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Thursday, January 08, 2004

Bollettino

LI readers should rush right out and read the winter issue of Common Knowledge. Surely that is the best general scholarly journal since Raritan. Well, okay, there’s Critical Inquiry, but let's not quibble. Common Knowledge has devoted the to the ‘second world:” Central and Eastern Europe. This is a world of drowned kingdoms – Austro-Hungary, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, Bohemia, and the like. Even as they were drowning, certain writers – Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Andrei Bely – caught a last, fantastic glimmer.

But we wanted to quickly go to the Galin Tihanov’s “Why Did Modern Literary Theory Originate in Central and Eastern Europe? (And Why Is It Now Dead?).” Cognescenti will know that we are according the highest praise when we say that Tihanov encyclopedic, smart essay reminds us of T.J. Clark. Tihanov doesn’t have Clark’s tactile ability – Clark’s ability to describe a painting so that you can track it with your eye, if your eye was endowed with super-intelligence (alas, as Duchamp pointed out, the eye is dumb). Tihanov isn't quite to that point yet, and he is too specialized, from what I have seen of his other work, but he does pose pertinent questions, and comes up with really interesting answers.

Since the title is a question, let’s cut to the chase. Here is the answer, two thirds of the way through the essay:

“A new form of conceptualization is the reliable, if often belated, sign of the arrival of a new regime of relevance, as whose product it eventually emerges. Thus despite the many, if subtle, links and shades between regimes of relevance in the twentieth century, we can say that literary theory emerged in Eastern and Central Europe in the interwar decades as one of the conceptual products of the transition from a regime of relevance [End Page 78] that recognizes literature for its role in social and political practice to a regime that values literature primarily for its qualities as an art. Literary theory, however, was only one such form of conceptualization, though probably the most representative and interesting: the regime of artistic relevance (as opposed to that of social and political relevance) had been in evidence, after all, since long before the seventy years during which literary theory flourished. This regime emerged in the last quarter of the eighteenth century as a response to the changing status of art in the bourgeois marketplace; it made its first important, but self-contradictory and not always consequential, moves in the work of the Romantics (hence the significant if often vague role of Romanticism in the work of modern literary theorists); it continued through the years of aestheticism and l'art pour l'art, down into the first decades after World War II, with the American New Criticism as its high point and death knell.”

A few explanations. By ‘regime of relevance,” Tihanov is referring to the set of assumptions, the tones, the examples, and the privileged references that constitute the unity of a certain discourse over a certain time within a certain social group It is a unity not of ideas, but of ways of considering ideas.

By literary theory, Tihanov is not talking about the endless stream of student papers finding symbolism in the Scarlet Letter. Even though those are the social detritus left over as literary theory mummifies. Tihanov’s idea is that literary theory constructed, as an object, literature; it endowed literature with the characteristic of autonomy within the social whole; it then explored literature with reference to that founding autonomy; and it used that autonomy to legitimate its analysis of the peculiar linguistic structures that populate literary texts.

As Tihanov sees it, that view of literature, and by implication that kind of literary theory, originated in the 2nd world – in Russia, parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland, etc. – between the first world war and the thirties. The great figures of this era – Jakobson, Lukacs, Ingarten, Mukarovsky, Bakhtin, Shklovsky – circulate, in Tihanov’s view, as innovators and connectors, condensing their own sometimes marginal experience – as exiles, for instance, or opponents of particular political orders – into the constitution of literary theory. Now, of course, anyone familiar with the English school, from I.A. Richards to Leavis, or familiar with the influence of Taine not only on a generation of French literary critics, but, in this country, on Edmund Wilson, might want to protest on the foreclosure of some of the main lines of literary theory’s history. And there is certainly a problem with including Lukacs in this group, and excluding Benjamin and Adorno. I would certainly revise Tihanov’s last sentence: “aestheticism and l'art pour l'art” did indeed continue, as the organizer of a regime of relevance, “down into the first decades after World War II, with the American New Criticism…” but surely Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was its “high point and death knell.” In fact, Adorno writes in that book like a tolling bell, with the clapper of dialectic going back and forth until the bell cracks.

Adorno, unmentioned, seems to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in this piece, moaning under the elaborate woodwork. As Tihanov surveys, rather gloomily, the end of the golden age, isn’t that the Cultural Industry I hear creaking in the background?

“A good example of this interpenetration and competition of regimes within the space of a single article is Jakobson's 1919 piece "The Tasks of Artistic Propaganda," where he uses Marxist parlance and arguments to champion a Formalist and futurist agenda. 51 The interaction of regimes of relevance also explains, to a degree at least, the attempts of the Formalists and the Prague Circle to participate in the struggle for the distribution of social and cultural capital in the new states. Perhaps needless to say, the regime of social and political relevance was eventually imposed by force at the expense of the regime of aesthetic relevance, and with devastating consequences for literary theory in Russia. Similarly, in the 1960s we can begin to discern the complex overlap of all three regimes that I have described: a lingering appreciation of literature on the basis of literariness; the eruptive sway of literature in social and political discussions at universities in Paris, Prague, and Berkeley; and finally, the withdrawal into private consumption of literature as a largely escapist medium in the face of increasingly mediated forms of communication and the enhanced commodification of leisure. Today, the regime of relevance validating literature as a source of experience and entertainment overlaps with the freshly transfigured regime of social and political relevance exemplified in the struggle for "representative" national and global canons. What we need especially to bear in mind while studying literature and literary culture is that, while quite different regimes of relevance coexist at any one time, one of them comes to the fore—whether manifestly or obliquely—as the leading component in the mix.”

The last sentence, in particular, seems to appeal to a necessity that I wouldn't grant. Under Tihanov's words is an image that comes from a distorted picture of evolution, in which there is a tree with a direction, and competition that creates one kind of every species in an environment. That, however, isn't true, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out. To be jargonish, the rhizomatic moment occurs at the cultural juncture of TV and deconstruction. I would contend, actually, that the retreat to the internal exile of literature, in the face of TV, like some terrible Big Brother, getting into our speech, our pockets, our dreams, is a distinct regime that has rooted itself, weirdly enough, in the technology that has put TV in retreat – the technology that enables you to read this, gentle reader.

Don't count on hegemony. Tihanov needs to read the latest Nielsen ratings.

Still – a very thought provoking piece. Read it.

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