Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

Re-Reading Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’

When it comes to reading Anne Enright’s novels, I am guilty of teleological thinking. This is because I believe her most recent novel, The Green Road, to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read and until I’d read that, I believed The Gathering to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. So, there is an extent to which I have come to view her oeuvre as an inexorable movement towards the twin apotheoses of these two works.

What is interesting then, about the history of The Gathering’s composition, is that is seems to have begun almost as a run-up to The Green Road. It was initially Enright’s intention to make The Gathering a Faulknerian 500-some page novel that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the whole family is gathered for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to emulate the set-piece of The Green Road’s Christmas dinner, albeit with substantially less information given about each family member. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is at war with its own historical consciousness, an allegory of modern Irish history which acts as the novel’s framework.

Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families in a more general sense:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. There are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift.

Take, also, Veronica’s name. The biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face witha piece of cloth, and took its imprint. A heavily freighted name, and one which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality on the page which Veronica mostly fails to live up to. Veronica is conscious of all this, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’

The allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of the hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s general fucked-up-edness, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.

Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle, (institutionalised due to his being abused), are not victims in isolation, they are part of a far broader generation of victims over the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, rape victims institutionalised on the suggestion of their rapists (who were often family members) or children molested and beaten in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.

Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.

Of course, The Gathering is just one attempted explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to take the burden of just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:

Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.

Throughout the text, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying their symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.

To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or Enright’s; she is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that would prevent us from taking this reading up wholly, but Enright’s subtlety. (The one scene we might quibble with is one set in an asylum named St. Ita’s, a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is given also).

Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise, the extent of the suffering will be passed over, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to remain stingy with the provision of compensation or the bodies responsible continue to ‘deny till they die’.

I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.

Can a recurrent neural network write good prose?

At this stage in my PhD research into literary style I am looking to machine learning and neural networks, and moving away from stylostatistical methodologies, partially out of fatigue. Statistical analyses are intensely process-based and always open, it seems to me, to fairly egregious ‘nudging’ in the name of reaching favourable outcomes. This brings a kind of bathos to some statistical analyses, as they account, for a greater extent than I’d like, for methodology and process, with the result that the novelty these approaches might have brought us are neglected. I have nothing against this emphasis on process necessarily, but I do also have a thing for outcomes, as well as the mysticism and relativity machine learning can bring, alienating us as it does from the process of the script’s decision making.

I first heard of the sci-fi writer from a colleague of mine in my department. It’s Robin Sloan’s plug-in for the script-writing interface Atom which allows you to ‘autocomplete’ texts based on your input. After sixteen hours of installing, uninstalling, moving directories around and looking up stackoverflow, I got it to work.I typed in some Joyce and got stuff about Chinese spaceships as output, which was great, but science fiction isn’t exactly my area, and I wanted to train the network on a corpus of modernist fiction. Fortunately, I had the complete works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence to hand.

My understanding of this recurrent neural network, such as it is, runs as follows. The script reads the entire corpus of over 100 novels, and calculates the distance that separates every word from every other word. The network then hazards a guess as to what word follows the word or words that you present it with, then validates this against what its actuality. It then does so over and over and over, getting ‘better’ at predicting each time. The size of the corpus is significant in determining the length of time this will take, and mine required something around twelve days. I had to cut it off after twenty four hours because I was afraid my laptop wouldn’t be able to handle it. At this point it had carried out the process 135000 times, just below 10% of the full process. Once I get access to a computer with better hardware I can look into getting better results.

How this will feed into my thesis remains nebulous, I might move in a sociological direction and take survey data on how close they reckon the final result approximates literary prose. But at this point I’m interested in what impact it might conceivably have on my own writing. I am currently trying to sustain progress on my first novel alongside my research, so, in a self-interested enough way, I pose the question, can neural networks be used in the creation of good prose?

There have been many books written on the place of cliometric methodologies in literary history. I’m thinking here of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, Mallarmé’s infinite book of sonnets, and the brief flirtation the literary world had with hypertext in the 90’s, but beyond of the avant-garde, I don’t think I could think of an example of an author who has foregrounded their use of numerical methods of composition. A poet friend of mine has dabbled in this sort of thing but finds it expedient to not emphasise the aleatory aspect of what she’s doing, as publishers tend to give a frosty reception when their writers suggest that their work is automated to some extent.

And I can see where they’re coming from. No matter how good they get at it, I’m unlikely to get to a point where I’ll read automatically generated literary art. Speaking for myself, when I’m reading, it is not just about the words. I’m reading Enright or Woolf or Pynchon because I’m as interested in them as I am in what they produce. How synthetic would it be to set Faulkner and McCarthy in conversation with one another if their congruencies were wholly manufactured by outside interpretation or an anonymous algorithmic process as opposed to the discursive tissue of literary sphere, if a work didn’t arise from material and actual conditions? I know I’m making a lot of value-based assessments here that wouldn’t have a place in academic discourse, and on that basis what I’m saying is indefensible, but the probabilistic infinitude of it bothers me too. When I think about all the novelists I have yet to read I immediately get panicky about my own death, and the limitless possibilities of neural networks to churn out tomes and tomes of literary data in seconds just seems to me to exacerbate the problem.

