Senseless Resistances: Feeling the Friction in Fiction
In his polemical "Critifictional Reflections on the Pathetic Condition of the Novel in Our Time," Raymond Federman calls for writing that "resists" being "recuperated" into an easily consumed commodity.Federman's polemical piece has appeared in multiple iterations. The most recent version, to the best of my knowledge, is collected in the Fiction's Present print volume. Such resistant writing will act as an "antidote" to the mind-numbing, world-supplanting images to which we, consumers in a market-driven, visually dominated culture, have become addicted:
The kind of literature we need now is the kind that will systematically erode and dissipate the setting of the Spectacle, frustrate the expectation of its positive beginning, middle, and end, and cheap resolution. This kind of writing will be at the same time frugal and denuded, but rhetorically complex, so that it can seize the world in a new way. This kind of writing must create a space of resistance to the alienated devotion to images - to the refining and undermining of the world by images. This kind of writing should be like an ironic free tense within the opacity of the Spectacle (228, emphasis added).The Spectacle, a term appropriated from situationist Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, refers to the reification of social relations in a capitalist world-system that manufactures consent via seductive, fetishized, mass-mediated images.
The twelve essays in this ebr gathering suggest what is required now, in fiction's present, to conceptualize literature as a "space of resistance." Like other thinking archived at ebr, this gathering on resistances suggests how literature can play a transformative role in the emergent network society, where the printed book's technological status and social authority are rapidly shifting from dominant to residual.
Historicized within the longue durée of the modern world-system, which took shape as the capitalist world-economy emerged during the long sixteenth century, literacy and the literary appear as cultural creations of a print-dominated world; and in the contemporary media ecology, Federman warns, literature is in "serious danger of extinction" (219) unless writers devise techniques for resisting the "fake emotions and images" (216) circulating in commercialized mass-communications networks and visualized on ubiquitous screens. Two imperatives - to focus on the materiality of communication and to become attuned to textual affectivity - inform both Federman's aesthetic of resistance and this gathering, which rethinks the general concept of resistance for literary studies while addressing particular literary resistances materialized in fiction, criticism, and theory.
But just how seriously should we take Federman's warning about the possibility of literature's imminent demise? A recent book by a media-studies scholar, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, claims that a small but influential group of postmodern novelists - most notably Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo though David Foster Wallace and others are also discussed (Federman is not, though he has most directly voiced concern about literary obsolescence) - deliberately promote fears about the printed book's displacement by television in order to position themselves as the authentic arbiters of contemporary literary culture. "Novels of obsolescence," such as Vineland and Mao II, situate serious literature at the margins of America's mass-mediated culture in order to secure a space of white, male privilege, which has been undermined in a demographically multiethnic America. We remain unconvinced.
"Electronic Media, Identity Politics, and the Rhetoric of Obsolescence,"rebuts the surprising claim that novelistic resistances to broadcast media are actually displaced forms of identitarian resentment; these books, Anthony Enns argues, are more interested in developing innovative aesthetic forms for mapping the cognitive effects of mediating technologies and communications systems that alter how we process information.
When surveying the stacks of hardbacks on Borders' and Barnes & Noble's remainder's tables, aware that the bulk of the books are destined to be pulped to make room for the latest ghostwritten celebrity memoir, diet book, or self-help manual, how can literary-minded readers not feel anxious that our spectacular culture of planned obsolescence, with its incessant demand for consumable novelty, claims to be too busy to wrestle with writing that refuses to yield its meaning and pleasure immediately. Oblivious that "time takes as much as it gives" and captivated by capital's fabulous promises of transcendence, our culture impatiently disregards those who use their time for slow reading, rereading, and all the thinking provoked by "resistances in the materials" (Bernstein) that make texts. But don't be put off by these haughty dismissals, often accompanied by charges of elitism. Readers feel genuine discomfort and anxiety when confronted with unpredictable and seemingly unrecognizable texts. When encountering resistant forms of non-knowledge - i.e., unknown unknowns, repressed information that we don't know that we know - they experience what Federman calls the "agony of unrecognition" and respond accordingly, often by seeking satisfaction in mastering the "comfortable familiar" (Federman, Critifiction 127-8). What's needed, then, are not only fictions that make a lasting impression, that cannot be forgotten, that haunt the reader long after the book is closed - fictions that register with the force of an event - but also strategies for building sustainable literary communities around these isolated events.
