The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Unfinished Masterpieces: Books on the Guardian Best Novels in English List that I Gave Up On.

The Guardian have just finished their long-running series of the 100 Greatest Novels written in English, and they give the full list here. It’s a fairly bog-standard list, giving rise to some characteristic Guardianist mutterings in the comments section (and a reply article on the website) about the preponderance of Dead White Males on the list. I’ve read about two-thirds of the list. But there I’m including a number that I started, but never finished. Unfinished readings perhaps haven’t gotten enough critical attention: when one considers it, it’s quite possible that we find out more about a person by the books they’ve failed to finish than the books they love: love for a book can be too easily influenced by extraneous factors – the prestige attaching to certain titles and so on – but if you failed to finish a book you’ve gone to the trouble of picking up, that implies a strength of feeling, a real reaction to the material of the book, a complete volte face from wishing-to-read to not-wishing-to-read. This, undoubtedly, is worth a moment’s consideration.

So, for the benefit of my future biographers, the books in Robert McCrum’s list I’ve started but not (yet) finished, are:

2. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

6. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

11. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil

23. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

28. George Gissing, New Grub Street

34. Rudyard Kipling, Kim

36. Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Defoe – I only read this for the first time quite recently, downloading to Kindle for a long journey. I haven’t picked it up since (the novel [metaphorically], not the Kindle), but I do plan to finish it.

Disraeli – I should have read this in full for purposes of my thesis, perhaps, but as yet I haven’t. Though it has some interesting elements and worthwhile socio-political reflections, it is also frequently banal and very melodramatic. An interesting book, but I wouldn’t say a great one.

Gissing – This is another recent one, and is actually rather good. Nevertheless, it fell by the wayside after only 80 or so pages, to be picked up and finished when I can link its reading to some research, and thus create that extra motivation.

Kipling – I just can’t get into Kipling at all. His style somehow repels and confuses me. I’ve made a couple of efforts at Kim, in theory an interesting work, much discussed by Edward Said, et al., but haven’t finished it yet.

James – I enjoy much of early James, but really late James like The Golden Bowl is tough on the old coconut. Pages of internal focalization on some minutiae of conscience or social interaction. Possibly a great novel, but one you really need to be in the mood for, and to devote plenty of attention to. I can’t help recalling H.G. Wells’ famous (or perhaps infamous) statement on James from Boon, a few years later: ““It [any novel by James] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string” [Quoted from here]. I can’t read late James without thinking of that passage now, possibly a testament to my own philistinism.

Sterne – I read this years ago, and hated it. Being an admirer of much postmodernist-type humour (e.g. Flann O’Brien), I had heard of this as a precursor thereto and expected to like it, but everything I could glean about Sterne as implied author from the book made me dislike him and it.

Twain – another reading from years ago, about which I can remember little, except the experience of boredom. Perhaps I should give it another try, and almost certainly will, some day.

Of the other 60 or so I’ve read, there are quite a few that I barely remember, that I skimmed in my bibliovorous and undiscriminating teenage years. Sometimes, in those days, I read just to finish, and took in few enough details (if it was a book I didn’t like). Still, reading canonically, “the best which has been thought and said“, is not without rewards, and there are a lot of books on McCrum’s list that I remember quite vividly. And yet, it is sometimes those books one doesn’t finish – where one wonders if there was something there one didn’t “get”; something that was there, but you missed it – that are the most haunting.

Marx, Early and Late

The problem with disciplinary thinking is that from an original starting point of thinking about, say, social problems that one has observed and been struck by, it soon gives way to thinking about thinkers who have written on the subject, and each of these thinkers is subject to all sorts of biases, blind spots, personal predilections and obsessions. Many of their observations and theorizations may not be very much to the point at all, and the process by which they have attained to disciplinary centrality may be marked by considerations of fashion, right-place-right-time, personal charisma, connections, etc. Disciplinary thinking is, above all, abstract thinking; a certain facet of reality is abstracted from all others, and forged into a discipline. It is because this abstraction is so unrealistic that a great degree of theoretical sophistication and ingenuity is required to bolster up the discipline. The intellectual energies of the proponents of the discipline, then, go into theorizing it in a way that escapes criticism. The definition of key terms, the choice of key terms, becomes worthy of heated debate – this debate can never be settled, because the niceties that are at issue are often basically metaphysical, having no material basis, and not being in any way verifiable. Thus the proliferation of discourse is assured, and the discipline’s existence is justified, on its own terms.