However, speaking outside of my reader-identity, as a writer, I find it invigorating. My biggest problem as a writer isn’t writing nice sentences, given enough time I’m more than capable of that, the difficulty is finding things to wrap them around. Mood, tone, image, aren’t daunting, but a text’s momentum, the plot, I suppose, eludes me completely. It’s not something that bothers me, I consider plot to be a necessary evil, and resent novels that suspend information in a deliberate, keep-you-on-the-hook sort of way, but the ‘what next’ of composition is still a knotty issue.

The generation of text could be a useful way of getting an intelligent prompt that stylistically ‘borrows’ from a broad base of literary data, smashing words and images together in a generative manner to get the associative faculties going. I’m not suggesting that these scripts would be successful were they autonomous, I think we’re a few years off one of these algorithms writing a good novel, but I hope to demonstrate that my circa 350 generated words would be successful in facilitating the process of composition:

be as the whoo, put out and going to Ingleway effect themselves old shadows as she was like a farmers of his lake, for all or grips — that else bigs they perfectly clothes and the table and chest and under her destynets called a fingers of hanged staircase and cropping in her hand from him, “never married them my said?” know’s prode another hold of the utals of the bright silence and now he was much renderuched, his eyes. It was her natural dependent clothes, cattle that they came in loads of the remarks he was there inside him. There were she was solid drugs.

“I’m sons to see, then?’ she have no such description. The legs that somewhere to chair followed, the year disappeared curl at an entire of him frwented her in courage had approached. It was a long rose of visit. The moment, the audience on the people still the gulsion rowed because it was a travalious. But nothing in the rash.

“No, Jane. What does then they all get out him, but? Or perfect?”

“The advices?”

Of came the great as prayer. He said the aspect who, she lay on the white big remarking through the father — of the grandfather did he had seen her engoors, came garden, the irony opposition on his colling of the roof. Next parapes he had coming broken as though they fould

has a sort. Quite angry to captraita in the fact terror, and a sound and then raised the powerful knocking door crawling for a greatly keep, and is so many adventored and men. He went on. He had been her she had happened his hands on a little hand of a letter and a road that he had possibly became childish limp, her keep mind over her face went in himself voice. He came to the table, to a rashes right repairing that he fulfe, but it was soldier, to different and stuff was. The knees as it was a reason and that prone, the soul? And with grikening game. In such an inquisilled-road and commanded for a magbecross that has been deskled, tight gratulations in front standing again, very unrediction and automatiled spench and six in command, a

I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that there’s some merit in parts of this writing. I wonder if there’s an extent to which Finnegans Wake has ‘tainted’ the corpus somewhat, because stylistically, I think that’s the closest analogue to what could be said to be going on here. Interestingly, it seems to be formulating its own puns, words like ‘unrediction,’ ‘automatiled spench’ (a tantalising meta-textual reference I think) and ‘destynets’, I think, would all be reminiscent of what you could expect to find in any given section of the Wake, but they don’t turn up in the corpus proper, at least according to a ctrl + f search. What this suggests to me is that the algorithm is plotting relationships on the level of the character, as well as phrasal units. However, I don’t recall the sci-fi model turning up paragraphs that were quite so disjointed and surreal — they didn’t make loads of sense, but they were recognisable, as grammatically coherent chunks of text. Although this could be the result of working with a partially trained model.

So, how might they feed our creative process? Here’s my attempt at making nice sentences out of the above.

— I have never been married, she said. — There’s no good to be gotten out of that sort of thing at all.

He’d use his hands to do chin-ups, pull himself up over the second staircase that hung over the landing, and he’d hang then, wriggling across the awning it created over the first set of stairs, grunting out eight to ten numbers each time he passed, his feet just missing the carpeted surface of the real stairs, the proper stairs.

Every time she walked between them she would wonder which of the two that she preferred. Not the one that she preferred, but the one that were more her, which one of these two am I, which one of these two is actually me? It was the feeling of moving between the two that she could remember, not his hands. They were just an afterthought, something cropped in in retrospect.

She can’t remember her sons either.