Christian Moraru understands this need, and his "Plagiarism, Creativity, and the Communal Politics of Renewal" identifies postmodern fiction that responds to the "shortage of cultural 'eventfulness'" not anxiously, but creatively - by practicing what I would describe as a materialist, open-source aesthetic. If the commercial media promotes attenuated attention spans by constantly bombarding individual consumers with the copyright-protected "new," a practice that effectively perpetuates a sense of sameness, the open-source writers (not just DeLillo and Pynchon but also Raymond Federman, Kathy Acker, Ronald Sukenick and Matthew Roberson) promote a prolonged attentiveness by presenting reading communities with appropriated archival matter that gets rewritten, and re-presented into forms that readers help to make "anew" through further recontextualizations occurring in communal spaces. Might networked reading-and-writing collectives, for instance, provide a means for solitary readers to work through their agony, re-cognizing and redirecting this affect so it pushes them to develop more collaborative modes of writing and thinking? It's collaborative activity, over time, that enables textual events to become woven into the fabric of reality.
The mass media is a semi-autonomous system, the primary social function of which is to generate redundancies that establish a familiar background reality in which global business can be conducted efficiently. Imagining that literature might directly resist or supplant the mass media's reality-generating function is basically senseless. The open-source writers accept that the age when printed texts played the primary role in defining reality for the masses is more or less over. Therefore, they focus instead on composing sites of "novel communality," textually resilient systems designed to endure, from a human's perspective, for long durations of time and to engage generations of re-readers in ritual reenactments, literary performances, that provide the basis for communities who derive pleasure and glean insight from participating in the production of literary presence.
Is Federman's call for literary space of resistance utopian?
In "Utopia's Doubles" Nicholas Spencer observes how recent studies of utopian literature by Nicholas Brown, Marianne de Koven, Fredric Jameson, and Martin Puchner resist narrowly culturalist approaches that limit utopian literature to representations of abstract utopia, which can be easily dismissed as escapist fantasies about living in ideal communities. Instead, these authors take a decidedly socialist approach foregrounding how writing concretizes and thus partakes - sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously - in a long, ongoing struggle to transform material reality. Spencer discerns anarchist impulses in the analyses by Marxist and social-democratic scholars of concrete utopia, which is noteworthy given Marxism's opposition to anarchism. While resisting anarchism's enthusiasm for autonomous enclaves (are "anarchist spatialities" sustainable in the long-term? can such communities be fully self-organizing, or does a resistance to rules ferment irresponsibility?), these scholars nonetheless recognize the possibilities immanent in those utopian moments when small collectives manage to resist the imperatives of the State, corporations, and other large institutions.
Literary fiction can work to make these utopian possibilities present and concrete. But what aspects of local cultures can be made universal?
In Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism, Madhu Dubey rejects romantic accounts of black American communities that devalue print-based literacy and urban modernity in favor of face-to-face vernacular communications and rural pre-modernity, residual ways of life alleged to be more authentic and less alienating. The romance of the residual must be resisted, even when it appears in fiction by a storyteller and stylist as gifted as Toni Morrison, because folksy visions of rural communities, rooted in authentic alterities, primitivize blacks, promote impossible yearnings for unmediated presence, and prevent poverty from being perceived as a political problem. The regressive culturalization of politics Dubey describes is hardly unique to African-American cultural productions, however, and in "Black Postmodernism" Amy Elias calls for cross-cultural studies that would link black literary postmodernism with other contemporary postmodern writing.
A transnational comparative postmodernism would challenge ideological visions - such as multiculturalism and techno-utopianism - that aesthetically resolve capitalism's social contradictions without transforming its material supports.
