Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Wiki and the Archive

Wikipedia, the open source encyclopedia has been fascinating me for some time now. It is a growing phenomena that has the possibility to change our relationship with the archive forever (its fascinating to speculate what Derrida would have made of it - I've actually just added a whole sentence to the Derrida article - which greatly pleased me!).

There is some interesting material on the Wiki phenomena in the Guardian technology pages. I've done the search for you - so this link takes you to the results. You just need to have a flick through them to find a few really interesting pieces. The ones that leap out at me are: 'Wikipedia comes out as a book'; 'Wikipedia to tighten editorial process'; 'Science journal supports accuracy of Wikipedia'; 'In Praise Of...'; and 'Can you trust Wikipedia'.

I know some of you were interested in this with regards to essays - so, enjoy.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

The first question that has to be asked when tackling this novel (and it's the same question that the narrator of the novel, Saleem Sinai, asks of the story he is telling) is simply, where do we begin?

It is a vast and complex novel. How can anyone offer an 'organised' reading of it? This is, I think, one of the statements that the novel is making - that life, history, culture and narrative are vast and complex things, and that it is nigh on impossible to make an 'organised' telling or reading of them. The novel itself performs this state of affairs.

As I said in the lecture, the reading of Midnight's Children that I had to offer was a) necessarily fragmented, b) necessarily incomplete, and c) necessarily only one of many, many possible others.

To try and impose some kind of order onto Midnight's Children would maybe contradict one of the central 'points' of the novel.

Insofar as a novel can be about anything what could Midnight's Children be about? Well, for me, at this time of reading, it is about:

- time and history
- unity and multiplicity - the one and the many
- history and story - reality and narrative
- parts and wholes
- identity (which is of course a double-edged word - and we do well to remember this - 'identical with', the same as, OR 'individual')

If the novel shows us anything its that knowing anything, accessing meaning, is:

'a question of perspective; the further you get from [it], the more concrete and plausible it seems - but, as you approach [it], it inevitably seems more and more incredible. Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grains...the illusion dissolves - or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality'
p.165

I would imagine that, after 12 weeks or so of Narrative in Culture we can all begin to relate to this paragraph!

The central trope of the novel is the main character himself - Saleem Sinai - who sits alone, at night, in the glow of his anglepoise light, attempting to write the story of his life before his time runs out.

- Saleem is tied to India - in a sense Saleem IS India (as are characters in other Rushdie novels - in his most recent, Shalimar the Clown, a female character bears the name 'India' and has a similarly contiguous relationship with the sub-continent)
- He is a singularity and a multiplicity
- He is an individual and also one of the many in one of the largest countries on Earth

So, at the heart of this is a complicated joke about the relationship between individual and nation.

Of course, a nation is, in a very real sense, nothing more than a shared fiction, a kind of historical novel - there is a lot of very good writing on this - try Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities or Homi Bhabha's Nation and Narration.

In capital H History (which we have discussed previously), the individual is not as important when set next to the nation - the individual narrative is of less consequence.

In the traditional Victorian novel - think Austen, Dickens, Scott - we tend to see an individual character placed into history - which acts as a kind of backdrop (more or less) to the fictional events of the narrative.

Rushdie is doing something a little different - something that has been called 'historiographic metafiction' (Mark Currie writes about this in Postmodern Narrative Theory, which some of you may be familiar with by now, and Linda Hutcheon - who coined the term - develops the concept in a very famous, eponymous essay). In this novel the narrative becomes, at points, indistinguishable from 'real' historical events (this is again applicable to all of Rushdie's novels).

Rushdie, apparently, does not want us to take all of this allegorically - the last thing he intends is that we should make a simple mapping of one story onto another, to reduce his novel to meaning something and in doing so make it mean only one thing.

In an interview with Scripsi (Vol 2-3), he says:

'I usually resist the idea of allegory. In India there is too much of it, allegory is a kind of disease. People try to decode everything, every story or text allegorically, and although there are clearly elements that you could call allegorical in Midnight's Children or Shame, the books are not allegories in the way that Pilgrim's Progress is, where everything stands for something and the real story is a story which is not told. Allegory asks readers to make a translation, to uncover a secret text that has not been written. In that sense I don't think my books operate as allegories.'

So, there is a difference, he is saying, between allegory and contiguity.

What Rushdie wants us to read is not Saleem as representing India - on another level we must read Saleem as India (but also as many other things - it is not an exclusive relationship).

Rushdie achieves this in the novel through:

- the magic of radio
- a congress of minds

On another level, Saleem is not just India - Saleem is the novel and the novel is Saleem.

- A novel is a congregation of voices and an assembly of stories - so is Saleem - and, in a very real sense, so are you - an incredibly complex assembly, but nonetheless...

Back to history (again)

At this point, it might be useful to refer back to the notes on Waterland and 'metaphysical' history. We have seen how deeply embedded in our psyches the idea of linear narrrative, linear time and linear history are - from Heraclitus' river, to Aristotle's final cause, through to the Judeo-Christian construction of history as a moral drama with salvation as its last act, to the Enlightenment, Hegel and Marx, Bush and Blair. Nevertheless, we have also seen that this is something which is made - this way of thinking that, for want of a better phrase, we have been calling 'Western thought'.

Midnight's Chidren
is, of course, written by an author who is not wholly 'Western'. Rushdie is Indian-born (with Kashmiri grandparents), lived in Pakistan during his childhood and is English (Oxbridge) educated. So, another fragmentary reading of Midnight's Children is therefore this: as a collision between Western metaphysics and those of the Indian sub-continent.

Re-visit the opening page of the novel - 'I was born in the city of Bombay...once upon a time...' - to save my reproducing it here. Rushide jokes that traditionally, India (before it is 'mysteriously handcuffed to history' along with Saleem) has no sense of time whatsoever - on p.106 he makes the point that no country whose word for tomorrow is the same as their word for yesterday can be said to have a proper grasp on time.

We see, on the very opening page of the novel how, in this modern, 'independent', post-colonial India, the 'timelessness' of 'once upon a time' is no use.

Among the many imprints of colonisation are these Western metaphysics - the co-implication of 'time', 'history' and 'meaning' ('I admit it', Saleem says, 'above all things, I fear absurdity').

The opening chapter performs this metaphysical tension by juxtaposing different time frames, each one informing the others ('things - even people have a way of leaking into each other' p.38).

Each of these time-frames have their own internal causation, but forms part of a causational chain leading up to and informing the 'present' moment in which Saleem writes.

Have a look at p.10 - the section that details Aadam Aziz in the 'early spring of 1915' - which exposes us to an imaginary India, before modernity. This is a 'primeval world before clocktowers' - Sankara Acharya, a Hindu yogi, points towards a different metaphysics, one that views history as a never-ending series of micro- and macro-cosmic cycles.

The novel then seems to suggest that Aadam's perception of the valley is altered forever by his travels - he brings into the valley the knowledge of 'Europe', 'modernity', 'science', and 'Enlightenment' (there is, intriguingly, I have just discovered, also a Yogic concept of Enlightenment - Wiki does throw up some random links). On p.11 we learn that 'many years later' Aadam comes here to die, aching in nostagia for his lost paradise: 'the way it was before travel and tussocks and army tanks messed everything up'.

In a sense, this is not just an elegy for Aadam's past, from which he has been forever removed by things happening (which happens to us all) - but also for that other time of once upon a time, before 'history churned ahead' (p.9).

So, on another level, Midnight's Children is acting out a process of what Derrida calls mondialatinisation ('mondial' of course being French for 'world' or 'globe') - the increasing global hegemony of Latinate and Anglo-American discourse.

But, there is a powerful reminder of this other time stalking both Saleem and the novel - Shiva the Destroyer. In Hindu mythology, Shiva's task is to destroy the whole of creation at the end of Kali Yuga (see p.194) and thus cause creation's rebirth - ending to begin and beginning to end. Yet, Saleem/Rushdie (and be careful not to confuse the two) is writing (at least partly, if not mostly) in a Western metaphysical language which he seems unable to transcend or escape.

He paradoxically sees history as a relentless force that destroys time, at the same time as he attempts to use it to preserve memory 'from the corruption of clocks' (p.38).

But, this other history, of cycles and returns disrupts Saleem's story right from the beginning (see the passage of p.13).

