Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Immaterial, my dear Watson

"Daunting tasks are what we live for" Franco Moretti tells John Sutherland in a Guardian interview (thanks to RSB for the link). The task of which he speaks is attempting to combine two things: "a history of literature that works with a much wider field of material".

Ah yes, material, that great literary problem. The interview starts off not with this but with another "problem" of English studies. It is, Sutherland claims, despite huge interest from students choosing to study the subject, "at a dead end". Isn't this where all literary study begins; at the dead end of literature's sublime immateriality? Whatever, let's suppose it is a problem for English studies and it is due, as Sutherland also claims, to "theory":
The new analyses of text that were introduced in the 1960s have rendered the subject, at its cutting edge, incomprehensible to all but the initiated. Semiotics, post-structuralism, marxist-feminism and, above all, deconstruction have split the critical establishment away from the reading public. Deconstruction indeed.
While having little time for the four named fields - particularly when their cutting edges detach any feeling for literature, I'm interested in why Sutherland brings in "the reading public" to create his problem. Since when was "the reading public" not split from academic criticism? And will Moretti's inclusive, socio-historical approach make any difference with volumes containing essays with alluring titles like "Toward a Database of Novelistic Topoi"?

Sutherland seems to think so. Find it on the 3-for-2 stalls tomorrow guys! Moretti, he explains, refuses "to observe the distinctions between high and low literature" and "can talk ... about Sherlock Holmes and Joyce's Ulysses in the same breath." (Joyce's Ulysses? Glad he pointed that out - but why not tell us who wrote Sherlock Holmes?). So, just like any critical theorist in any modern university then. In fact, just like every other voracious reader I know (even those who read only "low" literature). Sutherland seeks intellectual credence for Moretti's democratic tendencies by pointing out that he shares his fascination with Conan Doyle's creation with Umberto Eco, that famous semiotician! Didn't he just tell us there wasn't a problem until people like Eco came along? Maybe he's making an exception. But where will exceptions end? Perhaps when we reach the bedrock of no-names - just "post-structuralists", just "Marxist-feminists". We'll soon see it's individual books that are the problem in the study of novels.

A literary academic himself, Sutherland is author of the new-in-paperback How to Read a Novel. He's written many other critical studies, the majority of which are (apparently) entertaining essays about middlebrow novels from the good-old-days of Victorian fiction when everyone from the lady of the house in her drawing room to the urchin on the street was partaking of Dickensian novels and communing in spiritual harmony. However, at least one literary editor isn't impressed with Sutherland's attention to detail. But this, it seems, is why he's so keen on Moretti: "So large is the literary object, he argues, that reading individual works is as irrelevant as describing the architecture of a building from a single brick".

The daunting task then, to go back to that, is to build "intellectual models" that pose questions to the "mass of information" presented by novels. Information? Is this what novels offer? The "natural sciences and the social sciences have been trying to do [this] for decades" Moretti explains, which is, ironically, precisely how the academic study of English lost confidence in its unscientific procedure and turned, with relief, to semiotics, post-structuralism, Marxist-feminism, deconstruction and, now, it seems, to the New Empiricism. Thankfully, literature has nothing to fear from any of them.

1 comment:

  1. I'm thinking of bringing out a revolutionary work in terms of avariation on the theme of novel as a mass of information to be deciphered. Whichever post-structuralist/feminist-Marxist-emasculated masculine/post-colonialist/pseudo-globalist mechanism offers the most rigorous scientifically rewarding interpretation of the work will be the winner.
    The book is incidentally to be called "The 02 Phonebook for Ireland 2008." It's merely the first in a whole series of projected works, with chapter titles such as

    Emergency Numbers
    How to find the number you want
    Area telephone directories(map)
    Directory enquiries
    Residential listings

    I'm sure many in the literary academic world will share my excitement at what I believe will offer a whole new set of challenges to the literary text analysers.



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