly, the point of Armstrong’s book - i.e. to defend a certain view of the modern subject - to incidental rhetorical atmospherics. Which fits with CR’s impatience with counter-examples. If it isn’t a hypothesis at all; if it’s just metaphysical wallpaper - well, then yes, it’s cranky to stand in a corner, arguing with the wallpaper. (You get no argument from me.) But then why, according to CR, write books like Armstrong’s? To strain a point by returning to my start point: you wind up with the Dan Brownization of academic criticism, and of philosophy in particular. You have a simple formula: some shadowy political drama, in the form of the rise of the bourgeoisie; you have a Big Idea that is rather morally grey - radical constructivism about the subject; you have some treasure, in the form of quite nice bits of discussion of particular texts. You lash them together. What’s the point? I realize this is rather blunt, but CR’s position looks to me vastly cynical about the whole business.
It is precisely because I don’t think that this is all Armstrong is doing that I made my objections. I take myself to be extending the book some respect by treating its thesis as the sort of thing one might actually dispute. But I do think a touch of CR’s trouble afflicts Armstrong’s text itself. Namely, I think Armstrong’s deployment of philosophy is functionally equivocal, in a risky sort of way. In a sense, it’s the whole point; in a sense, it’s just something to tap into for a little extra rhetorical energy, to reinforce the point (by making the form of the presentation imitate the substance under discussion). But then it’s the observations about particular works that turn out to be the real point. And suggestions that the philosophy is the point should be amended. If you don’t sort this out, and I don’t really think Armstrong has, then you don’t make your point clear, and you don’t argue for it clearly, and you whip up a lot of metaphysical pathos, only to diffuse it to no particular intellectual effect.
Final note. My titular phrase has no special significance, but it appears in the Dan Brown article and is, thus, commended to Adam Kotsko’s attention as another instance of ‘quite literally’ being used as a generic intensifier. Interesting variant. Usually it intensifies the obviously metaphoric. In this case, the obviously literal.
UPDATE: Being a socratic pain in the ass is a stance which - however intellectually improving to one’s audience, potentially - exposes one to charges of being a pain in the ass. In the present case I may as well spoil the joke by explaining it away, since CR obviously didn’t find it very funny. It’s obvious that CR is not in favor of the Dan Brownization of criticism. My point was: CR’s criticisms of me don’t make sense except on the assumption of this obviously absurd point of view. Ergo, the criticisms are absurd.
John, you’ve taken my comments way out of context here, basically stuck them in the old Holbonic blender, and sort of fucked everything up. And I’m not too happy about it.
CR responded that offering counter-examples to this sort of hypothesis is “cranky,” and that Armstrong’s position is “uncontroversial.”
No… I said that
1) Taking up the question of constructivism vs. individualism in general is uncontroversial in literary studies. Not that Armstrong’s position is “uncontroversial.” This would indeed be backhanded praise, and it’s just plain not what I said.
2) “crank” (NB: not “cranky") came in a descriptive anecdote about the MLA, job talks, and modernism. I definitely did not say “offering counter-examples to this sort of hypothesis is “cranky.” That’s just so much bulllshit. Rather, simply saying “Plato thought of this first” is insufficient and uninteresting.
Seriously. I’m pissed.
But first I should state explicitly: I’m not confident Armstrong herself would appreciate this defense being offered on her behalf.
No, I should think not, not when you’ve diced it up like this. That’s, um, sort of why I’m so angry.
CR’s counterpoint is basically that - well, we all sort of believe what Althusser says. It’s ‘uncontroversial’.
Nope, wrong again. Seriously John! See point 1 above. I did say that I don’t find a strong notion of social constructivism controversial. Not that “we all sort of believe what Althusser says.” Jeesus.
<i>But this is, at best, a descriptive not a normative claim. Namely, there is a community in which objecting to being nudged along in this way is considered ‘cranky’. Well, yes, but why should I defer to this community wisdom?</i>
Oh John. This might end our friendship. This is so stupid. I did not suggest that disagreeing with Althusser is “cranky.” I wouldn’t, never.
Which fits with CR’s impatience with counter-examples.
Seriously, fuck off. You know what you’re up to here.
