How to Write the Present Without Irony: Immanent Critique in Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy
How to Write the Present Without Irony: Immanent Critique in Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy
Contrasting Lynne Tillman’s text with the “complicitous critique” of Donald Barthelme and other postmodern ironists, Sue-Im Lee argues that Tillman’s narration displays the “mobility” of Adornian cultural criticism, in which contradiction is not a problem but a mode of interrogating the present.
“[T]he time we live in is a problem” (American Genius, A Comedy 9)
The time. The time we live in. Locked in time. Locked in the present. I begin the way the narrator of American Genius, A Comedy (2006) might begin, to stumble onto a turn of phrasing and inexorably follow the proliferation of usual, familiar, and trite things people say. Things people say. Why is that interesting? Why is that the recurring topic in Tillman’s novels? Because the things people say is Tillman’s access to the present, to the time we live in, to the sensibility of the present. Sensibility of the present. How can anyone access the sensibility - the emotional consciousness - of the present? Yet this is the challenge taken up by the theory and practice of “contemporary fiction,” the category of fiction whose distinguishing feature is its unique relationship to its current moment, rather than to its past or future. So the grandiosity of Tillman’s venture is not unique, given that it is a grandiosity shared by the very premise of contemporary fiction. What is unique is the way Tillman’s fictions access the sensibility of her current moment through a study of the things people say, and how that access offers a non-ironical study, what I call an immanent criticism, of the late-20th, early-21st century American contemporaneity.
Unquestionably, the things people say proliferate in Tillman’s novels: gender stereotypes and conventional wisdom about girlhood, femininity, and womanhood in Haunted Houses (1987); America’s national narrative of individualism, American popular culture of Hollywood movies, pulp fiction, commercials, and stereotypes about American stupidity and arrogance, in the two expatriate novels, Motion Sickness (1991) and Cast in Doubt (1992); and jokes that people tell, from bawdy, racy jokes, to racist, sexist, shockingly insulting jokes, to hilarious, asinine, and childish jokes, in No Lease on Life (1998). This query into the present through the things people say is perhaps most concentrated in Tillman’s latest novel, American Genius, A Comedy (henceforth referred to as AGAC). The first-person narrator, named Helen, resides in a sanatorium of sorts, a place that people come in need of “a long rest and quiet” (125). As her body rests, however, her mind wanders ceaselessly, and the narrative follows the wanderings of a mind whose object of interest is the things people say - to explain their needs, to justify their behavior, to emphasize their vulnerability, to assert their uniqueness - all of which come together to manifest a certain sensibility of the present.
In taking the sensibility of her present as the object of study, Tillman incurs this challenge in AGAC: how can a novel that studies the sensibility of its current moment become anything other than, or more than, an expression of that specific, concrete historical moment? How can a novel attest to the oddities of the turn-of-the-21st-century American temperament and not become another exemplification of that temperament? How does a novel revel in the quixotic mannerisms, habits, and trends of its current moment without becoming a continuation of the very thing it studies? Ultimately, when fiction takes an object as big as the sensibility of its contemporaneity, can it be anything other than a manifestation of that sensibility?
The simple fact is, it can’t - not unless the fictional premise allows for a narrating consciousness that is outside its present. This transcendental maneuver is something that all of Tillman’s novels outright reject - there is no omniscient narrator whose sensibility is ahistorical, no severe disjunction between the language of the narrator and that of the characters, a disjunction best exemplified in novels of naturalism. Whether the narrative is in the third person or more familiarly to Tillman readers, the first person (Motion Sickness, Cast in Doubt, American Genius, A Comedy), the narrating consciousness is one who unmistakably inhabits the same historical moment as the characters. Tillman’s prototypical narrating consciousness is one that is as much bound, locked, and anchored by the language of its current moment as everyone else. Thus, an unmistakable experience of reading a Tillman novel is the experience of having being immersed in the language of the late-20th, early-21st century American chatter; one hears the ceaseless murmur of the mass media, movies, slogans, advertising, catch phrases, sound bites, people talking on the bus, in restaurants, and on the sidewalk.I discuss this topic at length in “Recognition as a Depleted Source in Lynne Tillman’s Motion Sickness” and in Chapter Four of A Body of Individuals: The Paradox of Community in Contemporary Fiction.
But if the narrating consciousness is unmistakably locked in the present, from whence arises the sense of critique so pervasive in Tillman’s novels? By critique here, I don’t mean simply “to judge critically” or “to make unfavorable judgment,” but also mean “careful judgment or observation [in a] nice, exact, accurate, precise, punctual” fashion (OED). Precisely this punctual observation forms the fabric of Tillman’s narrating consciousness in AGAC, and gives rise to two contradictory effects - the sense that AGAC continues the things people say, and the sense that it interrogates the things people say. The ceaseless push-and-pull between continuation and interrogation rises from the fact that Tillman’s study of the present blurs the division between the subject and the object, between the narrating consciousness and the reigning sensibility under study, a sensibility I will call an exceptionalism claimed through vulnerability and injury.
At this point, it might sound as if I am describing a condition ubiquitous to the theory and practice of postmodernist fiction - the rejection of transcendental vantage point better known as “complicitous critique.” Complicity, or the condition of being an accomplice, has been pivotal to influential defenses of postmodernist art which is inescapably part of, but still critical of, its historical moment. As Linda Hutcheon, the leading proponent of this politics of postmodernism, put it, postmodernism “is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine” (4). In describing the narrating stance of involvement and interrogation, of immersion and dissection, complicitous critique seems a perfectly apt descriptor to theorize Tillman’s study of her current moment.
However, the purpose of this essay to show that the term complicitous critique is inadequate in capturing the most unique feature of Tillman’s intervention in her current moment - its lack of irony. As a rhetorical, linguistic, and narrative device, irony surfaces throughout literary history, serving as a distancing technique and detachment. At the same time, irony serves distinct functions in different moments in literary history and requires specifically localized characterizations with each literary period (for instance, the eighteenth-century irony of Swift, Hutcheson, and Goldsmith would be quite distinct from an analysis of the irony of literary modernists such as Conrad and Joyce).See for instance Claire Colebrook’s Irony which traces the different functions and manifestations of irony through different literary epochs. The ensuing discussion thus specifically addresses irony’s critical potential in postmodernist fiction, a point most consistently made by Linda Hutcheon in her theorization of postmodernism and irony. It would not be an exaggeration to say that irony, or the textual signal of a distance between what is said and what is meant, is the calling card by which postmodernist fiction announces its stance of complicity in the object under discussion - whether that object be political systems, semiotic signs, language, advertising, or popular culture. Through irony - “saying something whilst at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said” - postmodernist fiction signals its awareness that it is inescapably involved in that which it takes as its object of study (Hutcheon 1). To the extent that “ironic critique” functions synonymously with “complicitous critique,” irony has long reigned as the temperament of postmodernist fiction, just as foundational theories of postmodernist fiction have been coterminous with studies of irony. Indeed, irony has become the prerequisite disclaimer for contemporary fiction’s intervention in its current historical moment - the disclaimer that it disowns the purity of the innocent, the outsider, and the transcendental vantage point.Certainly, irony is the way postmodernist fiction evades what Brian McHale calls the “catch-22” in theorizing about postmodernism - how to refuse master narratives without formulating one’s own, and how to offer propositional truth without totalizing (23). Fiction can cheerfully - and ironically - gesture at its complicity, while theory cannot, if it wishes to maintain some grounds of propositional truths. Thus via irony, postmodernist fiction can have its cake (make interventions in the world) and eat it too (evade the charge of totalizing, i.e., assuming a transcendental perspective).