However, these cycles are trapped within a narrative form that demands linearity - novels must have a beginning and an end. Midnight's Children attempts to disrupt this linearity by placing its beginnings and endings in places other than the first and final pages.

- Saleem makes it clear that his birth is not the beginning of his story, but in order to tell his story as a story he is forced to pick and originary moment - he has to start somewhere
- So, he picks his grandfather, banging his nose on a tussock, and then realises that this is not sufficient either

Padma, who acts as a kind of surrogate reader within the novel, voices her frustration with this approach on more than one occassion, noting that, if he is not careful, Saleem will be dead before he can tell the story of his birth!

This distraction with the telos is also reflected in Saleem's father's 'original ambition' - 'the arrangement of the Quran in accurately chronological order' (p.82).

Tidy thinking?

In a way, the novel is trying desperately hard to resist the tidiness of history and ordered narrative - it is trying to resist the way in which narrative works as a structure of exclusion - it wants to include everything - but it ends up, paradoxically, representing the limits of the archive. How can you represent a whole person, or a whole country?

The tidiness of history is really an attempt to reduce the infinite complexity of what happens to a very simple chain of cause and effect. Saleem embodies this conflict throughout the novel - he struggles to give voice to the many.

History (and, of course, allegory) are tidy ways of thinking. One of them has the tidiness of narrative linearity, the other has the tidiness of one-to-one correspondence of meaning. Neither does justice to the complexity that Rushdie wants to convey (take a look at p.214).

What I hope we have been getting our heads around in this module is not a new knowledge of language, but rather the ultimate unknowability that is at the heart of language. It is messy - even as it tidies - but, as Rushdie finds, it also paradoxically tidies as you try to make a mess. Rushdie is, in a way, trapped in the form in which we writes and the language in which he writes (and the metaphysical baggage that brings with it).

So, Saleem and Rushdie, attempting to break out of these metaphysical manacles find themselves increasingly trapped within them' (take another look at p.9-10: 'there are so many stories to tell').

The multiplicity that is Saleem will be handcuffed to History and two-dimensional linearity by the corruption of clocks.

So, we can see how this contradiction between singularity and multiplicity lies at the heart of this nebulous thing we call the present. And, within this increasingly swollen, multiplicitous present, there is a kind of double-gesture - which suggests that we move forwards by moving backwards and vice versa (think again of Derrida's comments on the archive) - there will be no future without memory, narrative, and inheritance from the past - and, in an oblique way, Rushdie recognises this when talking about the style in which the novel is written in a 1984 interview:

'One of the strange things about oral narrative...is that you find there a form which is thousands of years old, and yet which has all the methods of the modernist novel, because when you have somebody tell a story at length, a story which is told from the morning to the night, it probably contains roughly as many words as a novel, and during the course of that story it is absolutely acceptable that the narrator will every so often enter his own story and chat about it - that he'll comment on the story, digress because the tale reminds him of something, and then come back to the point. All these things, which are absolutely second nature in an orally told story, become bizarre modern inventions when you write them down. It seems to me that when you look at the old narrative and use it, as I tried to do, as the basis of the novel, you become a modernist writer by becoming a very traditional one. By going back to the ancient traditions you have done something which is very bizarre and modern.'

And round and round we go...

What happened to the real thing?

We've talked about the slipperiness of language and we've seen how history and meaning and common sense are not so much the glue that holds everything together as a kind of tightrope we are using to cross a river, which is being rapidly wound up behind us.

The question is - where does all this leave us?

We've talked a fair few times about Baudrillard's notorious claim that the Gulf War never happened. One of the biggest criticisms of what (for me, quite reductively) gets lumped together under the moniker of postmodernism is that it disregards things as essential to existence as reality and truth. This is, of course, seen by many thinkers (both conservative and radical) as a bad thing. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of this - can we actually do without them? If we were to decide that we could, we could find ourselves in a pretty unpleasant situation. Not too mention in a world in which the only thing left that is real is Coca-Cola! It must be true - it does exactly what is says on the tin: 'it's a feeling'.

So, what has happened to the real thing?

In the lecture I tried to approach this question by means of an example - the example being Jean Baudrillard's claim that the first Gulf War never happened.

You can find a complete collection of Baudrillard's articles on the Gulf War in the library: The Gulf War Never Happened.

You can also find a very good critical analysis of the articles and the events that surrounded them by Christopher Norris: Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War.

The first question Norris asks, on the first page of his book, is something that I asked you to think about: 'how far can a thinker go and still lay claim to serious critical attention?'.

I have already suggested that I think there is a value in Baudrillard, in (at least) the sense that he certainly provokes (fierce) debate, by testing the limits of our thinking. Perhaps you can view him as a kind of philosophical version of a radically experiemental theoretical physicist.

So, what DID Baudrillard say to get everyone's back up? Well, not everyone's as a large number of people did, and still do embrace what he is saying. In the lecture I gave you a reminder of some of the historical details surrounding the Gulf conflict in the early 90s. If you were too young to remember them or if you have simply forgotten, you may find it useful to refresh your memory in the same way I did - try this Wiki link. It'll save me reproducing the detail here.

This war was, of course, the first really MASS media war. It was certainly the most televised conflict to date. For the first time ever (doesn't it make you all dewy-eyed at our progress) people all over the world were able to watch live pictures of Cruise missiles hitting targets and fighters taking off and landing from aircraft carriers, alongside live feed of tracer fire arcing through the Baghdad night sky. More details, which I talked about in the lecture, on the media coverage of the war, is included further down the Wiki article, here.

It is worth remembering that this is more a media loop than a one-way street. This was perhaps the first war in which world leaders sat glued to their television sets waiting for the latest updates to that THEY knew what was happening on the ground. This was reportedly even more the case in the more recent Iraq war (especially with the advent of the internet and Al-Jazeera, reporting the 'other side' of the story on the ground and to the minute).

Nearer to home, on July 7 2005 COBRA, the emergency Cabinet committee of the UK Government had live news feed piped straight into their hastily convened meeting, as the journalists on the ground were uncovering facts and information about the events of that morning and the repercussions and relaying them into the media loop quicker than the emergency and miltary services.

This leads us to the next point, which is that the coverage of the Gulf War was new in its instantaneousness - the footage could be broadcast virtually live.

I'm fascinated by the story in the Wiki article of the British film crew, travelling with front line ground forces on the assault, who then left to arrive in Kuwait City the day before the troops, broadcasting live coverage of their arrival the following day.

What did Baudrillard have to say about all this?

A couple of days before the war started, Baudrillard went public in The Guardian:

- the Gulf War, he said, would never happen

His central argument was that the war only existed as a figment of mass media simulation, the rhetoric of war games or imaginary scenarios, that far exceeded the real thing - the limits of factual possibility.

Speaking of the (then recently ended) Cold War, he says that deterrence (Mutually Assured Destruction) had 'worked' for 40 years, in the sense that war was now strictly unthinkable, except as a rhetorical phenomenon. Don't dismiss this claim as easily as you would like to - there is a certain sense in which Baudrillard has a good point, there is always, at any moment in history, a certain limit to what it is possible to say and enact.

He notes the exchange of threat and counter-threat between the West and Saddam Hussein and their ever increasing ferocity. The exorbitant nature of these threats, he claims, ensure that no such event could take place (I wonder if he would apply the same analysis to the current tension between the UN and Iran).

What you are left with, Baudrillard argues, is a kind of endless charade - a phoney war in which the management of public opinion (which is itself no more than a reflex response to the images and the rhetoric) creates the illusion of consensus support by supplying all the right answers and creating all the right attitudes in advance (it is arguable that the British Government manifestly failed in their obvious attempt to achieve this before the more recent Iraq war).

There would be no war, Baudrillard declared, because talk of war had now become a substitute for the actual event. The 'moment' which the term 'war' had once designated. So, it's really a question of losing that sense of transition or the ability to mark that transition from 'peace' to 'war' that Baudrillard is highlighting.

This is not a bad point - in fact, it is cutting in its insight into the nature of modern warfare and 24 hour media. Baudrillard THEN went on to claim that:

- the war itself would only take place in the minds and imaginations of a captive television audience, viewing it with all the bravery of being out of range.

