Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters
Literary critic David Winters, co-editor of 3:AM Magazine, has steadily developed a style and practice of review that can only be called materialist. Rather than “evaluate” a book, Winters qualifies its relationship to the broken and stultifying world from which it originates–not as an outright transcendence of that world, but as a moment, an effect, of its awful machinery, the gore and rancor of a history that has in many ways forgotten to bear a future. The book as such does not seek to solve the problems of the anima mundi but instead to put them on stage and in motion. So the work of literature, David argues, would not be the archangel of the everyday, but would try to give shape to its devastation, to the series of social splits and divisions whose conjunction make the novel possible, if not, David suggests, also threaten it with obsolescence. By focusing on this element of the book–its immortality and undead texture, its position as both a social given and a reflection of such givens–David has aligned materialist aims with a new form of criticism: a reading of the work as a weapon and not simply a code, and moreover, a weapon that can be trained on both itself and the present in which it is embedded. The following is an extended interview with him. Enjoy.
To start in search of our object, we should define our terms. What would you call the primary task of materialism today? In your review of Representing Capital, you conclude with the following diagnosis:
“To grasp [the shape of global unemployment], gauge it, represent it, will be the measure of Marxism’s power today.”
Earlier in the paragraph you call this contemporary army of the unemployed the “broken byproducts of globalization”—
the other face of the commodity is a life that cannot even be objectified. It occurs to me that perhaps all materialism involves something like a broken byproduct. But I defer to you. What must be—or appears to be—the horizon of today’s materialism?
Part of Fredric Jameson’s argument is that Das Kapital is, on one level at least, “a book about unemployment.” So in Representing Capital he calls for a recoding or recategorizing of capitalism’s “multiple situations of misery” not as matters of “tragic pathos” but as instances of what Marx called “immiseration,” or endemic unemployment. Looked at in this light, they can then be mapped more appropriately, which is to say economically. It’s an admirable aim, and not one I’d want to argue with.
For me though, the “horizon,” as you put it, has to be the hopelessly meagre one of our own existential experience. Here the word “experience” would evoke something similar to what Adorno called “damaged life.” Somewhere in Minima Moralia, Adorno notes that power is predisposed to “triumph even in the most intimate constellations.” I love that line, because what interests me is how what’s “broken,” what the social world leaves soiled, somehow shows up in the texture of our everyday words, thoughts, emotions, perceptions. For me the raw materials of materialism really are the most uncomfortably intimate ones.
OK, now to swerve toward fiction. You conclude your review of Andrzej Stasiuk with the following:
“[…] Dukla is not, after Flaubert, a ‘book about nothing.’ Such modernist moves belonged to the last days of literature, whereas Dukla reunites literature with its prehistory. It is not that nothing happens in the world, but that the novel must eradicate itself if it is to capture what happens. Fiction is threaded over the real ‘the way cotton candy is wound around a wooden stick,’ but once it’s finished ‘there’s only a sweet emptiness.’ What is a novel worth, anyway? Next to a film, a photograph? Precious little, unless it’s no longer a novel, more a ‘magic lantern, a camera obscura, a crystal ball in which snow gently falls.’ At the very moment that Dukla destroys the novel, it comes close to uncovering its condition. What is erased is retrieved as unwritten.”
This is an interesting and rich claim, but I would like you to defend it. Flaubert I think needed to explain himself when he baptized Madame Bovary a book about nothing. The topos of form without content, or which empties itself of content, could no doubt apply to the canonical modernist novels. But I think what he means is that Madame Bovary is the conjunction of two novels: one a content that conditions and is conditioned by its form, and the other a form that proceeds deprived of all content. Flaubert performs a trick or a subterfuge: the collision between the “depthlessness” (you use this word in your review) of pure form and the spurious depth of a narrative—in this case, the 19th century bourgeoisie resulting in a term (Emma Bovary) that cannot be assimilated back into it. This would not seem to be modernism but a sort of “diagonal” term or aesthetic limit to modernism, namely, the cut of a single novel into realist and modernist concerns, into narrative and anti-narrative.
