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 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.

Katherine Mansfield and modernism


I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.

So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.

My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.

All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?

It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.

Answer the First

‘After modernism.’

Answer the Second

‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’

What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.

My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.

As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.

But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.

One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.

The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:

‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’

Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:

‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’

In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.

The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)

It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.

Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.