“12 Theses on Fiction’s Present”

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[Posted by BR]

I wanted to recommend a piece I just happened to stumble upon, entitled “12 Theses on Fiction’s Present,” written by R.M. Berry and Jeffrey R. Di Leo (published in symploke [2004], and available online here; and in this edited collection). The piece doesn’t mention ordinary language philosophy, but it seems to me deeply informed by, indeed shot through with, a Cavellian appreciation of the necessary existential risks (and rewards) of literary criticism, especially criticism that would take the measure of fiction being written today. It is a bracing and thought-provoking piece, about a deeply important topic. It often put me in mind of Cavell’s “Music Discomposed,” and in particular of memorable passages like the following:

… the possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic in the experience of contemporary music; … its full impact, even its immediate relevance, depends upon a willingness to trust the object, knowing that the time spent with its difficulties may be betrayed. I do not see how anyone who has experienced modern art can have avoided such experiences, and not just in the case of music. Is Pop Art art? Are canvases with a few stripes or chevrons on them art? Are the novels of Raymond Roussel or Alain Robbe-Grillet? Are art movies? A familiar answer is that time will tell. But my question is: What will time tell? That certain departures in art-like pursuits have become established (among certain audiences, in textbooks, on walls, in college courses); that someone is treating them with the respect due, we feel, to art; that one no longer has the right to question their status? But in waiting for time to tell that, we miss what the present tells–that the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art. If anything in this paper should count as a thesis, that is my thesis. And it is meant quite generally. Contemporary music is only the clearest case of something common to modernism as a whole, and modernism only makes explicit and bare what has always been true of art. (pp. 188-9, in Must We Mean What We Say?)

The following is thesis 5 of 12 (read the rest by clicking here):

5) Professional criticism today is much more comfortable examining fiction’s past and future than its present. Considerations of fiction’s past are enabled by hindsight. Even without critical intervention, history itself widens the fissures in sedimented opinions, providing present consciousness with demystifying insight. And the past has a definiteness that, even when attacked, is reassuring. If one wishes to assault the canon of 19th century English fiction, one may feel outgunned and overmatched, but one need not wonder whether there is a canon. Perhaps more significantly, a contemporary critic can regard fiction’s past as the trace, material artifact, or institutional creation of an alien consciousness, not the critic’s own, and discussing fiction’s future, because inherently speculative, offers similarly guilt-free pleasures. One need not get things “right.” But to accept one’s part in producing fiction’s present is to accept a degree of complicity and accountability that leaves the critic dangerously exposed. There is rarely an earlier discourse in contrast to which one’s own, putatively more advanced consciousness can appear demystifying, and there is little stability or definiteness to one’s object. To speak of the present is not normally to speak of a predetermined fact, given condition, or established institution, and yet misrepresenting this unstable object can be fraught with professional, moral, and legal consequences. And in the cruelest irony of all, nothing will count for the critic as confirmation, not even universal agreement. About fiction’s present the professional critic speaks as contingently as every other reader. Her authority is a posteriori, solely a function of her illuminations. There can be no institutional protection. The study of fiction’s present lays criticism bare.

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