Much of what I read in the field of criticism these days is not purely literary criticism or practical criticism in the I.A. Richards tradition, or theoretical critique, but essays which are also fictions, perhaps referring to literary works in passing, in order to reference, interrogate and explore culture: its fashions, its trends, its past and future.
I used to read difficult critics like Theodor Adorno, who rigorously defended high culture against popular culture. I won’t pretend that I completely understood his Negative Dialectics (1966), nor can I say that I enjoyed reading his large volume entitled Aesthetic Theory (1970). But for many decades I laboured under the spell of Adorno’s other works, sublimating my innate orientation towards jazz in order to understand the formal and demanding requirements of classical music. According to Adorno, jazz was sado-masochistic. The jazz musician was rebelling against the father-figure, while clandestinely emulating him. The instrumentalist produces originality and improvisation, only to fall into entertainment and, through poverty or adversity, retreat into the so-called ‘banalities’ of popular culture.
The two poles of rebellion and retreatism represent the very dilemma of melancholia, which left me paralytic at times, but drove and shepherded me at an early age into literature, into the writing of diaries, failed poems, and finally to novels read by only a small number of people. There was a strong critical bent in my urge to write. Failure was always around the corner. I am not at all disappointed by this fate. I have always regarded my writing as parallel to playing an instrument, and while Adorno may have relegated jazz to a lower order, he neglected to note the heightened awareness a jazz musician has of the perils and benefits of art, as well as of its commodity. It is, at times, simply a matter of keeping in touch with a reality that embodies both tasks: those of the writer and critic, of aesthetic resistance and social connection. Any good musician, like any good writer, knows instinctively what is good and what is not. It is always difficult to explain why.
Lee Brown sums up Adorno’s position in this way:
A central concept in Adorno’s aesthetics is autonomy. He likes to say that the function of art is to be nonfunctional. By this he means that art constitutes an immanent, autotelic sphere that cannot be explained by reference to the purposes of, for instance, political, religious, or economic institutions. From another point of view, however, this very lack of obvious functionality returns to art certain further functions. These functions themselves have a double aspect. On the one hand, artworks are able to serve as standards against which life can be measured by proffering in them ‘what in the outside world is being denied’. Further, they are able to mock the system from which they spring, a system in which everything is a commodity. On the other hand, by creating a well-rounded totality, art tends to give the false impression of vindicating reality.
I raged against Adorno without knowing quite why, until I discovered, after many years, that he was actually embodying the paradox of his own defence of the nonfunctional nature of art. A great author or critic is always conscious of the work as a sacrifice to the future of society, no matter how pessimistic that view may seem. Jazz, for instance, was both a form of social resistance amongst black players and a challenge to mainstream whites, reachable only through the commodity of something like swing music. In order to understand this, many musicians had to be both artists and critics. In the same way, writing has a very important function in critiquing both its own origins and the society from which it has sprung. Thus, it is important not only to examine the work, but also the social, economic and historical conditions around its production. This takes in the life of the artist, musician or writer – not merely its biographical details, but the way that life is fictionalised, fabricated and manufactured for consumption. Sometimes the lives of writers reveal how carefully and obsessively they have archived their diaries and notes for the future scholar. Or they reveal how a life may have hinted at a secret, revealing the enigma of production and posterity. For example, I am reading Benoît Peeters’ biography of Jacques Derrida at the moment, and it is telling to see the extent to which Derrida self-consciously formulated his career in his interview with Geoffrey Bennington in 1991, which appeared in Bennington’s book as a large footnote entitled ‘Circumfession’. This text is neither a secret confession nor an early readjustment of Derrida’s writing life, but rather it contains belated reconstructions. It led one reviewer with the unlikely name of Roger-Pol Droit to call it a ‘mixture of shamelessness and cunning’.