In a sense, the dispute we might stage between Flaubert and Dukla has to do with novelistic or narrative time. For Flaubert, pure form abstracts from the normal relation between form and content—indeed, from the exhausting dynamic of Emma’s love and loss (it is the same in A Sentimental Education). For Dukla, on the other hand, it would seem that the novel itself distances itself, as it were by necessity, from its condition: the real of a history, or non-narrative time as the time of what happens. If I read you correctly, we would call this the novel’s “prehistory”—perhaps its unconscious. The novel is condemned to collapse time into space. This leaves us at a crossroads: admit the failure of literature to make its condition appear (Dukla), or abandon this condition altogether (Flaubert) so that the novel is purely self-related. Which side do you take, and why? Or do you see the possibility for a third way?
Well, Dukla was difficult to write about. As with all the best books, part of me wanted to protect what I’d read from the claims my review made for it. Critics are all too quick to make literature “meaningful,” freighting it with false positives. But I dream of a sort of duplex movement, where every statement made about a novel manages to put that novel out of reach of just such statements. Maybe Tantalus is my model of the ideal critic. A critic shouldn’t be much more than a tortured ghost who utters impossible words about words. Right?!
Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel the need to defend my throwaway claim about Flaubert. Because you’re absolutely right about Madame Bovary. There was a fashion in Flaubert criticism, led by people like Jean Rousset, where that letter to Louise Colet—with its notion of “a book about nothing”—was read as a sign of some sort of (supposedly proto-modernist) metaphysical idealism. But Madame Bovary isn’t a book about nothing. And modernism had as much to do with “the real” as anything else, maybe more. Anyway, Flaubert’s novel is saturated with social content, even as it asserts its ideal of stylistic transcendence. And it was the social subject matter, not the style, that shocked 1850s France. As you say, it could be better to characterize the book as a “cut,” a transversal line that intersects two different aesthetic regimes.
As for my use of the term “prehistory” in that piece about Dukla, I was alluding to a phrase in Merleau-Ponty. There, “rather than being a genuine history,” the word hints at a more mysterious condition; something in reality and in ourselves that we “ratify and renew” through our acts of perception. So, if a debate can be staged between Stasiuk (or my mistaken take on him) and Flaubert, I think it might be on perceptual grounds, rather than recognizably temporal ones.
Let me explain. Later on in his letter, Flaubert suggests that he wants to write “a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible.” I don’t reckon Flaubert realized that ambition, but still, it may make sense to say that the kernel of it is buried in Madame Bovary.
Almost invisible. Take one look at Dukla and you know it’s driving in a different direction. Really, that book is nothing but an attempt to make a subject visible. I guess that’s why I (slightly pretentiously) say that the novel “eradicates” itself. It tries to arrive at a state of transparency, so that something else can show through. I should note that I’m not talking about a “naive realist” transparency here—not at all. I mean something more extreme and exorbitant. It’s as if the novel advances against itself, approaching its own effacement in the face of “what happens.”
Put it this way: the novel’s prehistory is everything that is not the novel. But once this prehistory is perceived, it turns out to “be” the novel in some fundamental sense. That sounds mystifying I’m sure, but for me it really does mean something, maybe everything. Which isn’t much.
Another idea: perhaps every novel contains a “theory” of the novel, as part of its cache of tacit knowledge. A novel has an understanding of itself, whether it knows it or not. Doesn’t Dukla seem to “know” something about its own necessary annulment? That’s why I’m drawn to such books. I mean, if there’s a Flaubertian theory of the novel it’s one which plans, crafts and constantly posits the novel as a novel. “The novel” as a grand project: the idea fills me with nervous exhaustion. What I can say with confidence is that I’m less and less interested in that sort of novel. I’d rather read a book that wants to do away with itself. Deep down I closely identify with literature, but I also compulsively want to kill literature.
One thing I want to do in my writing is assert the worthlessness of the novel. Not in favour of some other form, but just as a function of the worthlessness of everything.
Let’s turn to the problem that you cited in your last answer: a novel equips itself with a theory of the novel. Over the years a tiresome polemic has been waged in literary criticism: Thou shalt not subordinate literature to philosophical aims, the critic must treat the literary “as such” in its undecidable relation to “theory,” and so on. For my part, I encourage philosophy to use literature as a means or even weapon of explication, as long as it’s honest with itself—in such a case, philosophy is not a type of literature, it should be content with simply being philosophy. But this does not answer the question of how to treat literature as an object of thought in its own right. If every novel, in order to be successful, is marked by a theory of the novel in general, of its aesthetic function, then should the sussing out of this “second-order” literature be the goal of literary criticism? The obstacle here is that the “self-reflexive” dimension of the novel seems to be a spontaneous philosophy. In short, and sorry for digressing, what attitude can criticism take in order to do justice to the aesthetic goals of a work?