Her life had been a slow rise, to come to what it was. A house full of men, chairs and staircases, and she wished for it now to coil into itself, like the corners of stale newspapers.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it is a lot shorter. I started off by traducing the above, in as much as possible, into ‘plain words’ while remaining faithful to the n-grams I liked, like ‘bright silence’ ‘old shadows’ and ‘great as prayer’. In order to create images that play off one another, and to account for the dialogue, sentences that seemed to be doing similar things began to cluster together, so paragraphs organically started to shrink. Ultimately, once the ‘purpose’ of what I was doing started to come out, a critique of bourgeois values, memory loss, the nice phrasal units started to become spurious, and the eight or so paragraphs collapsed into the three and a half above. This is also ones of my biggest writing issues, I’ll type three full pages and after the editing process they’ll come to no more than 1.5 paragraphs, maybe?

The thematic sense of dislocation and fragmentation could be a product of the source material, but most things I write are about substance-abusing depressives with broken brains cos I’m a twenty-five year old petit-bourgeois male. There’s also a fairly pallid Enright vibe to what I’ve done with the above, I think the staircases line could come straight out of The Portable Virgin.

Maybe a more well-trained corpus could provide better prompts, but overall, if you want better results out of this for any kind of creative praxis, it’s probably better to be a good writer.

Modelling Humanities Data: Deleuze, Descartes and Data

While dealing with the distinctions between data, knowledge and information in class, a pyramidal hierarchy was proposed, which can be seen on the left. This diagram discloses the process of making data (which have been defined as ‘facts’ which exist in the world), into information, and thereafter knowledge. These shifts from one state to another are not as neat as the diagram might suggest; it is just one interpretation giving shape to a highly dynamic and unsettled process; any movement from one of these levels to another is fraught. It is ‘a bargaining system,’ as every dataset has its limitations and aporias, not to speak of the process of interpretation or subsequent dissemination. This temporal dimension to data, its translation from a brute state is too often neglected within certain fields of study, fields in which data is more often understood as unambiguous, naturally hierarchicalised, and not open to contextualisation or debate.

This blog post aims to consider these issues within the context of a dataset obtained from The Central Statistics Office. The dataset contains information relating to the relative risk of falling into poverty based on one’s level of education between the years 2004 and 2015 inclusive. The data was analysed through use of the statistical analysis interface SPSS.

The purpose of the CSO is to compile and disseminate information relating to economic and social conditions within the state in order to give direction to the government in the formulation of policy. Therefore it was decided that the most pertinent information to be derived from the dataset would be the correlations between level of education and the likelihood of falling into poverty. The results appear below.

Correlation Between Risk of Poverty and Level of Education Achieved

Correlation Between Consistent Poverty (%) and Level of Education Received

Correlation Between Deprivation Rate (%) and Level of Education Received

Poverty Risk Based on Education Level

Deprivation Rate Based on Education Level

Consistent Poverty Rate based on Education Level

It can be seen that there is a very strong negative correlation between one’s level of education and one’s risk of exposure to poverty; the higher one ascends through the education system, the less likely it is one will fall into economic liminality. This is borne out both in the bar charts and the correlation tables, the latter of which yield p-values of .000, underlining the certainty of the finding. It should be noted that both graphing the data, and detecting correlations through use of the Spearman’s rho are elementary statistical procedures, but as the trend revealed here is consistent with more elaborate modelling of the relationship,[1] the parsimonious analysis carried out here is all that is required.

It should not be assumed that just because these graphs are informative that it is impossible to garner information from data in any other way. Even in its primary state, as it appears on the website, one could obtain information from a dataset through qualitative means. It is unlikely that this information will be as coherent as that which that can be gleaned from even the most basic graph, but it is important to emphasise the fact that the border that separates data from information is fluid.

It is unlikely to be a novel finding that those who have a third level education have higher incomes than those who do not; there is a robust body of research detailing the many benefits of attending university. [2] Therefore, can it be said that the visualisation of the dataset above has contributed to knowledge? One would answer this question relative to one’s initial research question, and how the information complicates or advances it. If the causal relationship between exposure to poverty and level of education has been confirmed, and a government agency makes the recommendation that further investment in educational support programmes are necessary, it is somewhere in this process that the boundary separating information from knowledge has been crossed.

The above diagram actualises the temporal nature of data to a greater extent than the pyramid, but in doing so it perpetuates a linearisation of the process, a line along which René Descartes’ notion of thought could be said to align. Descartes understood thought as a positive function which tends towards the good and toward truth. This ‘good sense’, allows us to ‘judge correctly and to distinguish the true from the false’.[3] Gilles Deleuze believes Descartes instantiates a model of thought which is oppressive, and which perceives thinking relative to external needs and values rather than in its actuality: ‘It cannot be regarded as fact that thinking is the natural exercise of a faculty, and that this faculty is possessed of a good nature and a good will.’[4]

In Deleuze’s conception, thought takes on a sensual disposition, reversing the Cartesian notion of mental inquiry beginning from a state of disinterestedness in order to arrive at a moment at which one recognises ‘rightness’. Deleuze argues that there is no such breakthrough moment or established methodology to thought, and argues for regarding it as more invasive, or unwelcome, a point of encounter when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’[5]