Here, for everyone’s reference, are my two statements about the “crank.” See if you can find a general impatience with counter-examples, a mindless embrace of Althusserianism.
1) 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.”
2) 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.
In a sense, you’ve done to me here what you always do, in all of your work. Deceptive decontextualized quotation, unsympathetic (in the worst sense) reading, grandstanding… Every word in this post depends upon a willful misreading of my comments. So forget it. I’d take down the post, but you probably won’t. Enjoy the deafening silence - you’ve earned it.
Look, you basically dismissed my post as the intellectual equivalent of a ‘crank question’ during a post talk Q&A. That isn’t a very polite thing to say. That I came back pretty sharply, pointing out that I did no such thing should not be particularly surprising.
As to the Althusser. I noted that Armstrong was apparently presupposing the correctness of Althusser’s position without any supporting argument, or consideration of alternative points of view. You said this sort of procedure was ‘uncontroversial’; that is, it is uncontroversial not just to think that Althusser is worth taking seriously, but that it is uncontroversial that one should be able to ignore alternatives to this point of view. This is a very strong position to take. I sort of massaged it on your behalf into something a bit weaker: everyone sort of agrees with this stuff, so that it can be assumed for purposes of argument. Exactly what was it you were saying was ‘uncontroversial’ about simply assuming such a strong philosophical position, if it wasn’t just, in a vague way ‘you are allowed to assume Althusser is right?’
I can understand why you are annoyed with me twitting you with the Dan Brown stuff, but - honestly - I haven’t twisted your words. You offered poor objections to my post, with the insulting ‘crank’ on top. I responded.
As to the Plato point. Pardon me for taking you to be saying you were dismising the possibility of offering counter-examples to these sorts of hypotheses, but - if you weren’t doing that, what WERE you doing, exactly? You say this sort of counter-example is ‘uninteresting or insufficient’. Why? The claim in question is that a particular sort of subject - the modern subject, with certain distinguishing characteristics - appears at a certain time, and is caused (in some indefinite fashion) by British novels. If it turns out that the Greeks already talked about subjects in this way that is allegedly distinctively modern, then the characterization of the distinctively modern subject needs to be refined. I fail to see why a pretty good proof that the author’s thesis needs to be refined, in the face of counter-examples, is ‘uninteresting’. I’m not being glib or dismissive or issuing ‘gotchas’ to the author. The sort of thesis Armstrong is advancing is very difficult to defend precisely because it is inevitable that someone will try to show that what is thought to be distinctively modern isn’t. Compare: all the attempts to define romanticism without having it turn out that Homer was a romantic. What these difficulties show is how difficult it is to defend these sorts of theses. And you dismissed me as a ‘crank’. Well, pardon me for getting a bit irritated.
OK, pardon the triple posting but since I’ve been accused of twisting CR’s words so badly, let me simply demonstrate why I think I have not.
In his comment above, CR writes: “I did say that I don’t find a strong notion of social constructivism controversial. Not that “we all sort of believe what Althusser says.” But what I was objecting to was what CR wrote in his early comment, namely:
“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.”
What I had accused Armstrong of being up to was assuming Althusser was right. So when CR says that is not controversial, I simply assumed he meant it is not controversial to assume Althusser is right. And there is an implied ‘we all’ here, consisting of Armstrong’s whole potential readership, not just CR. It’s ok to write for a general readership in literary studies and just assume Althusser is right, in some general sort of way. The fact that CR immediately goes on to talk about the importance of ‘realizing’ that one side of the whole debate is right reinforced my sense that he is willing to assume that side is right.
Sorry about the Dan Brown stuff, though. I was just irritated at being called a crank.
Exactly what was it you were saying was ‘uncontroversial’ about simply assuming such a strong philosophical position, if it wasn’t just, in a vague way ‘you are allowed to assume Althusser is right?’
What I said:
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?
Asking questions about the relationship between individualism and constructivism is not controversial in literary studies. QUESTION, I said, not POSITION. OK? Got it?
If it turns out that the Greeks already talked about subjects in this way that is allegedly distinctively modern, then the characterization of the distinctively modern subject needs to be refined.
