Complexity enchants ANT, new materialism, posthumanism, media studies, affect theory, and the literary undertakings of postcritique, new descriptivism, and “weak theory.” Its prophets claim as virtue that reality is immanent to itself, that no individual element of a complex web can be said to activate “a more fundamental reality” than any other. There is therefore a propulsive purpose accorded to critics: count up the everything, trace out the complexities, caress nuance, feel the vibe, what is connected to what. When everything is complicated and criticism calls itself to the tasks of phenomenological witnessing and empiricist tabulating, the vocation of criticism to make a cut in the swath of experience, to shift registers to a different order of knowing, is abandoned.
Autonomy names the fact not that artworks are free from external circumstances, but that precisely those external circumstances are actively taken up by works of art in ways that are irreducibly normative.
I offer my analysis in the spirit of a “history of the present,” that is, as an attempt to understand the rise of a non-intentionalist “affect theory” in the light of the genealogy I have charted and to explain why I think the views being forwarded are a mistake.
Do we really need Wittgenstein? It depends. I think that literary scholars today really ought to have a workable understanding of Wittgenstein’s vision of language, for it provides a vital and distinctive alternative to other views on the same matters, views that are widely taught. For the same reason, I think literary scholars really ought to understand Wittgenstein’s critique of theory (or, if one prefers, of certain standard notions of what philosophy is). For a literary theorist it ought to be as unthinkable to know nothing about Wittgenstein as it has been to know nothing about Saussure, or Derrida, or Lacan, or Foucault, and so on through the pantheon of more recent theorists. I wrote Revolution of the Ordinary to make this possible.
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?