Rather than taking the neat, schematic movement from capturing data to modelling to interpreting for granted, Deleuze is engaged by these moments of crisis, points just before or just after the field of our understanding is qualitatively transformed into something different:

How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or know badly?…We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms one into the other.[6]

Deleuze’s comments have direct bearing upon our understanding of data, and how they should be understood within the context of the wider questions we ask of them. Deleuze argues that, ‘problems must be considered not as ‘givens’ (data) but as ideal ‘objecticities’ possessing their own sufficiency and implying acts of constitution and investment in their respective symbolic fields.’[7] While it is possible that Deleuze would risk overstating the case, were we to apply his theories to this dataset, it is nonetheless crucial to recall that data, and the methodologies we use to unpack and present them participate in wider economies of significance, ones with indeterminate horizons.

Notes

[1] Department for Business, Education and Skills, ‘BIS Research Paper №146: The Benefits of Higher Education and Participation for Individuals and Society: Key Findings and Reports’, (Department for Business, Education and Skills: 2013) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254101/bis-13-1268-benefits-of-higher-education-participation-the-quadrants.pdf

[2] OECD, Education Indicators in Focus, (OECD: 2012) https://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/Education%20Indicators%20in%20Focus%207.pdf

[3] Descartes, René, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Gutenberg: 2008), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm

[4] Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition (Bloomsbury Academic: 2016), p.175

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. xviii

[7] Ibid, p.207

Bibliography

Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition (Bloomsbury Academic: 2016), p.175

Department for Business, Education and Skills, ‘BIS Research Paper №146: The Benefits of Higher Education and Participation for Individuals and Society: Key Findings and Reports’, (Department for Business, Education and Skills: 2013) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254101/bis-13-1268-benefits-of-higher-education-participation-the-quadrants.pdf

Descartes, René, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Gutenberg: 2008), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm

OECD, Education Indicators in Focus, (OECD: 2012) https://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/Education%20Indicators%20in%20Focus%207.pdf

A Derridean Account of Literary Style

The boldness of the title here needs to be put in check immediately, I’ve only read the Grammatology recently, and though this was the first reading where I think I made the sense of it, I still haven’t read Lévi-Strauss or Rousseau, so in actuality, my reading can g.t.f.o.

Helpfully, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak provides one of the better introductions of all time, which allows us to get underway in terms of considering style.

It could be said that Derrida’s philosophy launched a thousand styles, much to David Foster Wallace’s chagrin; his MFA students had an uncanny capacity to encourage many of them down the route of irony-poisoned multi-vocality, typographical playfulness, all in the name of his casting adrift an economy of relativised meaning, at the expense of bourgeois, post-Enlightenment certainty. This led him eventually to begin each semester by writing the names of the doyennes of deconstruction on the chalkboard, to announce ‘I’m read all these guys. You don’t need to remind me of them’.

However, we must not mistake the historicised post-structuralist movement for Derrida’s stated views on style, which, as far as I can see are unfortunately absent from the Grammatology. But, if we say that Derrida viewed the pursuit of stable meaning sceptically, it’s probable that seeking to discover a single, unified style in any textual artefact, would be likewise wrong-headed, as Spivak points out in her introduction

The desire for unity and order compels the author and the reader to balance the equation that is the text’s symptom.

A single authorial style is a romantic contrivance, and violates Derrida’s sense of textuality, which is autonomous from such concerns, and does not answer to ‘proper names.’

We know that the metaphor that would describe the genealogy of the text correctly is still forbidden. In its syntax and its lexicon, its spacing, by its punctuation, its lacunae, its margins, the historical appurtenance of a text, is never a straight line. It is neither causality by contagion nor the simple accumulation of layers. Not even the pure juxtaposition of borrowed pieces.

Of all the words in this rather dazzling paragraph, it is ‘layers’ that strikes me most forcefully, if only for the reason that ‘layers’ is the way in which I decided to envision and visualise literary data in the course of my thesis. There is a risk in giving into Derrida that one would merely come away with some nebulous kind of radical indeterminacy, rather than a constructivist paradigm, which would be more necessary in the carrying out of quantitative analytical procedures. In fact, the kind of theological everything/nothing that Derrida, ironically tends to engender, is exactly what I want to avoid.

What does stand out in this paragraph, is the text’s interconnectedness, and every part’s responsiveness to every other part. This is a key feature of Derrida’s mode of critique; in later chapters, he will locate minor, or tangential sections of Rousseau or Lévi-Strauss, minor details or afterthoughts, that reveal themselves to be the precise juncture at which their systems of thought lapse into incoherence and uncertainty. A ‘total’ view of style then, one which reveals it to be wide-ranging and prone to upset, composed on a granular level of fragmentary particles, is something that Derrida might offer us in comprehending style.

