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30 November 2009

Sontag and Baudrillard

You'll rarely find what you're looking for in Catford library but you'll sometimes find what you want. In this case, Susan Sontag's long essay Regarding the Pain of Others - a reflection on war photography. It covers questions including the meaning and purpose of war photography. Starting with Virginia Woolf's view, in Three Guineas, that the depiction of atrocities can act to turn people against war, Sontag moves through the fact that the photos always have some drive, and the means of their distribution even more so. The very example that Virgina Woolf uses - photographs from the Spanish Civil War - is a clear example. The photos were distributed by the Republican government to rally support against the Fascists. She move on to the use of photographs, and other memorabilia, as part of the remembering process needed by the victims. There's some astute analysis of how this interacts with political pressures: why is there a holocaust museum in Washington DC but no museum depicting the history and the evils of slavery? She could go further into the question of how much memory and how much forgetting are required, but that's beyond the scope of the book.

And so to Baudrillard. I'm delaying looking at Baudrillard, for no good reason. He's famous for the view that the Iraq war did not take place. I've no idea what the truth of this is. First, you have the hyperbole typical of French theory, which means you have to scale down what's said (like the death of the author). Second, I assume any statement in French would have been something like "La guerre d'Iraq n'eut pas lieu", which for any educated French reader would be a clear pun on "La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu" - the title of a play by Giraudoux, which I have read, long ago, and of which I remember nothing. Third, Anglophone (rosbif) critics of French theorists have a tradition of selecting the most provocative soundbites, to argue that the view is so patently silly, we needn't bother with the details. Essentially, what I'm saying is, I don't know.

Susan Sontag does, and I'm noting her view here for later reference.
According to a highly influential analysis, we live in a 'society of spectacle'. Each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real - that is, interesting - to us. People themselves aspire to become images: celebrities. Reality has abdicated. There are only representations: media.

Fancy rhetoric, this. And very persuasive to many ... It is common to say that war, like everything else that appears to be real, is médiatique

Although Sontag's writing is always simple, those short sentences betray her impatience rather well. She goes on to talk about "several distinguished French day-trippers to Sarajevo during the siege" who seemed to subscribe to the view that the siege would be won or lost on the media battlefield. But:
To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment ..."

When I do get to Baudrillard - and I see his bit in MCT is quite short, so it may be soon - this accusation of neo-colonialism may be worth looking at.

(Quotations are from pp 97-98.)

24 November 2009

MCT: Walter Benjamin

The essay in MCT is “The task of the translator” - originally the introduction to Benjamin's own translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens. Benjamin wrote in German, but that doesn't excuse this sentence:
Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.

In the English, at least, there's an unfunny pun on the meaning of essential, followed by an explanation that explains nothing. The whole piece is horribly written, with huge paragraphs, twisted syntax, and unhelpful similes and metaphors. A key metaphor is that of the 'life' of literary works. In fact, Benjamin is at pains to point out that he is not being metaphorical when he uses the term.
The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.

Translation is a way in which the life of a work is continued; this is one of the reasons translations have to be renewed.

The bulk of the essay, though, is on the question of literalness v freedom in translation. Benjamin separates out meaning and 'the inessential'. In this passage, I think there's insufficient consideration of what those terms really mean. Benjamin show that a totally literal translation is impossible, so then goes on to say that translations serve language – both the source and the target. He refers to the Romanticists' views on translation – he's talking about Schlegel etc – and their view that translations should enrich the target language, bringing in new concepts and terms. I think I have the same trouble with this as I had with Schlegel in Venuti's book.

More worringly, he seems to believe in the idea of a pure language (I think – it really is hard to grasp what he's going on about), a language of forms, of which all real languages are a poor approximation.
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.

Honestly, at this point he seems to me to have crossed the line into the mystical. The wall/arcade metaphor sounds biblical, and the editor's note tells us that Benjamin at this time (1923) was studying Hebrew and considering taking a teaching post in Jerusalem. The text ends with some comments on 'Holy Writ':
in which meaning has ceased to be the watershed for the flow of language and the flow of revelation. Where a text is identical with truth or dogma, where it is supposed to 'the true language' in all its literalness and without the mediation of meaning, this text is unconditionally translatable.

