Blog Post

Undead Novel, part one

In my last blog post, I wrote about the ways the Israeli artist Ohad Meromi’s recent installation “Creative Circle” allows its viewers to bodily encounter a set of objects that already exist in relationship. It’s understandable that we’d feel embodiment when we encounter performance (and, as Allison Carruth points out in her post on Jònsi, the gestural often hums along under the radar of critical engagement: when we attend to it, our own somatic encounters with performance can be startling).  

But, do we experience similar somatic things when we encounter objects? More peculiarly, do we experience such things when we read books? 

If the register of the gestural works to delimit the somatic medium in which we, as bodied participants, live, can it work in the realm of the literary? “Creative Circle” encourages us to think about how our bodily encounters with art in space and time (say, an encounter with an installation) relate to our encounters with literary objects (yes, in space and time, but not quite as embodied).  Oddly enough, when I sent him the link to that post, Ohad responded that this installation comes from a “serious jealousy” of the novel.  Which raises another question, one with which I find myself increasingly preoccupied: what (if anything) can novels do that other aesthetic forms cannot?

To begin answering this question, I’m going to have to deviate a little from the terms I’ve set up.  Eventually I’ll move back to the gestural novel, but for the moment I want to interject another framework: that of media studies.   Sometimes those of us who think a lot about novels are reminded, often with a sharp intellectual cuff, that not everything is a novel (or a play or a poem or an essay) and that we need to make a claim for literature as a privileged site of inquiry.  Conversations about novels are conversations about media, a term that can come to have an endless capacity and some foggy limits.   But I don’t want to put the novel in a network of other medial objects; instead, I eventually want to look at the ways novels are constructed of medial devices. 

Alexander R Galloway, a professor at NYU who works on media and media theory, teaches a class (with the historian Ben Kafka) on Media Archeology.  I’ve been fascinated with the procedure of this class, one that seems so outside the seminar models to which I’ve grown accustomed.  The major projects are a series of dossiers on dead media objects and dead media modes.  For instance, a student might construct a dossier on the magic lantern, the betamax tape, or the dance card.  The point is not only to gather together as much information about a dead technology (the kind of strict historicist work that situates such a class in a Marxist dialectic: conceptual frameworks can be extrapolated from material form) but also to examine the medial object itself: to do a “close reading” of the object’s medial attributes.  By studying culturally produced machines, objects, and techniques, the class focuses its efforts on reading form.  In this way, the class might seem similar to a literature class that focuses on the lyric, the gothic, the novel (more on that in a moment).  For starters, though, the argument of Alex and Ben’s course seems to be if you establish the method, critical engagement follows (a pedagogy built on that same Marxist dialectic).  And, it’s my sense that this kind of work is rapidly gaining ground in universities across the country: its theoretical depth and its historical precision appeal to a wide range of students.  And who could argue that a dossier is proof of serious intellectual work?   But, such a class also draws out some difficulties in calling any close attention “close reading.”

As I suggested above, media theory, specifically media archeology, borrows “close reading” methods from literary studies; but I’m not entirely sure the method holds.  Close reading of material form can limit close reading of conceptual form (call it the difference between format and form, if you want, though that might be needlessly crude): if you produce a “close reading” of a stereoscope, you offer an account that fits all stereoscopes, or at least all those grouped under a similar periodic (historical) aegis.  This, then, shares more with narratology or novel theory than with standard issue (is there such a thing?) close reading.  But I want to think about what literary critics might learn about their own methods from a class like the Media Archeology seminar. To reap these benefits, we have to see what it is that “counts” as medial in such a class.  Let us be clear: this isn’t the only kind of formalism with which one can approach an object. 

I recently asked Alex for his working definition of “media.”  Like “narrative,” (but, strangely, not like “novel”), the term endlessly slips–the danger is that everything becomes media.  How to staunch this bleeding?  Media, in Alex and Ben’s working in-class definition, can store and/or express information.  Obviously a book of any sort “counts.”  And we can easily slot the novel into this definition.  Anyone with a historicist bent will agree the novel “stores” information a bout its relation to literary history, about the time of its writing, about the kind of subject position that would allow it to be written.  And anyone unconvinced by the claims of history  (let’s call this mode theoretical) might be interested in the expressive capacities of the novel: what can a novel tell us about subjectivity as such, about the human, about the world?  But, what do we lose by thinking of novels (or poems, or plays, or essays) in these kinds of systems?  In my view, we lose the very thing that allows literature to convey: we lose language.  Garrett Stewart’s recent Novel Violence, for example, calls for a heightened attention to reading as a process of wording, phrasing, prosing.  He suggests we might reinvigorate literary criticism by paying a bit more attention to the literary.  But this doesn’t mean (and I don’t think Stewart suggests it should mean) we should veer from thinking of literary studies in relation to other media study.   But we must find the right language for the task at hand.

And here I want to turn my focus to the novel.  Put very basically, my question is this: why is it that with little or no practice, a person reared on 20th or 21st century novels (or, honestly, someone not reared on novels at all) can tuck into Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, even The Female Quixote and comfortably follow along.  Context helps (and radically enriches), but it isn’t necessary for a first reading.  When literary critics adapt media theoretical claims to their objects of study, they often consider the novel as a medial object.  That is, a novel is like a poem is like a film is like a stereoscope, etc.  Like media theories, such work often finds itself squashed between a materialist critique and one geared more towards a type of narratology (a schematic by which we could make sense of all objects formally like the object of inquiry).  Can there be a formal account of the novel as a medial object that gives room to the parts of that object that literary critics most often focus on (parts like plot, character, narrative, narrator)?   Beyond that, though, can a formal account attend to the conveyance by which the novel expresses such aspects?  What, if anything, separates the novel’s prose from other prose? 

One way to move in this direction, I think, would be to consider how literary objects, while material objects, might also be constructed of medial devices.  Perhaps it’s clearer to see this in the poem: meter stores and conveys information above and beyond the “plot” or “narrative” of the poem.  It’s my contention that novels do this kind of work as well, though it might be harder to see because, as we all know, the novels medial mode is, well, prosaic.  In our cross-disciplinary conversations, Alex’s question to me is: why privilege the novel?  And, by way of response, I’ll next offer an account of the novel’s relation to concepts of remediation, a relationship that that other medial modes lack.  The novel can’t die.  

Claire Jarvis's picture
I'm an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford, working primarily on Victorian literature and culture.