A Heideggerian account of literary style

Martin Heidegger is a philosopher who had a very specific idea of the kind of philosophy he wished to practice and as such, he doesn’t make it easy for those who wish to extract something of use from his system of thought for use elsewhere, as in, for example, literary studies. His primary interest was in the nature of Being, what we might simplistically define as ontology, less simplistically, the ontology of ontology.

His style is famous for its obtuseness and difficulty, and in my own estimation, Heidegger would be less an author who demands multiple readings, than one who requires a lifetime of serious study. Unlike Nietzsche, it can hardly be said that he endorses this praxis as a proper stylistic mode. Instead, he envisioned literature, which he refers to mostly as ‘poetry’, as an extension of his own philosophical work, in establishing the nature of Being.

The only material that we can harvest from his collection of hermeneutic writings, Poetry, Language, Thought which seem relevant to literary stylistics, comes in the second chapter, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’. Enquiring into the nature of poetry involves, for Heidegger, an enquiry into its origin, in the artist and the artist’s activities. Getting to what the artist is is a difficult matter also; both seem to depend on one another as categories:

it is the work that first lets the artist emerge as a master of his art. The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist. Neither is one without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other. In themselves and in their interrelations artist and work are each of them by virtue of a third thing which is prior to both…art.

This is an unfashionable view; reflecting the increasingly social, collaborative nature of the humanities, we might increasingly wish to understand style as a likewise collaborative phenomenon, a social entity which allows for both the expression of a historical tradition and an individual idiom simultaneously.

Not for Heidegger. For him, style is somewhat beside the point, and elucidating it is a symptom of our decadent modernity, our tendency towards using things as means to ends, rather than ends in themselves. Elaborating on a text’s stylistic features, is to engage with rather facile aspects of its thingliness:

a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which…an aggregate arises. A thing…is that around which the properties have assembled.

A style in which a thing, (and I should say, he’s talking about a jug or a stone here, hardly a novel or poem) appears does not define its thingliness completely, but it definitely partakes in it. Rather than having a secure sense of style, we have an aporia, direct information on the difficulty of confronting it methodologically, because of our fallen culture. Rather than grappling with style in its actuality, we only list traits, and thereby we come to an understanding of a thing-concept, rather than thing.

In resolving this, we might construct ‘a free field to display its tingly character directly,’ in such a way that that which interposes itself between the interpreter and an understanding of thingly nature, would be set aside. Of course, Heidegger is a pessimist regarding the success of this endeavour:

There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known. What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure…When we contemplate this whole as one, then we apprehend, so it appears, al that is — though we grasp it crudely enough.

A Nietzschean account of literary style

When we think about Frederich Nietzsche and literary style, we might think of one of two things, the first being the conceptual distinction he drew in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, between the Apollonian and Dionysian modes. I won’t be pursuing this mode of analysis because I haven’t found a way to make it relevant to my own dissertation, yet, but I will draw our attention to what might be the second thing we think about which connects Nietzsche to style, and that is his own style.

Speaking purely about the only two works of Nietzsche I’ve read, Human, All too Human and Beyond Good and Evil, it can seem as though Nietzsche’s interest in style is less in dealing with the matter systematically, but more in embodying the notion, in his own epigrammatic, aphoristic and restless manner of writing, which seems, as time goes on, to become more and more pertinent to more contemporary forms of media. He’s been usefully described as a newspaper columnist or pundit (in that the philosophical antecedents he engages with he probably hasn’t read as systematically as he lets on, he was a philologist and a classicist rather than a philosopher), blogger (for the same reason) and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to say he would’ve fit in well on twitter, were I a vulgar enough character to make those sorts of analogies.

This restlessness when it comes to explicating the finer points of his work is what I mean when I say he embodies his own notion of style; by paying attention to his works’ formal strictures, or the artifice of their non-existence, we might be able to develop a more engaging model of Nietzsche’s stylistics than he can provide us with. For example, in the introduction to Human, all too Human, Ray Furness describes how Nietzsche perceives truth as feminine:

and those dogmatic souls afflicted with a terrible seriousness will be unable to woo her. A light, more elegant path is needed, a fresh and sparkling approach.

This ‘fresh and sparkling approach’ is Nietzsche’s ‘gay science’, which could be summed up as a curative to the Enlightenment project, which Nietzsche viewed as restrictive and overly systematic. As the translator says:

his preference for a darting perspectivism allows him to use dazzling contradictions to disorientate the reader and force them…to do the necessary work of weighting…and evaluating.