In proposing that AGAC intervenes in its historical moment without irony, then, I am suggesting a strange phenomenon - a fictional stance that, like postmodernist art in general, refutes the transcendental vantage point, but unlike complicitous critique, does not make gestures towards its own complicity. The familiar ways in which postmodernist fiction signals its awareness of complicity - irony, parody, non-sequiturs, nonsense, self-reflexivity, and other metafictional strategies - are missing in AGAC. There is no self-consciousness - even wryness - in the narrator’s critique of exceptionalism in vulnerability that dominate contemporary sensibility. Without textual signals of complicity, we are confronted with a weird phenomenon in AGAC: a contemporary fiction that is as immersed in the late-20th, early-21st century American contemporaneity as much as the next person, yet whose critique of the present shows no self-consciousness about its own complicity. In our daily lives, someone who shows no self-consciousness about the contradictory nature of her critique is called disingenuous - morally fraudulent - or hypocritical - assuming a false appearance of virtue or goodness - but neither assessment applies here, because the narrator of AGAC makes no claims to be superior in morals or virtue.
So what conceptual framework best describes this new platform for fiction’s intervention in its current historical moment? In what follows, I explain the non-ironic critique of the present in AGAC through Theodor Adorno’s ideal model of cultural criticism - immanent criticism. Since Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which examines Kant’s foundational use of reason and knowledge according to the assumptions inherent in their use, immanent criticism has been the model of critique for thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Marx. As Robert J. Antonio points out in “Immanent Critique as the Core of Critical Theory: Its Origins and Developments in Hegel, Marx and Contemporary Thought,” immanent critique is “a method of analysis” central to Critical Theory itself. What renders Adorno’s vision of immanent criticism the most fitting method of analysis in my discussion, however, is that more so than any other philosopher or Critical Theorist, Adorno extended the method of immanent criticism to the same cultural manifestations that constitute the object of Tillman’s fiction - advertising, consumption, mass culture, and communication.See Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: “There is no longer any available form of linguistic expression which has not tended toward accommodation to dominant currents of thought; and what a devalued language does not do automatically is proficiently executed by societal mechanisms” (xii-xiii). Furthermore, Adorno’s suspicion of these cultural manifestations in their ability to diminish individuality, autonomy, and freedom reverberate in the way Tillman characterizes the sensibility of the present as a fundamentally homogenizing force.
In using Adorno’s theory of immanent criticism to explain Tillman’s non-ironic intervention in the present, I do not mean to equate Tillman’s late-20th-century historical moment with the particular targets of Adorno’s immanent criticism - the geopolitics of post-war Germany, its intellectual history of idealism which supports the valorization of transcendental criticism, and what he called the “totalitarian disorder” of commodity exchange and reification (23). As Richard Wolin writes in regards to the historical, political, and economic specificities of Adorno’s mid-20th-century cultural criticism, “the presuppositions of his approach to cultural criticism are no longer our presuppositions” (xi). Nor do I mean to conscript Tillman under Adorno’s denunciation of “the culture industry.” Unlike Adorno who made an ontological division in culture between two distinct set of properties - that which is “neutralized and ready-made, such as the culture industry and “traditional culture” (lyric poetry, tonality, realism, and any conventionalized way of expression) that he devalued - and true art (modernism) that he valorized, Tillman makes no such ontological divisions, each with its own valuation. On the contrary, the very stuff that Adorno distrusted as the stuff of the culture industry - popular entertainment, mass media, commercials - constitute the core of Tillman’s literary vocabulary. It is in teasing out the inescapably complicitous dimension of Tillman’s literary vocabulary that Adorno’s immanent criticism, with its disavowal of a transcendent, disinterested cultural criticism, is most useful.
In “Cultural Criticism and Society,” published in mid-1950s, Adorno holds up immanent criticism as a necessary corrective to transcendental criticism (or “external” criticism). A critic who assumes a transcendental vantage point “speaks as if he represented either unadulterated nature of a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior” (19). Such a stance is premised upon an “obsolete” (33) view of ideology as something that is external to itself: “If ideology is defined as socially necessary appearance, then the ideology today is society itself in so far as its integral power and inevitability, its overwhelming existence-in-itself, surrogates the meaning which that existence has exterminated. The choice of a standpoint outside the sway of existing society is as fictitious as only the construction of abstract utopias can be” (31).
In contrast, immanent criticism understands that “ideology is not simply reducible to a partial interest. It is, as it were, equally near the centre in all its pieces” (31). Unlike transcendental criticism which operates upon a deluded vision of ideology as that which is localizable in specific segments, aspects, and interests of society, immanent criticism takes its task to be “not so much to search for the particular interest-groups to which cultural phenomena are to be assigned, but rather to decipher the general social tendencies which are expressed in these phenomena and through which the most powerful interests realize themselves. Cultural criticism must become social physiognomy” (31). In an interview, Tillman describes her venture in AGAC in terms that echo Adorno’s vision of cultural criticism as providing a “social physiognomy”: “I wanted AGAC to expand and contract, move around the way we do, thinking, living, being big and little, generous and petty, and often contradictory” (Stevens, n. p.).