As someone who was naturally drawn to the individual lives of writers and thinkers, I was alerted to Adorno’s masterpiece Minima Moralia (1951), which bears the subtitle Reflections from Damaged Life. He was careful not to write Reflections from a Damaged Life. The lack of an article produced the very melancholic effect of objectifying his subject, of generalising his truth, of creating the sociological intimacy of distance. Indeed, on page 41 of my copy, he writes:
Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people. For only as long as they abstain from importuning one another with giving and taking, discussion and implementation, control and function, is there space enough between them for the delicate connecting filigree of external forms in which alone the internal can crystallize.
Jazz, of course, approaches its subject through such spirals. As does some literature. As does good criticism. Criticism exists not to clarify, but to approach. It is a parabola touching a straight line at only one point, in order to guarantee the beauty of the equation.
It is a function of music and language that they evoke beauty and pleasure through a kind of bricolage which represents a reality; it is also a function of music and language that this reality shifts and changes. It is a reality in which the killing of forefathers and the concealment of influences are embodied, in which originary art forms or critiques are mocked. This reality demands some knowledge. Furthermore, it is a mobile reality in art as well as in critique. What we critique in one moment in time may shift, be revised, be seen as outmoded in another time. It is about being convincing at a certain moment, not about an immutable truth.
It is also about collapsing the defences of certain moments, certain Zeitgeists, in order to critique them within the artwork itself. Adorno’s concept of the autonomy of the artwork – that is, the idea that it cannot be explained by references to social, political or economic systems – seems to fall down at this point. In the present era, not only do artworks critique themselves internally with a heightened awareness and irony, but the barrier between art and commodity has been further broken down. One is simultaneously an artist, critic and commercial speculator. Commodity is no longer the target of art in its melancholy retreatism, nor is fashion the butt of critique – in the same way as universities are now no longer bulwarks of intellectual debate against corporate enterprises. As the French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky notes, ‘[t]he past is no longer a canon to be reproduced or faithfully imitated, but merely a realm to visit and to admire aesthetically.’
Lipovetsky takes his cue from Jean Baudrillard, but his book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (1994) has made quite a splash in recent French thought. So much so that it inspired a debate between Lipovetsky and Mario Vargas Llosa at the Cervantes Institute in Madrid on April 24, 2012. While Llosa defended high culture with the suggestion that reading Proust is the commodity of education and freedom for everyone, he conceded that Lipovetsky had important things to say about the cultural present. Lipovetsky argued that Adorno’s negative critique of commodity has fallen away, together with the meta-discourses and grand ideologies of history, leaving the autonomy of art submerged in the realm of the individual and the realm of a positive, fragmented and paradoxical but pacific democracy.
As Llosa says:
In my view, Gilles Lipovetsky is one of the thinkers today to have analyzed this new culture in the greatest depth and with the utmost rigour. In his book … he has expertly described what this new culture consists of. Unlike me, he has approached it without anxiety, without an undue sense of alarm, but with sympathy, seeing in it features he considers highly positive. For example, the democratizing effect of a culture that extends to everyone, a culture that, unlike traditional culture, doesn’t make distinctions, is not monopolized by an elite, by coteries of scholars or intellectuals, but permeates the whole of society in one way or another.
Lipovetsky argues that what he calls ‘consummate’ or ‘total’ fashion allows individuals to become fully autonomous, that this society of the spectacle with its rapid changes and ephemeral fashions creates more consensual societies, paradoxically, through a multiplication of subjective viewpoints, which are more flexible, more self-questioning and fragmented than before, and less likely to end in ideological bloodbaths.
Richard Sennett, in his foreword to Lipovetsky’s book notes that:
To ask people to take a deep interest in each other’s lives is to invite disaster – people are more likely to say, ‘I hate who you are’ than to say, ‘let’s work together’. If this seems perverse, think only of what happens in erotic life, in its many lurches and disastrous turns, its frequent ruptures; a political regime simply cannot afford such jolts, and the only way to prevent them is to make people less mutually engaged, more tolerant because mutually indifferent. … In Lipovetsky’s view, the impersonal is the realm of fantasy and desire, structured in such a way that masses of people can get along with one another, whereas the personal is a realm of social rupture, a lack of connection. … the only way to make diversity work in society is to make people less interested, and so less interfering, in the lives of people unlike themselves.