Metaphysical also means in this sense ideological – for ideology was initially a synonym for idealism (see entry for “Ideology” in Raymond Williams, Keywords). This was Marx’s original use of the term; still in The German Ideology that meaning is present, gradually losing ground to the more familiar rationalization-of-existing-power-structure conception (The German Ideology, ed. by C.J. Arthur, Lawrence & Wishart, 1982, pp. 64-68). Even in that more specialized sense, it remains that any idealistic theorizations are ideological, for Marx insists on empiricism – real is his favorite word in The German Ideology, closely followed by actual. Empiricism is about “sense experience” but mostly, I submit, it is about observation. It is atheoretical as it can possibly be. It is rather Sherlock Holmesian, if one may give it an iconic presence, as opposed to a theoretical justification (which is precisely what one doesn’t want to get involved in giving). As the Great Detective said: “The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession” (The Valley of Fear). And Holmes’ solutions to his cases were never theories – on the contrary they were explications of entirely unique sets of factors with no general applicability at all. To be able to come to such explication, not a theory of detection was needed, but an attention to the fact that “[a]ll knowledge comes useful to the detective” (ibid). A full theory of detection would be a theory of life. Similarly, a full theory of sociology, of culture, of gender, of anything, would be a full theory of life. In other words, it’s an impossibility.

The solution, then, is to sideline theorization in favour of attention to detail. This attention to detail, directed towards whatever element of society strikes one as worthy of it, will involve a lot of criticism, without much positing of precisely how things could be different – constructing the future of idealistic and ideological; critiquing the present is not. I recently came across a great early letter by Marx, sometimes called “Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” after an important phrase used therein (phrase actually rendered slightly differently in this translation):

On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be. (“Marx to Ruge: Krueznach, September 1843“)

The anti-idealist and anti-utopian stance is strong here. The notion that criticism is in itself a good, unconnected to anything narrowly constructive. This is a stance that I believe contrasts with academic practice, and even with general lay ideology. Nobody likes a critic who just complains without offering a substantive alternative. But yet, it is worth considering that it is through “ruthless criticism” that we begin to arrive at the possibility of progressivism, and we must perhaps lay waste to current ideologies before we can begin to ask ourselves “What do we want?” For as of now, our wants, our very desires, are deeply implicated in socio-cultural and economic practices, so what we want is an index of our being in ideology.

Marx’s intellectual progress should be noted. In this seminar on Capital, David Harvey notes that Marx was not a disciplinarian in a modern sense; nevertheless, Capital marks a very different phase in Marx’s thought from The German Ideology. Now, he has begun to reduce. He has certain building blocks, basic concepts like “socially necessary labour time” from which an entire theory of human living is to be constructed. But Marx’s concepts are suggestive rather than scientific. As Harvey notes, the concept named above was not properly defined by Marx and never has been in a way agreeable to succeeding economists/ social scientists. Therefore any theory based thereon  may well have moments of insight and suggestiveness, but as a theory it is wrong. Or not even wrong – being based on a concept which has no meaning, it is nonsense, in A. J. Ayers’ sense. But wrong as a theory may be, this does not stop other putative theorists from building on it – in fact, the less empirical weight a theory has, the more ingenuity can be applied to proving it logically. It is, indeed, the perfect challenge for the intellectual. But, ultimately, in constructing a theory, no matter how ingenious, on concepts that are empirically unsound, Marx is falling prey to the very ideological system-building he had denounced in his early works. So maybe Marx was Right, as Terry Eagleton and others insist, but the Marx who was right was not the one who wrote Capital, but the one who called for a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing. 

