Undead Novel, Two

Previously, I wrote about a class on Media Archeology co-taught at NYU by Alexander Galloway, a media theorist and Ben Kafka, a historian. In this seminar, students produce Dead Media Dossiers, carefully observed accounts of an obsolete medial object or mode. In their descriptions, Alex and Ben borrow from the language of close reading, that old chestnut of literary study, with an eye to shaping an account of the specific medial workings of each object: what does this version do to accommodate previous “versions” of similar media, and what are each object’s medial limitations (in other words, why did they obsolesce?). The argument, of course, is that this obsolescence can be observed in the medial object’s failure: failure to adequately or flexibly store, express or otherwise manage the information within it. As I said last time, Alex and Ben’s decision to import the term “close reading” masks key aspects of literary reading, instead suggesting that close attention to one kind of form is the same as attention to any form (or that it can produce the same results).

Embedded in this, too, is a claim that we can perceive form in the partitive elements (lens, casing, wire, silicon chip) of an object; we recognize this in literary studies, where attention to form often emphasizes elements that can be imagined as reproducible beyond the specific text (meter, narrator, plot, character). Thus, we find ourselves in a quagmire of battling formalisms. But there’s another problem here: what the media theorists count as form can’t quite accommodate the literariness of literature. I suggested that Garrett Stewart’s new Novel Violence offers one account of why the current framing narratives of media studies can’t manage the literary. Additionally, adopting the term “close reading” across many close observation practices crucially misunderstands a specific aspect of literary formalism.

As I said last time, the basic assumption of a Media Archeology class is that if we closely observe a stereoscope, we can come to learn something about stereoscopes. In an email, Alex objected that this doesn’t mean one couldn’t do a close reading of a single stereoscope. Sure, point taken– but, this gets at one of the major problems of applying systemic models to literary (and, some might say, to all artistic) objects: if one happened to produce an account of a stereoscope, could one be said to produce an account of stereoscopic form? Alternately, what does “reading” a specific stereoscope do? And, of course this begs the question; if I dismiss this practice as more akin to artistic production than formalism, what is it that reading a single novel can do? Formalism, at least in most of its instantiations, depends on extrapolation and expansion. This is, clearly, one of the ways close reading has come to feel outmoded as a literary method in recent decades: where’s the value in diagnosing a problem if that problem only exists within the prose of a single text?

Stewart’s book, for one, asks us if it might be possible to combine close reading with formal claims, and suggests that one way we can do this is to rethink what we consider novelistic form. Instead of offering an account of character, plot, scene, or political claim, we might instead work towards a formalism of prose. And, of course, prose (or poetry) is the one thing that separates the literary object from its medial cousins. We’ve surely all come across people who extrapolate the contours of an authorship from a single instance, and we know how frustrating it can be to move towards counter-examples in that case. Part of this develops from a general intellectual insecurity (surely I can’t admit I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, especially given that I’ll refer to Pynchon’s practice later in this very essay (Reader, it’s on my shelf)). But it also has to do with a general privileging of extrapolation. In most academic discourse, the model, deracinated from the embedded specific and pulled towards the general, has greater intellectual security than the detail. We can make claims when we have models.

Major questions arise about Stewart’s attention to both form and prosing as a method: aren’t there too many moving parts? The benefit of modeling (in literary study, in media theory, in geology, in mathematics) is always its simplicity and its referentiality. If we bracket any claim that the model we produce is the thing itself, shouldn’t we be able to stave off major conceptual slippage? We can see how things work once we get rid of all the muddy detail. But this never seems to be the case.

Now I want to highlight one of the peculiar formal offshoots of the novelistic literary object, its capacity for absorbing and adopting parallel media (written things) within its mode. It’s my contention that this attribute actually highlights the difficulties of adopting certain versions of formal materialism to literary objects. This becomes even clearer when we think of the tendency for a progressive view of change-over-time embedded in most theories of media. To return to one of the major tenets of the Media Archeology class: the dossiers focus on dead media; in every case, something has either taken the object’s medial place (magnetic tape), or that medial place has become extinct (the magic lantern).