At this point, in his article, Baudrillard employs war-like rhetoric himself and talks in terms of viewers being 'bombarded' by television images of the war - a sort of media assault on the collective consciousness. It would merely be a repetition, he suggests, of the video-game-esque images that had already filled our screens during the 'build-up'.

Furthermore, Baudrillard argues, when the war occurs:

- everyone would have to rely on second-hand or simulated knowledge of the events, from primetime viewers to Prime Ministers and Presidents; even front-line generals and Pentagon strategists.

So, he argues, if this is the case, we might as well stop deluding ourselves with talk of 'real' and 'phoney' wars (reality and non-reality) and acknowledge that reality is not what it used to be - in other words, it is no longer the real or imaginary truth behind appearances.

(Think back to the work we did early on in our seminars on Baudrillard's four stages of the sign - in Simulations - and the training shoe as an example of the sign as pure simulation, with no connection to a basic, underlying reality. He is driving at the same thing here, but with a slightly more violent example. For Baudrillard, the postmodern world is characterised by a collapse of reality into the simulacra, into a state of hyper-reality).

What happened to the real thing next?

Baudrillard went on to publish another article during the conflict, which basically said: 'I'm right you know - this war is not happening'. He then published a third article in the days following the end of the war, which concluded that he was still right - the war had not happened, we were just under the illusion that it had. How did he maintain that argument?

Well, at the point at which sabre-rattling words give way to Cruise missile-tipped deeds, Baudrillard argues, no-one is in a position to know that what they are hearing, seeing and reading is not some fictive simulacrum conjured up by the media machine. No-one can be sure that they are receiving information or misinformation - not even the people delivering the information.

Baudrillard argues that it would be completely naive to carry on in this way of thinking. There is, he says, no remaining difference between true and false - all of the things that exist in the bubble of the media simulation - political speeches, opinion polls, interviews, televised parliamentary debates - are just as capable of influencing the day-to-day run of events as anything that might (as far as we can know) have actually happened, or be happening right now, beyond the reach of saturation TV coverage.

(Think back to the very first lecture when we discussed Warren Beatty's musing in In Bed with Madonna: 'what's the point of doing anything off camera?')

This applies to everyone, Baudrillard says - even those we might think of as being 'in the know'. Even POTUS is plugged into a network that feeds him a constant stream of simulated images and pre-packaged sound-bites, into which he feeds back exactly the same in response.

However 'unreal' their perception of events, they still make their decisions and base their public reactions (speeches and statements) based on these impressions, which will thus have a 'real' impact, not only on public opinion, but also on the actual fighting of the war itself (the war that is, of course, not happening).

Baudrillard's conclusions

All of this leaves us, for Baudrillard, in a state of terminal indifference - where the passage to war is a kind of non-event: 'first safe sex, now safe war. A Gulf War would not even register two or three on the Richter scale in this way. It is unreal, war without the symptoms of war, a form of war which means never needing to face up to war, which enables war to be "perceived" from deep within a darkroom'.

At its extreme then, Baudrillard envisages the war as a kind of extension of the hallucination of a video game, in which the 'truth' is solely rhetorical or performative. It is not the case, as we used to say, that truth is the first casualty of war anymore.

To say such a thing would be to remain in the grip of some nostalgic desire for a truth-telling discourse, which would merely provide us with a hiding place from the uncomfortable fact that we are utterly incapable of telling the difference between truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy, any longer.

For Baudrillard, this state of hyper-reality cancels out the differences between true and false - what is 'currently good in the way of belief'.

So, as far as Baudrillard is concerned, it is missing the point entirely to come back at him with the claim that the Gulf War did actually happen.

He would respond by asking us what could possibly count as evidence, given that our knowledge is a kind of pseudo-knowledge, utterly dependent on various forms of superinduced media illusion.

And we got here, he thinks, through the Cold War years - through the unreality of Mutually Assured Destruction (think of Price's bad dreams in Waterland) and the even more fantastical dream of Reagan's Star Wars initiative (since revived by George W. Bush's White House administration). Having lived through (and beyond) this, we are in a kind of steady state of terminal exhaustion, collective indifference or apathy - post-modern, post-war, post-post...

And, in the context of Baudrillard's other writings, we are just, in general, post-reality, post-truth - any attempt to cling to them is to fail to wake up to the hyper-reality of our situation.

Where does this leave us?

In the seminars we thought about the consequences of this thinking. I asked you to consider other events - 9/11, 7/7...what about a week last Tuesday? Can we survive without the real?

In the seminar we looked at Baudrillard's arguments and the counter-arguments in the context of another huge historical event: how can we prove that the Holocaust ever happened?

Burger King - Have it YOUR Way!

It seems that not everyone who did a humanities degree in the 80s and 90s and read up on their 'theory' went into academia...

Some ended up in politics, some went into marketing - it's a kind of vicious circle, as with all discourses, it ends up creating its own resistance.

Marxism may be a discourse that resists, challenges and, ultimately, seeks to bring down liberal capitalism but, it equally hands liberal capitalism a language with which to engage with it on its own terrain. Much of the language of free-market economics is poached from Marx.

Power and identification is a multi-faceted, complex process - it is never a one-way street.

One of my favourite finds of recent weeks is the new marketing material employed by Burger King and features on their current packing.

For example: 'You can eat these fries any way you want. You can dip them in ketchupor your drink if that turns you on. You can stuff them in your sandwich or you can play pick-up-sticks with them if you really want. Or, hang on, here's a thought, you can even eat them like a normal human being.'

Or: 'This cup makes a personal statement about you. It says "Hey, look at me, I'm an ambitious and decisive person. You could have gone larger, but you didn't. You could have gone smaller, but you decided against it. No, you know exactly what you want in life and that you should always have it your way."'.

All this stuff is incredibly interesting - it is a kind of anti-advertising (a bit like the FCUK campaigns), self-aware of its position as marketing and trying to get you to trust it and buy it by deliberately undermining itself with a bit of self-deprecating irony.

This is the most extreme version yet of the whole Burger King advertising discourse, which narrates the burger-buying subject (if there can be such a thing) into a position of choice - a feeling of empowerment and control. This is, of course, ironically, the only thing that you DON'T have in any burger chain restaurant.

All of this leads us into a slightly strange world, in which reality seems tenuous at the best.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Time's Arrow

This novel was perhaps tailor-made to demonstrate the fact that time is part of the internal logic of storytelling and one of the themes of all stories. It does that by disrupting and reversing that logic and leaving us, the dear readers, with a lot of work to do.

In the lecture I took some time to recount the story forwards to help us get our bearings. I am not going to take up space here with that - but if you look in the article entitled 'Wrong in Time' in your module handbook you will see that there is a section in there that does much the same thing.

Ironic Self-Distance

We've talked a lot about the importance (or the unavoidability) of distance in narration - even self-distance in self-narration. One thing Amis could be said to do in Time's Arrow is to perform an ironic extreme of this, by having the narrator seemingly part of, but not part of the novel's main protagonist.

Is this a first person narrative? Even though the novel is narrated in the first person, none of the events actually happen to the narrator, who appears to be a separate entity from Dr Tod Friendly in all his many aliases (perhaps drawing attention to the fact that, in a certain sense, through his multiple identity changes, Tod has moved a long way away from himself - perhaps, more radically suggesting that there is no original, essential 'self' with which we can ever be one).

The normal thematics of recollection in a first person narrative are replaced by a process of exposition - even though the events have already happened the narrative voice anticipates a future he does not expect or know: Tod, however, seems to be aware of the past that is simultaneously behind him and in front of him.

But, something strange happens in this novel at the level of the reader (and, it is intimated in the narrative, for Tod as well) - we anticipate a horror that we know is coming. So, is it a recollective narrative for us as readers, once we reassemble it in the correct order (assuming that, as readers, we have some knowledge of 20th century European history).

There is certainly an unbridgeable gap between the narrator and the narrated.

Ironic Schizophrenia?

Is the only way to deal with an abhorrent moral past to create another 'I' with which to distance oneself from that past? 'It wasn't me'; 'I wasn't in my right mind'...