Needless to say, this was also Adorno’s view, albeit in the form of a separation between high and popular culture.
While I am uncomfortable with Lipovetsky’s easy optimism based on the paradox that fragmented opinion binds people together through oppositions and divergences – for example, he does not suggest that the critic has any role to play in the shaping of taste – what he does point out starkly is the way in which the autonomy of the individual, and his or her immediate sensations, signals the end of traditional forms of culture and socialisation. Modernity is now in the realm not only of consummate fashion but of consummate subjectivity. Witness a term creeping into current usage: the ‘prosumer’. The producer and the consumer are one and the same. The individual makes an individual fashion statement.
It is a view I have come to accept grudgingly, since I began teaching in universities. There is a sense that literary critique based on a set of canonical certainties is giving way to skepticism, to a movement away from literature toward other art forms, to a decentering of the heroic stages of democracy, whether they be revolution, ideology or nationalism. Language is losing out to spectacle. It is the spectacle of easy individual rebellion. There is a refusal of meaning or trajectory in deference to commentary. Note the displays of theoretical cleverness and abstruseness in fashioning critical authority. Witness the reduction of the book review from long and thoughtful essays to quick plot sketches. Observe the shock and awe in cinematic cultures where action must fill every second dedicated to immediacy.
Lipovetsky concedes that:
Nothing now requires self-sacrifice; discourses are open to flexible debate, to correction, to the non-disruptive revision of principles. The fashion form reflects the final stage of the democratization of minds and meanings.
He practises what he preaches. He makes his argument through emphasis, in the French tradition. His references – other than to a few names like Tocqueville, Gauchet, Debord and Baudrillard – are less empirical than flamboyant. He races ahead with what Anglo-Saxon scholars would call a lack of scholarly citation. He uses a broad brush, but it makes far more interesting reading than a ploddingly documented, bricked-up argument studded with footnotes. His writing is in the old tradition of the exploratory essay, more in the style of Montaigne than of some contemporary academic hacks.
Thinkers, philosophers, theorists and critics are interesting to read – although Lipovetsky would not be my consummate example – because they are first and foremost writers. Neither fictional nor lyrical, neither fantasists nor pedants, they bring to thought that element of estrangement and astonishment so necessary for good writing. I am thinking of George Steiner, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag and James Wood. There are many others in this star-studded field. These authors bring a non-specialist dimension to what can be described as difficult investigations. What they all seem to me to do well is to be non-dogmatic, to change their minds, to cross boundaries, to be paradoxical. They are bound by one thing in common: that there is no such thing as intellectual unanimity. They may struggle and denounce or be accused of arrogance, but a critic – if there is such a being that is not also a hybrid writer, a journalist, a provocateur – cannot leave society alone. F.R. Leavis is usually described as a formal critic, yet he also insisted that ‘one cannot seriously be interested in literature and remain purely literary in interests’.
Lipovetsky goes one step further. He speculates that even these readable but difficult monuments to the scholarly episteme are fast losing their sheen as benchmarks. We do not worship at their altars in the same way that ancient scholars worshipped their deities. In reality, he says,
consummate fashion is the driving force behind a more insistent questioning, a multiplication of subjective viewpoints, a decrease in the similarity of small personal visions. The great ideological certainties are giving way before an explosion of individual micro-differences, subjective singularities that may not be very original, creative, or reflective but that are more numerous and more flexible than before. In the hollow space left by the collapse of catechisms and orthodoxies, fashion opens the way to the proliferation of subjective opinions. Nothing would be farther off the mark than to represent fashion with the features of an intellectual unanimity.