Will network technologies enable us to make concrete utopian spaces universal? How will people relate to one another in these spaces?
Daniel Punday's "Middle Spaces: Media and the Ethics of the Infinitely Demanding" describes an ethics of solitude appropriate to our networked world. Such an ethics - which Punday observes at work in Jonathan Lethem's novel Fortress of Solitude - begins by recognizing the primacy of human connectedness, rather than radical alerity. In this way it avoids the tendency, prevalent in a phenomenological ethics of alterity derived from Levinas, to focus on face-to-face encounters with the other. A fixation on the face can lead to hysterical concerns about the impossibility of having meaningful, responsible encounters with strangers, whose desires remain enigmatic. Punday discerns traces of such other-induced hysteria in philosopher Simon Critchley's Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, which he critiques for advocating an anarchist politics that imagines the goal of political resistance is to cultivate autonomous spaces in which autonomous subjects can make connections. As Andy Warhol understood, anarchism's humanist model of resistance, grounded on the primacy of intersubjective relationships, fails to account for forms of agency distributed across nonhuman systems, such as financial markets or the global media networks. But must literary fiction commoditize itself, Warhol style, in order to remain relevant in the network society? (That's the tactic Mark Leyner and other writers of "avant-pop" or "image-fiction" chose in the late 1980s and early 1990s.) Like Fortress of Solitude, novels by Susan Daitch, Toni Cade Bambara, and Ishmael Reed offer an alternative to visions of either anarchist utopia or hypercapitalist dystopia: in these fictions ethical agents proceed by disentangling themselves, momentarily, from social networks and securing a solitary, semi-autonomous "middle space" from which they can observe and think through their situatedness in relation to the medial flows that shape our collective sense of historical reality. These middle spaces are cognitive, not technological, yet are resolutely material and real. And though these middle spaces may be temporary, the re-cognitions that occur within them can continue to reverberate within the medial flows that inevitably overtake them, a process narrated with great humor in Reed's classic postmodern parody Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.
Federman's figuration of resistant lit as an "antidote" to technocapitalism's spectacular images emphasizes the need for writing capable of counteracting reification, but the ecological connotations of his metaphor suggest a significant shift - away from "radical opposition and critique" and towards more "pragmatic engagement with the world around it" (Paulson 17). The challenge facing literary culture in the cybernetic age is to engage productively with the nonhuman systems - technological, economic, and ecological - that provide the material supports upon which human civilization is grounded. Engaging these systems will enable literature and literary culture to continue to play a transformative role in the world, but the materialist reorientation required won't be easy: material systems often seem (as the current financial crisis underscores) impervious to cultural critique and senselessly resistant to human control.
As systems novels such as Gravity's Rainbow demonstrate, when would-be cultural critics attribute individualistic intentions to the operations of complex nonhuman systems, their diagnostic impulses risk sliding into paranoia. Given the growth in the Cold War era of a Covert Sphere, where actual conspiracies are plotted and clandestine services rendered, paranoia may be a tactic; however, as a look-term strategy it has proven to be politically ineffective, indeed debilitating, for the Left.
Timothy Melley's "Paranoid Modernity and the Diagnostics of Cultural Theory" gauges the limits of Pynchonian operational and creative paranoia as modes of sociocultural resistance and reminds us how fiction can assist us in conceptualizing nonhuman modes of agency.
Similarly, Stephen Schreyer's "Postmodernism Redux" argues that the millenarian "politics of neomonastic withdrawal" practiced by the traumatized communities in postsecular fictions by Toni Morrison (Beloved, Paradise), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Pynchon (Vineland), and several Native American authors (Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Lourise Erdrich), has played itself out and literary intellectuals must not model themselves on the survivors depicted in these fictions.
Engagement with the world, not withdrawal from it is what's needed today. A literary culture that conceptualizes itself primarily in terms of oppositionality and localized resistances is not sustainable. The countercultural dream of building small-scale autonomous communities where like-minded individuals can resist the imperatives of the hegemonic social order fails to account for the world's material complexity, the extent to which we are all enmeshed within ecological, economic, and communicative systems. These systems make us interdependent to a degree that boggles the mind; nonetheless, we must learn to think with and not just against them. The arts and humanities must be as concerned with the "maintenance of systems and structures" (Paulson 21) as with their critique or disruption.