What I am highlighting is the all-pervasive nature of the object in Tillman’s critique of her contemporary sensibility and in immanent criticism’s critique of ideology. Like ideology that is society, the sensibility of the present that Tillman studies is nowhere localizable - specifically limited to a certain segment of society, certain expressions of culture, or even in certain people. Not only is the object of study not localizable, it is indistinguishable from the subject doing the study - the narrating consciousness of AGAC. As the “general social tendencies” inhabit both the subject and the object of AGAC, the things people say become the object of the subject’s punctual critique as well as the subject’s own self-representation. In the dialectical movement between the subject and object of critique, AGAC represents a unique potential of fiction’s intervention in the present - how to occupy the contradictory position of critiquing its current moment while being of the current moment.Further contributing to the usefulness of Adorno’s thinking to Tillman’s immanent criticism is the non-teleological nature of Adorno’s negative dialectic. Unlike the Hegelian dialectic or the Marxian dialectic, Adorno’s dialectic is resolutely suspicious of an essential telos, or the final achievement of emancipation or reconciliation. This suspicion, as I will discuss later, manifests in his own dismissal of the efficacy of immanent criticism for social change. Likewise, as I will discuss in regards to the ending of AGAC, the novel’s dialectic is one that signals the perpetual movement of negative dialectic which does not offer a resolution in the form of a synthesis. In the absence of any self-consciousness at the contradictoriness of her position, Tillman practices a mode of critique that is different from that of complicit critique - immanent criticism in which contradiction is not a disqualifying attribute for a critic of her current moment, but a given. At the same time, a theorization of AGAC’s intervention in its current moment reveals the foundational role of transcendence in not only in Adorno’s theory of immanent criticism, but in the very theory of contemporary fiction.
Sensibility of the Present: Exceptionalism of Vulnerability and Injury
So what is the sensibility of the present under scrutiny in AGAC? It is the sensibility of exceptionalism manifest in the things people say - that they are special, singular, exceptional, and unique because their current moment is more exceptional than any other moment in history. This sensibility of exceptionalism is hardly noteworthy. After all, when has there ever been a time when people claimed the unexceptionality of their present, the startling placidness, the surprisingly soundness of their current moment? On the contrary, like John Marcher in Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” people regard their present like the beast. Like Marcher who believes that he is exceptional because, unlike other people’s lives, something will happen in his life, people believe that more so than other times, the time they live in is exceptional. The reasons for this exceptionalism can be as varied as the various typologies people use to characterize unique hardships throughout history - the typology of the brave and the patriotic during times of war, the typology of the hard-working and the thrifty during times of economic hardship, the typology of the prosperous and the optimistic during industrial boom, or the typology of the adrift and the unmoored during times of political uncertainty.
What is noteworthy about this latest claim to exceptionalism is the unusual justification for claiming it: that people of the current moment are more sensitive, delicate, exposed, and unprotected than people of other times. Nevermore so in history, the thinking goes, has there been so much prospect of harm, confusion, and threat to the individual. Nevermore so have people been besieged by threats from the environment, mass culture, the state, rules, regulations, and especially, from other people. This is the sensibility of the late-20th century, early-21st-century America that Tillman targets - an exceptionalism claimed through vulnerability and injury. As the narrator notes early in the novel, “because of greater sensitivity, many people consider themselves sick, at risk, or threatened” (34).
This heightened sense of being under siege is the object of the narrator’s central interest in the things people say: the way people talk about “intimacy,” how much they want it, how elusive it is, and how they don’t get enough of it (53); how they’ve been mistreated by others (171); how they care about the environment (99); how they love their pets, going so far as to wear pictures of their pets on their shirts (28). An excellent expression of the exceptionalism claimed through vulnerability is the increasing array of foods that people regard as threats. Of her peer residents at the sanatorium, the narrator notes: “There are omnivores, carnivores, dairy eaters, nondairy or lactose-intolerant eaters, fish and egg but no red-meat eaters, vegans, raw-food eaters, lifelong vegetarians, some of whom feel sick at the sight of red meat and others who don’t and everyone claims to be sensitive” (73). These claims of sensitivity translate into ever-more specific demands made on the sanatorium’s cook, making the cook “uneasier, more frustrated by or unwilling to cater to the residents’ demands, since they have blossomed in variety, vociferousness, and even self-righteousness, and she, like the Polish woman [the narrator’s cosmetician], wearies, exasperated” (98).
Indeed, the variety of one’s vulnerability, manifest through the specificity of one’s demands, becomes the mark of one’s singularity - one’s distinction as an individual. No wonder, then, that there is an increased willingness to imagine injury when faced with any unusual encounter, as in the following incident. The narrator relays her memory of watching her father urinate as a child because she was curious about how a man urinates:
But when years later, I told a friend about his urinating in front of me, she contended, her lips tight with horror, that I’d been abused, a word like ‘environment’ whose use is pervasive and compromises my individuality of which I have less and less choice. My father had generously allowed his curious daughter the opportunity to see how a man pisses, when she wanted to know, because she was curious….; and when another person would instantly think that a girl had been abused by seeing her father’s penis as he pisses, though that is what she wanted to see, I thought to myself, but did not say, the time we live in is a problem. (9)
What she criticizes is the exaggerated sense of vulnerability that people harbor - each one in the belief that she harbors it uniquely - and how people derive their sense of exceptionalism from their potential to suffer injury. If the narrator stopped here, the novel would be an insightful and entertaining dramatization of the foibles and pretensions that afflict contemporary culture. And it wouldn’t be any different from the stand-up comedy of “Have you noticed….?” routine or publicly sanctioned curmudgeons such as Andy Rooney. And every reader of the novel could readily add his and her own compilation of the odious things people say, such as “flavorful,” “healthful,” and “going green.”
But if the narrator stopped at a derisive treatment of the things people say, she would be a transcendental critic - someone who “speaks as if he represented either unadulterated nature of a higher historical stage” (Adorno “Cultural Criticism” 19). Such a transcendent view would be based on a treatment of contemporary sensibility as something that is localizable in other people but not in oneself. “The insufficiency of the [transcendental] subject….which in its contingency and narrowness passes judgment on the might of the existent, becomes intolerable when the subject itself is mediated down to its innermost make-up by the notion to which it opposes itself as independent and sovereign” (19). In contrast to the transcendental critic, an immanent critic is one who manifests - and literalizes - the fact that “he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior” (19).
