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.

A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style

cbzxp31cwkj3bokbrne0This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.

James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’

One of the guilty pleasures/occasions for misery that comes from re-reading a book is the re-inspection of old marginalia. It allows for the momentary solemn reflection on how far you have indeed come since those long gone dearly departed days, while simultaneously and no less solemnly jotting down new observations, truly the best observations that any observer has ever observed while reading James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners on the 130 bus.

However, occasionally a note from the undergraduate days, those long gone dearly departed undergraduate days, when an interpretation will strike one by virtue of its idiocy. I found one such the other day in the short story ‘Clay’ and it merits this public self-flagellation.

The paragraph reads as follows:

“But wasn’t Maria glad when the women had finished their tea and the cook and the dummy had begun to clear away the tea-things! She went into her little bedroom and, remembering that the next morning was a mass morning, changed the hand of the alarm from seven to six. Then she took off her working skirt and her house-boots and laid her best skirt out on the bed and her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed. She changed her blouse too and, as she stood before the mirror, she thought of how she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning when she was a young girl; and she looked with quaint affection at the diminutive body which she had so often adorned. In spite of its years she found it a nice tidy little body.”

At the point in which Maria sets her alarm, I had written: “mastery over time. Derrida?”

Analysing the note, I find it to be indicative of the kind of critics I was into at the time. I wanted to find whatever critical approach, no matter how ostentatiously difficult, that would help me fashion a chart in which I could look up any book and therefore be able to stop worrying about how little I understood in the books I was reading.

I bought a book on metre in poetry and rigidly memorised the definitions of the terms ‘dactyl,’ ‘anapaest’ and ‘pyrrhic’ with the same intention. This all missed the crucial point in the application of a schema. What I didn’t learn until much later was that a character setting an alarm, a pyrrhic emphasis does not always mean the same thing in every situation. What is really at stake in the context in which these tropes are deployed.

Which is why the marginal note above is so fabulously ridiculous. Rather than reflecting a supposed mastery over time, a point at which one could bring in Mr. Derrida’s assault on the sacred cows of Western metaphysics, Maria’s setting of the alarm is intended as an assertion of utmost mundane-ness, just another part of her daily ritual of little, nice and tidy propositions.

Like the proverbial boiling frog (and the metaphor is particularly apposite, bearing in mind Joyce’s malevolence towards his creatures in this sequence of fifteen stories) each of ‘the Dubliners,’ are steeped in mundane details that are the unsung gems of the novel, stacked neatly and with admirable restraint before the apex/nadir of the epiphany. These are the hands of Maria’s clock, the bookshelf of James Duffy and the petit bourgeois existence of Jimmy Doyle’s father. Beyond the book’s famous snow, they deserve attention.

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.