A materialist engagement with nonhuman agency, then, requires a de-emphasis on the cultural constructivism that came to define so much arts-and-humanities activity in the twentieth century and a willingness to take ecological systems as seriously as cultural systems, much as the British stand-up comedian, political activist, and novelist Robert Newman does in The Fountain at the Center of the World.
John Limon's review of Newman's global novel argues that the trope of the personified fountain treats nature as perpetual present, and inasmuch as this figuration valorizes an ahistorical fluidity, ultimately fails as a counter-globalizing move against the legal personification of corporations and the ideological naturalization of free-market economic systems. By reading Newman's novel alongside Naomi Klein's Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate, Limon identifies a key conceptual challenge facing all writers who aspire to represent, explain, and resist the complex economic and ecological processes that constitute globalization: to imagine a livable world system, united by universal values other than endless accumulation, capable of negotiating change while rejecting the allure of timeless solutions that transcend history.
In practice, this materialism entails resisting modern distinctions between nature and culture and instead acknowledging the interdependence of entities, which from an ecological-materialist perspective appear not as discrete things but rather assemblages comprised of multiple integrated systems that are embedded and enmeshed within other integrated systems.
In "Devoted to Fake," Brian Willems dubs this ability to perceive systemic relations as a "thinking of the continuum" and describes how literature - a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem, a John Wyndham sci-fi pulp fiction, and William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition - can train readers to cultivate a being-with artificiality theorized by philosopher Michael Serres in The Parasite.
The parasite, in Serres' systems theory, refers to the noise within a communicative system, or medium, that accompanies every transmitted message. Although parasitic noise, or static, interferes with the receiver's ability to read the message, no transmission is possible without resistance and the noise it generates. Moreover, the noise can be generative, which is where things, quite literally, become interesting. This noise feeds back into the system, becoming, in effect, part of the constantly changing medium, and via this parasitic process, transforms the message as well - sometimes in significant ways. Literary artists experiment with the senseless resistances inherent in language, discovering techniques for modulating the noise in order to generate improbable word patterns, which may self-organize, as it were, into significant formations that can then be deliberately crafted - revised and edited - into comprehensible, re-cognizable, meaningful utterances. Methodologically speaking, Serres teaches us that we should pay as much attention to the conditions in which significant formations emerge - the media ecology - as to the logic of the message itself. In his review of The Liquidators, Burn describes Tom LeClair's novel as "parasitic," insofar as its significance is amplified when the reader can recognize the allusions to a particular American literary tradition: Irving, Faulkner, Pynchon, and Elkin.
Intentionalist critics such as Walter Benn Michaels warn, and reasonably so, that focusing on the materiality of communication risks supplanting the cognitive with the affective, thereby reducing meaningful ideological disagreements to meaningless experiential differences in ways conducive to the depoliticization of the public sphere in neoliberal economic configurations. Meaning, Michaels argues, is synonymous with authorial intention, Michaels readily acknowledges, however, that one's intentions may be unconscious and not fully comprehensible. and for an artifact to be interpretable as a text we must posit it as being intentionally created by an author or artist. Since the late 1960s, there's been a widespread tendency in the arts and humanities to transform objects of interpretation into objects of experience. This transformation occurs when registering different phenomenal effects becomes more important than discerning which interpretation of a text's meaning is true or false. Both theoretically and politically, it can lead to an identitarian impasse in which people's subjective responses to sensory stimuli become the focus of critical interest and trump their beliefs about what a text might mean. How can literary culture get out of this impasse, the so-called "end of history" in which endless discursive resignification effectively becomes a substitute, in liberal democracies, for implementing policies, such as the redistribution of material resources and the wealth they generate, that could alleviate social inequality?