Here I’d be keen to clarify the meaning of “theory.” If I claim that all novels contain a “theory of the novel,” I definitely don’t mean “theory” as in “literary theory.” What I’m talking about comes closer to what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind.” A theory of mind is just an innate ability to intuit what it’s like to have a mind. That’s all. Anyone who has a mind has a theory of mind. Except for some people on the autistic spectrum, so it’s thought. But the point is that a theory of mind is not the same as a philosophy of mind. It isn’t some intellectual endeavour. It’s a common characteristic of nearly everyone’s minds, embedded inside their implicature.
I’d hate to make novels into containers for some kind of philosophical core. A novel’s “theory” about itself, in my sense, is something entirely untheorized, unthematized. That’s why self-consciously “philosophical” novels so often miss the point. I find Thomas Mann fucking boring, for instance. To burden a book with portentous “thought” is just to prevent it from thinking.
For the record, I tend to find more meaningful philosophical content (or strictly speaking, phenomenological content) in a sentence of Lutz or Schutt, or a line of Ashbery, than in many of the masterworks of “Old Europe.” A work’s philosophy should exist solely in its style, not in its subtext or its range of references. To “refer” to philosophy, in this sense, is to capture and kill it. Perhaps only a work completely purged of philosophy can preserve philosophy in its form, folded away from a world which is philosophy’s opposite.
All of which is to say, I wouldn’t want to treat literature as (in the terms of the question) “an object of thought,” because I think it thinks perfectly well for itself. What’s a poetic line, or a sentence, if not an embodied act of cognition? For me, reading is listening in on literature thinking. Not reconstructing or deconstructing it or whatever, or even “uncovering” it as if it were some sort of secret. Just listening should be enough to begin with.
On your Twitter account you describe yourself as a theoretical anti-humanist, a position that it seems is more urgent than ever to maintain, as it’s constantly in danger of being dissolved into new figures of the human. Where does anti-humanism find its place in the production and reception of the contemporary novel?
As I understand it, “theoretical anti-humanism” found its fullest formulation in the work of Louis Althusser (wife-strangling French Marxist, and an intellectual hero of mine.) When Althusser first coined the term, he intended it in a technical sense. I doubt he meant it to sound as “emotive” as it might.
Importantly though, I’m not a philosopher. So when I deploy Althusser’s idea, I can’t help but let its correct meaning be contaminated by one of my own. Mine is more loosely allusive, more connotative, more “folk-psychological.” I’ll try to explain how these thoughts correlate, and how they shape the way I see literature.
Althusser claims that Marx managed to “break” philosophy out of its age-old urge to regress into anthropology. That is, Althusser’s Marx takes meaningless pieties like “free will” and disproves or deflates them. What he puts in their place is a fiercely scientific attempt to apprehend a “structure in dominance.” This is conceptualized as a set of “forces and relations” that limit the horizon of human life.
However, anti-humanism doesn’t merely mean determinism. Nor is it reducible to an easily derided rhetoric about the “death of man.” This has been borne out by Alain Badiou, for whom anti-humanism serves as a spur to redefine what humans are, what they can do, and what kind of truths they have access to. We should, writes Badiou, “begin from the inhuman” if we’re to touch on the abstract truths that exceed anthropology. In fact, Badiou stakes his bets on a “formalized inhumanism” as the very thing that might make life meaningful.
Will we find a formalized inhumanism in literature? Maybe. Then again, literature isn’t logic, or mathematics, which is where truth finally lies for Badiou. For this reason, I think his readings of literary works risk running into category errors. The crucial question of literature’s “literariness” does seem somewhat elided by Badiou’s blunt instruments.
Here I’ll resort to my own, less intellectual form of “lived” anti-humanism. Let me say, without meaning to be melodramatic, that I’m not happy with my life. Not only that, but I’m not happy with other people’s lives either. And it makes me unhappy to see other people being happy in ways I’m not happy with. Given this ugly truth about me, maybe I’m drawn to Althusser’s thought by nothing more than my own non-philosophical, “experiential” appreciation of its capacity to crush human flourishing. Call me the worst kind of nihilist, although that won’t solve anything. Naming nihilism when you see it doesn’t solve the problem it poses.
