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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

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)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

The History of Higher Eclecticism - or - the Varieties of Various Experience

Posted by John Holbo on 01/04/07 at 12:13 PM

I’m reading Frederick C. Beiser, The Romantic Imperative, whose author describes its ‘main thrust’ as: “directed against postmodernist interpretations of Fruhromantik, especially the works of Paul de Man, Manfred Frank, Isaiah Berlin, Ernst Behler, Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean Luc-Nancy” [Beiser makes clear he is aware tagging this crew as paradigmatically ‘postmodern’ is a bit non-standard.] My own line, you may know, is that Theory is helpfully regarded as a late repetition of German Romantic themes. Behler, by contrast, sees readings of the German Romantics as postmodern avant la lettre as anachronistic (projections backward of contemporary concerns.) But what he actually argues turns out to fit theory to a T, per my view. Mostly what he tries to show is that the surface features that suggest strong analogies to ‘postmodernism’ give way, on examination, to less obvious features. But, so far as I can tell, these are the very same less obvious features that, on examination, ‘postmodernism’ itself - Theory - exhibits. That is, the Fruhromantic-Theory analogy works superficially; then, when the superficial view is exposed as such, holds up in different terms, fundamentally. But that’s more than a blogpost can show. I’ll just quote a passage that caught my eye today:

For Schlegel, one of the defining characteristics of early modern literature in constrast to classical literature is that it is eclectic, encompassing a wide variety of styles or genres. While a work of classical literature would limit itself to one genre - so that, for example, a poem was either an idyll, a satire, or an epic - a work of early modern literature could encompass all these genres within itself. In his early neoclassical days, Schelege regarded this feature of early modern literature as one of its worst attributes, because it seemed to be purely chaotic, having no basis other than a desire to please the reader. Around 1796, however, Schlegel began to have doubts about his own neoclassicism. His faith in the superiority of classical art crumbled, so that he reconsidered the feasability of reviving it in the modern age, which had very different needs and values from those of classical antiquity. Schlegel then learned to appreciate some of the distinctive qualities of modern literature, which seemed to be more appropriate to its age. The great vice of modern literature - its eclecticism - now became its great virtue. Its mixture of styles was now proof of that restless striving for wholeness, that eternal longing for unity that was characteristic of modernity. It was the task of the modern age, Schlegel believed, to recreate the wholeness and unity of the ancient world, but now on a more sophisticated and self-conscious level that provided for the freedom and equality of everyone. (p. 12)

Beiser argues that this oblique strategy - unity through eclecticism - became the defining characterstic of romantische Poesie, for Schlegel. (If, like me, you spent yesterday afternoon admiring several rooms full of Cornell boxes, it all seems terribly plausible.) Anyway, ’romantische Poesie‘ is a keyword whose semantic life and times bears many pursuit-worthy analogies to ‘Theory’.

On a lighter note, an ad last night offered two pairs of glasses, plus an eye exam, for $69. Given the inexpense, it’s interesting that glasses-wearers like myself don’t tend to own more glasses than we do - in very different styles, for different occasions. Work glasses, party glasses, working in the yard on the weekend glasses. I mean: you own three pairs of pants, three different styles of shirt, why not three sets of glasses? Why don’t people lament: my God, I’ve been wearing the same glasses all week. Since your glasses determine the look of your face, and your face is pretty aesthetically crucial to self-presentation ... And then I got to thinking: exactly when did people start thinking that they should own not just several pairs of pants but several pairs of pants in different styles? When did personal stylistic variety, in pants and shirts, become the norm, in the United States? (Obviously if there is one thing Star Trek has taught us, it is that every other species in the galaxy still has to learn this lesson. All members of every other race all have the same haircuts, same style of shoes, etc. But we don’t. But since when?)

Apologies for the fact that I can’t seem to make Umlauts on this machine I’m using. Soon I’ll be home again.


Comments

So Theory and postmodernism are the same thing now?

