Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Over at Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant gives an excellent gloss on Latour's notion of "trials of strength." He says, sensibly enough, that a scientific theory is akin to a bridge built over a creek: what gives it reality is its ability to withstand pressure over the course of time, to maintain its structure when other similar objects around it are being destroyed. "Reality, for Latour … consists of gradients of resistance. Some things have a high degree of resistance, some do not and are easily toppled or shattered."

He then concludes the post by extending the claim to literature, which obviously made my ears perk up:

Finally the case is similar in literature. The thesis that the best selling novel is the best novel fails to attend to the manner in which endurance is one of the crucial dimensions of reality or strength. To be sure, most people prefer Dean R. Kuntz [sic] to Joyce… However, the comparative popularity of Dean R. Kuntz compared to Finnegan’s Wake is not what establishes the reality of the object. Kuntz’s novel Intensity, while perhaps enjoyable, has very little staying power and very easily passes out of existence. However, when speaking of works like Homer’s Illiad, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, we are talking of works that are like a well built bridge, somehow clearly carrying traces of the historical setting out of which they emerged but also having the capacity to transcend that historical setting, to resonate like two strings of a guitar against one another producing differences in other historical settings, never, somehow, becoming cliches in the way that Kuntz’s mustached Scotch drinking heroes seem to immediately embody the cliche of the Reagan era, faux-sophisticate 80s man that loses our interest when this time passes. There is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution. Indeed, it is the resistance we encounter in reading the work, the difficulty of navigating them, the richness of their multi-stratified and resonating diverse meanings that functions as an index of their strength or their ability to resonate in multiple changing historical settings like the cone of Bergson’s memory without losing their originality. They are like the art of pantomime, in a strange way, where the good pantomime manages to extract the pure event of a particular action from its causal context such that it becomes capable of appearing in any context as a singularity. The greatness of these works, their strength, does not lie in the attitudes people have towards it – like coffee one has to learn how to read Joyce and at first it is painful – but rather in the sturdiness of the construction that allows it to endure.

Hmmmmm. While the extension of the analogy is tempting, I'm not sure that Bryant is able to solve the overwhelming question of cultural value so fast. I'll leave aside the usual queries about class and subjectivity and who gets to decide what "resonates," both because they're too easy and also because they're not really in the spirit of Bryant's speculation. Instead I'll just ask: what would a total failure of a trial of strength look like for a literary text? Less like a negative evaluation by posterity, as Bryant imagines, and more like simple illegibility: a text in a dead language, or one of which no copies have been preserved, is the weakest possible text, in Latour's sense. So while in one sense, Bryant is right, Finnegans Wake probably has a much better chance of resonating fifty years from now than Koontz's Intensity, in another sense it is a much weaker, more fragile assemblage, one that, without the Skeleton Key and our biographies of Joyce and an enormous (but finite) amount of other paraphernalia, would be within spitting distance of illegible. Whereas Intensity, I'm guessing, will be roughly readable as long as current vernacular English remains in a recognizable state. So which text is stronger?

But what I like about Bryant's formulation, in spite of everything, is that it makes the social use value of literature the criterion for textual strength without immediately conflating use and exchange value (as materialist approaches to literary sociology, like Franco Moretti's, often risk doing). On this view, a writer like Joyce is not just his fluctuating reputation, or his sales figures: he is also, as the card-carrying New Critic would insist, his texts, which can stand up as well as anybody's to trials of strength. And his texts are stronger than Koontz's, because they are more likely to satisfy examiners in a number of different social contexts, over a longer period of historical time, than Koontz's are, which will some day probably only be read by people who have a thing for late-twentieth-century period horror fiction.

But of course Joyce — any author, but particularly Joyce — is not just his texts either; he's also, as the card-carrying poststructuralist would insist, his paratexts, not only all of those he refers to in his work but also all of those books and articles that have been written on it, and all the other works that have been inspired by it. So it seems to me that Bryant is being unnecessarily formalist when he says that "[t]here is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution." It's taking the metaphor of "construction" too literally: any given Joyce text is indeed a very sturdy construction, or assemblage, but it's one assembled not only by Joyce himself. It's in this sense that Joyce's texts, like any writer's, are social: that is, they require many actors and actants working together to give them their full strength, value, or "meaning."

But still. Doesn't this privilege the particular constructions of literary critics, academic scholars, and "highbrow" readers above the millions who are certainly experiencing some reality when they read a Koontz book (whatever else you say, you can't take that away from them)? Could we say, then, that Koontz may be real to more people, but Joyce is real in more ways?