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The Tank

Forum for comment on provocative new scholarly work

It might seem idiosyncratic to scrutinize such tiny details in such a large painting: Cathedral’s surface area is eighteen square feet, each dot I have discussed smaller than a dime. Yet my purpose in calling attention to Pollock’s small-scale painterly decisions, the evidence of which he left plainly in sight, is to demonstrate his fastidious concern with the integrity of his surfaces. From the perspective of their studied particularity, limiting the use of “all-over” to describe stylistically the putative uniformity of Pollock’s canvases forecloses the possibility that “all-over” might just as well designate the intentional character of every mark. In Pollock’s automatism, everything matters, at least potentially.
Consider looking at that cursive “c” through a microscope, the edges of the dried ink branching out in irregular furrows into the fabric of the paper. Could Dickinson mean that? Could any human mean that? Would ever more powerful microscopes uncover more and more layers of meaning? It made sense to me to think the answers here should be “no.”
In the fall of 1943 Max Horkheimer composed multiple drafts of an essay entitled “On the Sociology of Class Relations.” The essay was intended for inclusion in the collaborative project with Theodor W. Adorno which came to be called The Dialectic of Enlightenment. One indication that the essay was crucial to their project was that Horkheimer solicited several responses to the working drafts including comments from Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse (on the East coast) and Friedrich Pollock and Adorno (in Los Angeles with Horkheimer). Here for the first time is Horkheimer’s original essay in full and in its original English-language format plus five contemporary responses.
Both as intellectual and as literary history — as an account of the relation between the two in the mid-20th century and an attempt to reimagine the relation between the two in the early 21st century — Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015) is an important and original book. We asked a number of critics working in related areas to say what they thought about it, and Greif to respond.
Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.
This brings us back to Jameson and realism. Jameson continues to insist upon the idea of meaninglessness in Zola’s abundant descriptive lists; in referring to the copious description of the cheeses in the shop in Le Ventre de Paris, he speaks of “their veritable liberation from meaning in all their excess.” The pungent cheese passage indeed shows a “delirious multiplicity,” but the cheeses are far from being meaningless or “autonomous.” For what does it mean when it is said that an element of a literary work is meaningless? Can it be true that multiplicity or excess leads to meaninglessness? Or that the moment something exists in the bodily realm, it does not signify?
What needs to be understood about my distance from those debates around affect polemics is that I still believe in the binary opposition, and am in that sense, I guess, some kind of structuralist Hegelian, or better still, that I include Hegel in Marx and structuralism in the dialectic. “Oppositions without positive terms”: such was Saussure’s great formula, his reinvention of the dialectic on a linguistic basis. Concepts do not exist in isolation, they are defined by their opposites: it is a dialectical lesson as well as a structuralist one, and in the best of worlds the latter should lead back to the former, which it reinvents in a new and contemporary way.
I don’t notice the sky on my way to work. I couldn’t say what colors my neighbors’ flowers are. In fact, I’m not even sure that they have flowers…But if, as Scarry argues, the flowers in books are in constant danger of dying for want of the solidity of real flowers, then what is killing the real flowers? And what is the medicine? The analysts of literary effects from Edmund Burke through Viktor Shklovsky, from Scarry to the latest cognitive critics, have been distracted by formal features, structures, and techniques. The sickness of literary flowers may be a problem for literary technique. The sickness of living flowers is a problem for philosophy. And this philosophy, as I will argue, has been the constant practice of a literature that doesn’t want to imitate life, but to transform it.