(I just got new glasses and am having trouble getting used to the new look.  Presumably this problem would be reduced if we—as a culture—were in the habit of switching among various pairs.  But an obvious drawback to such a strategy would be that getting a new prescription would consign multiple pairs of glasses to obselescence, not just one.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/07 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Theory and postmodernism the same thing now? No, I was just trying to be helpful, allowing Beiser his usage (which is clearly a bit eccentric), counting on the sympathetic and understanding reader to get the point without requiring me to write another two or so tedious paragraph about how all these terms would need hashing out in a longer discussion. (Thanks for asking.)

Consigning multiple pairs to obsolencence? You aren’t thinking big, man. Waves of fashion - each of which is like a whole new ajustment to your eyes, requiring a new prescription - are the sea we swim in, we who are so modern.

By John Holbo on 01/04/07 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, isn’t Beiser horribly confusing “style” and “genre” in the above section?  Virgil wrote in the same style in different genres, but like a good classical poet, he kept those genres separate.  On the other hand, Shakespeare mushed all the genres together in his plays but did so in a unified style.

This is the distinction Jameson makes in *Postmodernism* between the moderns and the postmoderns.  The moderns have a unified style, a style so radically “theirs” that it’s both cause and expression of their distinctly modern forms of alienation.  The postmoderns make a pastiche of these distinct styles and “discourses,” challenge the notion of individual voice, refer not to some outer world but rather to the world of textuality, and express not alienation (or other ego-disorders) but rather sublimity and awe in the face of the World System.  Thus, Adorno on Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky: the dead-end of the radical individual style vs. the dead-end of mimcry of all available styles. 

Jameson’s maxim of postmodern style is: “difference relates.” Another name for this is, of course, parataxis, and it’s not postmodern at all. 

In any case, Beiser fails to do so, but we really need to separate out, say, modern eclecticism (of genres, conventions, etc.) from postmodern eclecticism (or the schzophrenia of styles).  Joyce is the pivot, insofar as *Ulysses* often borrows styles in the mode of pastiche (as opposed to the critical mode of parody).

By on 01/04/07 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You may have just put your finger on the next growth sector in the economy, then.  Invest in Lens Crafters!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/07 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John --

My work on Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well as several of Ellison’s essays, sought to show that Ellison’s final position on style involved exactly the kind of mixed style you describe. Rather than the homogeneous business suit or “traditional” dress, Ellison wanted a self-presentation drawing on multiple styles, so that it express both multiple belongings and a critique of the voluntary lie of belonging (since I am never “only” what a particular signifying style implies).

Of course, if we are talking about fashion, the issue is made somewhat obscurer by the material fact of the body. Not all styles fit the actual features of a person. Schlegel’s field, literature, has more freedom of play.

One way of understanding the Hegelian notion of the quantitative/qualitative leap has to do with proportionality in texts. It is reasonable to speak of Paul de Man, for example, in terms of late Romanticism, but the proportions of his concern about the inadequacy of representation are very different than what we find in Kant or Blake. The result is a qualitative difference (of kind, not of value) that legitimizes Beiser’s critique.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/04/07 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We’ll never treat glasses that way since lots of men wear glasses.  We currently gloss over glasses’ status as a sort of functional jewelry (like watches) by only having one pair to be worn in all circumstances (barring sunglasses and the like); if we had many pairs to be swapped out each after the situation, well, that would be like men wearing jewelry.

Also, you can make umlauts for HTML display by writing ä (or uuml;, ouml;, etc., always prefixed by an ampersand).  Proof: ä

By ben wolfson on 01/04/07 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A correlated surprise is how few people wear glasses despite having perfect vision, for the pure aesthetic effect.  Some do it, but we tend to regard them as freaks, I think.

By ben wolfson on 01/04/07 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben, I’m not sure to whom the “we” in those two comments actually refers. Particularly the first one—lots of men in Western society do wear jewelry, and there is an unwholesome element of sexism (even prejudice or homophobia, depending on the case) in any lingering discomfort about male adornment.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/04/07 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Most of the fare you’ll get with the ‘two pairs and an eye exam’ bit are pretty much shit looking. So, sure, we’d all have more than one pair but they’d all look bad. You have to pay a little money to get some decent frames.

That said, I only own two pairs of pants.

