Literary Style and the dialectic

The notion of literary style is a fraught matter for critics. This is not just since the cultural and textualist ‘turn’ of the sixties and seventies, when post-structuralist methodologies became commonplace in university departments. Rather, the origin of style brings us to the origin of the individual and it is for this reason that Frederic Jameson believes ‘style’ to be a bourgeois concept. In an account which accords with Hans Georg-Gadamer’s, which locates the word’s origin in the context of jurisprudence, Jameson argues that style owes its existence to the classical notion of rhetoric, as interpreted in nineteenth-century pedagogy, the means by which an orator might speak in a form which is appropriately ‘high’. In both of these accounts, style’s interconnectedness with the rise of bourgeoisie or liberal state-capitalist formations of the age of Enlightenment is emphasised.

Here, we see a socio-historical account of style, one which might have taken Barthes’ theory as its foundation; that it is impossible to have a theory of pure style, as it is fundamentally an historical phenomenon. Jameson is similarly sceptical, but writes also that any literary criticism worthy of the name is obligated to consider ‘sentences themselves’. How these two methods could be productively fused is as something of a fissure in literary studies, between those who would treat literary texts in formal terms, the stylistic reductionists, and others, who would read it according to a sociological or Marxist schema. We might refer to this latter category as culturalists for the sake of ease. Of course, dialectical methods of reading are so ingrained into how we are trained to think about texts as scholars, whether we happen to be constructing a dialogue between a text and its context, or interrogating our own biases, it can be difficult to conceive of what a purely formalist literary criticism might look like. Despite conventional wisdom holding there were plenty around Cambridge in the thirties who were invested solely in words on the page, one cannot help but find indications of their broader and more wide-ranging interests in their actual writings. Likewise, culturalist critics might well concede that stylistic components, such as particular words, lengths of sentences, play a role in forming the style of a literary text, but there is a difficulty in deciding at which point a sufficient number of these discrete linguistic signals aggregate to achieve a structural significance or scale. It is for its treatment of style as an abstract system which cannot be rationalised down to its concrete manifestations that Jameson charges Anglo-American literary criticism as being undialectical.

In parsing this particular issue, we might turn to Adorno’s writings in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which he theorises the distance between the individual stylistic marker and the entire work, in the context of a socio-economic and cultural totality. Adorno’s analysis is mostly concerned with the cultural changes which have been wrought by the existence of the cultural industry within late-stage capitalism, the ‘iron system’ in which

the maintenance of forms and the preservation of individuals coincide only by chance.

By Adorno’s account, the technologies of commercialised society have so irreparably transformed all social and cultural institutions to the extent that art now serves a solely industrial function. There can be no such thing as amusement under late-stage capitalism; we have leisure only so that we can be more productive. These changes have come about, of course, due to the higher-order industries on which the culture industry depends, as well as the actions of individual managers within these industries, ‘the people at the top’ whose behaviours reproduce these higher-order systemic changes. The subject no longer has thoughts but rather is thought herselfby the system, she registers signals in the form of physical, psychic automatisms, but continues to assume as though her own autonomy exists; that this is beyond the reach of the external network of circumstances, economic, historical, social, which in fact radically proscribe the remit of her behaviours.

This loss of freedom in society finds its corollary in the degree to which the culture of industrial society has been homogenised: ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical…Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight’. This determinism is one of the defining features of Adorno’s thought; even that which violates the tenets of cultural industry will merely replicate this same homogeneity overall. If for example, Orson Welles was to violate the terms of the industry,

he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as a calculated mutation which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.

These innovators are co-opted once again by the same system, and Adorno witheringly compares them to state-capitalist land-reformers. So repetitive are most films produced by the Hollywood studio system of Adorno’s time, he claims the attentive film-goer will know the ending of the film within the first few minutes, but, as before, if the attentive film-goer is wrong-footed by a surprise twist, this just confirms the banality of the enterprise.

Many have argued that Adorno’s undialectical anglophone readers have, in their eagerness to claim popular culture as an object worthy of scholarly attention, over-emphasised and caricatured his curmudgeonly tendencies. A charitable reading might present Adorno as being concerned predominantly with the superstructure, but there is, I think, a little too much of the grumpy old man to his claim that a perfection of formal technique be it in the context of Hollywood film or jazz, may be claimed as just another symptom of the cultural industry’s failure to create truly great art, because these perfections of technique are buttressed by deliberate ‘blunders’. I think Adorno is sufficiently correct for his work to be analytically useful, but it rather ironically lacks the ability to tolerate contradiction, and such a view runs the risk of lapsing into non-dialectical territory. Adorno is, after all, presumably referring to actual films he’s seen, actual jazz renditions of classical compositions, and treating these within his analyses as socially/historically embedded would do greater justice to his schema. Examples of how apparently individual agents incline towards producing the interests of capital without abandoning Adorno’s analytical pessimism are plentiful, but I’ll single out Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, or this podcast here.

Treating the history of literature in dialectical terms would be less invested in the individual stylistic innovations perpetuated by writers, and heed ‘the sheer quantity of words with which a given historical period is saturated’ to a greater extent. In a commercial society, for instance, in which the subject is bombarded constantly with advertisements, newspapers, articles, tweets, the author of literature is obliged to administer to the reader a sequence of shocks in order to gain their attention, and it is this which serves to colour our literary culture and why modern poetry maintains an interest with density in language rather than transparency. This might go some distance to accounting for the disappearance of organised novelistic form, but such claims would benefit from an awareness of popular trends of consumption, those which undermine theories constructed by scholars operating in a relative vacuum, in order to avoid falling into Adorno’s conservatism, and in maintaining one’s pursuit of the dialectic (however defined).