Impostor Syndrome

One hears a lot about impostor syndrome in academia these days. It’s endemic. Everyone’s an impostor. If you’re not, you’re not really an academic. It’s a paradox. Though I sometimes feel such feelings, I don’t want to go along with this mode of articulating one’s experience of being an academic. A recent articulation of the phenomenon really rubbed me up the wrong way, from the title down: “For Marginalized Scholars, Self-Promotion is Community Promotion“, by one Eric Grollman. How covenient! By the simple self-labelling as “marginalized” (and yes, he does so explicitly through the article, “my fellow marginalized scholars” and so on), Grollman has created an ideological ploy wherein any self-interested and self-promotional activity is always already validated. Which is nice. He ceases to be capable of acts of private self-interest and becomes an actual embodiment of unprivilege. Any victory for him is one for the downtrodden, etc. He begins:

Self-promotion is on my mind again.  A year ago or so, to my surprise today, I shared the following wisdom on Twitter:

Self-promotion is just as much promotion of my communities as promotion of myself.

Unfortunately, this gem along with other possible gems I’ve shared on Twitter were lost to subsequent self-doubt. I buckled under the nasty criticism of anonymous trolls who, at the time, seemed to read and critique my every tweet and blog post. I let cowardly colleagues bully me into silence, temporarily at least.  In the process of recovering my voice, I have had to face the reality that speaking out (or not) is just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong.

Here, the very beginning of the article, is where I really lost patience with the author. He talks about self-doubt, but what strikes me is that he evinces no self-doubt at all, or even the slightest tolerance for self-reflection or self-criticism. Without giving details or making any arguments, he categorizes all his criticism as “nasty”, and the work of – of course – “trolls”. His colleagues are somehow “cowardly” and, what’s more, “bullied” him in an unspecified way. And that’s all without in any way making even a token attempt to address their points – we are simply to assume that, as the author was offended and hurt by them, they must have been “nasty” and insubstantial. Yet, one can think of several obvious criticisms that could be made about the tweet, criticisms that aren’t nasty at all, the fundamental one being that one can work in the name of a good cause and associate oneself therewith, as a simple mask for self-interest, ultimately benefiting disproportionately or only oneself, and that the notion of individual responsibility may be worth considering – you don’t just get a free pass because you’re poc, LGBT, or whatever.

At the end of the paragraph quoted, Grollman does say that speaking out is “just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong”. He seems about to finally apply some self-awareness here, but it doesn’t happen; rather he returns to his stance of considering himself a proxy for the disadvantaged everywhere. He ends thusly:

Tasking individual marginalized scholars with self-promoting to help advance their own communities is burdensome, I realize.  If you’re already feeling self-doubt, and the twinge of guilt for turning requests down, and the stress of being overburdened with service demands, knowing that you are either advancing your communities or letting them down is simply more pressure.  But, thinking of the positive flip side — that the promotion of your scholarship and perspective helps to promote your communities — may help to alleviate the self-doubt.

The reality is, it often is so much more than you. When you are excluded, it is because most or all of the members of your communities are excluded. When scholars who dare to speak up are attacked, they are simply targets for a larger assault on liberalism, higher education, anti-racism, feminism, and other causes that promote equal rights and/or social justice. The self-doubt is, at least in part, an internalization of the bias against marginalized scholars in academia and society generally. We ease the work of defenders of the status quo in academia when we are complicit in our own silence, invisibility, and exclusion.

We owe it to ourselves and our communities to be heard, and seen, and cited, and promoted, and included, and engaged.

This ending moves his argument, or at least his rhetoric, on a bit by focusing on how hard and unpleasant self-promotion is. Self-promotion is now a duty one does for one’s community. No reference to the self-promotional part of self-promotion. In a transvaluation of the value, self-promotion has become a public duty. In a brazen cynic, such a move would perhaps demonstrate an admirable nerve – gall, even – but Grollman is not a cynic, rather he is convinced of the transcendent righteousness of his own self-promotion. He feels self-doubt, apparently, but he doesn’t analyse it, assuming instead that it is a function of instutionalized bias. This is an interesting paradox: to feel self-doubt, but to reflexively attribute it to an outside force – “it is this condemnable cultural situation that makes me feel this self-doubt”, one is saying. Is this, then, real self-doubt at all, if it never seems to reach the stage of self-questioning? Maybe Grollman does question himself, but he doesn’t give much evidence in this piece, and the way he dismisses his opponents tends to suggest otherwise. His self-doubt, then, his impostor syndrome, is rather a way of turning the discussion against those who disagree with him, and a way, ultimately, of masking self-interest, for even a spokesman for the marginalized can be self-interested, and his duty cannot be any less to face up to such interest than to promote himself in the name of a greater good.