AGAC’s narrator abundantly signals herself as an immanent critic. She critiques the fact that claiming exceptionalism in vulnerability has become the sensibility of the present. Yet in a true immanent fashion, the narrator herself voices this condition of the present - claiming an exceptional state of vulnerability because the present that she lives in is a more dangerous time than any other time in history. Thus Tillman takes the claim of exceptionalism in vulnerability and bestows it literally upon the narrator’s skin. The most consistent mantra running through the narrative is the narrator’s account of her skin’s sensitivity. In winters, “my skin was perniciously dry, my hands chapped so badly that two fingers bled as if I had stigmata, and white flaky skin dusted my cheeks and forehead, so sometimes it was hard to smile, because my tight lips cracked and bled” (131). The wrong soap, the wrong fabric, the wrong temperature, and the wrong care will lead to painful and marring consequences; her skin dries, inflames, itches, peels, irritates, breaks out in sores, and the narrator scrupulously recounts the exacting care that her sensitive skin requires. She regards the Polish cosmetician, who has the final say in the health of her skin, as if she is a priestess of a secret knowledge:
The actions the Polish woman performs on my face, or the messages she gives me, calm me, her indifferent strokes placate me, and sometimes I imagine her powerful hands and arms kneading away the impurities that threaten to overwhelm my system, and in its anonymity having a facial restores me to myself and contradictorily encourages a sense of dissolution into a larger humanity, since all have faces that could be steamed and cleaned, if they had the desire, inclination, or money, though even if they could afford it, some might not want a facial, thinking it wasteful and without redeeming value. I could defend a facial’s worth, were I forced, and if I were tortured, I would tell everything I knew. (51-52)
This scrupulous attention paid to her own sensitivity is an excellent place to ask the question: why is there no self-consciousness about the fact that the subject bears the same properties and attributes as the object of critique? Why is there no awareness over the contradictory position of critiquing the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury as the mark of the contemporary sensibility, while manifesting the same exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury?
This question becomes even more pressing when we note the unmistakable way Tillman broadcasts, from the very beginning, contradiction as a central feature of the narrator’s critique of her current moment. As the novel begins, the narrator, who has been at the sanatorium for some months now, reflects on a recurring topic - the selfishness, hypocrisy, and sense of exceptionalism evident in the things people say, especially when it comes to defending themselves against wrong-doing:
People defend the bad actions of their animals, themselves, or their children rather than face the unsavory conclusion that there is something wrong with the animal, their children, themselves, with the world, and their job is to acknowledge it, even to rid the world of it, certainly not to pretend that it isn’t there, that everything is all right, that they and their animals are good, because they didn’t mean it, and can’t help themselves. Instead they do nothing, accepting the brutality of animals, themselves, other people, and the world, since they believe it has nothing to do with them, they want to think it has nothing to do with them. A slap in the face is not a slap in the face when it comes from them, because they didn’t mean it, because they had sad childhoods, their parents gave away their dogs and cats, their parents gave them away and didn’t love them. (5)
Immediately following this lengthy delineation of people’s hypocrisy is an unabashed declaration that includes the narrator in the description of “people”: “I love my animals. People love their animals, the way they love their own farts and everything else attached to them that is close to them yet not them…. They are sensitive about themselves, their animals, their feelings and beliefs, and other people can go to hell with their dogs, their farts, and their feelings” (5). The subject - the “I” of the narrating consciousness - is one with the object - “people” who manifest self-centeredness, selfishness, and hypocrisy, all in the belief that they, unlike others, are special.
Indeed, the narrator shows that she loves her animals the same way people love their animals, and takes herself to be special as people take themselves to be special: “My cat plays, purrs, bites, and goes for people’s hands. He is a little wild and may become vicious when he’s older, or he may calm down, but I don’t want to have to put him to sleep, to kill him, if he turns vicious and attacks someone” (6-7). As the narrator reflects frequently through her narrative, this is the same “insane cat” who badly “tore” her leg (176). “He might be uncontrollable, wild or just independent, he may always be frightened of people, but he is my cat, and if I imagine him dead or lost, I become distressed, even griefstricken” (183). Like people who explain their exceptional status through their sad childhoods, parents who didn’t love them and who gave away their childhood pets, the narrator repeatedly reflects on her parents who were emotionally distant, her mother who gave away her childhood cat, and who loved her father more than anyone, including her children (180, 158).
As the contradictions accumulate in the narrator’s critique of the things people say and in her self-description, we are confronted with a vastly different way of dealing with contradiction than in complicitous critique. What is missing in Tillman’s straight-faced treatment of contradiction is the root sense of irony: dissembling, which is to suggest a meaning that is different from, and many times the opposite of, what is ostensibly expressed. That is, when Tillman’s narrator expresses her disdain of people who speak of their loveless childhoods, the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of others, their craving for intimacy, and their exceptional love of their pets whose image they must wear on their shirts, she means the disdain. Her disdain, ridicule, and skepticism of the things people say is not mitigated, altered, or reversed by the fact that in the next breath, she embodies these claims herself in her self-description. Likewise, when she expresses her vulnerability over her own loveless and misunderstood childhood, the pets that were suddenly taken away, her vicious cat that must not be separated from her, and her skin’s incredible sensitivity, she means it. The truthfulness of her confessions, and her sincerity in believing them, are not modified by the fact that she condemns these qualities in others. So in this non-ironic treatment of the sensibility of vulnerability, manifest in other people as well as in herself, we encounter a most brazen act of contradiction: a critic who is hypocritical.
Let me suggest that the distinguishing feature of immanent criticism, and what distinguishes it from complicitous critique, is that contradiction is not a disqualifying attribute of critique but the central ingredient of critique. Thus hypocrisy is the necessary condition for immanent criticism. Not only is hypocrisy the necessary condition for immanent criticism, hypocrisy attains an entirely different meaning than it does in complicitous critique. Complicitous critique still operates within the presupposition that to be hypocritical is to be morally superior. Hence the ironic postmodernist evinces a heavy dose of self-consciousness, precisely the antidote necessary to dispel the appearance of moral superiority (akin to claiming “I know what I’m saying is hypocritical, but the fact that I call attention to that knowledge absolves me of moral superiority”). In contrast, immanent criticism does not begin with the presupposition that to be hypocritical is to be morally superior. Since contradiction is the necessary condition for writing the present, and hypocrisy the only vantage point for critiquing the present, immanent criticism does not involve itself in self-consciously acknowledging or mitigating the moral effects of hypocrisy. As Lambert Zuidervaart puts it:
[I]mmanent critique is not locked into its object, though it openly depends on the position being criticized. As a method employed with metacritical intent, immanent criticism moves beyond deadlock. Immanent critique becomes metacritique - a combination, often precarious, of dependence upon, and transcendence of, the object of criticism. Because of such dependence, the process of transcending the object takes on the character of self-criticism. (xx)
Indeed, in Adorno’s view of immanent criticism, contradiction is not only a desirable “mobility,” but a “freedom,” for only by bearing this contradiction can criticism itself capture the contradiction inherent in the object. “A successful work, according to immanent criticism, is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its inner-most structure” (“Cultural Criticism” 32). The contradiction emerges from the fact that immanent criticism manifests a constant “mobility” between immanence and transcendence, between subject and object.