The premise underlying this gathering is that there's no way out of this impasse but through. In response, I posit the punning term "senseless resistances" to connote affective elements in literary texts that resist symbolic encoding and - because of their obdurate senselessness - become ideologically significant and politically meaningful.
Our affective investments, our feelings about the world, influence how we understand and act in it. Ordinarily, we're unaware of the interplay between affect (asignifying intensities and the sensations and sense perceptions they stimulate) and reason (our beliefs about what's sensible or rational). But art, according to Niklas Luhmann's systems theory, is an atypical social system: "Art communicates by using perceptions contrary to their primary purpose" (22).On art's irritating and abnormal relationship between perception and communication, see Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System, translated by Eva M. Knodt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 22-6. Art works by using sense perceptions to make present cognition's affective dimension. The process unfolds as follows: Improbable material configurations, apprehended through the senses, attract our attention to both what and how we perceive, reminding us, creatures of reason, that our embodied sensory apprehensions - both our perceptual awareness and the existential feelings (e.g., anxiety, dread, fear) they provoke - affect how we interpret, understand, and make sense of the world. By intensifying our perceptual awareness, by staging perplexing encounters with compositions that resist immediate re-cognition, art alters the sense-making process by irritating communications in other social systems and, as Jacques Rancière puts it, "redistributing the sensible." When such redistributions of the sensible occur on a large scale, common sense - the consensus about what is prudent and possible - shifts.
Literary studies' preoccupation with literature's political effectivity can be a trap, particularly if scholars imagine self-reflexivity, understood as a critical distance toward one's subject position and critical judgments, to be a mode of political resistance. Literature inevitably falls short when it's evaluated primarily as political discourse, and critics waste energy on moralistic hand wringing when they assess fictional texts by the same representational criteria as they would a piece of investigative reporting, an op-ed essay, or a piece of legislation. Fictions, by definition, don't refer to self-same world in which readers actually exist. They project virtual worlds, materialized in words, which readers actualize through acts of reading.
Recent print fictions by two renowned hypertext pioneers, Shelley Jackson and Michael Joyce, revitalize our relationship to ordinary language by revealing it to be an inexhaustible, readily available, and theoretically universal technology for transforming everyday existence.
Shelley Jackson's novel Half-Life, for instance, projects an alternative world populated by a surprising number of twofers, or, conjoined twins. What's uncanny about the book's redoubled figurations of connectedness, Steven Shaviro proposes in "Geek Love is All You Need," is how they subsume distinctions between fact and fiction, actuality and virtuality, words and things. By making present a flat ontology, a Deleuzean "univocity of being," Jackson succeeds at writing a thoroughly postmodern novel about identity - a novel, that is, in which the most productive way of thinking about one's self (or any entity for that matter) is to perceive its singular becoming within a multiplicity of ecosystems in which potential connections proliferate. Enough obsessing about whether to resist or celebrate socially constructed differences (of gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) and their attendant taxonomies; instead, open yourself to the interdependence of life. Observe and experience how humans mutate and coevolve when they interface with other systems, both human and nonhuman, in their environment. Taking thinking down this line of flight, as Jackson does in her fiction and Deleuze and Guattari do in their philosophy, may make it possible to escape from the impasses of identitarian logic and localized identity politics.But does conceptualizing an ontologically flat, interconnected world effectively commit one to accepting the historical inevitability of capitalist globalization, a position espoused in The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman?
Michael Joyce's Was: annals monadique, a novel of internet replicates the Web's dynamism, David Ciccoricco suggests in "A Language of the Ordinary, or the eLEET, but the book's syntactic movement induces "reflective, ruminative, and emotive" states that web browsing cannot replicate. It does so by making perceptible our amazing proximity to foreign languages and cultures, which, encoded in material networks, are all-too-easily overlooked because their online accessibility endows them with an illusory familiarity.
It's more productive, therefore, to be attune to fiction's immanent affects, and when reflecting on the reading process, to consider how and why flows of language become affective. For by tapping into and modulating these affects, an affective criticism can release art's transformative social forces.