One thing my readings of the extracts in MCT is showing me is that they are only a sketch of the writer's work, often a sketch of a relatively small part of it. I've read some Benjamin before – ages ago, the essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – too long ago to remember anything about it, except the sense that it raised exactly the questions that its title promises. The current essay is also about reproduction of a work, but exactly not in a mechanical way. I shouldn't discard Benjamin's work on the basis of this essay, but it really hasn't encouraged me to read any more.

23 November 2009

Where is the text, and what do we call it?

Time to start putting down some of my own thoughts on questions of criticism and translation. I fully expect that the points I'm raising here will have been dealt with by someone else already, but at least I'll know what I'm looking for.

I've mentioned earlier Susan Sontag's appeal to common sense: there is such a thing as an "original" text. Appeals to common sense always worry me. You've only got to look at McGann to see that Sontag's view is problematic at a very basic level. With long-lived poets, Wordsworth being the epitome, there may be several author-approved versions of a text - which one do you consider original? And then there is the question of assumed typos. With older poets, should you retain the old spellings and capitalisation? With Blake, don't many of the original texts lose something when the illlustrations are taken away? What about typesetting? Even bloggers agonise over the typeface used (obviously I've not agonised long or to any visible effect).

But, finally, after these arguments have been resolved - which I don't intend to try to do here in a general or specific way - the reader has something in front of them. It may be a short poem, a story, a collection or a novel. I think in each case the selection of form will be relevant to the understanding, and it's ok to defer the question of selection from this discussion. Although the reading will be conditioned by the process of pre-editing. Looking at one of the Cantos in isolation is quite different from seeing it in the physical body of the whole collection. Even if you scrupulously avoid looking at any other Canto, you are aware that they exist.

The other Cantos are functionally similar to many other things you know exist. It's impossible to read anything without a context. That context is inevitably different for different people. The Cantos are an acute example of this. Those who know their Homer will get a different experience from those who don't.

George Steiner proposed an ideal of the reader knowing everything about the meaning and associations of the words in a text. It's similar to the Pierre Menard story. But I can't remember if that proposed preparation for an ideal reading included forgetting everything that happened since the object text was written. The context in which we read Shakespeare now is different from what it was even ten years ago. We can't become a contemporary reader. The context has included later works of literature, of course, but also facts of history and science. To take the most facile example, we surely can't read The Merchant of Venice the same way after the holocaust.

So the reading of an object text will change from person to person and from age to age. I would postulate that the reading, as I'm calling it, creates a new object in the mind of the reader. The task of criticism is to record, explain and transmit that reading, so that reading is a new text, new each time. The task of translation is to translate that new text, or a frozen image of it. I think this is why each age needs new translations of the classics. It means that translation can't in any direct way serve the 'original' text.

So: terminology. I've slipped into using the term 'object text' to denote the arrangement of words on paper (or on screen, or on a recording - but let's keep it simple) that is presented to the reader. It's not perfect, but I'll stick with it for now. I should also note that the process of establishing the object text is part of the context. I could go into the extent of context further, but I think I've got enough for now. Then, by applying the context to the object text, the reader obtains what I've called a reading, and I really think I need a better term for that. To call it generated text risks confusion, and so do a lot of other words I could borrow from everyday language. Let's call it the intext then, to recognise the inwardness of it, and to happily accept the associations with intense and somewhat less happily intent. (This is all provisional anyway.)

This is all provisional and I can't believe these considerations haven't been run through the mill already. It stil leaves much of the ground to cover. How would I apply this terminology to questions of lisble v scriptible? I seem to be saying every thing is scriptible, requires the active input of the reader. Is that true? And what I've said seems to make more sense of Zukofsky's Catullus; a modern translation has to acknowledge all the later influences on the translator's reading: the intext includes traces of Shakespeare, Wodehouse and Blyton, though the object text naturally doesn't. Is that right? To be continued.

18 November 2009

MCT: Tzvetan Todorov

A short piece, "The typology of detective fiction", is included in MCT as an example of structuralist analysis. As the editors' introduction says, it is a "cool, lucid and economical expository style - qualities not frequently encountered in structuralist criticism".

It analyses the different types of detective novels, from the whodunnits, at their peak between the wars, to suspense novels and thrillers. It traces the different ways in which the story of the crime, and the story of the solution are mixed up, or not. In classic Christie, for example, the crime is discovered, not narrated; the narration of the event is implied in the narration of the detective's solution. Also the role of the detective changes: Poirot has an immunity from threat, while Philip Marlowe "gets beaten up, badly hurt, constantly risks his life". Finally, a third type is of the suspect as detective: the central character is wrongly suspected of the crime and must solve it to save himself.

