In defense of the diachronic (but possibly not of narrativity)

This is a response to Joshua Landy’s post “What’s wrong with narrative?” I'm coming late to this discussion; more to the point, I'm an art historian, and not a scholar of literature, and therefore am familiar with a different range of critical writing than some of you. I'm also a Sinologist and not a scholar of Western culture. With that in mind, a few questions, and then points, from another segment of the humanities:

If Joshua’s point is simply about the synchronic vs. the diachronic, as he implies in a comment, in what sense is this a matter of narrative? Isn't narrative a sort of subgenre of the diachronic, and not necessarily entirely coterminous with it? Cécile Alduy’s initial posts (1, 2, 3) seem to define narrative more narrowly, as a diachronic account with a specifically causative structure and explanatory aims. So is the goal here to break free of the need to explain things through narrative (Cécile’s point as I understand it), or of the need to anchor things in a temporal sequence (Joshua’s, as I understand it)? They’re not at all the same thing.

Further in this vein, I get the sense that Joshua might be misreading Berry a little bit. When Berry invokes the progressive character of the experimental (as opposed to taxonomic) sciences, he seems to be writing, not about either diachrony or narrativity (even in Cécile’s sense), but about teleology. It's not just narrative Berry is getting at, or even explanatory narrative: it's specifically unidirectional and even progressive narrative.

I responded to this because it resonates with a problem I often have in teaching art history, where students often have a difficult time differentiating between art history (where what art does, and how it works, and even what counts as art, are historically specific phenomena explained in terms of their cultural milieu, but in which sustained explanatory accounts, again in Cécile’s sense, are not sustainable except within very limited cultural and temporal boundaries) and a faintly social-Darwinian account of change in which art somehow "advances" over time, and always in the same direction. Many of my students actively prefer the second of these two accounts, which can be frustrating. Of the two, the former is a diachronic account but not a teleological one; the latter is both. So from my particular disciplinary point of view, the challenge is not to free ourselves from the need to anchor what we know in the passage of time - you can’t really do history without diachrony - but rather to free ourselves from the need to explain what happened in the past in terms of a steady, one-directional progression. I’m not sure where narrative falls in this continuum.

About the diachronic account which I’m calling “art history:” of course Joshua is right to say that the Aeneid does not render the Odyssey obsolete, but choosing two examples from the narrow realm of classical Greek literature obscures something important about the point: it is equally true that the Kumulipo does not render the Enuma Elish obsolete. Making such a remark about the Aeneid and the Odyssey gains its rhetorical force from our sense that there could potentially be an account in which one replaces the other; but it would not be an account about literature, it would be an account about classical Greek literature. If we want to generalize about art itself, we will have to spread our nets more widely, and when we do, the argument for progressive development (of anything other than pure technique) in the arts as a human endeavor becomes instantly and obviously unsustainable. This is not a weakness inherent in narrative or diachrony; it is, in essence, a sample-size problem.

I would argue, then, that the “spirit of conservation,” the “slower, more contemplative attitude” that Joshua advocates as a virtue inherent in the “shape of the artworld” (and here I am with him 100%) is not at all opposed to the diachronic accounts against which he appears to be setting himself. As an art historian, in fact, I would go on to suggest that that spirit of conservation (i.e. the continued valuing of great artworks distant from us in time and space and culture) is unsustainable in the absence of a diachronic account.

I’m familiar with, and not unsympathetic to, the argument that great works of art have a non-temporal aspect: that they can speak to us above and beyond our own time and place (or theirs). But years of experience representing the great works of Chinese art to Western scholars who don’t know the Tang from the Ming have brought me to a sense that the synchronic quality of great artworks isn’t as powerful as Western scholarship would sometimes like to think it is, mainly because it is possible to be utterly moved by a work of art that one does not particularly understand, for reasons which tell us more about the viewer than the work itself. (Hence the students who take my classes “because Chinese art is so spiritual.”) It is also possible to be utterly unmoved by such a work, despite the work’s own intrinsic power, and to dismiss it for reasons that, from a more informed position, look completely trivial.

For an example, witness the conflict between the Mannerist-trained Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione and the eminent literati painter Zou Yigui in early eighteenth-century China: Zou saw in Castiglione’s oils only a slavish devotion to optical perspective and a perverse insistence on hiding the marks of the artist’s brush (which marks, to an eighteenth-century literati painter, were the essence of good painting). He dismissed Western painting as a cheap trick meant to fool the untutored eye, writing that Western painters should be classified as craftsmen and not artists. To be fair, within their own traditions, Zou was a major painter and Castiglione a minor one who happened to catch the eye of an eccentric emperor. But it’s also fair to say that Zou more or less completely missed the point of Western oil painting, just as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Westerners who encountered Chinese painting were unable to see beyond contemporary literati painting’s insistent rejection of realism in favor of expressionism, taking it for a failure of skill rather than a sophisticated definition of art.

I think the argument in favor of the diachronic, such as it is, might be that it allows us deep encounters with artworks (including poetry) which are distant from us in space and time. To insist on art residing in the synchronic, in the moment, risks trapping us within the limits of art with which we’re already familiar, and ideas (of art, of the poetic, etc.) that we already know. While this may open up the “spirit of conservation” with respect to familiar works, it also risks prematurely dismissing works which fall outside of our limits of knowledge or experience.

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