Since this is so, it’s no surprise that I look for similar sorts of negation in literature. And I don’t see anti-humanism as an “approach” to literature, so much as a quality or condition of it. I’m not simply saying that I admire writers whose work appears to exceed or annul humanity. My point (and I’m an essentialist, in this sense) is that literature is “literary” insofar as it is, in itself, “against the world, against life,” to quote Houllebecq.
We can rephrase this in more rigorous terms if we wish, with a quantitative language of scales and magnitudes. For example, what does it mean that the total set of extant literary texts can’t be read in the course of a lifetime? Isn’t this a truly crushing thought? One which, as Nietzsche said of eternal recurrence, we can barely begin to be equal to? What’s more, couldn’t we further complicate the problem of “counting” literature by introducing a vector space full of virtual works that haven’t been written? If I claim that life can’t match the measure of the total library, I’m not dealing in dead Borgesian metaphors. I think there’s something beautifully but brutally excessive—put simply, something sublime—about literature’s materiality.
OK, so there’s a lot here to remark on, especially this sublimity of the literary archive. As Kant says introducing the sublime, “The sublime is that which is absolutely large.” This is the point at which an absolute quantity (the spurious infinity of space as a task for the understanding)—to give a half-assed assessment of, to me, one of the most important passages in the history of thought—leaps into a qualitative infinity. Much has been said recently about the inhuman, that category which supposedly spurs a rupture with the ideological debate of freedom v. determinism: the result, a science or logic of the inhuman, would then be an “overdetermining” thought which, through a process of negation and autoviolence (a domination of relations of domination, to use the terms of Althusser to which you refer), would give life to a new and specifically inhuman form of freedom.
But I wonder whether literature can pose a new problem for philosophy, or rather clarify the question underlying the ongoing encounter between anti-humanism and what it presupposes as its sparring partner, namely any philosophy that remains ideological: can we inquire into the difference between the inhuman and the anti-human? There seems to be a literature that, rather than flail around about how human life is “connected to” or “in play with” non-human elements (I’m thinking of that unfortunate fart in the wind called “posthumanism”), distinctly positions itself against humanity, against what would classify itself as such in order to—paraphrasing Althusser—recruit docile humanists, those great double agents of capital and the treacherous lingo of justice, from among the ranks of the masses. I group under this strain in the history of literature Melville, Beckett, Flaubert (especially in A Sentimental Education), and surely there are others, but those three have been on my mind these days: authors for whom the human only appears deprived of “humanity,” a human known by face and not by mind, a subject enslaved to an object. Maybe this isn’t so much a question as a request for a response—do you think there is a difference, however slim, between the inhumanity which, Badiou claims, philosophy formalizes on the basis of its real conditions, and this margin of anti-humanity that seems to persist as a strain or virus in literature?
It’s an interesting issue. Yeah, in Badiou’s hands “inhumanity” is a fairly abstract affair, and there are lots of ways in which that formula, that philosopheme, fails to track the kinds of writing you mention.
So maybe it’s more fruitful to try to find a strand, a “strain,” as you say, of concrete, embodied anti-humanism in literature. Like you, I’m drawn to what we could call a literature of subjective destitution; one where subjects are “enslaved'” or erased by an object world that’s arranged against them, like a threat.
If there’s a tradition here then it’s a diffuse one, whose roots run way back. Its genealogy might include Ovid or Petronius; certainly Dostoevsky and Dickens. But its “virulence,” to borrow your metaphor, is probably most pronounced in the modernist period. There, over and against the psychologistic modernism of Woolf and others, I think it’s possible to pick up on another modernism: a modernism of mechanised surfaces; of “wild bodies” (Wyndham Lewis) and “hollow men” (Eliot). In some respects this is a strongly somatic, bodily modernism; but it’s one where the body is radically broken, mutilated. Or, more accurately, the body is automated: its actions aren’t articulated by an inner conscious agency. Something else is pulling the strings.