One of the reasons for this total moral distance, this absolute split between the narrator and the narrated is as an account of of scizophrenia involved in the worst kinds of evil. Perhaps the Nazi doctors seemed or claimed to only act with a part of their being. Think about the third person narration that so often slips into admissions of horrific crimes - it almost seems as if the narrator is watching another self from a distance.

Robert Lifton's book The Nazi Doctors was apparently a hige influence on Amis' novel. Lifton talks of 'psychic numbing' and 'doubling' as being part of the 'Auschwitz Self':

'Psychic numbing is a form of dissociation characterised by the diminished capacity or inclination to feel, and usually involves the separation of thought from feeling. Doubling carries the dissociative process still further with the formation of a functional second self, related to, but more or less autonomous from the prior self'

Tod of course, by the time is is Tod, has already literally carried this out by adopting a chain of identities that (attempt) to move him away from Odilo the Nazi doctor.

The irony is intensified by the lack of a confessional element - most first person narratives (thin of Crick in Waterland) have that confessional edge to them, offering the authoritative, inside view. But, the narrator of Time's Arrow cannot give us access to Tod. He is barely connected to him: 'I have no access to his thoughts, but I am awash with his emotions' (p.15). Tod has no idea that this narrator is within him (as far as we know, as we do not have access to Tod's knowledge).

This mirrors the fact that in conventional first person narratives the person narrated is unaware of their fellow passenger - the version of themselves that will one day bring their narrative tools to bear in looking back at the events in which they are taking part.

So, this acts as a kind of ironic exaggeration of the condition of narrative and narrating (perhaps even just the condition of existing!).

The internal pocket that is larger than the whole

In the Afterword, Amis suggests that his novel 'could not and would not' have been written without Lifton's The Nazi Doctors and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. Of course, we infer this - as informed readers - from his statement that he had in mind 'a paragraph - a famous one - by Kurt Vonnegut': we guess that he is referring to the famous scene in which Billy Pilgrim watches World War II bombing movies backwards.

Amis had in his mind the idea of telling life backwards, but his encounter with the Lifton book, he recounts, gave him his character, his plot and his central event - Auschwitz.

Again, this is an interesting feature of narrative and the construction of narrative in general - a retrospective narration of the narrative - and the author's coming to terms with how it came to be possible. Once again, does the archive not produce as much as it records? And, let us not forget how we all fit into this, as critics, crafting narratives that seek to illuminate (or confuse) narratives...

Ironic Inversion

In The Nazi Doctors, Lifton identifies what he calls the 'healing-killing paradox' - that, in the concentration camps, doctors - who have taken an oath to protect life (see p.32 of Time's Arrow) have conspired to destroy it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The novel deals with this head on, and highlights it by reversing it and thus defamiliarising it. Think of all the descriptions of medicine in the novel - the hospital in Time's Arrow is often presented as an atrocity producing situation that reads more like we would expect a description of Auschwitz might (e.g. p.92).

Similarly, Auschwitz is presented in the novel as a process of rebirth, creation and the beginning of a road back to freedom.

Should we talk about this?

Thedor Adorno warns us that we must never aestheticize Auschwitz. It would be barbaric to write lyric poetry, he said, after Auschwitz. Should Amis have sought fictionalise this event? We could ask the same question of a film such as Schindler's List.

We could argue (and I would argue) that Amis' achievement in being so daring to represent the Holocaust this way, in its negative reversal, does the opposite of aestheticizing Auschwitz.

Does the novel then unmask the true evil of the Holocaust by representing it as a moral good? If it does this, it does so by enlisting the reader (the reader with an awareness of 20th century European history) to actively work to reconstruct something presented as a good in all its atrocity.

What strikes me about the novel is that the comedy Amis finds in narrating life backwards is hilarious and the horror he manages to bring to the Holocaust is deeply affecting, and all the more so because, as reader, you are complicit in his plot - decoding his irony and thus experiencing the impact of history played forwards.

And what about history?

Take a look at p.98 - 'time passes. Cars are fatter and fewer...'

We have talked a lot about history and there is, in this passage a sense of history as a becoming innocent, unravelling, of a grand narrative in reverse, a culture that is historically regressing and of history itself as a process of forgetting.

Which, we have been arguing, (forwards) history is already! The structure of narrative (history) is a structure of exclusion as much as a structure of inclusion - of forgetting as much as remembering. What is not recorded may not be forgotten, but equally, perhaps, what is recorded may also be forgotten - because an event is archived does not mean it will linger in the memory; in fact, the fact that it is set down elsewhere lessens the importance of the task of remembering.

It is quite interesting, in the wake of what we were talking about with regards to 'the end of history' that Amis' first post-Cold War novel (published around the time of Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man) should deal with a contracting history, moving backwards towards a beginning - something that history can only do once it has reached its end perhaps? Like a video cassette that has spooled to the end, or the more cosmological idea of the Big Bang and the Big Crunch.

Backwards World

The theme of reversal highlights something very important - when you reverse time (or at least imagine you do), you reverse EVERYTHING.

It shows us that everything we know is temporal and dependent on the linear causality of time (and the imagined unity of the subject 'I'). This is especially important in matters of ethics - without linear time, cause and effect, could there be right and wrong?

This fictional narrative inverts everything and thus defamiliarises it, which seems to highlight some interesting things that we have been talking about - narrating into the future (prolepsis) as memory and narrating into the past (analepsis) as an excursion into the future.

Remember the bits of Derrida we have looked at in Archive Fever - the idea that the archive (history, recorded memory, call it what you will) is something that is (at least) as much about the future as about the past - that if we ever know what it will have meant then we will only know in the future...maybe...

By reversing an accepted (David Irving notwithstanding) historical narrative Time's Arrow dramatises this.

Out of joint

In the final pages of the novel, as Odilo, the narrator and the narrative hurtle towards their projected, expected, pre-programmed end, the narrator declares: 'I will make one last effort to be lucid, to be clear. What finally concerns me are questions of time: certain durations'.

Think of Saleem in Midnight's Children and his struggle to complete his narrative before time catches up with him - this is the nature of all first person narratives - to tell the complete story one must bring the story right up to the (always moving) present moment, but if that was to be the complete story, that precise moment would only coincide with your death. Time's Arrow highlights this structural necessity of writing, again through the process of ironic inversion.

If you want to look at this idea in some more detail, the final chapter of Mark Currie's Postmodern Narrative Theory investigates this in relation to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde.

'I within, who came at the wrong time - either too soon, or after it was too late' says our narrator. This again is a condition of narrative voices everywhere, the condition of language, of the archive, of all these things that we have been talking about (and all the tools that we are using to talk about these things).

We (they) can never come at the right time - we are always narrating after or before the event, deferred in space and time from 'now' and 'the present' as soon as we attempt to bring them into focus or pin them down.

Of course, as we have discovered with almost everything else in postmodern culture, this is nothing new - Hamlet declares something very similar: 'the time is out of joint; oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right'. As narrating animals, we are doomed perhaps to try and never succeed in joining time back together. This is just one more 'truth', if you like, that the ironic reversal of Time's Arrow reveals to us.


Planet Earth

Apart from being really compelling television, I think that there is something really interesting going on in the BBC programme Planet Earth, in relation to time and narrative.

Think again about the movement between the microscopic and the macroscopic - we've talked about this in our seminars, and thought about examples such as Google Earth.

The title of the programme claims its subject to be nothing less than the whole planet. There is a kind of co-presence enabled as the narrative of each episode moves in an instant (and an incredible swoop of the CGI 'camera') from say, the Rockies to the Himalaya's. The programme masters time and space, bringing remote locations together and cross the distance between them almost instantaneously.

It circles the Earth in a moment - you get a real impression that whilst, for example, the Grizzly is struggling to find food in the Rocky Mountains, the Snow Leopard is meantime going about its business in the mountains of Afghanistan.

It's a little like the example of the supermarket that we talked about in earlier weeks - it erodes the link between time and space.

Modern technology and modern scientific understanding enables the visual and spoken narrative of the programme to do some quite remarkable things with time: David Attenborough speaks with authority of how '50 million years ago, the Alps were formed as the African sub-continent smashed into Europe'.

Time lapse photography enables us to watch days, weeks and even seasons fly by at an accelerated rate in a matter of seconds.

There is therefore, a sense in which the narrative of the programme masters time, subverts it to its needs - and it is, in many ways, an omniscient narrator - there are very few instances in which Attenborough feels the need to qualify his statements.