It gets interesting when novels break these structures. Todorov comments on The Talented Mr Ripley that although other books have a similar structure, they are "too few to be considered a separate genre". That may have changed since 1966, the date of the essay. And the initial comments on genre fiction as a concept suggests that you might consider defining genre fiction as novels that fit within a genre. It's circular, yes, but it means that all non-genre novels are individually sui generis.

MCT: Jerome McGann

Another extract from MCT, “The textual condition” is McGann’s address to the Society for Textual Scholarship in 1985. I’m not particularly interested in textual scholarship, so won’t stay here long, but it concerns the question of how you know you are dealing with a reliable text; in fact it (disappointingly for me) suggests that you can’t ignore questions of how the text was produced when you are trying to understand it. This has always been clear with Shakespeare, for example, where the Arden editions refer to the various available readings and suggested errors and corrections. But even with later writers, it’s suggested, the process by which a printed text comes into being is significant and can’t be simply left to the drudges of textual scholarship (as I’d see them – obv McGann doesn’t).

The essay closes by looking at the distinction between scholarship and hermeneutics: traditionally scholarship is seen as the drudge work, which provides a basis for ‘proper’ examination of the significance of the text. There’s a reference to ‘copy-text editing’ – a theory in which text editors should separate out accidentals and substantives. Accidentals includes spelling and punctuation, while substantives include the line of thought expressed. The theory says that editors should, by and large, refer to the writer’s manuscript for accidentals, and to later printed editions for substantives. The obvious argument is that this distinction is too simplistic, and that textual scholars ought to be the last people to be taken in by it.

In the middle of the article, though, there’s a reference to Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel, evidently some kind of interactive text, described as “an electronic novel – the first ever published, I understand. It will not be the last.” Perhaps not the last, but the form can’t be said to have caught on since 1985. Obviously such a book would raise questions about the respective roles of reader and writer, where scriptibility is open. But perhaps the fact that such works haven’t proliferated suggests something about the limits of the pluriel. Electronic publication (and of course since 1985 this has come to mean the internet, with even more possibilities than an electronic book on a disk) has provided the perfect medium for such interactivity, but very few people have taken it up. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to me to be doing this, but is maybe the closest. Even in fan fiction, which is probably massively bigger than most people know, the model is of single authors producing, as far as they can, a finished work.

I have spent longer on this than I meant to. I think this may mean that electronic publication is an area I should give some time to.

17 November 2009

MCT: Stephen Greenblatt

Another chapter from Modern Criticism and Theory, I've turned to this one after a reference in Frank Kermode's Pleasing Myself to 'New Historicism', a largely American tendency to treat literature (and everything else) as a pattern of 'ceaseless interreletions or "negotiations" between all manner of contemporary social and cultural practices'. His essay ("On a New Way of Doing History") is about a book by Richard Helgerson and is generally scathing, but Kermode refers to Greenblatt as the 'chef d'école'. The weakness Kermode sees in the approach is that:
since all discourses interract equally you can talk, as for example Greenblatt does, about the relation between the Elizabethan practice of exorcism and Shakespeare's King Lear without assuming that the play is somehow more valuable than Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures.

[Actually, in that discussion, why would you need to compare the value of the play and the declaration?]

Kermode's concern, I think, is that this kind of approach undervalues texts, and that if it is applied to the study of literature, rather than of society or culture more generally, the relativism makes it impossible to recognise the greatest works.

The extract from Greenblatt in MCT is the opening chapter of his book Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), "The circulation of social energy". Greenblatt talks of his initial view that it was necessary to understand the text as fully as possible, and of how that view changed, to accept that the plays are not isolated items, but the work of a whole culture. He gives a lot of time to the structure of theatre as an example of how social energy is created and exchanged. For example, the theatre uses elements of real life either freely (in appropriation) or in real or symbolic trading relationships. So religious beliefs and practices can be simulated on stage, but no-one believes a real religious activity is taking place.

But an introduction is an introduction. The full details of how this approach is applied is no doubt obvious in the four chapters of the book, each of which covers a (loosely defined) genre of Shakespeare's plays. It's clear that Greenblatt, however, somehow is able to say that the plays are exceptional in their power to move and inspire, and his effort is to understand why. I don't think there's any doubt that he appreciates the plays' qualities.

