In her recent lecture “at” “The Swedish Twitter University” Eileen poses a series of questions raising the question of what a speculative realist literary criticism might look like.
First, what happens when we consider that literary characters are not human beings, but more like mathematical compressions of the human? What happens when we see literary texts as having propulsions of their own, as actants on the same ontological footing as everything else?
Joy distinguishes this point of view from what she refers to as “humanist” literary criticism. As she remarks,
The questions matter, because much of literary criticism today is founded on humanist-ethicist principles; hermeneutics are deeply humanist.
As she continues,
We choose to seek, then, a non-projective, non-hermeneutic criticism that would multiply and thicken a text’s sentient, bottomless reality. This criticism would be better described as a commentary that seeks to open and not close a text’s possible “signatures.” Aesthetics may constitute a domain of illusions, but these illusions posses their own material reality and are co-sentient with us.
There’s a lot more in the lecture and discussion, so be sure to follow the link. Perhaps Joy’s rendering of the distinction between humanist literary criticism and object-oriented literary criticism can be rendered gnomically– as is her style in this lecture –as the distinction between styles of criticism that are “before” and “after” the text. This would correspond to the distinction Joy draws in the quote above between strategies of criticism that strive to close the text and strategies that strive to open the text. What do these metaphors imply?
The central premise of what Joy rightly calls humanist criticism– which is nearly all existing criticism today –is that texts are primarily vehicles or carriers of meaning. As a consequence, meaning is something that is before the text in either the temporal or the transcendental sense. Meaning is that which is prior to the text such that the text is but a carrier of meaning. Like a crypt that hides what lies in rest within it, the text is thus something to be decrypted, deciphered, so as to discover its meaning. If this is necessary, then it must be because there is something of a strife between the materiality of the text, its inscription in paper and other mediums, and the meaning of the text. Meaning is always withdrawn from the surface of the text on paper (and here not in OOO’s sense of withdrawal), while it is the inscription on paper, in the most literal sense, that presents itself to the reader. If there is a strife, in this framework, within the work between meaning and the text, then this is because there is always an excess of potential meaning in the text. In the analytic setting a patient relates to me a dream in which he is joyfully frolicking with a deer in his brother’s back yard. Why this dream? The analyst notes that “deer” is a homonym for “dear”. They are both pronounced ‘dir. Perhaps the patient is in love with his brother’s wife? At the textual level, the speech of the analysand allows for a variety of different interpretations. Is the dream merely about a deer or is it really about his “dear”? The question will be decided by what is before the text or dream, by the latent content behind the manifest text.
It is in this regard that humanist criticism can be seen as striving to close the text. The various strategies of humanist criticism– hermeneutic, biographical, historical, new historicist, psychoanalytic, Marxist, etc. –can all be seen as strategies for closing texts, for reducing the signal to noise ratio, by fixing meaning behind the entropic play of the text in its polysemy. What this style of criticism strives for is a crystallization of the fixation of the text.
I am not sure whether Joy would follow me in this assertion, but it seems to me that object-oriented criticism begins with a very different premise. There have been deep suspicions of humanist criticism for some time now and it seems to me that a good object-oriented criticism would both be able to integrate humanist forms of criticism (with an important twist) and would be deeply indebted to the suspicions arising out of anti-humanist criticism. Thinkers like Ong, Kittler, and McLuhan called into question the idea that the medium by which a text is conveyed (speech, writing, digital media) are irrelevant to the content. For example, in a very McLuhanian moment, the structuralist Jean-Pierre Vernant observes the writing had a decisive impact on Greek law. As the Greeks began to write their laws on the sides of buildings in the market place, this transformed both the nature of Greek society and law. Law expressed in speech is only as durable as the memories of the people that heard the speech act and is deeply subject, in the future, to the vagaries of personal idiosyncrasy. By contrast, law written on the side of a building takes on a sense of eternity and universality by virtue of enduring through time. My conception of law shifts from being conceived as being an arbitrary pronouncement of, say, a tribal leader, to being experienced as a transcendent universal to which even the leader must conform. Perhaps this is where Plato got his idea of the forms. The point is that the medium has a tremendous impact on the content. We can’t say that the content is something that is just there before such that one and the same proposition expressed in speech and writing are identical, but rather content seems to come after.