At the same time, immanent criticism cannot be simply a resignation that one is a product of one’s historical moment. Such would be a case of “immanence,” a case in which the critic could only be a direct manifestation and continuation of ideology. Instead, immanent criticism requires a “mobility” - the ability to acknowledge the inextricable presence of culture in human existence, while not equating culture with the whole of human existence. Adorno describes this “mobility” as a “freedom”: “Criticism retains its mobility in regard to culture by recognizing the latter’s position within the whole. Without such freedom, without consciousness transcending the immanence of culture, immanent criticism itself would be inconceivable: the spontaneous movement of the object can be followed only by someone who is not entirely engulfed by it” (“Cultural Criticism” 29).
This mobility is what distinguishes immanent criticism from the “alternatives,” which is “either calling culture as a whole into question from outside under the general notion of ideology, or confronting it with the norms which it itself has crystallized - [both of which] cannot be accepted by critical theory. To insist on the choice between immanence and transcendence is to revert to the traditional logic criticized in Hegel’s polemic Against Kant” (“Cultural Criticism” 31). To insist on a fixed condition of immanence or transcendence is to reify those positions. In contrast,
Dialectics means intransigence towards all reification. The transcendent method, which aims at totality, seems more radical than the immanent method, which presupposes the questionable whole. The transcendent critic assumes an as it were Archimedean position above culture and the blindness of society, from which consciousness can bring the totality, no matter how massive, into flux. (“Cultural Criticism” 31)
This argument for mobility continues the topographic (above, inside, outside) analogy that runs through Adorno’s conception of dialectic thinking. For instance, the critical thinker “should be at every moment both within things and outside them…. [producing] a pattern of knowledge which wishes to be more than either verification or speculation” (Minima Moralia 74).A much bigger context for understanding the function of contradiction in immanent criticism would be Adorno’s aesthetic theory, especially his argument for art’s “autonomy.” Here, space constraint limits me to observing only that the “culpability” of art is no hindrance to the critical force of art, since it is the dialectic between culpability and critical force that gives rise to art’s “autonomy”: It is plausible that socially progressive critics should have accused the program of l’art pour l’art, which has often been in league with political reaction, of promoting a fetish with the concept of a pure, exclusively self-sufficient artwork. What is true in this accusation is that artworks, products of social labor that are subject to or produce their own law of form, seal themselves off from what they themselves are. To this extent, each artwork could be charged with false consciousness and chalked up to ideology…. But this guilt they bear of fetishism [their illusion of autonomy] does not disqualify art, any more so than it disqualifies anything culpable; for in the universally, socially mediated world nothing stands external to its nexus of guilt. The truth content of artworks, which is indeed their social truth, is predicated on their fetish character. (Aesthetic Theory 227)
To return to the narrator’s brazen contradictions, then, is to find a platform of critique which does not “insist on the choice between immanence and transcendence.” Sometimes she speaks from a position of transcendence, seeing the foibles, pretensions, and hypocrisies in the claims of exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury. Other times she speaks from a position of immanence, directly bearing the attributes that she critiques in her own self-representation. The narrator’s mobility between the position of transcendence and immanence gives rise to her mobility in the status of the subject and object, generating the “pattern of knowledge” that immanent criticism promises.
In contrast, complicitous critique takes a more familiar view of contradiction - that contradiction is a disqualifying attribute in a critic. It is towards answering this problem - or more specifically, minimizing the import of the problem - that complicitous critique employs irony to signal its awareness of contradiction as a problem. The quickest way to illustrate this difference might be to contrast it to a postmodernist ironist whose fictional intervention in his present most resembles Tillman’s: Donald Barthelme. More than any other first-generation postmodernist writer who took the late-twentieth-century American culture as his object of study (one could also mention here Pynchon, Coover, Doctorow, DeLillo, especially Apple and Elkin), Barthelme’s fiction is driven by the things people say as his primary source of inspiration and critique. His concentrated study of the present through the “leading edge of the trash phenomenon,” what Dan in Snow White calls the “dreck” found in popular culture, advertising, legalese, corporate-speak, fashion magazine, comic books, and television shows, foreshadows Tillman’s study of her current moment through the sound bites, stock expressions, and turn-of-phrasing in the things people say.Indeed, critical appraisals of Barthelme’s study of dreck might be directly applied to Tillman’s own intervention in the present. “What certain persons in his culture believe is natural, Barthelme enjoys showing is artificial; what is presumed to be central is revealed as peripheral; and, most importantly, what is claimed to hold meaning is stripped bare to reveal its status as the product of purely systematic operations” (Klinkowitz 66); Barthelme’s study of dreck shows how “the cliché, the fragment of accepted discourse is always already an icon” (Chenetier 230).Most importantly, Barthelme foreshadows Tillman in embodying the contradiction of the contemporary writer: that the writer who takes the “dreck,” “trash,” or things people say as the object of inquiry is made up of the same dreck, trash, and things people say.
But in contrast to AGAC which wears its contradictory position with a straight face, Barthelme’s fiction signals its awareness of contradiction via irony. When Barthelme takes his favored mode of his fiction - irony - as the topic of his short story “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” it is an instance of complicitous critique in which Barthelme, the subject doing the critique, highlights his complicity in the object of critique - that a writer who loves to employ irony is writing about irony. Thus, when the speaker A. (in one of Barthelme’s favored narrative situation of a dialogue), impassionedly speaks on the topic of irony, quoting liberally from Kierkegaard and Schlegel, these passages are shrouded in the effect of irony, the sense that the ostensibly expressed meaning cannot be taken at face value.
Kierkegaard says that the outstanding feature of irony is that it confers upon the ironist a subjective freedom. The subject, the speaker, is negatively free. If what the ironist says is not his meaning, or is the opposite of his meaning, he is free both in relation to others and in relation to himself. He is not bound by what he has said. Irony is a means of depriving the object of its reality in order that the subject may feel free. (Sixty Stories 164)
The negative freedom of the ironist, of which speaker A. expounds at length, cannot be accepted as expressed but through “doubleness,” “duplicity,” or “multiplicity” of meaning. These are terms familiar in postmodernist critical discourse as synonyms of “dissembling,” the root sense of irony.To the degree that irony functions as a prerequisite element in the culture of commodity exchange, too, such fashionable uses of irony comes under Adorno’s critique of the culture industry.Indeed, the negative freedom of the ironist, as expounded by speaker A., might be said to describe the commodified irony found in mass media entertainment and commercials, in which an ironic stance becomes a prerequisite to signaling an up-to-date, smart, and stylish posture. In such commodified uses of irony, the very gesture of “doubleness,” “duplicity,” or “multiplicity” of meaning functions to absolve the ironist of any responsibility, involvement, or complicity in the object under discussion. Precisely this kind of simplistic, self-serving irony is what Barthelme’s complicit critique scorns.