16 November 2009

Susan Sontag

First, a thought about the crazy economics of book publishing. Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag is a collection of essays and speeches from the last 20 or so years of her life. As I've noted earlier, it's a beautiful looking book, and the production inside is just as clean and stylish as the cover. But at about 350 pages, and with no new content, the cover price of £12 is ridiculous. Waterstone's has it in stock at full price, and not included in any 3 for 2 offer. Amazon has it for £8.60, which is more like it, but I bought it from a dealer in Amazon's marketplace for just £3.84 (plus p&p). To make any profit, the dealer must have got it for around £3.50. This is surely a mad, unsustainable business model.

Anyway, I bought the book largely because there's an essay on Roland Barthes. It praises him very highly, but largely despite his theoretical views. Earlier in this blog I looked at S/Z, where you can see Barthes succumbing to a classic narration, despite its lisibility. Sontag more or less argues that he was like that throughout his career; he was an old-fashioned practical criticismist in modernist clothing. I think there may be something in this. As with Stanley Fish, Barthes's analysis depends on many of the skills that people like Richards and Empson valued and developed.

A later piece, "On Being Translated", shows that Sontag doesn't hold with modernist denials of the primacy of the text. In a parenthesis she says:
You will have already noted that I am assuming that there is such a thing as an "original" text. Perhaps only now, when ideas utterly devoid of common sense or respect for the practice of writing have great currency in the academy, would this seem to need saying.

This is from a speech given at a conference on translation. It refers to Sontag's time in Sarajevo, working on a production of Waiting for Godot during the siege. Production was threatened because some people wanted a new translation of the play into Bosnian, to replace the existing Serbo-Croat one. But Bosnian is to all intents and purposes exactly the same language as Serbo-Croat. The call for a new translation was political.

The speech also covers some general points about translations. Unsurprisingly, given the above quotation, Sontag says the translation must serve the original text, but accepts the spread of means in which this can be attempted.

14 November 2009

Margaret Jull Costa

A mention in today's Guardian Review led me to this interview with the woman who's made so much brilliant literature available to English speakers. I think her translations of Saramago are wonderful, in that she creates a wholly believable stream of language, unlike anything anyone else has ever written in English. I love her comment that one of her pleasures is when
a sentence suddenly clicks into place, or when I find the perfect solution to a pun or a proverb (Saramago is full of them). There is, above all, the pleasure of working so closely with a text that it almost becomes mine and of working almost inside the mind of an author whose work I love.
I'd never spot those puns and proverbs, and it's good to have someone trustworthy to pick them up.

13 November 2009

MCT: Edward Said

Edward Said seems to really annoy some people. I suppose you can understand why, since in his book Orientalism he single-handedly set out to define and demolish a view that had been dominant for hundreds of years. I haven't read the book but the extract in Modern Criticism and Theory ("Crisis [in orientalism]") suggests some of the reasons: that orientalist thought defined and limited "the West"'s understanding of the "the East", if only by imposing a single view of a complex area, or, in extreme cases, regarding Islam as a uniform practice across space and time.  Again, "the East" is defined as "different" - the differences define it, rather than any similarities. Said puts it nicely:
What is the meaning of 'difference' when the preposition 'from' has dropped from sight altogether?
It's impossible from this extract to say if Said has proved that something called orientalism exists as the ideology he describes. He could be defining and limiting a diverse body of study and knowledge in just the same way as he accuses the orientalists of doing. I don't know. But some of the examples he quotes show that, surprise surprise, a lot of European intellectuals had a basically racist view of the people of the East. At the root of it there is a dehumanising process: the lives of these people aren't as important as ours.

How does this apply to literature? At the start of the extract, Said refers to a "textual attitude" to life, exemplified in the worst way by Don Quixote. Our reading about certain countries or peoples can but shouldn't control our thinking about them:
What seems unexceptionable good sense to these writers [Cervantes, Voltaire] is that it is a fallacy to assume that the swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live can be understood on the basis of what books - texts - say; to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin.
There's an inherent contradiction in that, which might require some thought.

One way in which Said upset a lot of people was in another of his books,  Culture and Imperialism, in which he dared to bring politics into Jane Austen. The bastard! But in Mansfield Park he finds a gap, a silence, about the origin of the Bartram family wealth. I think that clearly is the job of criticism: to identify the silent assumptions in a work, and to think about why they are there.

