The Ends of History: Response from Patrick Bray

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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Honoré de Balzac by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1842.
[On February 10, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Trowbridge Office on American Literature, Culture, & Society for a symposium, The Ends of History. Below are remarks from Patrick Bray, assistant professor of French at the University of Illinois, delivered as part of the symposium's closing roundtable. Prof. Bray's is the second of several responses we hope to publish.]

Written by Patrick Bray (French)

My current book project looks at how the novel, since the birth of the modern concept of literature around 1800, is incapable of incorporating a coherent theory, or a theory of itself, within the text. When a theory is included in a novel, it must obey aesthetic concerns – its relationship to the “outside” of the text is secondary. To take a famous example, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time contains hundreds of “theories” formulated for the most part by the narrator. But the narrator himself is a character who changes over the course of the novel from a boy to a depressed hypochondriac to a writer. How do we assess the validity of any of the novel’s theories when the fictional text itself is unstable?

For the five minutes or so I have today, I’d like to bring up a novel I’m reading at the moment, Balzac’s 1831 The Wild Ass’s Skin, or La peau de chagrin. This is Balzac’s first realist novel – it depicts the political disappointment of the failed revolution of July 1830 and a society that has been corrupted not only by money but by a disconnect between words and deeds. Obviously this is a situation very foreign to all of us. What has always struck me about the novel is that the title character, if you will, is a magic talisman from the Orient. How do you have a credible realist novel that depends so much on a magic skin granting the hero whatever he wishes in return for some of his life force? For the old man who gives the hero the talisman, it represents the mysterious but necessary link between power, knowledge, and desire (Foucault avant la lettre) – in other words it is a fiction that reveals to us how the world works.

In case this seems like too much of a stretch, too close of a reading, you only have to look at Balzac’s prologue where he says that writers have a “second sight” which he calls a sort of talisman that would let them see anything in the world as an inner vision. Close your eyes and travel the world with Balzac. Within the novel, every conceivable theory in every discipline is used to try to explain the magic ass’s skin, and each theory fails. My favorite scene is when three scientists in succession come up short and one of them destroys his lab trying to understand the physical properties of the talisman – I have a fantasy of seeing an MRI explode when a neuroscientist tries to measure the brainwaves of a subject reading Jane Austen.

The point of Balzac’s talisman is not whether it is real or not, what’s its origin might be, but rather what it does, what it allows us to see. By placing a thin slice of unreality within a realist description of Paris, Balzac shows us that the novel presents and then represents reality: it is both historically accurate and a product of the author and the reader’s desires. Scientists, historians, and other positivists who love to read “suspiciously” in order to track down the relationships between power and knowledge, should remember the other term in Balzac’s trilogy, “desire”. The talisman, like literature in general, acts as a concentric mirror, reflecting back at the reader a focused image of his or her own reading desire.

Balzac makes us aware of the complicity between scholarship and techniques of power. Balzac’s novel works because it resists theories, because it puts them to the test and reflects back at the reader her or his own reading desires. How does the push for more quantitative analysis of literary works by digital humanists, as well as the instrumentalization of foreign literature departments into language service departments, share the same managerial tools of control as globalization or neo-colonialism. Franco Moretti, in his influential book Graphs, Maps, and Trees calls literary studies “the most backwards discipline in the academy” and advocates “distant reading” as opposed to close reading (which seems to me like outsourcing reading to computers). I think that literature’s inability to incorporate theory has an effect on the literary scholar who must look outside the literary text in order to justify an argument.

"Reading Girl" by Gustav Adolph Hennig (German, 1797-1869) 
As Jonathan Culler has argued, “theory is work that succeeds in influencing thinking in fields other than those in which it originates” (3). The powerful, talismanic, tools given to us by computers, namely text mining and new forms of collaboration, may certainly lead to new ways of approaching literature as a social phenomenon. But we need to know what is so attractive about a distant or digital approach to reading. Where is the desire to draw graphs, make charts, and plot trajectories coming from? What is it that is so disturbing about close reading, as opposed to a safer, more visual, distant reading? In Les Mots et les choses, Foucault calls literature in the modern épistemè a “counter-discourse,” one that undermines all other scientific discourse. As I have tried to show with Balzac’s novel, the literary text reveals the gap between received knowledge and the impenetrability of the real. Without knowing how to read your own desire, the extra interpretive power provided by a computer, by a metric, is not very useful. As the hero realizes near the end of Balzac’s novel, “Le pouvoir nous laisse tels que nous sommes et ne grandit que les grands.” (276) ("power leaves us as we are and only magnifies the great”). 

In an age obsessed with genetic determinism and the quantification of all human activity, what we need most right now may be a little more close reading…


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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Heather Love said something similar about distant reading iirc. The motive is partly to get the kind of authority the scientists have; or at least have in some quarters.

Ted said...

I enjoyed this thoughtful post, Patrick. I enjoy close reading, and Balzac, and this reading of Balzac is exemplary.

On the issue of "distant reading" and things digital, I actually think it's important for us to start teasing apart the issues of "big data" (a resource) and "distant reading" (a particular interpretive approach).

It's possible to use the leverage provided by scale (and big data) to open up new perspectives on tightly-focused questions -- even to assist "close reading," for instance.

I've gone on at length about it in this post
but really the important part is the concept of "topic modeling," which I don't explain fully in that post. I'll be writing a fuller account of it in a week or two ...

Anonymous said...

I just saw this Ted! You are right, I think, to distinguish resources and interpretive approaches. Close reading has always relied heavily on an understanding of the history of language, on philosophy, on historical context, on the history of genres, etc. Even Formalism relies on assembling an (unacknolwledged?) knowledge of the literary canon plus other types of writing. In order to know how a text differs from itself you have to be able to generalize about its context. As our discipline expands exponentially (with every assistant professor at every college writing as much as possible), we need to be able to handle this information overload even as we invent new interpretive approaches. My worry is that the fascination with the technology (or worse, the fascination with getting money and teaching release from administrators who think that all we need to be brought into the mainstream is fancy tools) will lead to a pseudo-discipline where all we do is aggregate without examining what is unique about any text. Your work is important for this! Patrick