Fiction without Narrative

Probably the most exhaustive attempt to provide a structuralist account of narrative is Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse, trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1980). As the name doesn’t suggest, the subject of this book is Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, but the intent of the book is to a large extent methodological. Genette is careful, though, to make in his preface the “liberal humanist” point that A la recherche has its own “specificity”, but adds “that specificity is not undecomposable, and each of its analyzable features lends itself to some connection, comparison, or putting into perspective” (22-23). Thus he’s much less militant than some of his structuralist predecessors. He is by no means at war with Liberal Humanism/ New Criticism, or even notions of canonicity, offering them a sort of rapprochement with theoretical approaches.

Given that Genette is developing his entire theory almost exclusively out of one book, the general applicability of it is not likely to be demonstrated with Narrative Discourse itself. But let’s look at his chapter on duration. As usual, he’s helpfully schematic here. Narrative has basically four options with regard to duration of related events: summary, descriptive pause, ellipsis, and scene. Unlike many of Genette’s technical terms, these four are more or less self-explanatory. Ellipsis is the most questionable, as by its nature it has no narrative duration at all, so, narratively, one could argue it doesn’t actually exist. This is certainly true of his third type of ellipsis: hypothetical ellipsis (the others are characterized ellipsis and implicit ellipsis). This type is “impossible to localize,even sometimes impossible to place in any spot at all, and revealed after the event” (109). What I think Genette is doing here is mapping empirical reality onto a fictional text. If in real life a certain period has elapsed, we know any given person was somewhere, doing something, in that time. If we don’t know what, we have an ellipsis in their history. But there is no reason for fiction to work like that. “Time” in a narrative doesn’t go by the gregorian or any other calender, nor does it go at all. But this mapping of reality onto narrative is common in Narrative Discourse, though Genette never acknowledges that that’s what he’s doing when he invents an abstract schema based on realistic time- and event-sequences from which the plot of the book emerges. The fact he doesn’t even seem to notice it is perhaps proof that it is impossible not to read a narrative as being in some sense representational, as having some relationship to empirical reality, even if a different one to a “true” story.

But Genette’s categories are also incomplete, at least when we try them against a narrative, even a short one. Maybe they worked for A la recherche, I don’t know it well enough to say. But a problem is perhaps signalled when Genetter refers without explanation to “extranarrative elements” (95), meaning that his list of narrative elements doesn’t cover all the elements of a narrative. And he’s right. It doesn’t. I’ll go again to my go-to: Sherlock Holmes. The opening of the first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia“:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

Now, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is a narrative, a succession of fictitious events causally connected. But what is this paragraph? It’s not an ellipsis, obviously, because if it was it wouldn’t exist. It’s not a scene, either, because it isn’t given a setting or any action or dialogue; it’s not a descriptive pause for the same reason. It is a summary, in a sense, Genette’s fourth mode, but it’s not a summary in the Gennettian sense, because it cannot be temporally placed. For Genette, all narrative events have duration, so what does not have duration must be “extranarrative”. These elements, it would appear, are often of the nature of reflections, reflections on a time past, on a character, on a mood, on a setting. Here it is a reflection on a character. Temporally, this reflection is obviously taking place after the events that are about to be narrated. But when is this after, when is the moment of narration? This we don’t know. But even then, we can’t allow the moment of narration to be the moment when any given thing narrated takes place, or all the narrative would take place when it is narrated, but narratologists like Genette don’t accept that. But while the time of the events is necessarily past, the time of the reflection – the time of the narration – is not simply past, not coterminous with the narrative. Rather, it stands outside of diegetic time.

The narrator, Watson, in the example shown is basing his reflection on a lifetime’s acquaintance with Holmes, with special (but certainly not exclusive) reference to the time Holmes met and engaged in a battle of wills and intelligences with Miss Irene Adler. This reflection is as canonical, as important in readings of Holmes, as anything within the narration proper. It is inflected subsequent depictions of the character such that, even now, the idea of a Holmes  who permits the “softer passions” is near unthinkable. Just watch Sherlock (2010- ) and Elementary (2012- ), and the character’s aromantic, asexual and unemotional sides are constantly foregrounded. Narrative without post-facto reflection on the part of the narrator is rare, and the task of narrative theory should surely be to incorporate such reflection. How much of the pleasure of reading comes from this voice, recounting not events, but wisdom, the fruits of thought and engagement.

