Tuesday, June 21, 2005
“the Berma effect”
The book I’m reading has a pompous name, but otherwise it’s very good - Gerard Genette’s The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. One early thing that I like very much is Genette’s acknowledgement of a range of factors which can interfere with the spectator’s “direct , full and authentic perception” of a celebrated artwork:
“The noblest, and the one most legitimately bound up with the artistic nature of this work, may be dubbed, with reference to a famous passage in Proust, the ‘Berma effect’; we might define it as ‘traumatic anesthesia brought on by the overwhelming sensation that one is in the presence of what is presumably a masterpiece.’”
Already I’ve copied this into my nerdy commonplace book. Rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights cognitive immobility is a sensation intimately familiar to me - not to you, naturally - but in a more general way, I appreciate the ploy of proposing an addition to the common fund of literary-critical terminology which is taken from a fictional dramatising of an aesthetic experience.
I think there ought to be many more of these....parables? Probably they have a name already, & it’d be useful to know it. (It seems important that the individual terms should be named using the idioms of their sources, also.) Another example (maybe a better one) would be “the most photographed barn in America”, from White Noise. True, Baudrillard got in there first, but DeLillo’s vignette and nomenclature is a great deal more fun. It possesses the advantage, too, of having a more specific application in terms of the formal qualities of the object under discussion, and possibly its place in culture. As in, the Mona Lisa is a most photographed barn, the ultimate barn even, but Citizen Kane is not a MPB, despite eternally languishing at the top of lame top 100 lists everywhere, because it doesn’t have the requisite clean and minimal barnlike outlines. (Feel free to shoot this claim down.)
Can you think of some other candidates for “Berma effect” duties? (stipulation: no Borges, that’s too easy.)
I think the question of one’s affective response to art (i.e., traumatized anesthesia, or anything else) has to be separated from reification (what you’re referring to as MPB). I tend to think that overly reified/mass-produced art (like the Mona Lisa) loses the ability to produce a response, other than the only-very-vertiginous feeling that one is seeing the first ‘copy’ of the Mona Lisa every made.
When I see art I like—usually of the non-reified variety—I get kind of a happy, enthused feeling and a need to talk about it, along the lines of “I figured out what the painter is trying to do!” Maybe it’s because of the kind of person I am: pleasures are widely dispersed (which is not quite the same as ‘immanent’), and communication is paramount.
Epistomes? For iconic knowledge, is justified true belief sufficient, or an uncomfortable dependency? Is the argument unavoidably circular, or conceptually <a href="http://www.ohiobarns.com/otherbarns/artis/ky/AtB17114 farm.html">recursive</a>, an existential requirement leading to an inescapable conclusion?
Sianne Ngai’s *Ugly Feelings* is an interesting discussion of novel affects and the rise of modernity. These aren’t so much aesthetic affects as the affects investigated in the characters themselves: so-called “negative emotions” like those of Bartleby. So we get chapters on animatedness, irritation, “stuplimity” [sic], and so on.
There is a peculiar aesthetic experience that I like to think of as the minimal sublime—or The Twombly Affect. When I first experiences Twombly’s magnificent multi-canvass sequence based on Pope’s translation of the Iliad, I was awe-struck both at the sheer magnitude of the canvasses and the sheer minimalism of what he *did* on those canvasses: the bigness of smallness.
Perhaps this is similar to my experience of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, or the magnitude of objects John Cage used to produce such beautiful, minimal effects in his prepared piano pieces. Similar to the Romantic fixation on fragments: the bits imply a vast system behind them. Faith Ringgold’s story-quilts. The Singh twins’ postmodern miniatures.
Whatever it is, it’s different from either the magnitude of the Kantian sublime or mere minimalism of, say, Brian Eno’s new agey ambient music or John Zorn’s (or better yet, Anthony Braxton’s) solo sax pieces. It’s the complicated interweaving of tiny bits and (the illusion of) maximal scope: how Glass layers a million simple arpeggios in *Einstein*, or how Reich builds up patterns in *Drumming*.
I think Susan Stewart might discuss this in *Nonsense*.
Or (to pick up another thread), how Moretti talks about the Wagnerian motif in *Modern Epic*, although Wagner always comes off as sheer magnitude to my ears.
But I remember a great mise-en-abyme in *Mason & Dixon*, in which one of the characters describes certain methods of metalwork in which hundreds of ultra-thin sheets of gold are pieced together to produce the illusion of depth (or something like that). It is, of course, Pynchon’s own aesthetic process, and one which, in his two most recent works, calls into question simplistic ideas of postmodern selfhood or the flat character of pomo fiction: through careful layering of bits and pieces, something both overwhelmingly huge and sentimentally tiny can be made.
The Kafka fragment: so small and frail we feel for Kafka, but behind which we assume the presence of some vast system of thought (theological, political, mystical, or whatever).
nnyhav that is a very nice effort, thank you. I had no idea that comedy barn-building was a competitive sport.
Luther the Ugly Feelings book sounds good. Is it good? I assume so, or you wouldn’t be mentioning it.