His commitment to a multiplicity of thought in his philosophy would encourage us to align Nietzsche’s commitment to multiperspectivalism, with a certain disposition towards multiplicity in literary style. This isn’t really an extravagant interpretation, Nietzsche is positively effusive about artists who display a capacity to be ‘on the move’ stylistically.

One author who he singles out for praise on this basis is Laurence Sterne. Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, A Gentleman, is so stylistically restless, it fails to assume any kind of stable narrative shape at all, which Nietzsche endorses unequivocally:

an artistic style in which the definite form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that is signifies one and the other at the same time

So his tastes are fairly obvious, multi-vocality, oscillation of the writing’s attention regarding its subject, ambiguity/irony. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, everything about Nietzsche’s thought repudiates convention and the formation of habit, which makes us overly familiar with and lax in our approaches to objects under inquiry.

Interestingly, for the purposes of my own research into modernism, Nietzsche sees plurality of styles as a modern tendency, and partially attributable to the growth in urban living. Modern iterations of literary forms will be formally restless, Nietzsche argues, as this is the new paradigm: “they [the moderns] are in all things rather too thorough to be able to settle like the men of other days.”

While I don’t think I could get away with calling Richard Wagner modernist, he was one of Nietzsche’s contemporaries, and Nietzsche regards him as pertinent in delineating the modern turn, as he saw it at the time:

This kind of music expresses best what I think of the Germans: they belong to the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow — they have as yet no today.

Like Hans Georg-Gadamer after him, Nietzsche understood style as a reactionary force in many respects, enforcing normative standards on particular works. In Nietzsche’s estimation, pre-modern works were written for performance, for the benefit of the ear. In the modern age, a key distinguishing feature of style is its appeal to the eye. In both cases, Nietzsche regards this as having their own impediments, demonstrating that he is unlikely to commit to signing off any one kind of style as sufficient in itself, it will always be a matter of overturning, experimenting, pushing the boundaries of hegemonic categories, until they break apart.

A Gadamerian Theory of Literary Style

Hans Georg-Gadamer was a philosopher working within the field of hermeneutic theory, which investigates the ways in which interpretation works, and how we come to understand things in the way that we do. He is a thinker deeply steeped in the Western philosophical tradition, but I came to him for his influence on literary theory, as Gadamer is also working within the tradition of German philology, from which Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature also emerge. This post will deal with his theories as they are laid out in Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method.

The first thing to know about Gadamer, is that he was a student of Martin Heidegger, which is very significant for those approaching his works. Not only does this require of us a sensitivity to their political resonance, which does, at times, veer towards justifying totalitarianism, but also allows us to detect subtle tendencies towards Heidegger’s philosophical thought, such as those on the nature of Dasein.

One of Gadamer’s objections to hermeneutics is its perceived aspiration towards practicing it objectively, or with a manner of disinterestedness. Gadamer traces this positive valuation of objectivity back to the Enlightenment, which argued for a scientificist ideology within the human sciences. One might recall Heidegger’s own vision of modern society as overly mercantilist and alienating, pursuing things for their ends, rather than treating things as ends in themselves.

If restoring the temporal angle to a work of art sounds familiar it should, as it recalls one of the most significant things Heidegger identified relating to the nature of Dasein, namely, its temporal quality, and therefore, its being in a constant state of becoming. This is ontology as process, and it is something that we as interpreters should be aiding, rather than stymieing. We should never be trying to ‘resolve’ a work of art, but open it up to further questions. It is fortunate then, that Gadamer believes that this happens automatically, in the course of a very interesting process called ‘play’, a full account of which I won’t provide here, because I’m primarily interested in Gadamer’s notion of style, which he outlines in a fairly brief appendix to Truth and Method.

Gadamer objects to the notion of style, seeing it, as any good philologist would, within a genealogy. For Gadamer, its meaning has changed over time, but in some originary sense, it owes its significance to jurisprudence, and the way in which one would conduct a trial along pre-determined lines. This manner of conducting trials led to the idea that a particular style of writing can be deployed incorrectly, in a way inappropriate to the occasion.

The romantic era brought with it a notion of style that Gadamer attributes to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose definition became more widely accepted:

An artist creates a style when he is no longer just engaged in imitation but is also fashioning a style for himself. Although he ties himself to the given phenomenon, this is not a fetter for him. He can still express himself in the process.

Therefore style is a social, collaborative phenomenon, which happens when one draws on a tradition which exerts influence over you, while maintaining one’s own idiom. However, for Gadamer, this instantiates a notion of inherency or essence that recalls the jurisprudence argument, the appropriateness of style, from which we derive its normative, or oppressively standardising vibe.

While accepting that Gadamer is dealing with this in a three-page appendix, I think his argument is slightly thin in this instance, he goes on to say that style refers to something ‘fixed’ and ‘objective’ within works of art. This notion is inscribed by the historically effected consciousness, or the wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein, which allows us to compartmentalise each epoch along straight lines, rather than doing justice to their complications and ambiguity. Classificatory approaches along the lines of style, Gadamer argues, do us no good.