However, what is most interesting, is that the narrative of the programme is also self-reflexive, questioning and 'postmodern' - it subverts its own assumed authority. At the end of each installment there is short section entitled 'Planet Earth Diaries' - which reveals how the apparent seamlessness and homogeneity of the show's visual narrative is actually painstakingly and arduously created over much longer sweeps of time. In one particular episode they show how 5-10 minutes of footage of the rare Snow Leopard was put together over 3 years of filming. It's interesting the way that it reveals the narrative strands beneath the main narrative strand - the timelines within the timelines. It's quite 'postmodern' in that sense.

The Observer and the Archive

If you remember, in Week 5, Tory attended our lecture and seminars and, at the beginning I posed the question:

Does the archive (or the presence of an observer who can narrate or record) produce the event or the narrative as much as it records it? Would Tory's presence, even as an observer, mean that the events of the lecture and the seminar would be different?

Of course, in a way, all I was trying to do was cheekily highlight one of the most important motifs of the whole module.

It's seemingly an irrelevant question, but it is actually the same philosophical point as when we question the impact of 24 hour media technology on the progress, for example, of the war in Iraq.

Or, in fact, when Baudrillard claims that the 'first' Gulf War (1991) didn't actually happen because it was so extensively mediated!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Waterland and the 'End of History'

Waterland brings lots of the things that we have talked about on the module into sharp focus (it makes good the idea that - sometimes - a novel is a better place to discuss - or enact - these things than, for example, a philosophical text):

- What is the borderline between fact and fiction?
- What is this thing called 'history'?
- Is 'history' (or the 'archive') about the past or the future (or both)
- Can we ever escape from history and time or language and narrative?
- Would we want to?

It is a story containing so many other stories that it is also a very nice example of Derrida's description of the text as 'an internal pocket that is larger than the whole'.

One of the things that I think Waterland opens up is a whole debate (which ties in with some of the essay questions) about the whole fabric of history itself. So, in the manner of Mr Crick, I tried to tell you something...

About the End of History

First question - when we say 'history', what exactly do we mean?

  1. I tried to make it clear that, when I talk about the 'end of history' I mean a certain kind of history, 'traditional' history - History with a Capital H perhaps - a metaphysical concept of history (look back here if you've forgotten what that might mean)
  2. This 'metaphysical' History is history as it is conceived in 'Western thought'
  3. More especially, it is a 'version' of history that has been in place since the Enlightenment
I suggested that this particular kind of history (this particular history of history, if you like) is coming to an end - or has at least been exposed as the construction that it is. What I am NOT suggesting though, is that there can ever be an end to history in general, in the sense that events will continue to happen and narratives will continue to be generated and circulated.

About the Archive

History is about the archive (and especially the written archive). With that thought in mind, it is useful to think for a little while about the word 'archive' and, as Derrida suggests 'the archive of so familiar a word'.

The word archive comes from the Ancient Greek arkheion. This was a house, an address in the Greek polis. It was the residence of the archons, the superior magistrates - those who commanded. Because of their authority, recognised by the public, their private home was also the place in which official documents (archives) where stored (archived).

So, first of all, the archons were the physical guardians of these documents. Secondly, they were the metaphysical guardians of them - to the archons only was granted the power and the right of interpretation over the archive. They had the hermeneutic right to determine the meaning of the archive. So, in the hands of the archons the archives could, in a sense, speak the law, speak of history, and do so with authority.

Think of all the words that stem from this root - partriarch, monarchy, anarchy, etc.

So, perhaps the archive is not just about history - it's also about power and politics. It is also about how that archive is archived (or how that history is recorded) - Derrida says:

'the archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way. Archivable meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives. It begins with the printer'

About Aristotle and Teleology

According to our archives, Aristotle lived from 384-322BC. He is one of the founders of the Western philosophical tradition. Aristotle is credited with the invention of deductive logic (which is, in itself, a kind of narration). Basic example - all frogs can swim; this is a frog; therefore, this frog can swim. He also stressed the importance of induction (again, a kind of narration) - seeing a frog swim, we make the informed guess that all frogs can swim, thus giving science the power of prediction (or producing the event rather than recording it?).

Aristotle believed that everything had a final cause or potential function (Gk telos) - so, fire can always move upwards and heavy things can always fall downwards. The cause or telos of a thing will always act on or pull on the thing in question.

The telos, the final cause, was the thing realised in itself - so, not the idea of a bronze statue, but the actual completed sculpture in bronze.

Aristotle's concept of the telos is written into our culture - especially in the religions of the book, politics, philosophy and, most importantly, in history with a capital H. It is wrapped up in the tacit notion that History is going somewhere, that there is a finishing end to it all.

(So, you might want to wonder whether or not Waterland endorses or refutes a teleological history)

About Judeo-Christianity

In pagan, polytheistic religions (for example in Ancient Greece or Rome) it is obvious that humans will live in different ways - this is reflected in their pantheon of many gods, representing many different ways of life. No one way of life is binding. Monotheistic religions, on the other hand, insist that only one way of life can be right.

In many non-Western faiths and ancient European, pagan religions, history was understood as being without meaning - salvation did not come at the end of time, salvation was liberation from time.

Judaism is possibly the oldest historical religion in the world, a religion which sees history as a kind of moral drama, with salvation as its last act. In other words, history as teleological, history as going somewhere. Christian universalism then extends this message to, in effect, cover the whole of humanity.

Whether we are believers or not, this Judeo-Christian worldview is one in which we unavoidably live. It is a worldview which suggests that the lives of humans have meaning because they occur in history (because humans have been given free will to shape history by God, who made them in his own image).

But, in the pagan world, history had no overarching meaning - in Greece and Rome it was understood as a succession of cycles of growth and decline, gain and loss. In India it was nothing more than a collective dream, endlessly repeated. John Gray argues, in his disturbingly compelling book, Straw Dogs, that 'the idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice'.

But, this idea of of history as a moral or intellectual drama that has salvation, resolution or redemption as its last act, this teleological history, has become more and more deeply ingrained in Western thought over the centuries. Even as we become (allegedly) more secular, this narrative has become more deeply embedded in our psyches.

About Hegel and his dialectic

Hegel (1770-1831) really did believe that his philosophy would reveal the truth about the whole of human history - a pretty big claim.

Hegel believed in another logic, a process he called the 'dialectic'. Knowledge, Hegel says, has an evolutionary history, made up of competing concepts. For Hegel, history is therefore about a struggle between different dynamic concepts which claim to give an accurate description of reality. Any concept, Hegel argues, gives rise to its antithesis. They struggle, until a higher, more truthful synthesis is reached. Inexorably, at the end of this process, the absolute idea or the mind of God would be revealed. In terms of the materialist/idealist divide we have discussed, Hegel is really the ultimate, hard-core idealist.

Hegel fervently believed that the Prussian state in which he lived had already reached the final, evolutionary stage and that his work had completed Western philosophy by producing a standpoint of absolute knowledge, from which the end of History could be seen.

About Karl Marx

Marx started out as a young disciple of Hegel. However, he ultimately turned Hegel on his head. For Marx the story of history was not a dialectical struggle of ideas, but of material things - class and capital (however, Marx's analysis of conflict excludes allsorts of other things that cause conflict).

For Marx, the dialectical warfare between workers and capitalists would end in an international worker's revolution and political salvation at the end of (economic and political) history - after which there would be no need for History, whose work would be done.

Even liberal capitalism, the ultimate antithesis of Marxism, tells a similar story. Ultimately, the economic theory that underpins the global free market rejects the idea of resource scarcity - neo-liberals believe (and it is nothing but blind faith) that ultimately, technology, science and free market economics will triumph in every corner of the globe, bringing a similar end to scarcity and conflict and hence, in a certain sense, history.

About the 1980s

Of course, in the early part of that decade, when Waterland was written and published, the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (which haunts Price) created a very real feeling that not just a certain kind of history could come to an end, but human history itself could be obliterated with the push of a button.

However, with the spectacular fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War, some commentators again returned to the idea of History and predicted that it could be coming to an end.

About Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama argues in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that History has indeed ended, because liberal democracy has triumphed over communism and that a whole new world order (in which, of course, America and the American Way would be central) beckoned.