Automatism, or the autonomic patterning of physical life, relates to what materialists call reification. Can we then conclude that capital is what animates these broken modern bodies? Perhaps. Consider a novel like Conrad’s Nostromo. This book doesn’t contain “characters” so much as what Conrad elsewhere calls “husks of sensations.” In Nostromo, the inner lives of individuals are eaten away by an economic force emanating from the plot’s pivot-point, the silver mine. Jameson is right, in his reading, to isolate this mine as the “invisible axis” of the narrative. Indeed, the silver is the only thing that appears to possess an incorruptible soul. Anyone who comes into contact with it is damned, debased, reduced to a reified function. So here we have, I suppose, an example of how real debasement is made representable by means of an anti-humanist literary technique.
Then again, the master of bodily destitution has to be Beckett, with his comic array of cripples and unmade men. In Beckett, too, there’s this force that blasts the skin from the bones, the bones from the body, the body from the soul. But Beckett’s force seems far removed from economics; instead, it’s more like a pure force of writing. One of the best things about Beckett is the sense we get, when reading him, that he can’t quite conjure the will to care about his characters. It’s a sharp corrective to all those authors who bullshit about their characters living “lives of their own,” as if they were their imaginary friends. Writers who resort to those tropes should be shot. Beckett knows that he isn’t encountering entities; he’s arranging agentive units. And that arrangement, that grammatical force, is what animates his characters and also what exhausts them, what wears them down. Beckett’s characters are nearly always injured, often by causes that seem obscure. But isn’t writing itself what has crippled them? In Beckett the history of injury is always also a history of writing. Of course, Adorno claims that Beckett’s “human stumps” show him at his least “speculative”; his most expressive of economic reality. I don’t know whether writing and life can be so easily reconciled, in this case. But maybe Beckett’s bodily violence would be one model for an anti-humanist violence in literature.
I would like you to follow up on the link between automatism and reification and see if, regarding this connection, I can get you to discuss your work on literary criticism as a discourse.
It seems that at the very moment a body is no longer regulated by the sovereignty of an “I”—what you call an inner conscious agency—it becomes broken, cursed, a miserable set of objects. Immediately it becomes a moment within a greater and properly inhuman machinery, a relation that the subject (the “character”) can either attempt to reject and sever (Kafka) or understand itself purely in terms of (the later David Foster Wallace and later Bellow both come to mind). We either find a response of violent refusal, of revolt in the pure sense, or of conservative resignation.
Leaving aside the idea—which I believe you have been approaching—that there is a sort of revolutionary subject within literature, and that this subject is a narrative process (what you call the “grammatical force” of a writing that doesn’t quite oppress its subjects from within it but rather deprives them of a “within” to be oppressed, that cuts out and immolates the inside of whatever it crosses), I want to turn us to the question of literary criticism, which I know is an important one for you. In the introduction to his Soul and Form, Gyorgy Lukacs identifies criticism as a form or medium for the experience of form itself—a form whose content is form as such, whether it is reflected out of art or life (again, says Lukacs). Keeping this in mind, with what sort of task or demand is criticism met—which may or may not be an ethical imperative—with respect to registering the narrative experience of automatism? If this experience of automatism, as Lukacs suggests, is indistinct from the experience of literary form itself, then in what way can criticism present and perhaps help resolve or reconcile (if reconciliation is still possible or even desirable) the problem of the automation of the subject, its containment and decimation by an alterity that pulls the strings? I guess an easier way to phrase this question is—what is the demand placed on criticism with respect to the deadlock that literature finds itself in when the power of writing begins to merge with the power of capital? What can criticism do to either reveal this problem as such or offer to literature a new way of relating to it?
Actually, I’d like to sidestep some of these suggestions! Above all, I wouldn’t want to assume that art makes a “demand” which criticism must answer to. Can’t the opposite be the case? Criticism isn’t merely a mimetic, reflective activity, with art as its point of origin. Criticism’s aim is not adequation; art isn’t entitled to ask anything of it.
The implicit idea here, that criticism “owes” something to art, reflects an unexamined romanticism in our language about artists and critics. Another example would be when we worry about critics “ruining” our appreciation of artworks. Right? I find this especially interesting, since it reveals a certain fear of criticism, which I’d quite like to see critics explore and exploit. Let’s stop seeing criticism as secondary to art, as if it were something parasitical. Why can’t it be predatory? Forget fidelity to ethical imperatives: criticism can corrode and corrupt art if it wants to. Part of me longs for a literary criticism which writers would be right to be afraid of.
