Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Always already"

I once offered a friend a beer for every time he used the phrase in a talk. He only managed two. Others have been more successful. The world record for "always already" always already belongs to Gayatri Spivak, whose introduction to Derrida's Of Grammatology contains at least twelve.

A more modest contender is Stephen Mulhall. His perceptive book about the 'Alien' series, On Film, has only four – but it is very short. Here is the first appearance:
From beginning to end, the 'Alien' films present us with small, isolated groups of human beings framed almost immediately against the infinity of the cosmos. Each individual's inhabitation of the universe appears unmediated by the more complex interweavings of culture and society, those systems of signification which always already determine the meaning of any actions and events encompassed by them [...]

My brief attempts to discover the meaning of "always already" suggest that it is, indeed, always already determined by a certain culture; translation or extraction is virtually impossible.

In one use, however – which apparently derives from Heidegger – "always already" seems to be involved in statements of essence. To say that F is always already G, on this reading, is to say that being G is part of what it is to be F, and, perhaps, that the very concept of an F can be fully grasped only through this connection. That would make sense of the passage above, and of the claim that reality is always already given to us through language.

But "always already" is imperialistic. It finds itself deployed in contexts where it has to mean something else. From later passages of Mulhall, On Film:

[David] Fincher has always already lost [...] faith in the significance of [suspense and fear as] narrative artifacts.

[...] Christianity has always already acknowledged the worst that nihilism can tell us [...]

[...] the generativity of her flesh has always already been exploited [...]

I have mixed feelings about this linguistic expansion. You might expect me to whine about it. But I can no longer do so without hypocrisy. I write in contrition, as someone who has used "always already" in conversation – without irony – and who has been tempted to use it in print. The time of the "always already" is always already here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

89 Pages, 33 Figures

Or more than one figure every third page. Thus begins my attempt to quantify the content of Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees – an endeavour of which he might approve. If Moretti succeeds, future historians of literary history will track its progress to the sure path of science with graphs that illustrate the growing use of graphs over the course of generations, and with trees that display the survival of the fittest branch of literary history – the one in which trees appear.

The book is a paradox. Sold as a "heretical argument" against close reading, it contains not a word of critique. (See, instead, Moretti's "Conjectures on World Literature".) And perceived as a work of brilliance, its principal "results" can seem quite lame:
Graphs: Novelistic genres are born and die off in cycles of twenty-five or thirty years; but we don't know why.

Maps: The geographical or geometrical arrangement of narrated events in the "village novel" was changed by such political upheavals as rural class struggle and the industrial revolution.

Trees: People who read detective fiction like to be given intriguing clues, and preferably ones they could in principle decode; this explains why Sherlock Holmes survived.
Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible not to be caught up in the magic of Moretti's approach, which begins with the brute fact of quantity.
[A] canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows – and close reading won't help here, a novel a day every day would take a century or so…
To know the canon is not to know what people used to read. Hence the need for alternative methods in literary history. The lame conclusions sketched above are really just illustrations of these methods, whose introduction is the main ambition of the book: using graphs to chart publication figures, maps to locate narrated events, and trees to study variation in the tropes that define a literary form.

In each case, the application of the methods is mostly inconclusive. But it belongs to Moretti's charm that he is at once grandiose and terribly modest. As he remarks about his own efforts (in Graphs): "Clearly, we must do better."

The book is very short. (89 pages with 33 figures: only 56 pages of text!) It is compulsively readable. And it is visually beautiful: perfect for "distant reading", though not quite in Moretti's sense.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


An unexpected benefit of myopia is that one can view things with an illusion of distance. For instance: the Chuck Close self-portraits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the absence of optical correction, the graph-paper of Kandinsky blots dissolves into the pulpy flesh of a Lucian Freud.

It is a synthesis of figure and abstraction that is denied to the well-sighted, at least in just this form. The spaces are too small to bring the features into focus – or properly out of it? – by backing away. One would have to stand on an imaginary scaffold suspended in the air some yards beyond the museum walls, which must in turn be made transparent.

Still, everyone does instinctively back away: retreating in awkward unison as the image descends into greater clarity – and others step in to obscure the view. The effect is one of forced or unearned intimacy, followed by distance and repulsion.

Some earlier paintings reverse the pattern: one stands at eye's width from an acrylic or watercolour that is a virtual photograph; from here, the brushstrokes can at last be made out.

More recent works must viewed one by one: a shadowy case of daguerrotypes, and a creeping corridor lined with luminous blue rectangles. They seem to be blank, at first: not so strange in a museum of modern art. But the crowds are staring in; the pictures are holographic.

I don't know how to articulate the point of these Close encounters; but I am sure that they communicate something. Is this an instance of non-discursive thought?

Monday, January 09, 2006

A Recent Letter to the New York Times

This year is the centennial of Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis, during which he explained Brownian motion and the quantum nature of light, discovered special relativity and, as an afterthought, showed the equivalence of mass and energy. The 2005 Year in Ideas [in the New York Times Magazine] mostly offers a range of mildly amusing consumer products and the possibility of selling your forehead to advertisers.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Tolstoy without God

Why resist the conception of art as communication proposed by Tolstoy in What is Art?
Art is that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.
One reason, already mentioned here is that it depends on a facile equation of communication with sharing. But this is easily remedied: what is conveyed when feelings are communicated is a way of understanding those feelings. Nor are we limited to "feelings" in a narrow sense: art communicates ideas of all kinds, ways of taking the world.

A more fundamental objection is that, when it thus revised, Tolstoy's picture "involves a confusion between life and art, even a failure to allow for the existence of art at all."
[This] appears as the belief that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us 'truths' about 'life'.
(These sentences are from C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.)

If the point of art is to provide us with understanding, don't we have to say that literature is best "because it is the only art capable of reasoning"? (Thus John Carey, in What Good are the Arts?) Presumably, philosophy and science are best of all, at least when they are done well.

But these objections rest on a mistake. The understanding conveyed by art, on Tolstoy's conception, is non-discursive. We shouldn't be suspicious of this. To reject the idea of "non-discursive understanding" is to engage in the heresy of paraphrase: the view that the knowledge contained in a metaphor must be something we can express in non-metaphorical terms.

The same point applies to kinds of art: we should no more expect to put musical and visual understanding into words than to produce a discursive translation of John Donne. In the latter case, it may be tempting – but still hopeless. In the case of music, discursive expression is obviously limited. We reach for metaphors, and even these fall short. Tolstoy's conception does not imply that discursive literature is best.

It does neglect "the all-confusing concept of beauty", and deliberately so. But even this point can be exaggerated. Tolstoy's picture need not ignore mode of expression, or style. Rather, it presents these things as means: tools deployed in the communication of feelings or ideas. If art communicates well what is worth communicating, it cannot be defective in mode of expression. It must be well-written or well-composed. What artifice lacks, for Tolstoy, is final value.

It does not follow from this that the value of communication is merely instrumental, so that art is to be assessed, as such, by its consequences. It is this further claim that explains Tolstoy's hostility to difficult art, and his notorious view of what is "worth communicating":
[The] evolution of feelings takes place by means of art, replacing lower feelings, less kind and less needed for the good of humanity, by kinder feelings more needed for that good. This is the purpose of art. And therefore art is better in its content in so far as it fulfils this purpose better, and is worse in so far as it fulfils it less.
Since the best feelings are contained in the "the religious consciousness of a given time", the best art must be religious.

We can detach this conclusion from the communicative theory of art if we insist that communication is something good in itself. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: the question "What good are the arts?" is like the question "What is the good of listening to what anyone says?"