By on 01/04/07 at 03:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We don’t buy multiple glasses, despite the twofer deals, because the places that offer twofers generally have very few pairs of glasses that a person with style or taste can actually stomach.

That said, MLA needs to form a committee on the diversification of glasses styles.  It was like a convention of raccoon fetishists (The Furries!), what with all the thick black frames.  I personally want to bring back the IBM tech circa 1978 style of frames—you know, the aviator frames without sunglass lens.

Also: those twofers are nearly bait-and-switches.  By the time you get your proper lens, your anti-glare coating, and everything else not included in the package, you’re way above $69.  Or at least, I have been.  I generally leave the discount frame stores feeling like I was held down while the salespeople crammed a sizeable Hickory Farms summer sausage down my throat.

(As far as man jewelry goes, I own four watches.  But necklaces and rings?  No freaking way.  Rings don’t look good on anyone.  Women with rings look like JAPs, while men with rings look like fans of the Dave Matthews Band.  Necklaces, of course, are fab on women because their entire purpose is to draw attention to what’s, uh, below the necklace.  On men, there’s two necklace options: above the shirt or nestled in the chest hair.  Both are ridiculous.  Now tattoos: sexy on everyone.)

By on 01/04/07 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is?  Oh, shit.

By ben wolfson on 01/04/07 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Necklaces, of course, are fab on women because their entire purpose is to draw attention to what’s, uh, below the necklace.  On men, the entire purpose of the necktie is ...

By nnyhav on 01/04/07 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Luther, I hadn’t really thought that through - style and genre, not the glasses/furries/MLA thing, which I obviously knew already. In general, I should probably clarify: Beiser’s book is a work of intellectual history about German Romanticism, not really a significant discussion of postmodernism (or his view of postmodernism). He’s doing that usual academic thing of saying the other views are wrong, by way of getting himself off the launchpad: in this case, a specific set of readings of German Romanticism which he associates with certain sympathies to ‘postmodernism’, but which don’t really have anything very essential to do with that. But the Beiser book is about Schlegel and Novalis and all that crew. No significant discussion of contemporary figures.

So, getting back to style and genre: it’s quite likely that Beiser is running them together because Schlegel doesn’t really distinguish them sufficiently. Or rather, he rather aggressively assimilates everything to ‘poesie’ and advocates ‘Romanticizing’ - with the pun on ‘Roman’, i.e. turn everything into the novel.

By jholbo on 01/04/07 at 07:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This post ties in quite closely with my own recent reading and thinking. I was personally struck by the similarity to what Bakhtin said about the novel, and particularly his suggestion that the modern novel was born out of the cross-pollination of languages and genres in the Middle Ages. This seems to derive from Schlegel’s notion of the Mischung.

With Schlegel, as with Bakhtin, is doesn’t bear much close examination--the classical era, particularly the late classical era, is full of mixed style and burlesqued style. Even Plato famously combined styles in single dialogues, a fact strongly admired by the Romantics. As for genre, I find this oftentimes to be something imposed afterwards--the Menippean satire, for instance, is not really a genre, but a Mischung of genres. And Biblical scholars are always teasing out closely-knit genre-elements in the Scriptures, eg. the Pauline letters in the NT.

By Conrad on 01/04/07 at 07:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I rather like the black rimmed glasses, had a large pair myself for most of my undergrad, but most academics do it the sissy way. All small and pseudo-indie, desperately clutching to some sense of youth and fashion. It’s often sad when I see a middle-aged academic with those rectangular black glasses and some “spiky” hair, but lacking the true sense of eccentricity to pull it off. I’m all in favour of the aviators, my friend actually did that and they look good on him.

By on 01/05/07 at 06:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: Conrad’s remark.  Plus, the imposition of genres on classical literature can be because, when you only have few surviving examples, it’s easy to create a nice, tidy, and limited number of boxes for them.

E.g., at the APA last week in San Diego, Stephen Bay pointed out that a new papyrus fragment of Lollianos strongly suggests that we should be dubious about the erotic novel/satiric novel distinction, and maybe scrap it altogether.

By on 01/12/07 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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