Another way to consider the difference between immanent criticism and complicitous critique is to return to my beginning observation - that Tillman’s prototypical narrator, especially in AGAC, is one that is as much bound, locked, and anchored by the language and sensibility of her current moment as everyone else. In Barthelme’s fiction, we encounter a consciousness, language, and sensibility that exceeds the consciousness, language, and sensibility of the current moment. When Dan, in Snow White, offers one of his prescient ruminations on the state of the “trash phenomenon,” we encounter a subject who is distinct from the object of critique: “I hazard that we may very well soon reach a point where it’s 100 percent. Now at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this ‘trash’ to a question of appreciating its qualities, because, after all, it’s 100 percent, right?” (97). Dan’s language here - clear, insightful, succinct - is certainly outside the “trash phenomenon,” and his tone is dispassionate, cynical, and knowing. Overall, his very stance is that of a subject who is looking at a troublesome object. Certainly, it is not a subject whose being is invaded by the object of critique.
Another such example of dispassionate inquiry can be found in the “The Balloon.” Speaking of the unexplainable appearance of a fantastically large balloon that suddenly appeared in the city, the narrator of the story states: “There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the ‘meaning’ of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena” (Sixty Stories 47). As in Dan’s comment, there is irony here - a knowing tone and stance that distinguishes the speaker from the object under inquiry. For further examples of Barthelme’s irony that signals the distinction of the subject from the object, one could also turn to a familiar persona in Barthelme’s short stories - the frustrated, out-of-place husband who critiques his immersion in domesticity (as in “Chablis” in 40 Stories), or the disoriented, resentful father who examines the bewildering demands of the infant and the familial routine (as in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” in Sixty Stories). In all these instances, there is a fixed center of orientation - the presence of the subject - whose dispassionate appraisal becomes the uncontested opinion about the object, becomes the final say that remains unchallenged in the text. In highlighting this subject/object distinction maintained in Barthelme’s complicitous critique, I am diverging from Alan Wilde’s argument that Barthelme’s “suspensive irony” bespeaks “the ironist’s immanence in the world he describes” (166). On the contrary, I have been arguing that complicitous critique’s use of irony, as represented in Barthelme’s work, circuitously cancels the subject’s immanence in the object of critique.
“Heightened Perception of the Thing Itself”
So what do you get from a mode of critique in which contradiction is not a disqualifying attribute for a critic, but a given? Certainly, the sense of criticism - “to judge critically” or “to make unfavorable judgment” - is more attenuated than in complicitous critique. For instance, we could not say unequivocally of Tillman’s immanent criticism what Jerome Klinkowitz says of Barthelme’s complicitous critique: Barthelme’s “adversarial stance toward the basis of what his fiction ironizes” (66). In contemporary fiction’s intervention in its current historical moment, I have been arguing, the maintenance of this “adversarial stance” comes at the cost of maintaining its status as the subject, ontologically distinct from the object.
So what do you get from a dialectically adversarial and culpable critique, an alternately transcendent and immanent engagement with the present? Let me suggest that you get a qualitatively different access to the present than in complicitous critique - that if you get more “thinking against” than “thinking with” in complicitous critique, you get a more harmonious balance in immanent criticism, however odd that sounds. What I am calling “thinking with” and “thinking against” is best explained through Steven Helmling’s suggestion that Adorno’s immanent criticism can be thought of as a dialectic between hermeneutic and critique. As Helmling puts it, “A chronic ambition of critique has been to get outside the critical object, to achieve ‘objectivity’ about it, or ‘critical distance’ from it. Both in its Kantian and its Marxist senses, critique has turned on issues of inside/outside; and the pursuit of the inside track has largely belonged to ‘hermeneutic,’ as opposed to ‘critique’ ” (99 original emphasis). In contrast, “’[h]ermaneutic’ sanctions the interpreter’s sympathy, or even identity with the object - precisely the stance ‘critique’ rejects as imperiling objectivity” (99). Unlike transcendental criticism that insists on the “outside” as the only legitimate vantage point of critique, and consequently refuses the “inside” as the contaminated site of “hermeneutic,” Helmling points out, Adorno’s immanent criticism requires “burdens both critical and hermeneutic: making each immanent to the other and, at the same time, making each the other’s critique” (101 original emphasis).
Thus what I am calling “thinking against” resembles the stance of objectivity of critique - when the narrator notes the selfishness, hypocrisy, and claims of exceptionalism in the things people say. What I am calling “thinking with” resembles the sympathetic and identifying effect of hermeneutic - when the narrator explains and justifies, even naturalizes, the selfishness, hypocrisy, and claims of exceptionalism in her own self-representation and self-justification. That AGAC is both a critique and hermeneutic, both a “thinking with” and “thinking against” the sensibility of the time, embodies contradictory dimension of immanent criticism, what Helmling calls “the ambition to get the critical ‘subject’ inside what we might then no longer so simply be able to call critique’s ‘object’ ” (99 original emphasis).
What I am pointing out is the fact that the contradictory basis of immanent criticism nulls any need to diminish the “thinking with” in favor of the “thinking against.” In AGAC, Tillman takes full advantage of this unabated “thinking with” and “thinking against” to enact the central contradiction of the present - that in the exceptionalism in vulnerability, people regard other people as the most desirable source of stimulation as well as the greatest source of harm. As the variety and degree of claims of sensitivity escalate, the most extreme expression of this sensitivity is found in people who claim “Sensory Defensiveness,” in which “most sounds, fabrics, voices, foods, and smells disturb them… . The vexed head cook finds it almost impossible to feed them, since these characters are typically both sensation seeking and sensation avoiding” (130). In a truly immanent criticism, the narrative of AGAC is fundamentally driven by the narrator’s own sensation seeking and sensation avoiding. Like people who talk obsessively about their search for intimacy and their mistreatment at the hands of others, the narrator enacts her insatiable desire for the sensation of other people by considering - for mentally contemplating and examining - other people for almost 300 pages. Her family, especially her mother, the Polish masseuse, her dermatologist, the residents at the sanatorium such as the Count, the Countess, the disconsolate young women, the demanding man, the cook, the teenage boy who assists the cook, and of course, people and their practices in general, come under scrutiny: for the narrator, other people are the single greatest source of sensation.