The problem is that the parallel between the Plato’s stuff and Armstrong’s modern subject isn’t tight enough. That was the substance of my first comment. And we started out talking about the distinction, but the conversation immediately got derailed into a debate about social constructivism in general, and then a meta-debate about counter-argument and then your bullshit post.
So the problem here is the Greeks weren’t distinctive modern enough, in your version, to win you a thesis revision from Armstrong. IMO of course. From what you said, Plato’s subject is a bit like Althusser’s or Armstrong’s, but not enough to warrant a full revision of her work.
This is what reminded me of several encounters with cranks. Finding a parallel between modern writer X and Sterne or Chaucer or Aristotle isn’t enough to dismiss the novelty of modern writer X or my argument about him or her. That’s all. We obviously disagree about the persuasiveness of your parallel - you think it’s damning and I think it’s interesting but not tight enough. (And I’ve said why - see above...)
I can understand why you are annoyed with me twitting you with the Dan Brown stuff, but - honestly - I haven’t twisted your words.
Really? Turning my objection to a particular crankish form of dismissal of modernist studies into a defense of know-nothing Althusserianism, into an objection to counter-example tout court, that’s not twisted? Really? Objecting to one set of bad counter-examples means that I oppose all counter-example?
We could have kept talking about the substantive points here last night, but we didn’t, and I’m not really up for talking about it now. I’ve wasted more than enough time here tonight.
omigod john stop triple posting. this is it. i am done with this comment.
The fact that CR immediately goes on to talk about the importance of ‘realizing’ that one side of the whole debate is right reinforced my sense that he is willing to assume that side is right.
I don’t assume that “It’s not trivial to realize that there’s nothing so constructed as our feeling of unconstructedness.” I believe it.
This is driving me insane. I say that x is non-trivial, and it automatically, to your mind, implies that I believe my whole side is right, forever and ever, and can never be proven wrong so there’s no use in talking about it?
Or I’m supposed to assume, before I speak, that “my side” of the argument is wrong? Hmm…
I have so wasted an entire night…
CR writes: “Asking questions about the relationship between individualism and constructivism is not controversial in literary studies. QUESTION, I said, not POSITION. OK? Got it?”
But I wasn’t talking about asking questions about the relationship between individualism and constructivism. Of course that would be fine. What I was talking about - clearly - was presupposing positions, i.e. answers to the question. POSITION, not QUESTION. OK? Got it?
Sigh. This is a waste of time. With your permission, we will wipe the slate clean of all the incidental insults we have dealt out and begin the discussion anew. Or not. As you like. For example: what I object to in Armstrong are statements like the following: “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” (p. 28). This seems to be identified by Armstrong as ‘peculiarly modern’. But I don’t think it is, at least not until you narrow it down futher and turn this into a distinctively modern meditation on ‘authenticity’ (to pick a likely strategy for narrowing). Thrasymachus doesn’t have a rhetoric of authenticity, in the existential sense we are familiar with. And consider this bit about Rousseau. “To imagine a state that did not put free subjectivity at odds with political subjection, a state in which free subjectivity and political subjection were indeed one and the same ...” Armstrong wants to say this is new with Rousseau. And it is. But it isn’t. The problem is that Plato sort of gets HALF of this already. He wants to explain why it is in your interest to be just, even when it might seem like you should wear the Ring of Gyges, if someone offers it. Even specific elements of his rhetorical stategies - like the gothic tale of the ring - are similar things that Armstrong seems to think are peculiar to the debate between ‘realistic’ novels and gothic forms. Again, it seems to me that what is absent from Plato is anything like an ethic of authenticity, such as we would trace to romantic influences. But this is a narrower claim than Armstrong makes. That was my point.
CR now writes: “I don’t assume that “It’s not trivial to realize that there’s nothing so constructed as our feeling of unconstructedness.” I believe it.”
Look, I’m beginning to think you just didn’t understand my original post, CR. Or else you are really just backpedaling now. Because your explanations of what you meant all along render your original comments irrelevant. I made the point that Armstrong is basically presupposing her own conclusion. You now say that you were just responding by saying that you agree with what she is assuming. But why is that RELEVANT as a response to my objection?
OK, this is it for me. Unless someone else wants to take up a better angle on this.