12 November 2009

MCT: Frantz Fanon

The latest extract I've read from Modern Criticism and Theory is that by Frantz Fanon, from Black Skins, White Masks (1952 - but not published in English translation until 1967), a section headed "The Negro and Language". This is the first extract I've read in this collection on the theme of post-colonialism. The subject was barely on the radar when I was at university, but reading the essay now, it seems to be making arguments that are hardly in dispute.

Fanon was a doctor from Martinique, so found himself in the position of being highly educated (in French) but not accepted as equal. Even within colonialism he finds a gradation of disrespect: in the French army, for example, Antilleans are considered to be superior to Senegalese, because they are more French, whiter.

He talks about the different valuation given to Creole and French, and how people use their choice of language to define themselves; those who wish to demonstrate a commitment to the old ways will keep using Creole, while those who wish to succeed, and to modernise society in a French model will of course seek to improve and to frenchify their French.

But the colonial relationship makes this different from other language conflicts.
I meet a Russian or a German who speaks French badly. With gestures I try to give him the information that he requests, but at the same time I can hardly forget that he has a language of his own, a country, and that perhaps he is a lawyer or an engineer there. In any case, he is foreign to my group, and his standard must be different.
When it comes to the case of the Negro, nothing of the kind. He has no culture, no civilization, no 'long historical past.'
But he is sceptical about "the strivings of contemporary Negroes to prove the existence of a black civilization to the white world at all costs."

Fanon also is maybe one of the first to point out the insulting redundancy in comments like Andre Breton's view of Aime Cesaire: "Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can."

It's a very nicely written piece, with a lot of subtle content, handled in a style that is, presumably pointedly, far from classical in its sentence structure.

I would say one thing that might have been missed (here - in a short extract) is a consideration of how the 'native' language came to be a creole in the first place; that seems like an act of ethnocentric violence in itself. Perhaps Fanon's work was a necessary first step.

And although I've said most of the ideas seem uncontentious now, you still find people saying why oh why is it all right for someone to call me a Brit, but if I call someone a Paki, I'm the racist.

09 November 2009

On the Natural History of Destruction



Another chance finding in Catford library, Sebald's essay on the response of Germans to the destruction of so many towns and cities by allied air-raids in the second world war was an appropriate read in the remembrance season.

What an astonishingly fair and sane view he has! He scarcely looks at the morality of the raids - that's not the point, but he does comment that after Dunkirk, air-raids on Germany were the only practical way Britain could be involved in the war in Europe, and recognises too that Germany would have similarly flattened British cities, if it could.

What concerns him is that German culture knows that

about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids and 3.5 million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war 7.5 million people were left homeless ... but we do not grasp what it all actually meant.

He then surveys the literature that covers the experience, finding it either superficial or self-serving. Instead, he finds that Germany appeared to have treated 1945 as a start from scratch: people have overlooked the history, including the Nazis and the consequences they brought upon the country. It doesn't seem to have been driven by a sense of shame, but was an act of dislocation: the new Germany has little to do with the old. (I have a feeling there's been a similar process at work in East Germany after re-unification: a failure to consider how the system of neighbourhood surveillance sustained the government for so long. If anyone wants to know how that worked, though, just wait around and look at Britain in 2015.)

The essay started life as lectures in Zurich, and provoked a lot of response, including one from a Doctor H of Darmstadt, whose views are quoted extensively. His view is that
the Allies waged war in the air with the aim of cutting off the Germans from their origins and inheritance by destroying their cities, thus paving the way for the cultural invasion and general Americanization that ensure in the post-war period. This deliberate strategy ... was devised by Jews living abroad, exploiting the special knowledge of the human psyche, foreign cultures and foreign mentalities that they are known to have acquire on their wanderings.

The book also contains an essay on Alfred Andersch, a German post-war novelist. Apparently quite successful in his time, but, says Sebald, hopelessly morally compromised and therefore unequipped to write about the real experience of the country. Obviously, I have not read and never will read anything by Andersch. Reading the essay raises the question of how removed from actual literature literary studies can be. What does come out of the essay is Sebald's view of what qualifies literature to be valued: it's a question of moral integrity that's at the basis. Although Sebald uses some modern techniques of analysis, his judgement eventually comes down to that question. I think that's inherent in his own novels, which, with this new insight into his mind, I am looking forward to reading again.