The depth and intensity of the sensation she seeks in others is best manifest in the series of questions she formulates in her idle moments:
On occasion, when nothing else occurs to me, and it is quiet, as it is this late morning, while I await lunch and nothing stirs in the room but myself, I might ask: Is there a principle worth dying for? Would you intercede in a fight that wasn’t yours? Do you think people get more or less what they deserve? Can you tell a difficult truth? Where does your most persistent hope lie? Do you expect your life to stay as it is? Do you rely on surprise to make you happy? Are you disappointed? Do you keep it to yourself? Do you have many secrets? Has something happened that you’d never tell anyone? Have you ever done something too horrible to mention? How many times? (95)
These are surely formidable questions, questions that would be daunting even when posed by one’s closest confidant. Indeed, these are questions that one could only ask another under exceptional - that is, out of the ordinary - circumstances. What these questions manifest is a “thinking against” - the compulsion to breach the overwhelming mandate, present everywhere in ordinary life, that questions that probe, unsettle, that make anyone “uncomfortable,” to use another overused shorthand in the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury, are off-limits. Only two scenarios escape the mandate against “uncomfortable” questions in the novel - when the narrator encounters the seemingly mad woman roaming around the sanatorium and its nearby town, and when the narrator encounters the Count and Countess, two fellow inhabitants of the sanatorium, in their forest hideaway. The mad woman, cut loose from the niceties of society, barks out intrusive questions about the narrator’s personal life, and the narrator answers them as truthfully as she can, precisely because the two interacting outside the niceties of social convention that upholds the sensibility of exceptionalism (151). With the Count and Countess, too, in the forest hideaway, the narrator engages in a truth-telling game in which one can take turns asking another to reveal a deeply guarded secret. Only in such exceptional circumstances do characters step out of the exceptionalism in vulnerability and confront each other without the ready sense of injury and suspicion. But life is lived in ordinary circumstances, and for the majority of the narrative, the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury reigns the condition social interaction.
If people are the sensation that people seek, it follows that people are the sensation that people avoid, and in the narrator’s squeamishness towards other people, we find ourselves back in the land of “thinking with.” The looming specter, in the narrator’s every encounter with others, is that she will suddenly be forced to know something she doesn’t want to know, witness something she doesn’t want to witness, or feel something she doesn’t want to feel. Her squeamishness towards other people bespeaks the exceptionalism in vulnerability that rules her own life - that other people are dangers to her precarious equilibrium. Her sensory defensiveness requires her to scrupulously assess her movements in the sanatorium - whether to go into the dining room for meals, or whether to attend group functions, in case she runs into people who will disturb her equilibrium. Her stay at the sanatorium is ruled by the “need for flight” from other people (235): “it’s probably good to be with people, not to avoid them, which I mostly want to do” (221). Every encounter is a prospective disturbance, such as attending a play put on by the sanatorium residents: “It’s true that I desire surprise, but my second heart rebels, my intestines twist slightly, and I blush again, for the play might reveal something I don’t want to know or watch” (202). Indeed, the very idea of other people is enough to raise her ire:
Even here, where I’m to rest and move on with my life in any way I see fit, I can’t take a step that isn’t blocked or threatened by others’ opinions or irrational responses, by characters who never admit their failings or deficiencies in their behavior, that their children are cruel, that their feelings can be dumb, that their experiences and emotions don’t trounce everyone else’s and can’t be recounted as gospel, that their dogs are vicious, like the ones who attacked a cat,….that they lie easily and fart, that they cover up and connive and will do anything to survive, rationalizing every sorry action, and those who don’t are martyrs and fanatics, and, regrettably, I have my lapses, remorse flagellates me, it’s my melancholic whip, because I can’t stop. (249)
That the “thinking with” will directly lead into a “thinking against,” as when she confesses her “lapses” into the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury, is the prototypical pattern of the dialectic movement of this immanent critique. In a true immanent criticism, no irony modifies the contradiction: her culpability does not modify other people’s culpability nor diminish her conviction of their culpability. The subject and the object are equal accomplices in the exceptionalism in injury, and that’s that.
And here we get to what could be the unique strength of immanent criticism, or its ultimate weakness: impasse. Impasse, “a position from which there is no way of escape, or a ‘fix’ ” (OED), is the logical destination of immanent criticism, and as I will claim, the final destination of AGAC. Immanent criticism’s dialectic movement from the positions of transcendence and immanence can only go on and on and on. To exceed this movement, or to synthesize the dialectic, is fundamentally to step out of Adorno’s negative dialectics, the central engine which fuels Adorno’s very theory of immanent criticism (not to mention art’s autonomy). “As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of a ‘negation of negation’ later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy” (Negative Dialectics xix). Accordingly, the dialectic of immanent criticism can remain true to itself only by maintaining the continual movement between subject and object, between transcendence and immanence, between “thinking against” and “thinking with,” without one practice or position assuming ultimate supremacy over the other.
Likewise, impasse is the final destination of AGAC’s narrator. The moment comes when she decides that her stay at the sanatorium should come to its end. She bids farewell to a few acquaintances, and returns to her life in the city: her apartment, with its motley furniture that she guards zealously from other people; her “deranged” cat that other people would consider dangerous; her devoted maintenance of her skin; her encounter with a new facial masseuse; her brief visits to her ailing mother who remains as unknowable as ever…. In the sameness of the situation to which the narrator returns, and in the sameness of the language with which she recounts that situation, we encounter an ellipsis (as in trailing off into silence), the sense that the dialectical relationship between the subject and the object goes on and on and on.
