steep turns, surprising vistas

a review of D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory
If theory moves forward by looking back, then Rodowick’s own work epitomizes the metacritical spirit it describes. In this essential respect, Elegy for Theory surpasses its humbly stated aim of “clarifying” the history of a concept. While it is true that readers of Rodowick’s book will discover new insights into the story of theory, the exhilaration aroused by those “steep turns and surprising vistas” stems as much from the structure and form of the story’s telling: to follow Rodowick’s argument is, in a way, to witness the spiraling swerve of theory enveloping and comprehending itself. It remains to be seen where Rodowick’s next book will lead—he hints that it will relinquish high theory in favor of a new conception of philosophy. And yet his elegy’s very existence suggests, somehow, that whatever animates theory is alive and well. Toward the end of this book, Rodowick writes of the era of theory that “to feel one’s self at the end of something inspires reflection on its ends.” In itself, his inspired reflection revives the stream of ideas on which it reflects; if this is only an elegy, it’s one that instills its object with endless energy.

read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books

(image: Mark Tansey, “Derrida Queries de Man”, 1990, oil on canvas)

speeds and shapes of consciousness

a conversation about literature and philosophy with Evan Lavender-Smith
Evan Lavender-Smith
I remember reading Derrida and becoming aware of the fact that I wasn’t really making any substantive leap from the words on the page to extra-textual referents, to anything out there in the world, and yet I was still very much desiring the continuation of the text, the extension of the text’s form in my mind. It seemed like I’d gained access to a secret or interior meaning, an alternate mode of reading and meaning–making in which the words accrued to refer to or establish some intra-textual formal intensity or truth. In Markson — in Reader’s Block, say — there’s always a point when the content begins to blur, when I’ve relaxed my vision of the novel’s surface in order to project my attention below or behind the language, to engage more viscerally with the novel’s form. Of conceptualism in general one might say that gestures of appropriation and repetition invite the reader to look past or beyond content and instead toward form and production (…)

Maybe this is just a fancy way of reframing or intellectualising the reader’s familiar claim that she had ‘fallen’ or ‘escaped’ into something called “the world of the book.” I suppose the difference here, with respect to the Derrida and Markson reading experiences, is that the “world of the book” is more closely aligned with the book’s form — perhaps its ‘texture,’ as you call it — than with its immediate content, with Markson’s specific anecdotes or Derrida’s specific abstractions. When I fall into the world of a Markson novel, I’m not picturing myself in some dilapidated Brooklyn flat surrounded by thousands of note cards each containing a single death-related literary anecdote; instead, I’ve become less interested in the anecdotes themselves, more interested in the rhythms of their presentation and my reception of those rhythms, their syntactic rhythms, of course, but also those rhythms I associate simply with the application of my consciousness to the book, or with the speeds and shapes of my consciousness as revealed by the book — with the form of the book and with the book’s formal effects on me.

read a longer excerpt from the interview online at Gorse Journal

the prism of literature

a double review of Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois and Distant Reading
For Moretti, there is something “ghostly” about the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie—once the essential “embodiment” of capitalism; now its obsolete cast-off. He examines this extinct species by excavating the “fossil remains” of its foremost literary record: the realist novel, a genre which György Lukács once called “bourgeois epic.” In fact, Moretti’s method in this book is as indebted to Lukács as to the laboratory. Like his Hungarian predecessor, he sees the true traces of social relations in literature’s form, not its content—as he asserts, “I found the bourgeois more in styles than in stories.” And although his stylistic analyses here draw on corpora, their attention to “the buried dimension of language” owes as much to a more old-fashioned approach: the commendably “close” cultural philology of an Erich Auerbach, or a Raymond Williams. So, Moretti sets out to study “the bourgeois, refracted through the prism of literature.” What this means is that he moves between social history and narrative structure, searching for “the fit between cultural forms and class realities.” Characteristically, he has little to say about characterisation, or plot. Moretti is much more concerned with the concrete behaviour of words on the page; with, say, “the oblique semantics of Victorian adjectives,” or “the role of the gerund in Robinson Crusoe.” In his hands, however, this apparently arid approach proves so revealing that it partly bears out the bold claim, “the past speaks to us only through the medium of form.”

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement

belated language

an interview with Christine Schutt
DW: Whatever this “knowledge” is, it isn’t directly articulated. It’s as if it can only be got at obliquely, with words that cling to things’ surfaces. Your writing is often described as “elliptical”—what role might mystery and unknowing play in your work?

CS: “Reality, of course, is man’s most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all.” So says Erik H. Erikson, but reality does not for me “outbalance” the bewildering experience of being in the world. Add the scrim of memory and incessant excursions into the past, and the most I can do to construct a world is to stitch together sensations of it. I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans… mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.

read the rest at The Quarterly Conversation