Taking up the question of constructivism vs. individualism in general is uncontroversial in literary studies
I wish this were true, but in my experience it isn’t. I’m trying to think of any prominent figure in American academic literary scholarship who has seen a controversy here worth addressing or even an uncertainty worth acknowledging. No one’s coming to mind. No snark intended, CR, but am I missing someone?
"Unless someone else wants to take up a better angle on this.”
What could be better than this archetypal clash of disciplines? The philosopher tracing everything back to Plato vs. the literary studies person defending social construction en route to the literary construction of everything. If it is the function of a crank to wind someone up, you have achieved perpetual motion.
Anyways, to continue my sub-Holboesque interjection of random bits from a literary model, in this case Fritz Leiber’s _The Button Molder_, there is a later scene in which the narrator suspects that his long and incoherently described confrontation with a ghost may really be a matter of illumination:
“The space wasn’t altogether empty, as it had seemed when I changed the bulb originally. Now the 200-watt glare revealed a small figure lying close behind one of the 4-by-4 beams of the false ceiling. It was a dust-filmed doll made (I later discovered) of a material called Fabrikoid and stuffed with kapok” [... skip a half-sentence here, and imagine the next bit done with a Captain Kirk line-reading ...] “What do you make of that? I remember saying to myself, as I gazed down at it in my hand, somewhat bemused, Is this all fantasy ever amounts to? Scraps? Rag dolls?“
Seems to me the problem isn’t a clash of cultures so much as an unwillingness to accept each other’s assumptions.
John, CR’s not wrong about the “crank question” appearance of your original post. In every department there’s someone who finds everything a speaker says prefigured in X. (In my department X = Cicero.) But I didn’t find John’s initial post cranky in that sense. Full disclosure: I suggested we event Armstrong’s book, and despite the issues I took with its historical sloppiness yesterday, I do find it useful for thinking about...something I’ll reveal later today. I only say this now because I don’t want anyone to think that my general agreement with John on this one amounts to a dismissal of Armstrong.
But John’s well within his rights to point to the assumptive nature of her premises; she proves nothing, proceeding by a string of assertions which magically become definitive after a couple of pages. John expertly shows how what begin as if-statements become truth-statements, sometimes pages later, sometimes paragraphs, and sometimes even sentences. What bothers John, and rightly so, isn’t that she takes certain critical moves as field normative; it’s that she claims they’re disputable but never contests them. If she had done what many literary scholars do--i.e. act as if social constructivism is a given and provide the requisite quotations of Butler et al--then the “business as usual, you don’t understand the field” complaint would apply. That’s not what she does; she frames these debates as debates, only instead of disputation, she simply moves on. A shorter version:
“X is a vexed subject in the history of philosophy. It is complicated. Many people have said much stuff about it. Like Kant. In the novel blah blah blah blah blah Althusser is obviously correct about X, which is the foundation of the modern, liberal subject."
She admits of complexity, then immediately flattens it by falling back on the field normatives, thereby creating the appearance of a debate when, in fact, it’s all “business as usual.” She teases readers, like John, who expect philosophical contestation; thus I think he’s justified in saying “Hey! If you want people to think you’re doing something, you need to do it. You can’t merely hijack the trappings of philosophical debate. The ‘debate’ part is sorta important too.”
So all snark aside, I think this the potentially most fruitful bit of the exchange, since it gets to what CR argues, and what I’ll be arguing later:
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?
I don’t think this has always been true, but I know it’s certainly true of most post-Darwinian writers. Even when it isn’t, as in the case of some naturalist writers for whom biology is destiny--I’m looking at you, London--there’s always a strong dose of social constructivism. Take the examples of Call of the Wild and White Fang. As Jonathan Auerbach noted, these are the same novels, only backwards; a mixed-breed escapes from civilization and “learns” to be “natural” or is taken into civilization and “learns” to be “civilized.” Despite the heavy dose of biology-as-destiny, then, the narrative assumes the viability of some form of social constructivism, no? (I think this is what CR is saying, but I could be wrong.)
Anyhow, this comment’s way too long, so I’ll shut it down. More later, though, on Armstrong.