Like the presence of unabashed contradiction, a lack of a “fix” is an identifying marker of immanent criticism. To postulate a “fix” to the competing forces that propel the conflict is to reconcile the dialectic, to suggest that the contradiction inherent in the object - the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury - is no longer there by the narrative’s end. In such a scenario, we would encounter a narrator who is profoundly altered by the knowledge of her culpability in the exceptionalism in vulnerability, and who, upon acknowledging the contradictory nature of her critique, would break out of the dialectic between transcendence and immanence. Such a character might be less reverent about her skin’s vulnerability, be less mystical about her masseuse, be less prone to perceive injury from other people, and forge a different relationship to her mother. She would, in fact, be what one would call a traditionally “developed” or “matured” character that marks the conclusion of a narrative. In contrast, the immanent criticism of AGAC leaves the narrator resolutely where she started. This impasse demonstrates the fact that the fictional convention of conclusion, if understood as a resolution or settlement, is fundamentally a break out of the dialectic of immanent criticism. Thus, in observing the contradiction in the sensibility of the present to the end, the narrative of AGAC fulfils this criterion:
[Immanent criticism] takes seriously the principle that it is not ideology in itself which is untrue but rather its pretension to correspond to reality. Immanent criticism of intellectual and artistic phenomena seeks to grasp, through the analysis of their form and meaning, the contradiction between their objective idea and that pretension. It names what the consistency or inconsistency of the work itself expresses of the structure of the existent. Such criticism does not stop at a general recognition of the servitude of the objective mind, but seeks rather to transform this knowledge into a heightened perception of the thing itself. (“Cultural Criticism” 32)
Of course, one may very well ask: if the critical utility of immanent criticism is based on its ability to embody the contradictions in the object, why should we believe that “a heightened perception of the thing itself” will bring about a change? Wouldn’t that belief itself be contingent upon a belief that the contradictions inherent in the present are resolvable, that we can step out of the dialectic? At this juncture in the argument, it follows that Adorno would negate the critical utility of immanent criticism itself rather than risk disavowing the central tenet of negative dialectic:
Hence immanent criticism cannot take comfort in its own idea. It can neither be vain enough to believe that it can liberate the mind directly by immersing itself in it, nor naïve enough to believe that unflinching immersion in the object will inevitably lead to truth by virtue of the logic of things if only the subjective knowledge of the false whole is kept from intruding from the outside, as it were, in the determination of the object. (“Cultural Criticism” 33)
What we are warned against is any hope that our encounter with the object (here, the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury) has changed us, or that the encounter will alter the object or the subject’s relationship to the object. Like the narrator of AGAC who returns to whence she came, the reader of AGAC finds impasse as the final destination: “Immanent criticism holds in evidence the fact that the mind has always been under a spell. On its own it is unable to resolve the contradictions under which it labours. Even the most radical reflection of the mind on its own failure is limited by the fact that it remains only reflection, without altering the existence to which its failure bears witness” (“Cultural Criticism” 32-33). This impasse, as the resolute enactment of negative dialectic, is the strength of immanent criticism. Inversely, impasse is the crowning weakness of Adorno’s cultural criticism, as it announces the critic’s renunciation of the possibility that cultural criticism can intervene in reality. Wolin’s assessment is representative of this view: “The problem with Adorno’s approach is that he prematurely relinquishes the prospects for immanent critique. Instead, his cultural criticism assumes the all-too-aloof standpoint of a transcendental criticism. Among the epiphenomena and detritus of a society of total reification, the critic leaves him or herself without an immanent foothold” (xiv).For rebuttals to such assessments of Adorno’s political ineffectuality, see Posnock and Caputi.
But as a way of offering my conclusion as a resolution, let me suggest that we can attain an alternate significance of impasse if we use an unexplainable gap in Adorno’s theory of immanent criticism. The source of this gap lies in this question: what begins immanent criticism? If “the mind has always been under a spell,” what breaks the spell and bestows the revelation that begins immanent criticism? Tillman in an interview expresses such a revelation as the inspiration for AGAC: “What is sensitivity? Why, suddenly, in the last 20 years, does everyone seem to have some intolerance to this or that? I mean, it’s a fantastic phenomenon. Cruelty doesn’t abate. We may be sensitive about ourselves, but I think people’s sensitivity to others has not changed. That’s something that was troubling to me. I was really interested in whether this was paradoxical” (“City Beat” n. p.). If the subject has always lived in the “social physiognomy,” what prompts her to suddenly find that social physiognomy remarkable enough to critique? Wouldn’t it be like suddenly smelling the air that one has always breathed? These are questions that can be posed not only to Adorno the theorist, or Tillman the immanent critic, but to any contemporary writer who takes her current historical and cultural moment as the object of inquiry. What explains your revelation? How does your present suddenly announce itself as an object deserving of critique?
This unlikely premise is surely the founding premise of AGAC’s immanent critique, as well as the complicitous critique of Barthelme and other postmodernist writers like Pynchon, Coover, Doctorow, DeLillo, Apple, and Elkin who take their immediate historical, political, and cultural moment as the object of critique. When Tillman declares the exceptionalism in vulnerability and injury as a problem, she is not exactly one with the time; in a crucial fashion, she is dissonant with the time, and only from this dissonant position could she perceive the escalation in claims of vulnerability as in any way noteworthy. Ultimately, for Tillman to perceive claims of sensitivity as the defining feature of her current moment, she needs to be out of sync with the defining feature of her current moment.
Thus we return to the condemned word in not only immanent criticism but in complicitous critique: transcendence. Immanent criticism tries to abjure transcendental criticism by arguing that its own “mobility” between immanence and transcendence distinguishes it from transcendental criticism. But Adorno never explains how or why this genesis moment of revelation occurs. Regarding this unexplainable transcendent moment, what Ernest Bloch and other editors of Aesthetics and Politics say about “autonomy” in Adorno’s aesthetic theory is directly pertinent here:
[T]he notion of a residual transcendental subject was structurally essential to Adorno’s thought, furnishing the only point of leverage in a putatively totalitarian social order (and founding the possibility of a thought that could indict it as such)…. No assessment of his aesthetics can overlook this semi-miraculous persistence of the subject in a conceptual schema that posits its complete reification…. [In his aesthetic theory] the production of ‘autonomous’ works of art is little less than magical. (Bloch et al. 147)
One way out of this confusion is to return to Adorno’s own description of transcendental criticism: “The choice of a standpoint outside the sway of existing society is as fictitious as only the construction of abstract utopias can be” (31 “Cultural Criticism” emphasis added). Precisely this fictitious starting point of transcendence begins immanent criticism, as well as complicitous critique. It also begins irony, and if we push further, fiction itself, if we take one understanding of fiction as the exploration of the distance between reality and illusion. Certainly, this fictitious starting point of transcendence underpins Adorno’s theory of art: “Even in the most sublimated work of art there is a hidden ‘it should be otherwise.’ When a work is merely itself and no other thing, as in a pure pseudo-scientific construction, it becomes bad art - literally pre-artistic” (“Commitment” 194).
Thus the fictitious starting point of transcendence in contemporary fiction could be understood through a premise such as the following: “Let’s begin as if I, the author, had transcendental access to the current historical moment and could report the distance between its illusion and reality.” So if the fictitious moment of transcendence begins immanent criticism, might we not extend such a fictitious moment to the reader’s encounter with immanent criticism? That is, might not the reader who encounters “a heightened perception of the thing itself” acquire a transcendental vantage point, albeit transitorily? And might not that transcendental vantage point yield knowledge of the distance between illusion and reality, which in turn affects the reader’s entanglement in the sensibility of her current moment? What I am highlighting is the way the notion of transcendence, as the crucible of immanent criticism as well as of contemporary fiction, allows an emancipatory potential to the impasse that concludes the immanent criticism of AGAC.It is crucial to note that I am locating this interventionist possibility solely in the realm of the reader, and not in the realm of the character Helen, the protagonist/narrator of AGAC who remains resolutely locked in the negative dialectic of immanent criticism. Thus what began as a study of the ways contemporary fiction renounces transcendence concludes by acknowledging the foundational role of transcendence in fiction’s intervention in its present. To be the most contemporary is to be transcendent of the present, and therein lies the contradiction in the object called contemporary fiction.
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