How do medial objects die? The major accounts (McLuhan’s, and in many ways, Kittler’s) claim that as discourse networks shift, the modestly prescient “new” media absorbs and refracts its predecessor. Both McLuhanite and Kittlerian media operate in a progressive narrative, slowly but surely refracting, adopting and modulating previous medial forms. (Re)mediation is the umbrella term, though the theoretical formulations differ somewhat. In a revision of McLuhan’s agentive view, Kittler claims that medial developments code themselves within their formal precursors. In this way, Kittlerian medial systems operate beyond the human. Technological forms thus contain within them their predecessors but, more strangely, a “new” medial form contains within it the shape of things to come. Media predict.

So, why would a novel theorist be interested in dead media besides the obvious? Which is, of course, that the novel is dead, dying, or died long ago. This is one story (or a number of stories huddling under one umbrella) being told about the novel as a form. Like poetry before it, the novel has kicked the bucket. Of course, this truism is clearly refuted by the thousands of new novels published every year, but for the purposes of this argument, I’m more interested in why the endless predictions of the novels’ demise have heretofore failed and, perhaps more curiously, why the novel as a media technology retains something like a discrete shape or form.

It’s my contention that the novel can’t become a dead media (or at least, its death won't look like other media death); that its genetic make-up features a formal requirement that short-circuits the medial model I’ve gestured to above. I don’t yet have the terms to pinpoint this requirement (earlier thinking led me to believe it might be free indirect discourse, but I think instead that FID is merely one refraction of a larger scheme of medial buffering or fictional distancing). Further, in the textual world, the novel may be singular in its avoidance of obsolescence (though I’m not committed to this, but you’ll see why poetry produces a slight problem with the account). What I’m suggesting here, then, is perhaps less theoretical; the novel’s power and authority as a narrative medium derives from its ability, sourced in its tethering to both prose and fictionality, to absorb other textual productions. Any textual production. That is to say that any “real” writing (poems, plays, newspapers, song lyrics, linux code, theory, math, passages in other languages) can be pulled into a novel and made to fit (and I’m bracketing entirely things like Eliot’s original mottoes, written epigrammatically for her novels). And, these “real” written words don’t necessarily trouble the fictionality of the “fictional” zones into which they are inserted. In fact, the novel even attempts to (though it, in my view, fails) to absorb competing forms (film, television, internet).

To further secure this claim, I want to look at an apparently simple little passage of novelistic literary reference. Here’s an exchange from British novelist Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952):

“Once you get into the habit of falling in love you will find that it happens quite often and means less and less,” said Rocky lightly. He went over to my bookcase and took out a volume of Matthew Arnold which had belonged to my father.
“Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live ALONE,”
he read. “How I hate his habit of emphasising words with italics! Anyway, there it is.”
“What a sad poem,” I said. “I don’t know it.”
“Oh, there’s a lot more.”
“Father used to be so fond of Matthew Arnold,” I said, rather hoping that Rocky would not read aloud any more; I found it embarrassing, not quite knowing where to look, “and I love Thrysis and The Scholar-Gipsy” (Excellent Women 122-3).