We had reached, he argues, 'the final form of human government' - the 'end of history as a single, coherent, evolutionary process', for the simple reasont that, in Fukuyama's eyes, there is no more evolving to do.

Perhaps the intervening years have dealt a mortal blow to Fukuyama's argument. In the first decade of the 21st century it seems unlikely that we are living in some post-historical golden age in which the conflict between ideologies is over. If it hadn't resumed before, we could argue that history (although perhaps with a small h) certainly got underway again on the morning of September 11, 2001.

About Jean Baudrillard

For Baudrillard, even Lyotard's argument that we should be sceptical of metanarratives such as history doesnt go far enough. He thinks that we should dispense with them altogether. History isn't where human problems happen, he says, it is what causes them in the first place - so, the solution to human problems is to simply abolish history.

Other postmodern thinkers have been seduced by this argument but, if capital H History, History that is going somewhere has been shown to be nothing more than a 2000 year old myth, histories are still raging around us. Things are still happening and narratives are still being narrated and consumed endlessly and they are still poweful things.

Where could we go from here?

What I argued in the lecture (and, as usual, feel free to disagree) is that whilst Western philosophy has spent 2000 years convincing itself that History has to have a final end, an ultimate goal, we can see this as the fabrication it is if we look closely enough.

However, I don't think that we can throw it in the bin as easily as Baudrillard might like - it is too deeply written into everything we know - and so we have to find ways to negotiate it.

These ideas are not something that we can escape from, ignore, or hope to overthrow in an instant - they are part of the tapestry of our lives and they cannot suddenly just end.

So, if there is no longer the possibility of an overarching history, moving towards a grand, unified end, there are still histories happening.

The 'end of history' is the end of a certain kind of history - it is not the end of history itself, nor the end of the possibility of other concepts of history arising in the future. We must therefore make what sense we can of them and find ways of coming to terms with them.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Logos

Derrida coins the term 'logocentrism' (basically the priority of this thing called 'logos') to describe the way in which 'Western thought' is structured. Where does this come from?

'Logos' is an Ancient Greek term, which cannot be directly translated into English - it could mean: reason, discourse, logic, speech, rational thought, word...or even God.

So, when Derrida talks of 'logocentrism' he is suggesting that Western thought organises itself around the logos (and its attendant meanings).

In the opening passage of the the Gospel according to John, we find:

'In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God'

Now, in the Greek manuscript, the word that has been rendered as 'word' is given as 'logos'. So, 'in the beginning there was 'logos'...' etc.

As Martin McQuillan puts it:

'in other words, logocentrism is a form of onto-theology (the science of being) and Western thought is a system of onto-theology (thinking the question of who we are in terms of a fixed and authoritative centre'

This example illustrates the way in which the way in which we know and the way in which we try to know is ordered around a fixed, authoritative centre, with a stable or essential meaning. This centre, be it God, Marx, Freud, Newton, Einstein, or whatever else, is the final authority of meaning within itself respective system (psychoanalysis, physics, Marxism, etc).

This desire to pin down, to have an authoritative meaning can be seen everywhere - there is a general discomfort with a lack of fixity in meaning. We see this most obviously in our desire to know what something (a film, a song, a story, for example) 'means', and our frustration when we can't isolate that meaning - for example, when reading a postmodern novel!

This is what we have always known, or the way in which we have always constructed our movement towards knowing. It seems intuitive or 'common sense' because it is so deeply encoded in our culture and our language - from fairy stories, to science, sociology to soap opera.

To come back to the King James Bible - in the manuscript we have the word 'logos', which the tranlators render as 'word'. The translators herald in their preface that the have produced 'an exact translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English tongue'.

But, in order to do this, they have excluded, or eliminated the other possible meanings of 'logos' - how can this be exact? This is where we can begin to see that, even at its very root, at the heart of the 'logos' there is a deep instability that cannot be fully controlled. Meaning is never fixed and any attempt to pin it down is, essentially, an act of (sometimes necessary) violence and exclusion.

One can go further in unsettling this - not even the scribes that inscribed the 'original' manuscripts from which King James' scholars produced their 'exact' translation were present at their envisaged beginning, in which there was only logos. The 'voice' that 'speaks' to us with such apparent authority in the King James Bible is a singular translation (from many possible translations) of precedent voices that recount an originary moment to which they cannot have borne witness.

Materialism vs Idealism

This is an ancient philosophical conflict, for which the battle lines were drawn as far back as Ancient Greece, by thinkers such as Plato, who determined for us that there was a material world of 'things' and an ideal world of 'forms' or essences. This metaphysical divide runs through the whole of Western thought - soul/body, good/evil, speech/writing, presence/absence, same/other, day/night, man/woman, 'theory'/'practice', mind/matter, and so on and so forth.

It manifests itself in English Studies in another form: formalism vs historicism. There is a really good recount of this struggle in Mark Currie's Postmodern Narrative Theory - Currie, I think rightly, refers to it as 'one of the most absurd debates in intellectual history'.

The 'formalist' case arose in the 1930s in response to the perceived 'weak' academic identity of English (as Terry Eagleton notes, the time when it was enough to pronouce 'Milton a doughty spirit or Keats delectable') and the need for it to develop an area of expertise - a more 'scientific' approach, if you like. All the humanities, to a greater or lesser extent, have undergone this internal identity crisis. In the 30s, critics such as I.A. Richards developed more 'technical' approaches to criticism, arguing that the critic should seek to explain the text with no reference to historical context or philosophical ideas. The 'formalist' approach is essentially concerned with the 'words on the page' (in many ways it is a weak interpretation of Derrida's claim that 'there is nothing outside the text').

Terry Eagleton, in Literary Theory: An Introduction argues the opposite - that formalist expertise has restrained the ability of the critic to analyse the politics and ideology of literature and to work in the cause of social change. Question (to which I do not profess to have the right answer): is it one of the duties of a critic to work in the cause of social change?

Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield argue something similar in the introduction to their (very) famous book - Political Shakespeares - one of the books that changed my academic life:

'"Materialism as opposed to "idealism": it insists that culture does not (cannot) transcend the material forces and relations of production. Culture is not simply a reflection of the economic and political system, but nor can it be independent of it. Cultural materialism therefore studies the implication of literary texts in history'

However, for me (and you may think differently) - whilst this position is very attractive and has its merits, it still falls foul of participating in the age old 'idealism' vs 'materialism' debate. They still rest on those metaphysical assumptions (which perhaps we cannot entirely escape) - subject/object, inside/outside, body/soul.

But, my question would be - where do you draw the line between the two? Can you? And, if you can, is it ever stable?

- writing these words was a complex physical process
- synapse connects to synapse, electro-chemical activity in the brain
- which is linked to the bio-environment that sustains it, which is fuelled by the food I eat
- text, the 'archive' of thought is produced by physical marks on a page, or liquid crystal on a screen, an electromagnetic imprint on a hard drive
- even the spoken word is a physical event (a controlled movement of air)

So, where is the 'ideal' and where is the 'material' - even the 'idea' can be shown to be a
'material' event. Can an idea really exist outside of material world?

So, perhaps we need a new set of terms that can bridge this divide between 'idealism' and 'materialism'. When Derrida says 'there is nothing outside the text' in Of Grammatology (a better translation, perhaps, is 'there is no outside-text') he is arguing for the exact opposite of a purely textual formalism, but he is not quite arguing for its polar opposite of historicism/materialism either. He is in fact aiming somewhere between the two - in the margins. There is a kind of reciprocal and irreducible relationship between them.

It's easier to get your head around this if you actually know how Derrida defines 'text':

'a text is henceforth no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces. Thus the text overruns all the limits assigned to it so far (not submerging or drowing them in an undifferentiated homogeneity, but rather making them more complex, dividing and multiplying strokes and lines) - all the limits, everything that was set up in opposition to writing (speech, life, the world, the real, history, and what not, every field of reference - to body or mind, conscious or unconscious, politics, economics and so forth)'

Read this passage carefully, over and over, and it will start to make sense!