A Deleuzian Theory of Literary Style

I’m always surprised when I read one of the thinkers generally, and perhaps lazily, lumped in to the general category of post-structuralist, when I find how great a disservice the term does to their work. To read Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, is not to find a triad of philosophers who struggle to produce a coherent system via addled half-thoughts in order to deconstruct, stymie or relativise everything. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another philosopher I’ve read who displays greater attention to detail in their work than Derrida, and Deleuze, far from being a deconstructionist, presents us with painstaking and intricate schemata and models of thought. The rhizome, to take the most well-known concept associated with Deleuze and his collaborator, Félix Guattari, doesn’t provide us with a free-for-all, but an intricately worked-out model to enable further thought. Difference and Repetition is likewise painstaking, and so involved is Deleuze’s model of difference, applying it in great depth to my theory of literary style, might be something to do if one wished to be a mad person, particularly since, at an early stage in the work, he attempts to map his concepts to particular authors, such as Borges, Joyce, Beckett and Proust. But I’ll do my best.

My notion of literary style has been influenced by the fact of my dealing with the matter via computation, i.e. multi-variate analysis and machine learning. All the reading I’m doing on the subject, is leading me towards a theory of literary style founded on redundancy. When I say redundancy, I don’t mean that what distinguishes literary language from ‘normal’ language is its superfluity, an excess of that which it communicates. For the Russian formalists, this was key in defining literary language, its surfeit of meaning. I don’t like this distinction much, as it assumes that we can neatly cleave necessary communication from unnecessary communication, as if there were a clear demarcation between the words we use for their usage (utilitarian) and the words we use for their beauty (aesthetic). The lines between the two are generally blurred, and both can reinforce the function of the other. The shortcomings of this category become yet more evident when we take into account authors who might have a plain style, works which depend on a certain reticence to speak. Of course, a certain degree of recursion sets in here, as we could argue that it is in the showcased plainness of these writers that the superfluity of the work manifests itself. Which presents us with the inevitable conclusion that the definition is flawed because its a tautology; it’s excessive because it’s literary, it’s literary because it’s excessive.

My own idea of redundancy comes from a number of articles in the computational journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, the entire corpus of which, from the mid-nineties until today, I am slowly making my way through. It provides an interesting narrative of the ways in which computational criticism has evolved in these years. At first, literary critics would have been sure that the words that traditional literary criticism tends to emphasise, the big ones, the sparkly ones, the nice ones, were most indicative of a writer’s style. What practitioners of algorithmic criticism have come to realise however, is that it is the ‘particles’ of literary matter, that are far more indicative of a writer’s style, the distribution of words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘said,’ which are sometimes left out of corpus stylistics altogether, dismissed as ‘stopwords,’ bandied about too often in textual materials of all kinds to be of any real use. It’s a bit too easy, with the barest dash of an awareness of how coding works, to start slipping into generalisations along the lines of neuroscience, so I won’t go too mad, but I will say that this is an example of the ways in which humans tend to identify patterns, albeit maybe not necessarily the determining, or most significant patterns, in any given situation.

We’re magpies when we read, for better or worse. When David Foster Wallace re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style. But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like ‘She tied the tapes,’ in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such filler.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with reversing a trend within Western philosophy, to mis-read the nature of difference, which he traces back to Plato and Kant, and the idealist/transcendentalist tendencies within their thought. They believed in singular, ideal forms, against which the notion of the Image is pitched, which can only be inferior, a simulacrum, as they are derivative copies. Despite his model of the dialectic, Hegel is no better when it comes to comprehending difference; Deleuze sees the notion of synthesis as profoundly damaging to difference, as the third-way synthesis has a tendency to understate it. Deleuze dismisses the process of the dialectic as ‘insipid monocentrality’. Deleuze’s issue seems to be that our notions of identity, only allow difference into the picture as a rupture, or an exception which vindicates an overall sense of homogeneity. Difference should be emphasised to a greater extent, and become a principle of our understanding:

Such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.

Recognising this would be the advent of difference-in-itself.

This is all fairly consistent with Deleuze’s sense of Being as being (!) in a constant state of becoming, an experiential-led model of ontology which doesn’t aim for essence, but praxis. It would be fairly unproblematic to map this onto literary style; literary stylistics should likewise depend on difference, rather than similarity which only allows difference into the picture as a rupture; difference should be our primary criterion when examining the ways in which style becomes itself.