This passage includes both reference to the larger authorship (“Thrysis” and “The Scholar-Gipsy”) and reference to the author’s mode (“How I hate his habit of emphasising words with italics!”). Both references encourage us to read Pym’s characters differently (Mildred Lathbury is sensitive and sensible, Rocky Napier is histrionic and dramatic). But, the version of reference that most interests me is the quatrain, four lines broken from Arnold’s six line stanza, broken from the larger poem (which is “To Marguerite, Continued,” 1854). What you can’t mistake, in reading this passage, is that this is a poem, or a snippet of a poem, inserted into a novel. Moreover, while the poem is truncated (and, for Pym, the truncations are one method for shaping characterologies: what you read out loud tells a lot about who you are), it is formally present – we see the line breaks, the rhyme scheme, even Arnold’s tendency to italicize. Finally, Pym gives us enough of the poem that we can even discern the limits and failings of Rocky’s impoverished reading. True, we may have to go to a copy of Matthew Arnold’s poetry to see just how poor Rocky’s reading is, but we have evidence enough in the quotation Pym pulls. And Pym might offer an especially clear version of this kind of importation, but she’s surely not the only novelist to do so. We might, though, be able to think through the some of the special purchase of the literary by thinking about the novel’s medial modes a bit more carefully.

Some would say simply that the novel’s real successor hasn’t yet developed. And, perhaps given the rapidity with which we produce competing – but medially distinct –forms (iPhone applications, anyone?), it won’t have a successor. Or, that, in the greater scheme of things (poetry? drama?), three centuries is a pretty short span for media dominance. One might also say that the contemporary novel is a radically different beast than its predecessors, though often these kinds of claims focus more on content (character, narrator, plot, national tale, etc) than on literary form. At any rate, my claim isn’t that the novel is the only media form capable of absorbing other forms in its mode. Videodrome is proof enough of the flaw in that line of thinking. But, consider Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 novel-in-verse. Browning’s text is clearly novelistic; it has plot, characters, even dialogue. And its topics are those of many other “social problem novels” from the mid-century (fallen women, factory work, angst about utilitarian public life). But, it’s my view that for all these novelistic aspects, Aurora Leigh is first and foremost a poem. In the most basic sense, Browning organizes her text with meter and line break. It refers to novelistic discourse, but it never becomes a novel.

Admittedly, this distinction gets shaky once we jettison metrical verse, but I think it still holds. A. R Ammons’ long poems, for example, though they feature many of the same plotting and characterological techniques, can hardly be mistaken for novels. In Ammons’ case, too, once metrics are abandoned, technological form rises to structure the text (I’m thinking here of Tape for the Turn of the Year). Formal mistakenness is a larger problem for such a text: what is a poetics based so strictly and self-consciously on its mode of production? Alternately, when the novel form expands its form to include other literary media, its base form isn’t really altered. The novel adopts other literary modes hook, line, and sinker (think here of John Dos Passos and the newspaper, Pynchon (!) and scientific papers or song lyrics, Richardson and the letter).

So, what is it about the novel’s present that means one can borrow earlier modes without being mentally or aesthetically unhinged. Eighteenth-century novels feature a lot of truth-claims and are often narrated from first person through letters -- but so might a novel being written today. And, true, the "epistolary novel" is in many ways a dead form, but if someone wrote a novel in letters, no reader would blink twice (and, in fact, Stoker’s Dracula is a good example of a late (latent?) epistolary novel: the form is the epistle, but they are suddenly structured by technological innovation: stenography, phonography, spirit writing, etc)—it would still be understandable as a novel. But if someone plugs in a standard-issue Apple II and tries to log on to the internet they will be sorely disappointed.

This is what I mean when I say the novel cannot die: its literary forms – its steady combination of prose and fictionality – are neither reducible to its material forms – paperback, hardcover, serial packet, nor its structural forms – its dependence on character, plot, narrator. Certainly, these competing systems can be organized under the term form, but it’s my hope that what I’ve been saying here lights up a difficulty in assuming the second and third categories –material and structural form – are the key indices of novelistic shape. Further, the flexibility that the novel’s literary form allows – the way it can capaciously fold in other written medial forms with very little friction indeed – might be one of the major reasons it persists as a cultural form. And while a media theorist can produce an account of the stereoscope by taking note of a specific example of stereoscopic objecthood, literary critics might do well to remember that one of the great pleasures of our discipline is that we can’t do the same thing. Not about the 19th century novel. Or even Dickens. Instead, we have the very great pleasure of reading Bleak House, Martin Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend.

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