Derrida is, in effect, blurring the boundary between text and world, mind and body, idea and thing. He is suggesting that there is no such thing as a 'reality' or an 'actuality' which exists independently and separately from our semiotic systems (which we then lay over that actuality to explain the way things actually are). Equally, he is not suggesting that tables and chairs, blood, war and famine don't exist, except textually.

He attempts to sum this up in one of his neologisms: 'artifactuality' (compounding both a suggestion of 'artificiality', 'actuality' and, of course, 'artefact' - the remnants of history, the trace that saturates the present). What we experience is nearer to being an artifactuality than an actuality. There is a fragment of an interview with Derrida under the title 'The Deconstruction of Actuality' here, where he fleshes out this idea. The appropriate issue of Radical Philosophy containing the whole article is in the library.

So, what of common sense? Well, the nature of all sense is that it is enigmatic and, no matter how we try, we cannot pin it down (that doesn't mean that we should stop trying, merely that we should never be satisfied or convinced that we have achieved 'true meaning). Sense can only be made in a kind of artifactual space between the actual and the inactual. This thing called common sense is a powerful one simply because it is common - it is made so often and by so many.

One of the criticisms of this kind of thought is that it is nonsense - that is disregards meaning. I would argue that it never stops caring about meaning, because it realises that meaning is a process that must constantly take place and can never be completed. Rather than being nonsense, it is a kind of embracing of sense in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

100 Years of Literary Theory

In Week 3 we took on the impossible task of getting our heads around the development of that amorphous body we tend to call (for better or for worse) 'literary theory'.

We also took more than a passing interest in the developing trial of David Irving, the Holocaust denier. There is also coverage of this on the BBC. And, for the sake of trying to give all sides of the story (something else we discussed in our seminars - does Irving have the right to tell his side?), here is a link to his own website (fascinating that it welcomes us to 'Real History').

Absolutely one hundred percent recommended reading material: Peter Barry's Beginning Theory, which contains an excellent summary of the development of 'theory' in English and also the opening chapter of Mark Currie's Postmodern Narrative Theory which, although more complex than Barry, is also more sophisticated and self-aware in offering a 'history' of 'theory'.

Currie suggests (rather amusingly) that we can summarise almost a century of literary criticism as a period in which critics went from writing sentences such as:

- 'when Anne first meets Captain Wentworth after their years of separation that follow her refusal to marry him, she is convinced that he is indifferent'

to writing sentences such as:

- 'the aporia between performative and constative language is merely a version of the aporia between trope and persuasion that both generates and paralyses rhetoric and thus gives it the appearance of history' (!)

And always remember, when we are talking about language or narrative, we are are caught in a dangerous double-bind. We attempt to create a meta-language or a meta-narrative - a language about language, a narrative about narrative.

So, if I talk (or write) about this sentence, in the course of speaking (or writing it), that would be a basic kind of metalinguistic gesture. In a way, everyday life would be impossible without doing this - BUT, in another way, it is utterly impossible to actually achieve this. There is no way that language or narrative can step outside of themselves and observe themselves objectively. There is no metalanguage that can be outside of language - it is an integral part of the language that it seeks to comment upon. A LOT of theory (and not just literary theory, but philosophy, history, sociology, etc) forgets this.

Equally, if we think that we can have metalanguages about other forms of communication, that are not written or spoken (for example, as Roland Barthes does in Image-Music-Text) then, again, you are operating on the assumption that written and spoken languages are (ontologically) superior to other forms of language, which is, in itself, a heavily loaded assumption.

I'll not load this post up with the full narrative I gave in the lecture, so, should you want to revisit the 'history of theory' I'll refer you back to the Barry and Currie books. Both are in the library.

Narrative, Narratology and Theories of Culture

The three important hooks in Weeks 2's lecture were:

1. (Accelerated) recontextualisation
2. Simulation
3. Meaning over use?

We talked about two key ideas:

- Postmodernism: what is it? can we define it?
- Cultural Schizophrenia

There are many, many dozens of books you can turn to that will offer you various definitions of postmodernism. The original (and, in many ways, still the the best) is Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. Cultural schizophrenia is a term used by Gilles Deleuze and there is an excellent chapter on this theme in Mark Currie's Postmodern Narrative Theory (and you have this in the module handbook).

I asked you to remember the following when we were talking about the development of 'narratology' - the study of narratives - or literary criticism:

- Narratological concepts don't just originate in literary studies and then spread out into the world
- we often borrow them from other disciplines in the first place: philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and so on
- and if they are not borrowed, they are often linked metaphorically to other domains: e.g. the metaphors of vision in 'point-of-view' analysis
- often we borrow these ideas and concepts and then re-export them back out into the wide world

There are ever-moving borderlines between university 'English', other disciplines and culture at large.

If you recall, I disappointed some of you by telling you that I actually couldn't define postmodernism. Like all words, you can't pin it down. However, as Raymond Williams says: 'words don't have definitions - they do have histories'. So, the best we can do at defining postmodernism (or indeed any concept for that matter) is to attempt to come to terms with its histories (and these are necessarily plural).

It's always important to remember that these labels are (at least usually) applied retrospectively - for example, did Wordsworth really think of himself as a Romantic poet?

Perhaps, to start to understand postmodernism, we need would need to try to understand modernism (this leaves us in much the same dilemma as Saleem finds himself Midnight's Children). So, what was modernism? Again, a big question. Certainly, in literary narratives it is associated with:

- an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity
- blurring of genres
- fragmentation of form
- reflexivity (novels, poems and plays asking questions about their status as novels, poems and plays)

BUT, as we noted in our seminars:

- Hamlet is a reflexive play
- Eliot may write about the alienation of the modern city in The Waste Land, but so does Wordsworth in The Prelude

So, it is not a simple matter of style and content.

Is it a question of period? Some people will assert that 'modernism' happened between 1905 and 1949, but this would exclude, for example, Conrad's The Secret Agent, which meets other criteria and would include all of H.G. Wells' output, which doesn't (Woolf, the 'High Priestess' of High Modernism despised Wells and his work).

This is all meant to complicate! If we can't come to a simple definition of modernism, how can we hope to come to a simple definition of postmodernism, which (by virtue of its name) must have something to do with it?

One of my favourite definitions of modernism is Raymond Williams' (in The Politics of Modernism):

'it is not the general themes of the response to the city and its modernity which compose anything that can properly be called modernism. It is rather the new and specific location of the artists and intellectuals of the movement within the changing cultural milieu of the metropolis.'

In other words, it is simply a question of geography - being in the right place at the right time. New technologies had a shattering effect of the way in which the metropolitan citizen mediated their sensory experiences, in the first half of the twentieth century - think about the impact of aviation, electronic microscopy, photography, skyscrapers, elevators, autmobiles, the cineman, and so on.

And, while you are thinking about this in relation to modernism, think about it in relation to the technological advances of the past twenty five years and how these might have impacted on a postmodern discourse.

BUT - always remember that these cultural forms are precisely located in a geographic, economic and social space. If you lived in the East End of London in the 1920s (or if, like my family, you were shucking steel in the steel mills of the industrial north) you were in no way a 'metropolitan' modernist. Similarly, before we get too excited about the new postmodern subjectivity we supposedly all experience, it is worth bearing in mind that more than 70% of the humans alive right now have never heard a dialling tone (this terrifying fact, and 49 others are available in this interesting little book!). There are places and spaces in the world where you could not possibly be a 'postmodern' subject.

My other rule of thumb for postmodernism is this (but treat it as carefully as all other rules of thumb) - Peter Barry has a similar view in Beginning Theory:

- both modernism and postmodernism tend towards fragmentation, genre-blurring, reflexivity and so on
- but, Modernists tend to lament the passing of coherence and fixity (think of Eliot's The Waste Land)
- Postmodernists tend to exult in it
- Modernists tend to be purists in seeing a clear divide between 'high art' and 'popular culture'
- Postmodernists tend to delight in demolishing the dividing line between the two (think of Douglas Coupland's Generation X)

But, please bear in mind that these are all generalisations - and whilst many academics have been happy to fill up papers and books that attempt to offer a definitive defintion, I would always caution you to be highly sceptical of any such a definitive claim - especially one regarding a word that ends in 'ism'.