I’m being bombastic, but seriously, sometimes I feel like this corrosive force, this nihilistic impulse within criticism (its secret wish to destroy what it can’t create; the thwartedness at the core of it) could also conceal a utopian kernel. Perhaps a progressive criticism would wreck and redeem aesthetic experience in the same movement.
Anyway, this takes us quite far from the claim that criticism should “resolve or reconcile” problems presented by art, or by life. Criticism is partly about prising those problems further open—in that respect, it’s the opposite of ideology. But criticism isn’t some grand revolutionary project, either. In the end, the best way to “solve problems” is by being out there, burning down government buildings, going on strike. Criticism is a weak force, at work in a curtailed cognitive space. What can it accomplish?
To return to the question, there’s a readymade rhetoric with which critics can address the problem of automatism. I’m thinking of the familiar formalist doctrine of “defamiliarization”—that whole Jaussian, Shklovksian shtick, which also crops up in Bergson’s essay on laughter, Beckett’s little book on Proust, and so on. There, literature’s registering of reification has a flipside: a counterforce of estrangement which, while not “revolutionary” in the concrete sense of killing the rich, at least revolutionises literary space, or literary experience. The kind of criticism your question calls for might be one which aligns itself with and exacerbates this estrangement.
There’s some mileage in that. But there’s also some slippage. Surely there’s a sense in which this sort of estrangement—Shklovsky’s östranenie—is less a property of literature than of critics’ perceptions of it. In other words, if you look at it closely, estrangement is an effect of critical argument before it becomes a literary device. In the same way, a lot of the concepts we use to characterise literature are, properly, characteristics of criticism. Maybe literature is just a flimsy façade for a criticism which was always already there. Criticism came first. What happens, then, when we return these concepts to their roots within critical discourse? When we recognise, say, Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt as part of the deep structure of criticism?
This kind of metacritical inquiry yields some interesting insights. For example, an internal, essential estrangement could put criticism at odds with its institutional incarnations. On this model, criticism carries inside itself an excess that can’t be repressed either by the academy or by conventional “literary journalism.”
François Cusset captures this quite well, when he writes about the uses of literary theory. On the one hand, says Cusset, we have theory’s “legitimate” application, as an agenda-setting transaction between professors and students. Theory, in this sense, is about building conceptual consensus. It’s also a way for “soft” disciplines like comp lit to pursue professional prestige. Yet Cusset also detects a different deployment of theory, which can’t be reduced to these kinds of contexts. Sometimes, someone will be naïve or nuts enough to let theory shape their subjective practice, their habitus:
“Certain students, particularly those isolated from their peers and alienated from societal norms, are inspired by a word, a motif, or the existential landscape of a thematic tendency. Conceptual figures and theoretical allegories, encountered during bookish wanderings, become markers, fetishes, or refrains of a countercreed. Their link to theory is not grounded in the mediating institution, or in a career project, but rather in a fear or sense of mystery, a prerational aura…”
I suppose I’m citing this because I count myself among those sick souls for whom theory has served as a life support. But my point, if I have one, is that I can’t bring myself to be programmatic about the task or purpose of criticism. Perhaps it’s time we abandoned that path. Let’s retrieve criticism’s prerational aura, remembering that it’s at least as rich and strange as the “literature” it lets us believe in. Let’s admit that we don’t know what criticism is, and then let’s see where it leads us.
So if criticism does not respond to a demand, then it is not heteronomous but subject only to itself. Criticism would be a discourse without relation to its object; this object, the literary, would be an immanent reflection posited as external and heterogeneous, but really and simply a reflexive determination of criticism itself. We might say that literature is the self-effacing object of criticism, its object whose total existence is the mark of its vanishing. So perhaps a materialist criticism needs to begin to defile and, as you say, humiliate literature because it cannot touch it—because, for it, literature is not. In its stead we find a formal aperture, a hole that invokes what has gone away, that allows criticism to begin. What is in question would then be a discourse that has lost its object. But because literature is already a loss—a loss of the world, at the site of representation—criticism could be called the loss of a loss, the loss of what itself already annihilates the world on whose border it hangs. This is where I find the utopian kernel in criticism, that it can lose the loss of which literature is culpable: the loss of the everyday object, that stagnant dumb stuff which modernism once tried to recuperate by convincing itself that the object already and always is marked by art. It is only through this double loss that a new object, an object beyond the literary Ding, can be brought to bear upon thought—not the form already contained in the mundane but the mundanity of literary form itself. Perhaps this is the content of the commodity-form: that no form any longer has content, that the world as such no longer exists, if it ever did, that the apocalypse of objects has already occurred and that history no longer has beginning nor end nor direction. If you want to offer a response to this, please be my guest, but I don’t expect you to.