Another tendency of the philosophical tradition as Deleuze understands it is a belief in the goodness of thought, and its inclination towards moral, useful ends, as embodied in the works of Descartes. Deleuze reminds us of myopia and stupidity, by arguing that thought is at its most vital when at a moment of encounter or crisis, when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’ These encounters remind us that thought is impotent and require us to violently grapple with the force of these encounters. This is not only an attempt to reverse the traditional moral image of thought, but to move towards an understanding of thought as self-engendering, an act of creation, not just of what is thought, but of thought itself.

It would be to take the least radical aspect of this conclusion to fuse it with the notion of textual deformance, developed by Jerome McGann, which is of particular magnitude within the digital humanities, considering that we often process our text via code, or visualise it, and build arguments from these simulacra. But, on a level of reading which is, technologically speaking, less sophisticated, it reflects the way in which we generate a stylistic ideal as we read, a sense of a writer’s style, whether these be based on the analogue, magpie method (or something more systematic, I don’t want to discount syllable-counts, metric analyses or close readings of any kind) or quantitative methodologies.

By bringing ourselves to these points of crisis, we will open up avenues at which fields of thought, composed themselves of differential elements, differential relations and singularities, will shift, and bring about a qualitative difference in the environment. We might think of this field in terms of a literary text, a sequence of actualised singularities, appearing aleatory outside of their anchoring context as within a novel. Readers might experience these as breakthrough moments or epiphanies when reading a text, realising that Infinite Jest apes the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, as it begins to cast everything in a new light. In this way, texts are made and unmade according to the conditions which determine them. I for one, find this to be so much more helpful in articulating what a text is than the blurb for post-structuralism, (something like ‘endlessly deferred free-play of meaning’). Instead, we have a radical, consistently disarticulating and re-articulating literary artwork in a perpetual, affirming state of becoming, actualised by the reader at a number of sensitive points which at any stage might be worried into bringing about a qualitative shift in the work’s processes of meaning making.

Lisa McInerney’s ‘The Glorious Heresies’ and Paul Murray’s ‘Skippy Dies’

The novel that Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies most readily started conversing with in my head while I was reading it, was Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, not just because both novels have a cast north of twenty, but that both also place their characters in situations of unrelenting bleakness, albeit ones capably balanced mind by a sardonically comedic narrative voice.

Another thing the novels have in common is the extent to which similarity and interconnection determine their overall structure. Skippy Dies is a novel of repetition and concealed dovetails; one notices that almost every character in a given setting, whether this be among Skippy’s friends, the teachers, or the inner-city drug-dealers, certain overlaps and congruencies play off one another throughout the novel. Skippy Dies never signals this overtly however, it’s the sort of thing that’s left for the reader to discern themselves, particularly on a second or third reading. Skippy Dies’ structure can therefore be said to resemble a network, being multiple, deferred and interconnected in obscure and subterranean ways. Interconnection in Heresies runs along a more linear or arborescent model; it could be said that if it wasn’t for Maureen giving birth to Jimmy outside of wedlock, the events of the novel, the misery and fallout that Jimmy goes on to inflict as a gangster operating between Cork and London, it is unlikely that anything in the novel would have happened at all.

Although, if we were to trace historical events in the Heresies back, we can’t or rather shouldn’t stop there, as we must recall that Maureen became pregnant at a time in Ireland when sending one’s ‘fallen’ daughter to a laundry for the rest of her days was a viable option. As is clear from the argument Maureen has with a priest in a confessional, Ireland’s treatment of women is a big part of what can be said to make the country as miserable for its inhabitants at the time in which the novel is set.

The historical consciousness of Skippy Dies’ can be traced as far back as the forgotten young men who fought in World War I on the side of the English, and were therefore written out of the historical record. This all has significance for the Robert Graves ‘White Lady’ motif, and chimes with Skippy’s own premature death, but the novel’s argument is directed at an hagiographical tradition, whereas, as Maureen’s attempts to come to terms with her experience, and place herself within the society of her time, is a contemporary, and urgent task. The ending makes clear that Maureen’s attempts to do so is ongoing, as is, by extension, those of other survivors of her generation.

This might be said to relate to the fundamental difference between McInerney and Murray’s narrative styles. While McInerney takes a panoramic view only towards the novel’s opening and closing sections, moving from house as she sets the scene/ties up loose threads, Murray is more inclined to take a longer, or even cosmic view more frequently, zooming out to rhapsodise in a manner reminiscent of David Foster Wallace quite a bit, whereas McInerney keeps things restrained, perspectivally. This isn’t to say that Murray’s approach is less immediate, or less worthy, but this difference provides a means of emphasising what it is that’s important in McInerney’s writing. Murray’s Seabrook College is easily made a synecdoche of Life, in the ‘in the particular is contained the universal’ sort of a way, but McInerney’s Cork never reaches beyond itself; it reflects it’s author’s willingness to take it seriously as a setting-in-itself, and the pallor in which it has been set in a post-bailout, post-globalised, and never quite post-clerical, Ireland.