This suspicion that content or meaning comes after was further explored by the structuralists and post-structuralists. Thinkers like Lacan and Derrida both claimed that meaning is an effect of the signifier and took great pains to show how effects of meaning arise from the play of language. Likewise, Deleuze and Guattari, in their famous distinction between theaters and factories in Anti-Oedipus seem to suggest something similar. Traditional humanist interpretation, they suggest, is premised on the idea of a theater where the theater depicts a meaning or past that comes before the play or what takes place on the stage. They criticize Freud– and even moreso Jung’s excreble theory of the archetypes –for treating meaning as an archetype that always comes before any production (for Freud in the form of the Oedipus and in the far more insidious way with Jung in the theory of the archetypes). They contrast the “good Freud” of the primary process in the early works, with the “bad Freud” following the “discovery” of the Oedipus complex. In the latter case, the text is always closed. All things always lead back to your family drama. In the former case, the text is always open. The primary process is an infinitely productive domain of meaning where, through all sorts of condensations and displacements, new meanings, and therefore new ways of living and desiring are perpetually being created. This is their model of the unconscious as a factory rather than a theater. In the theater all your symptoms and dreams somehow re-present your family dramas (or excreble archetypes in Jung), whereas in the factory both interpretations and formations of the unconscious produce new meanings as effects. Here the text is open because it is productive
Object-oriented criticism for its part– and it is here where I am unsure as to whether or not Joy will agree with me –begins from the premise not of the meaningfulness of the text, but of the materiality of the text. The text is something. A text is an entity that circulates throughout the world. And like all bodies or objects that circulate throughout the world, texts have the capacity to affect other bodies. Here then we get the first sense of what it might mean to say that criticism comes after the text. This thesis is not the bland truism that the text must first exist for us to “criticize” it, but rather is the thesis that criticism is a production based on the affectivity of the text. In other words, the question is no longer the question of what the text means with the aim of closing the text, but rather is the question of what the text builds. Criticism here would be aimed at what texts build and allow to be built. And since the building power of any entity is infinite, texts would be radically open.
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari remark that “[a] book itself is a little machine…” (4). Given Guattari’s background in the autopoietic theory of Maturana and Varela, they were, no doubt, thinking of autopoeitic machines. Autopoietic machines are machines that draw something from their environment and transform them into something else. This is how it is with texts. We are drawn into books, absorbed by books, and are produced as something else when we come out the other side. Texts create new forms of affectivity– I learn to love differently, for example, after reading Proust –they create new collectives (just think of the religions of Abraham or of the works of Marx), they create new practices (one might live their life as the Underground Man or Raskolnikov without killing anyone), they instigate revolutions, and so on.
Books do not mean something, they do something. Yet just as Spinoza, in Part III of the Ethics, said that we do not know what a body can do, we do not know the passive and active affects that populate a body, we do not know what a text can do. As a book circulates throughout the world over time, it produces all sorts of surprising results. Here, when Plato’s Phaedrus is read in terms of the Republic, we can see a bit of the rationale behind Plato’s denunciation of writing. In the Republic Plato engages in elaborate discussions of the proper size of the city. In terms of Luhmannian sociological systems theory, Plato is grappling with questions of organized complexity. In order for every element to be related to every other element in a system (another word for “object” in my onticology), that system cannot exceed a certain size. Systems reach a certain mathematical threshold where it becomes impossible for every element to connect to every other element. Plato dreams of a society of speech, which is to say a society of myth that is ahistorical or which does not become or change. To see this point, it must be recalled that, following Ong, oral societies reproduce themselves across time through myth (rendered in poetic and musical form), because the rote repetitions of myth along with the ways in which myths are conveyed through music and poetry, allow for easy transmission and recollection of cultural knowledge. Writing represents a profound threat to societies of myth because it allows for an aleatory object to enter the social order– what I call a rogue object –that allows for the return of that which is lost, modifying contemporary social relations. As Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition says of the French revolutionaries, they conceived of themselves as Romans– just read Gibbon as recounting not the history of Rome, but as articulating a perfectly contemporary text directed at producing a new form of subjectivity in the present by presenting an alternative world –thereby allowing for an escape from the eternal return of the same in myth.
Here I am reminded of debates surrounding “revisionist criticism” that took place in the 90s when I was still in High School. There the big scandal was that an English professor somewhere had argued that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was really an allegory for a socially repressed homosexual relationship between Huck and Jim. Among the humanists the sparks flew. “This could not possibly be what Twain meant! This is a travesty!” Similar things occurred with Shakespeare. Yet from the standpoint of object-oriented criticism, the question of whether Twain meant this is irrelevant. All that is relevant is that Huckleberry Finn has the power, the capacity, to construct or produce this sort of reading, allowing for the illumination of parallels between black oppression and homosexual oppression, allowing for us to broaden the notion of “queer” as representative of any anomalous or rogue part of a social situation that goes uncounted (cf. my forthcoming article “Of Parts and Politics” in Identities; it should be out online any day), allowing for the construction of heroic subjectivities such as we find in Huck and Jim. Similarly, in Jussi Parrika’s work we find the construction of a new theory of social action based on 19th century texts on insect behavior, just as in Harman we find the construction of a highly original ontology based on the work of Heidegger.
To look back to the meaning of Huckleberry Finn is to ignore that The Epic of Gilgamish still is able to affect us despite the fact that we know nothing of its author and little of its historical context. It is to ignore the productivity of texts or the manner in which they are little machines. Joy remarks:
We might also try to rethink literary criticism, not as an operation of deciphering, but of re-making, as well as of sensing.
Perhaps this is the highest honor we can bestow on a text. Rather than closing the book, we should instead explore what can be built based on the book. And here, I would modify Eileen’s reference to sensing a bit, and suggest that rather than sensing the text, we instead allow the work of art to transform how we sense. Such would be the efficacy of fictions as a path to truths.