Fiction always has a narrative in there, but it is something more as well, and can dispense with narrative temporarily to engage readers in another way, as Doyle does. He offers both a warm, relatable voice (Watson’s) and a compelling subject (Holmes). This hooks us before the narrative even enters. And the compelling nature of Holmes brings us to another element curiously absent in Genette and many structuralist/ narratologist theorists: character. Genette makes no allowance for character except as voice, and this only covers the narrator. So how would he analyze the Holmes stories? He would find it difficult to bring in Holmes, as a non-narrating character, using his methodology. But it is clear from the historical and current reception of the Holmes stories that it is precisely the character who fascinates. The character and the dynamic with John Watson: admiring and perplexed by his genius friend. This admiration and perplexity is not diegetically temporal. It is right through the stories, weaving in and out, and creating a timeless (in two senses) effect.

Close Reading

Writing on literature in an academic capacity, one of my favourite activities is close reading. This approach is typically associated with so-called New Criticism – as this was prominent in the 1940s and 50s, the name has become something of a misnomer, but it has stuck. It fell somewhat out of favour among academics as theory came to prominence. Close reading and theory are at opposite poles of the critical spectrum: the latter is about bringing a preconceived framework to bear on the text, while the former is about a preconceptionless attention to the text. Of course, in an ideal sense, “preconceptionless attention” is not possible; but, equally, applying a theory to a text is also impossible, for extra-theoretical preconceptions begin to intrude here too. Given this choice between impossibilities, I tend towards close reading because it is the singularities of a text that interest me: in one single text there is an infinity of possibilities for reflection and intellectual exploration. The paths branch off in a myriad of directions, with no end in sight, as opposed to theory, when the end is largely pre-ordained, and all bifurcating paths must be hurried past with hardly a curious glance. All of which is perhaps excessively metaphorical, but suffice to say that close reading allows for attention to details in all their idiosyncratic uniqueness. The paradigm of the close reader is perhaps Sherlock Holmes:

“From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation, and teaches one where to look and what to look for. By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.” – A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 2.

Now, though Holmes’ approach is in theory totalizing and idealistic, finding all life in any manifestation thereof, in practice no mortal can attain such knowledge, so is obliged to cobble together what can be gleaned from specific details. The observation is always with Holmes for a specified practical purpose, not to build a theory of analysis, but a resolve a certain situation – to solve a crime, most typically. The particular object of Holmes’ observation and attention is his fellow-mortals, who are to him as an open book, one which he reads with exemplary closeness.

It is the character’s profession of consulting detective which allows him such scope to read and investigate his fellow-mortals. Alternatively, he could have read their written works to understand the workings of the individual consciousness, and its interaction with nature, society, etc. Fundamentally, the critic is working towards the Holmesian end of observing and understanding his fellow mortals, and, hopefully, doing it with some of the style, wit, and professional integrity of the great detective.

The continuing validity of method of close reading in these postmodern times has been recently argued by Rey Chow:

Deconstruction has provided one kind of answer: the text may be regarded as a material phenomenon that keeps doubling on itself, referring to itself, in a potentially endless series of reflexive moves that reveal language’s alterity (or perpetual self-alienation) to be its own purpose. In pursuing the text in this, what some term “regressive,” manner, deconstruction brings into the open a question that is implicitly foreclosed in New Criticism: what is meant by “close” in close reading? Is close reading simply a matter of reading repeatedly (as Richards’s phrase “several readings” suggests), or is it a matter of reading symptomatically, approximately, or seamlessly (without gaps)? Is close reading a quest for some ultimate oneness? Importantly, unlike for the New Critics, close textual reading for de Man, Derrida, and their followers is not a means of inferring a transcendent unity somewhere. Rather, it is an intimate engagement with the text that is, nonetheless, forever unmet by a definitively reciprocating or holding ground. However precise and penetrating, this close textual reading is now readily sliding off—and horizontally displaced onto other words in play, in the literal sense of allegory—“other speak”—ad infinitum.