The trope I’m trying to explore(epistomes, hmm?) is the type of thing Susan Stewart must talk about somewhere. Your example of the Twombly effect is well on the way - all it’s lacking is that I want somebody somewhere in a novel or a play or poem or movie to have that experience in a form that is local and articulated and compressed, because then it would be a really useful thing to have on hand when you wanted to talk about another work which exploited “the bigness of the smallness.”
I should have said this more clearly in my initial post. This general idea - using literary expressions of particular aesthetic experiences as critical tools - appeals to me because (a)it offers a way of talking about a subjective perception of a text without getting all navel-gazey and introspective and singular, and (b) it muddies up the boundaries between artist and critic, which can only be good for both.
The Genette/Proust example works for me as a diagnosis of a particular species of the effects of reification because it involves an opera singer. I have seen maybe six operas in my life, but each time I’ve found it impossible to maintain a comfortable aesthetic distance in the face of both the pre-performance high-cultural burden, and then the Gesamtkunstwerk-iness of the actual performance. I think that’s qualitatively different to any of the ways one might become non-responsive to the physical presence of a famous original painting or sculpture, or other still and quiet object.
I did think of a couple more instances this morning: The part of American Psycho where Partick Bateman has some sort of sexual epiphany at the U2 concert becasue he thinks Bono is looking at him, and a bit in Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers where the heroine is surprised to find herself having a go at a painter who makes exact copies of celebrated old master paintings.
This is so obvious that it can’t be what you mean, but how about Bergotte and the ‘patch of yellow’ in Proust?
That’s exactly the kind of thing i’m after. I can’t imagine a situation where it’d be useful, but you never know.
Laura, I actually can’t attest to the quality of Ngai’s *Ugly Feelings*. It’s in my stack of library books to read, in part because reliable people have recommended it. At the same time, it’s not at the top of that stack because other reliable people have said it’s crap. Myself, I’m just trying to figure out why the sudden critical interest in emotion and affect.
Now that I understand the nature of your original query, I can offer a better example: the scene in the film *Garden State* in which Natalie Portman hands her headphones to Zach Braff in the doctor’s waiting room and says something like, “It’s the Shins. They’ll change your life.”
And of course, they will change your life. But what’s really going on aesthetically here? The convergence of: (a) the right song; (b) the right person; (c) the right moment. I’m willing to argue that only a pop song can have this effect, that pop songs are like psychopomps sent to signal certain changes in our lives in the years between seventh grade and our first divorce. But it’s not simply youth that lends pop songs this life-changing (or harbinger of life-changes) role; it’s the mix of honesty and coyness that only a great pop song can achieve that is really at stake here. The film itself does a good job of mimicing this honesty and coyness, but 100 minutes just ain’t the same as three minutes.
[A similar moment is in *Lost in Translation*, as Bill Murray sings Roxy Music’s gorgeous “More Than This."}
So: *The Garden State* effect: you, the right person, and the right song: everything falls into place just as it’s about to fall apart.
I needed a little while to think about these two examples, maybe because you couldn’t have chosen two movies more annoying to me, heh heh, plus there’s always the fear of venturing too far into bad Nick Hornby territory.
I almost buy these, in theory. But perhaps because The Shins really leave me cold, I can’t swallow that example entirely. It seems to me that it requires the spectator to reach a judgement/conclusion about the impact of the song that in a narrated fiction rather than a performed one would instead be stated, simply. That’s not necessarily a bad move for a film to take but it’s so often abused these days, I did tear up a little bit at various points in Lost in Translation all the while resentfully feeling that I was being played like a Phildickian mood organ. _That_ is an affect I could use a good ficto-description of....
(I’m not saying that movies are only performed rather than narrated, but the Garden State example weighs performance/presentation more heavily than narration/assertion I think.)
I hadn’t noticed this sudden interest in emotion & affect wherof you speak. One of my favourite critics, George Toles, wrote a terrific essay on Random Harvest and emotion which addresses a little bit the general dearth of writing about feeling in film theory. In the same book A House Made of Light there’s a discussion of It’s a Wonderful Life that goes into similar matters. Both essays take sentiment seriously, which is a dangerous game unless the writer is good enough to pull it off, and not very many are.
I generally refer to the mood organ affect as “Getcher slimy paws offa me ya little creep!”, but the term hasn’t caught on in Spielberg studies as I’d hoped.
A variation (which also must be depicted in fiction somewhere I can’t remember where) is when a work of art produces a strong but seemingly inappropriate reaction by nudging a peculiarly supersaturated observer. For example, the week after a long-term relationship unexpectedly ended, I became engrossed in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown while utterly baffled as why the audience around me was laughing. Or the awful experience I’ve heard of from more than one person, of watching an in-flight romantic comedy on the way back from a funeral.
A supersaturated proponent of a particular politics, religion, or academic methodology often describes an artwork strikingly at variance with the one experienced by non-proponents. But that case misses the special discomfort of knowing the falsity of one’s own response.
I’ve thought about it, and, as academic book titles go, I wouldn’t say it’s pompous at all.