This democratisation of culture and of education, one could say, leaves a spiritual vacuum. The critic – whether literary or social, moral or political, specialist or non-specialist – is sidelined. Taking into account the real demise of the humanities, how many would still agree, I wonder, with Mario Vargas Llosa when he says:
Education … must be one of the main instruments through which modern society can gradually fill this spiritual vacuum. But if there’s anything that’s in crisis in modern society, it’s precisely education. There’s not a single country in the world whose education system doesn’t reflect a deep crisis, for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s the best and most workable system, the system that creates on the one hand the technicians and professionals society needs, and on the other fills the gaps this modern society has in the spiritual realm.
Much contemporary literature, as I read more and more of it, has abandoned the spiritual realm for information. The former sounds slightly corny in the kingdom of hysterical realism. At the same time, I notice that criticism also stays well clear of mentioning anything spiritual. Lip-service is paid and romantic drama is played out, but no one, neither critic nor crafts-person, will stake their claim on the spiritual.
What seems apparent on the literature front – literature no longer being high culture but a reference for high culture – is that creative writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is acquiring an internally critical role. While criticism increasingly carries on its own discourses, spiraling into theory and its own inventions – with literature just a wire on which to hang such discourses – literature is taking on the role of the critic, weaving intertextual references, narrative, formal inventions and interventions. Writers like the late David Foster Wallace combine both specialties. J.M. Coetzee brings to his fiction the critical aspects of autobiography, social observation, moral and philosophical curiosity. The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas asks why we write, and embarks on meditations on not writing, written as footnotes. He creates meta-critical fictions that prompted one reviewer to say:
Like some of the works of W.G. Sebald, especially Vertigo, Bartleby & Co. reads like the work of a literature professor who has burst free of all academic constraints to write about literature in an entirely new way. The book is simultaneously very personal and yet deeply concerned with history.
And need I mention W.G. Sebald, whose fictions enter the labyrinths of meta-criticism, freed by Borges and buttressed by Sir Thomas Browne? In an interview with Arthur Lubow, Sebald stated that:
There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived … The business of having to have bits of dialogues move the plot along, that’s fine for an eighteenth or nineteenth century novel, but that becomes in our day a bit trying, where you always see the wheels of the novel grinding and going on.
And in an interview with Robert McCrum he said:
What interests me is incidental writing of various kinds: memoirs, bulky memoirs, sometimes by lesser known figures. In fiction, one rarely comes across real surprises, but in memoirs or in diaries or volumes of letters there are always unexpected things that you could never have dreamt of.
Which is remarkably what Jacques Derrida said to his biographer Benoît Peeters:
Memoirs, in a form that does not correspond to what are generally called memoirs, are the general form of everything that interests me … the wild desire to preserve everything, to gather everything together in its idiom. And philosophy, or academic philosophy at any rate, for me has always been at the service of this autobiographical design of memory.
I am using a broad brush, but I wonder whether literature and criticism – with the demise of grand narratives, of established canons and traditional criticism – literature and criticism have coalesced, as David Shields has said, because of a ‘reality hunger’ in writers and readers? In a review of Shield’s book, Luc Santé notes that:
There is an artistic movement brewing … Among its hallmarks are the incorporation of ‘seemingly unprocessed’ material; ‘randomness, openness to accident and serendipity; . . . criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity; . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.’
[Shields] briefly summarizes the history of the novel — set in stone by the mid-nineteenth century — and that of the essay. One form is on its way down, the other on its way up. The novel, for all the exertions of modernism, is by now as formalized and ritualized as a crop ceremony. It no longer reflects actual reality. The essay, on the other hand, is fluid. It is a container made of prose into which you can pour anything. The essay assumes the first person; the novel shies from it, insisting that personal experience be modestly draped.
