Zoom Shock

This afternoon, I had a two hour meeting with one of the members of my dissertation panel and as usual I am still recovering four hours later from what I refer to as his benevolently enthusiastic attempts to kill me. I grapple with this professor over matters of technodeterminism, systematicity, and humanism, so those of you who know me in what the kids call the meatspace will now know his identity.

It was a great conversation, and I took copious notes. I will spare you the details until I have synthesized them into a series of connected ideas that reflect more of my thinking and less of his. It began with a proposal that would essentially investigate the ways in which different genres produce different expectations with respect to temporal existence. There is a relationship between genres and futures; a relative framework that does not refer to or depend upon notions of absolute time or space. I am not interested in producing a dissertation that posits Book A as being durable for X amount of years, in that Johnsonian sense of not calling something a classic until it has lasted a century. That would be absolute time. I quite agree and have done work on generic futurity with respect to the encyclopedia, and it is from that work that most of these conversations and this professor's confidence in my ability to negotiate the abstract philosophical approach come.

I do not necessarily share this confidence, as I do not have the body of knowledge at my command, particularly with regards to genre.

This sentence, I thought, was quite interesting: "The future as a feature of a genre or system." Now that's good stuff, and I think I understand it, and that I could write about it. It's the zoomed-out look at my interest in durability and posterity. The eighteenth century is the period to choose because of print. The proliferation of print comes with a whole bunch of organizational quandaries to which genre formation, amongst other things, is the response. How exactly do we DEAL with all of this information, especially when there's no hierarchy? Well, we get a hierarchy, dammit. Who's we? We is the SYSTEM. It's self-organizing, and the possibility of literary posterity emerges as a function of that organizational imperative. Categories of ephemeral and durable emerge out of proliferation and accrual. Some number of texts, at some point (a point I shall have to determine, and which need not be a single moment or year), must be discarded, or set aside, or otherwise reorganized. Likewise, some must be retained, or elevated. Hence the distinction between literature as just any old writing and Literature as, well, Literature.

The novel and the encyclopedia, which are two very closely related genres, "make sense" in this system because they do the job of replacing and/or displacing other texts. Chambers' encyclopedia set out to do this in no uncertain terms, and that was as early as 1728. It would not be until later in the century that the novel would start to do the same thing, and I would submit that (and be kind here, I'm just talking out loud) that might be because following the epistemological split that reconstituted fiction as distinct from what became the modern fact, it took the former a few more years to reach the point of systematic organizational recalibration already passed by the latter.

Which brings us to the point whereat I introduced the problem of facticity within the literary system. The fact is the most durable form of knowledge; it is a thing (a statement, a concept) that constitutes a determinate epistemic unit. The fact, in its modern incarnation, belongs to the sciences, to things that "really" are. "Fact" has no purchase in fiction (fiction, of course, may make use of facts, but--well, wait for it). The entire system of knowledge that constitutes what we call the hard sciences is, or seeks to be, based on facts in order to produce more facts. Something, I submit, should occupy the role of "facts" in the other formerly related but increasingly distinct system--literature. "Truth" becomes the province of fiction. What do I want to call the determinate epistemic units of fiction? I think that, like the "facts" of the so-called hard sciences, they accrue over time, and require "future" usage to retroactively constitute them as such. They must be treated within the system of literature as facts are in the system of natural philosophy. The "facts" of a genre or a system are the texts (or snippets, quotations, what have you) that are "used" by other writers in the fashioning of new truths. They are the building blocks of this different epistemology. Again, it makes sense that a novel--like an encyclopedia--should be a heteroglossic collection of generic facts, organized and interpolated in order to create a "complete" self-contained system that offers Truth--which is precisely what the novels of Fielding and Richardson did. That condition of generic and textual facticity (this distinction needs WAY more unpacking) is, perhaps, a defining quality of durability.

I haven't sorted out yet what happens after Richardson. But there seems to me to be another organizational recalibration within the literary system. At nearly the same time as the Britannica did, fiction embraced a kind of disciplinarity. Romanticism elevated individuality and isolation in place of universals and connectedness just as the encyclopedia separated the various parts of knowledge into their own disciplines rather than attempting to carry on the earlier editions' attempts at systematizing. Wordsworth, also at this time, determined that it was his unique combinations of words on the page that would last by giving pleasure--a pleasure dependent on his language. For that reason he chose the language of simple men, as, according to him, it was the most durable. His words. So, well, there.

Now I KNOW there's a dissertation in here somewhere.


Daveybot said...

Yeah, I'd say there should be a dissertation in there - I must have only understood about 80% of that, at best, but I'm still fascinated.

Marina said...

you know, that's rather hot.