I’ll just ask one final question: Does criticism then have an internal imperative or Idea, or is criticism precisely the discourse that is able to articulate the non-existence of all Ideas, the ideological character of all imperatives?
And do you want to expound a little on the thesis and thrust of your book, and maybe talk a little about some of the authors you’re using, and what you find valuable in them?
Criticism as the loss of a loss. I like that, and I admire your ability to salvage a shred of dialectical progress from the bleak picture we’ve painted! If you’re right, then the movement of criticism might correlate with what Nishitani Keiji has called the “self-overcoming of nihilism.” The critical project could then be conceived as a kind of poetic volta, or what mathematicians call a “zero crossing”—an operation in which loss produces paradoxical gain. And to answer your question, if criticism is capable of an “internal imperative,” I think this would be a worthwhile one.
But these things must remain merely speculative, for me. We spoke at the start about “horizons.” Mine are narrow, and the event of dialectical fulfilment—the revolutionary recognition of a “new object,” as you’ve outlined it—will always be beyond them. Maybe that’s for the best, because I believe criticism should stop short of redemption. It’s our duty not to stray too far from a world where promises stay broken, hopes ruined: to stick to the bad side of history.
So I’d say, stay at the negative pole of the dialectic: better a black vacuum than some spurious plenum. I suppose the book (or more honestly, essay) I’m writing reflects this perspective. I’ve often felt that if I engage in intellectual work, I’d like it to be destructive, not falsely productive. I’ll take care of the barbarism, and leave the rebuilding to others. By now, I know what I’m good for.
Broadly, the book is an attempt at metacriticism; a criticism of criticism. The thesis is that the history of criticism, and of academic criticism in particular, can be recast as a history of failed bids for legitimacy. From Leavisite Cambridge to the Yale School, lit crit always attempts to evade its inner emptiness, seeking the status of a “serious” discipline—a status I argue it can never attain. So the book is a bid to debunk, deflate and debase criticism’s claims to coherence. It’s a demolition job.
Recently I’ve been reading pretty deeply in a field known as the “new sociology of ideas.” I’m drawing on a lot of that work, but my own approach is cruder, of course, and less measured. My preferred method is part thought experiment, part vandalism. I want to use sociology as a weapon; a murder weapon, if you like. What happens when we take crucial case studies in criticism and subject them to a maximally reductive sociological analysis? How much of the so-called “content” of canonical critical readings will survive, when redescribed in terms of the career strategies of intellectuals, or of underlying institutional transformations, like the professionalization of academic labour?
When intellectuals refer to “reductionism,” they only do so pejoratively. But I see reduction as a rhetorical tactic which, if exercised with the right degree of aggression, can result in revelation. As materialists, whenever we see crises we should work to worsen them. Properly deployed, a weaponized sociology could aggravate the current “crisis of the humanities” in ways that would clear the ground for new forms of thought. I’m not “against” the humanities, but it stirs me to see their strength tested. Sometimes the truest way to love something is to attack it, to kick it while it’s down.
Of course I can’t, but if only I could, I’d love to kill off literary criticism as we know it. But what would be left in its wake? What would another kind of criticism look like? Well, maybe that quote from Cusset shows the way: criticism will be renewed by being disembedded, deligitimized, deinstitutionalized. Some say this is where the web could come in. I’m not sure I’m so optimistic. Whatever the case, I’m convinced that criticism must commit to its own incompleteness. What is literature, and why do I try to write about it? I don’t know. Likewise, I don’t know why I go on living, most of the time. But this not knowing is precisely what I want to preserve. As readers, the closest way we can engage with a literary work is to protect its indeterminacy; to return ourselves and it to a place that precludes complete recognition. Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.
David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, The Quarterly Conversation and others. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine, and lives in Cambridge, England. David’s Twitter can be found here.