Thanks, Scott. In my old department we were briefly afflicted with someone for whom x = Maimonides; which is really the frozen limit as Q&A conversation-stoppers go. I won’t harp on it any more except to apologize, ever so slightly, by saying one thing that made me snap at CR is that I have the same damn argument with him every month, and - in my private but considered opinion - the upshot is always the same: namely, CR is shadow-boxing some later stage of the argument, where he imagines (probably correctly) he and I will have substantive disagreements. In the case of ‘theory’, he imagines he will be wanting to attack my conclusions. In the case of Armstrong, he imagines he will be wanting to defend her broadly constructivist outlook. Invariably, we are not yet at the stage where this sort of pugilistic behavior is appropriate. We are at an earlier stage where I am laying out a schematic of how the critique MIGHT go that is, at least at those points where CR faults it, innocuous to a fault; and so CR’s attacks end up only making sense on the assumption that ... lesse, last month it was: intellectual history is impossible and argument/abstraction is bad. This month it’s: begging the question is uncontroversially ok and counter-examples are for cranks. Obviously CR doesn’t believe anything of the sort, so it’s downright passive-aggressive of me to pin the stuff on him. And naturally he attributes these bizarre effects to the infernal device that is the holbonic blender. But, damnit, they’re HIS comments. If all it takes to twist them into these ungainly shapes is the assumption that they are RELEVANT to the stage of the discussion we are at ...
Apologies again for the Dan Brown snark, CR. That was, indeed, uncalled for. But, sincerely, I think we keep getting in these fights because you are anticipating fights we aren’t having ... although we probably would.
Well, anyway, Scott writes of the elective affinity of fiction writers for social constructivism: “Even when it isn’t [elected], as in the case of some naturalist writers for whom biology is destiny--I’m looking at you, London--there’s always a strong dose of social constructivism. Take the examples of Call of the Wild and White Fang. As Jonathan Auerbach noted, these are the same novels, only backwards; a mixed-breed escapes from civilization and “learns” to be “natural” or is taken into civilization and “learns” to be “civilized.” Despite the heavy dose of biology-as-destiny, then, the narrative assumes the viability of some form of social constructivism, no?” I’m really not sure what so say about this. Except that at the point where you find that ‘biology-as-destiny’ is functionally substitutable for ‘socially constructible plasticity’, I think you haven’t yet solved down to the common denominator: namely, dramatic function. I think you find that two sorts of movements are dramatically symmetrical, and I am personally inclined to suspect that the true Bildungsroman protagonist is ‘authenticity’. You have two different ways of playing on the existential pathos of self-realization. I meant to write this in my original post on Armstrong, and didn’t: Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity seems to me to cover much the same ground that Armstrong’s book does. And I guess I find it more convincing in its treatment, when it comes to the question of what is genuinely novel about ‘the modern subject’. But I dunno. I need to go reread Trilling to make sure I’m not just engaging in knee-jerk liberal imagination apologetics.
"in my private but considered opinion - the upshot is always the same: namely, CR is shadow-boxing some later stage of the argument”
Who can say? The dust-filmed doll of Fabrikoid and kapok casts a shadow on the wall of the comment-box-cave and anyone can point at it and come up with reasons… writing “Invariably, we are not yet at the stage where this sort of pugilistic behavior is appropriate”, though, is sort of a nonstarter, isn’t it? If what people *enjoy* is the pugilistic behavior, why wait? At least that’s my own folk-psychoanalytic explanation.
Getting back to the content, if any, I don’t see how fiction writers could fail to be disposed towards social constructionism. After all, they are both constructing everything and trying to hide their tracks. The equivalent of inexorable physics and biology, for the world of a novel, is the author, and authors very rarely interject into a novel that the characters are as they are because the author wrote them that way.
"authors very rarely interject into a novel that the characters are as they are because the author wrote them that way.”
Actually, this happens very frequently in contemporary (postmodern) fiction. These writers explicitly put the very issue of “constructionism” in fiction into question. A big problem with debates like this (including Armstrong’s analysis in How Novels Think) is they assume that the conventions of “the novel” are those that were in play 80-100 years or more ago.
Interesting point with regard to Armstrong. But does this really happen that often in postmodern fiction? I would guess that more often the author and the characters swim in a sort of undifferentiated fishbowl.