Intense, a-moral passages in fiction by Don DeLillo and Brian Evenson, Marco Abel suggests in "Intensifying Affect," encourage a measured response-ability in the face of violence, rather than reactionary, judgmental outbursts.
Literature, too, is an art - a "language art" according to our boards of education - though the art of language is increasingly left behind in America's public schools, where mandatory standardized testing virtually guarantees that no child will develop a literary sensibility in the classroom. Not unless America's teachers resist the bureaucratic instrumentalization of the curricula and teach students, when reading, to be alert to the way a text's meaning emerges from its form.
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you're not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forms that threaten it from outside. In fact it's exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos... (Gaddis 20)
That's Jack Gibbs, the science teacher and failed writer from William Gaddis' JR, interrupting the day's "video instruction" with an impromptu lecture on entropy. Though Gibbs admonishes his class to "stop fighting off the idea of trying to think" (21), his warning about not believing that organizational schemata used to create epistemic order are structural principles inherent in the chaotic real falls on deaf ears. Gibbs' students care only about which prepackaged ideas from the "studio lesson" and the "reading assignment" they'll be tested on. Reading Gaddis' fiction necessitates modes of thinking that can't be reduced to binaristic propositional statements for standardized tests. Because speakers aren't identified by name in JR, readers must work to attune themselves to the idiosyncratic rhythms and intonations of numerous characters' speech patterns. Distinguishing voices and matching them with particular characters proves to be difficult, since people talk without listening, constantly interrupt one another, and repeat senseless gibberish: technocratic corporate-ese, bureaucratic business jargon, banal clichés, and other forms of verbal waste. Nonetheless, meaning does emerge once readers get attuned to the feel of Gaddis' prose, begin to discern coherent signals in the noise, and re-cognize how these signals form coherent second-order patterns that acquire meta-level significance.
To make sense of literature, readers must feel writing's transformative force, which flows from improbable arrangements of words and syntax that resist being immediately comprehended. Encountering such textual resistances and then struggling to abstract from them an experience that can be articulated in words and made comprehensible is what it means to read - in the literary sense.
To make sense of novels, narratives, stories, and fables, we must feel the friction in fiction.
Again (since repetitions needn't be merely redundant; they can allow us to re-cognize what first appears as accidental as a historical necessity and, thus, are integral to the interpretive process) it would be senseless, literally impossible and hence foolish, to try to make sense without registering the corporeal impact of a text's asignifying sensations. Though these asignifying affects resist being encoded in the Symbolic and disrupt the imaginary sense of wholeness that we humans so desire - and thus are Real in the Lacanian sense - they cannot be ignored. These senseless, yet sensible, resistances generate dissonance, and this dissonance produces cognitive traction, establishing a foundationless foundation from which the thinking mind can posit the thoughts that autopoietically generate the world we experience as reality.
Is this account confusing? It should be, because reality is complex. So, too, are the sense-making processes that generate this reality. Readers and writers of literary fiction, practiced in projecting worlds from words and syntax, know how difficult and demanding world-making wordwork can be. They expect to confront complexity, in literary texts and the systems (universities, presses, libraries, theatres, symposia, conferences, reviews, journals, etc.) that provide forums for staging critical engagements with textual complexity. Fictions present, as the title of this ebr thread puts it, omitting the direct object so as to emphasize the complex process of presentification: fiction's production of presence.
Bernstein, Charles. "Speed the Movie or Speed the Brand Name or Aren't You the Kind that Tells: My Sentimental Journey through Future Shock and Present Static Electricity. Version 19.84." ebr: the electronic book review (14 Oct 2007)
Federman, Raymond. Critifiction: Postmodern Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
---. "Critifictional Reflections on the Pathetic Condition of the Novel in Our Time." Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation. Eds. R.M. Berry and Jeffrey R. Di Leo. Ithaca: State University of New York Press., 2007. 213-229.
Gaddis, William. J R. 1975. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System. Trans. Eva M. Knodt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Paulson, William. Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Intro. Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.