Adorno’s estrangement is now turned upside down. Rather than a spiral staircase of approach with the risk of plummeting, critique has now become a ladder of slippages. It is a highly subjective fiction. Less a sign of the demise of the novel – because that is also a vessel into which you can pour anything – literature’s ingestion of critique is a signal not of the return of the essay, because that form had never gone away either, but of the falling away of formal literary criticism, of its discrimination and its practice of distance, of the boundaries between disciplines. The mathematical aesthetics of the parabolic arc have become all but invisible.
Of course, formal distance is not entirely necessary in either literature or criticism. J.M. Coetzee makes the important points that fiction, as well as literary criticism, is autobiographical but depersonalised, and that our only duty is ‘not to lie to ourselves’. In the absence of what could have been previously called a morality of style (perhaps style is also moral for Coetzee), there is now a reality hunger based on ephemerality: a drive for linear autobiographies. The empty self, the existential vacuum, is being increasingly filled by a re-invented autobiography with the portability that is necessary for the mobility of current lifestyles. We now carry a set of biographies, a portable CV, which we adapt to circumstances that require immense flexibility and change.
In literary terms, Lipovetsky’s ‘micro-differences’ signal the buzz of reinvention, the reign of subjectivity, and perhaps the demise of the authority of traditional criticism as the manufactory of taste. Writers are increasingly forced into a makeover. Publishers press for the media moment. One needs to be in the public eye. This makes Vila-Matas’ literature of the no, the art of refusal, the act of not writing, all the more poignant and paradoxical. And while fashion seems to be swallowing criticism, it overlooks the fact that literature cannot be sustained by the market-place alone. While the status of ‘literature’ may appear to be extinct, criticism keeps it alive, albeit in dark corners. My own work would not survive without literary criticism. What critics say about my work is critical and it is a critical loss in terms of my literary self-reflection when supreme seriousness is absent.
I am confident that literature with a small ‘l’ is not dying. What is dying is its aura, which is felt by fewer and fewer, in spite of the fact that criticism exerts whatever it can against the fate of being read by even less and less of those who feel strongly about literature. I wonder if it is still possible for criticism to coin such magisterial sentences, such high jumps for ambition, as the one George Steiner wrote more than forty years ago, when he said: ‘To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.’
This is something that once upon a time could be said by a critic of a great writer. It was an era when greatness still existed. But I wonder if contemporary writers are not already incorporating the idea of greatness into their own works as a sort of strange pebble to be turned over, examined and employed as something from a quaint past, both curious and perhaps infinitely ironic, as a reference to what is no longer achievable or important. Does the test of time still hold? Will any of us be read in fifty years? For a few, what remain are lives that still live, monstrous greatness, memory carried into eternity. For even fewer, the duty of preservation can only be executed through a vertiginous spiraling. Perhaps that is why we write and perhaps that is why some writers stop writing.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (Verso, 1984).
Lee B. Brown, ‘Adorno’s Critique of Popular Culture: The Case of Jazz Music,’ Journal of Aesthetic Education, 26:1 (Spring 1992).
J.M. Coetzee, Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (Vintage, 2007).
Jacques Derrida, ‘Circumfession,’ Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoffrey Bennington (University of Chicago Press, 1993).
‘The Labyrinth of No: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby and Co.’ Vertigo (23 July 2007).
Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, translated by Catherine Porter (Princeton University Press, 1994).
Gilles Lipovetsky & Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘Proust is important for everyone,’ translated by Paul Hammond, Eurozine (16 November 2012).
Robert McCrumb, Interview with W.G. Sebald, The Observer Review (7 June 1998).
Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography, translated by Andrew Brown (Polity Press, 2013).
Luc Santé, ‘The Fiction of Memory,’ The New York Times, Sunday Review (14 March 2010).
Lynne Sharon Schwartz (editor), The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Seven Stories Press, 2007).
David Shields, Reality Hunger (Penguin, 2010).
George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle (Faber and Faber, 1978).
John Whittier-Ferguson, Framing Pieces: Designs of the Gloss in Joyce, Woolf, & Pound (Oxford University Press, 1996).