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).

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 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.

Reading Lessons from Martin Heidegger

martin-heidegger-2Trying to derive an aesthetic system or outlook from Martin Heidegger’s writings on art in Poetry, Language, Thought is an errand for fools; Heidegger explicitly rules out the idea that his hermeneutic philosophy, or at least, his philosophy which inclines itself towards hermeneutics, is concerned with aisthesis, or the apprehension of an artwork. Instead, he subsumes it within his wider philosophical task, to get to the nature of Being, note the capital B.

For Heidegger, Western philosophy has insufficiently grappled with ontology. René Descartes made a mistake in trying to determine what is, Heidegger thinks he should have thought a bit more about what is is. What exactly we mean by Being is complicated by the alienating processes of industrialisation, mercantilism and urbanisation, which have left us with an increasingly utilitarian sense of things in the world. Instead of enquiring into the nature of what something is, we define it relative to its use-value. Heidegger writes that art is also part of this wider enquiry into Being, that this is the primary function of ‘poets’ – which I decide to extend as a catch-all term for artists in a more general sense – to do exactly what it is that Heidegger is doing, and reach a more nuanced definition of Being. This might seem like a self-involved or solipsistic manoeuvrer, but if you came from a national literary tradition as philosophically inclined as Heidegger (Rilke, Goethe) you might well agree with him.

So how would one read a text in a Heideggerian way? Well, Heidegger was always more interested in the posing of further questions than in proposing resolutions. There’s very little in Poetry, Language, Thought that one could hope to derive a positive methodology from, unless saying something like ‘The answer to this has six primary components,’ and providing a long digression on said components is your notion of pragmatism. Interestingly, one of his students, more invested in heremeneutic philosophy as an autonomous branch of philosophical enquiry, Hans Georg-Gadamer, is similarly anti-systematic, perceiving the work of art as something that makes you subject to its meaning-makings. In this schema, the process of interpretation is something that leaves the putative reader behind, meaning overtakes your agency as it establishes itself. Which I think could be productively linked with the writings of Heidegger which attempt to justify National Socialism. Digression for another time.

Rather than describe how the work of art works on us, Heidegger divvies it up into increasingly thin components, the allegory of the form/content binary, within which there is the form-matter, which is distinct in itself, the process of ‘worlding’ that a work of art inaugurates, ‘the earth’ on which the work dwells and many, many other features which contemporary literary critics would probably understand, rightly or wrongly, as relating to a work’s context.

There is a tendency in the wake of Jacques Derrida, particularly when he seemed to be such an attentive reader of these philosophers supposedly foundational to post-structuralism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, that within these philosopher’s works are the germs of Derrida’s system of thought. Therefore Heidegger’s insistence on the context being made up of these manifold sections, interdependently and intricately linked, may create a sense that this structure is about to be deconstructed, and lapse into its own angst. In fact, Heidegger is very clear that these sections retain their formal integrity, each may be articulated relative to and within the other, as is the case in Derrida’s re-formulation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential networks of meaning, but within this mutual articulation, they remain solid. This comes across in a very interesting passage that describes the process of building a bridge:

“It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge lies across the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge…With the banks, the bridge belongs to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape around the stream.”

By coming to an understanding of what is outlined in this perhaps wilfully obtuse paragraph, Heidegger hopes that we may come to an understanding of art which will provide a place of dwelling rather than merely a refuge, a place that we can authentically ‘live’ within, rather than merely taking refuge. Hear, hear, I say, probably.