One of the most important texts of postmodernism is considered to be Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

- Most people conveniently forget its subtitle and hence its context (it was a report on the state of knowledge in 'advanced' societies, prepared for the Canadian government)
- A few of Lyotard's propositions where imported wholesale into literary and cultural theory - often without having even read the book, or considering its context!
- Lyotard is much more qualified, noting in his first sentence:

'The object of this study is the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies. I have decided to use the word postmodern to describe that condition. The word is in current use on the American continent among sociologists and critics; it designates the state of our culture following transformations which, since the end of the nineteenth century, have altered the rules of the game for science, literature and the arts. The present study will place these transformations in the context of the crisis in narratives.'

- Later on in his introduction (which bears reading in full - its only a few pages) he makes his famous statement about postmodernism, which has been cited to death: 'postmodernism can be defined as incredulity towards metanarratives.'
- People always forget to mention that the clause before this statement reads: 'simplifying to the extreme'!

Lyotard is more careful than many of his disciples.

But, there is this idea that what defines the postmodern epoch is precisely that - an incredulity towards big, overarching narratives, narratives that seek to explain everything, narratives that might include:

- religion
- national identity
- traditional political discourse (left and right, socialist, Marxist, liberal, conservative)
- the attempts of science to find 'the answer' (for example, Einstein's dream for a 'universal equation')

However, temper this with the thought that, in the current situation, this is certainly not universal. The Cold War may have ended one clash between grand narratives, but the so-called 'War on Terror' has created a new war of metanarratives.

We also spent some time considering the noticeable clash between the global and the local, the macro and the micro:

- The Global Village
- Google Earth (I can see my own house and car using this)
- European unity - exacerbates national difference (no-one realised the diversity of European sausage, until they attempted to standardise it!)
- The supermarket - on one level your shopping experience is characterised by sameness (all Tescos strive to be the same), but on another there is a whole world of products for you to choose from and to identify with: it is a theatre of signs, a kind of compressed tourism, which erodes the relationship between time and place.

Mark Currie has some interesting thoughts on consumerism and the supermarket culture in Postmodern Narrative Theory - recommended further reading.

Jean Baudrillard takes his line of thought to a provocative (if potentially dangerous) extreme - the most influential of his books being Simulations (1981).

- he talks about postmodernism in terms of 'the loss of the real'
- he sees contemporary life as filled with images from TV, film and advertising, which, he says, leads to a loss of the distinction between the real and the imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth
- he calls this a culture of 'hyper-reality'

However, it is easy, being aware of the power of narratives, to be suspicious of Baudrillard's claims - his argument, evoking an era of past fullness, recalls the Biblical myth of the Fall. This is a common narrative structure (and a very powerful one). As we said in our seminars - rather than being a new kind of newness, many of the things associated with postmodernism have always been around.

- Madonna may have imitated Marilyn; Oasis, The Beatles
- but, Wordsworth imitated Milton; Shakespeare, Ovid and so on

Yet, it could be argued that modern media technology leads to a quickening of these processes of recycling and reciting: accelerated recontextualisation.

And, there is an extent to which we can see Baudrillard's point about the triumph of meaning over use (and we explored this in our seminars, if you recall):

- the 4x4
- the Dr Marten boot
- the 'fake' fire

Finally, I suggested that there was a kind of collapse (or, to use a slightly more philosophical term, a deconstruction) of linear time taking place here in culture at large - certainly in advanced capitalist societies. This collapse or deconstruction has been called, by Gilles Delueze, a state of Cultural Schizophrenia (schizophrenia being a condition in which the individual suffers a breakdown of causation - they suffer a kind of space-time compression).

Where we began

Remember that, right at the very beginning of the module, I borrowed the words of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own:

'When I began to consider the subject [in the way] which seemed most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion…'

I thought it might help if we went right back to some of the basic questions that the module raises - questions that, maybe, we have something like an answer to by now:

1. What is a narrative?

2. What is the difference between fictional and non-fictional narrative?

3. If we accept that there is a difference between the fictional and the non-fictional (even if it is only provisionally) how do the two interact?
4. How does the study of 'fictional' narratives inform a study of 'non-fictional' narratives?

It seems that we live in a world in which reality and fiction are increasingly interwoven - but, perhaps 't'was ever thus.

Narratives are certainly in evidence everywhere:

- in everyday life: films, comic strips, jokes, anecdotes, paintings, myths, religion, politics, newspapers, TV adverts, TV programmes...and so on
- and in more academic contexts: it is more and more recognised that narrative is central to how we represent our identity (in personal memory or in the collective identity of groups such as religion, race, nationhood, gender and sexuality); in the operation of legal systems (what else is a court-room but a judgement on the plausibility of competing narratives?); in pyschoanalysis; in science; in economics; in philosophy; and so on.

After landmark studies like Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative it doesn't seem too far fetched to see humans as 'story-telling animals' or homo fabulans. Narrative seems to be as inescapable as language itself, or as cause and effect, as a way of thinking and being.

All of this being the case, you will remember that one of the basic arguments of the module is this (and, I wonder how far you have come to agree or disagree with it):

- Literary Criticism is where the real expertise (at least in theory) lies on how narrative works; and
- Narrative is everywhere; so
- Literary critics are (or at least could be) experts in everything!

Maybe, at the very least, there must be something that the academic study of narrative can tell us about culture and about this ubiquity of narrative in culture.

If you remember, at the outset, we asked ourselves the question - what is a narrative?

1. is it a sequence of events?
2. or is it a recounted sequence of events?

At what point, for example, does a football match become a narrative?

Is a narrative the opposite of a picture? What about visual narratives? Film, comic strips, television. Remember that a film is a sequence of stills played so quickly that we cannot see the join - the brain interprets a series of separate moments as a continuous motion.

Nietzsche contends that narrative is the reorganisation of experience into cause and effect. But, does this insist that experience always precedes narrative? And is that always the case? It works for Nietzsche's famous example of recounting the experience of sitting on a pin (experienced as pain-pin, reorganised as pin-pain in the telling), but does it always apply?

Do we sometimes understand this thing we call 'the present' in terms of how it will become a story later? Do we narrate futures within the present that we then act out when the future becomes the present - anticipatory narratives (think of bird flu as an obvious contemporary example, or the London bombings last July, or even 9/11)?

Remember the latest Guinness advert.

This advert also reminds us how narrative is bound up our changing conceptions - around 150 years ago, this advert (apart from being technologically impossible), pre-Darwin, would have been both unwriteable and incomprehensible. It was not discursively possible.

Think about other 'events' that have changed our conceptions of time and space in the last century:

- Einstein's Theory of Relativity dissolved Newton's idea that time was a constant, equal flow throughout the universe
- What was the impact of the first picture of the Earth from space? Here is just one example
- Another interesting, and more recent phenomena is the Google Earth programme


Has modern technology created a kind of time-space compression?

Other examples we considered in that first week:

- the releasing (and reporting) of politician's key speeches before they are delivered
- spontaneous narration of major world events on live 24 hour news feed

Jacques Derrida, wrote a book called Archive Fever, in which he explored (among many other things) our contemporary fascination with the preservation of the present, the reconstruction of the past and the imagining of the future in the 'archive' (remember Warren Beatty's ironic comment in In Bed With Madonna: 'what's the point of doing anything off camera?').

One of Derrida's key claims (and one of the things I hope you remember most of all) is that the archive produces the event as much as it records it. Now, think about all the ways in which you could interpret that sentence.

In other words, one of the things Derrida is saying is that recording the past, in the present, is doing something to the future.

And, Derrida sees two types of future - one that is predictable, programmed, scripted in advance (he calls this le futur in French) and a second that is unpredictable, unprogrammed, that takes us totally by surprise (he calls this l'avenir in French - the 'to come'). This second 'future' is, for Derrida, he says, the 'real future'.

An example where this kind of analysis becomes very interesting is when we consider things such as the Holocaust or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

So, right at the beginning, I was suggesting that we live in a culture that has an obsession with accumulation and narration - an always (self) narrating culture, that has a particular relationship to time.

Linked to Derrida's ideas on the archive, we also discussed Gilles Deleuze's idea of experiencing the present as 'the object of a future memory'. We discussed this at length in our seminars - the most obvious example being the use of a video camera to create home movies.

So, at the end of the beginning, we were left with a whole load of questions that, hopefully, you are now somewhere nearer to answering.