– Rey Chow, “Close Reading and the Global University”, ACLA 2014-15 State of the Discipline Report

Chow considers close reading to be classically a search for “some ultimate oneness”. Perhaps it was, but there is no necessity for a details-based approach to include any such element. Chow makes a fairly conventional move, by rehabilitating close reading via deconstruction. In one sense this makes sense, for Derrida insisted that deconstruction was neither a method nor a school nor a doctrine of philosophy “or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself“. However, the constant deferral of meaning that deconstructionists identify and focus on is not the most important element of a close reading, for while in a larger sense meaning is always deferred to some extent or other, the purpose of close reading is not to identify the presence of this generalized slippage/ sliding off, which can be taken as given without having to be constantly re-emphasized, but to engage with the specificities of the individual text, for every text is somewhat original, and cannot help being so. Even Menard’s Quijote was original. Engaging with such individuality/ specificity/ originality, such value, may be ultimately necessary if the study of literature is itself to be of value. We thus engage by reading closely and, so far as is possible, without preconceptions.

Zizek’s Ideology

In the entry on “Ideology” in New Keywords (ed. Bennett, et al., Blackwell Publishing, 2005), it is noted in that “the academic centrality of the concept in theoretical debates and political analyses has declined in the e21C (178). The one great exception to this rule is, of course, Slavoj Zizek, probably the most famous of all academic cultural commentators at this time. It’s quite characteristic of him to take this theoretically outmoded concept and revamp it to use it against contemporary orthodoxy. But I have problems with his usage of the word as outlined in perhaps his most famous book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) – an intellectual tour-de-force and a frequently stimulating (if sometimes difficult) read.

Zizek’s big move in Sublime Object – well, one of them – is to reverse the famous Marxist dictum: They do not know it, but they are doing it. This describes ideology for Marx because the members of a society unthinkingly objectify their labour and reduce materiality to abstraction, without being conscious of it. Zizek’s inversion is: They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it (25). This inversion is, I suppose, historically specific: they (we) now know what we are doing when we participate in capitalist economics because of Marx and his followers and popularizers. But, yet, nothing has really changed. We might be tempted to give ourselves a pat on the back here because Zizek allows that we have surmounted the “false consciousness” of ideology that Marx described – unlike our 19th-century forebears, we know. Yay!

But, no, that’s even worse, because we are still doing it. We are allowing the disconnect between our thoughts and actions to grow and to continue inscribing itself in the mechanisms of our society. Ideology, then, Zizek argues, is  not, at least in contemporary societies, a matter of thought, but of action.

If we want to grasp this dimension of fantasy, we must return to the Marxian formula “they do not know it, but they are doing it”, and pose ourselves a very simple question: where is the place of ideological illusion, in the “knowing” or in the “doing” in the reality itself? (27)

For Zizek it’s in the doing, not in the knowing. We know, for example, that money is not really an embodiment of wealth, but we act as if it is. Of course, the societal and structural pressures to do so are immense, and well-nigh irresistible.

So how do we overcome this impasse, where our doing conflicts with our knowing?

For Zizek, the main technique that is used in contemporary societies is irony or cynicism. Nobody actually believes in the values are social and economic structures are supposed to represent, but while we give free rein to this unbelief, we simply act as if we did believe. The falseness that is incorporated into this cynical worldview is as follows:

The model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. (26)

According to this form of wisdom, there is no alternative to cynicism, so we carry on as we are, while keeping an “ironical distance” from our actions (30). Our actions, then, are ideological: “the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what people are doing” (29-30).

So, in the face of ideology having become an outmoded concept, Zizek is basically inverting the entire concept. Now it doesn’t deal with the “phantoms of the human brain“, but with socio-economic reality. This may be an entirely un-Marxist concept: if this reality doesn’t actually create epistemological distortions in those who live within it, then Marx’s entire thesis about the relationship between relations of production and ideas falls down. And ideology becomes about material and institutional structures rather than about consciousness. That’s a large sacrifice, and if that is required to make the term acceptable to current intellectual paradigms, then it is proof that “ideology” really is no more. So Zizek’s is less, I would say, a theory of ideology than an anti-ideological theory. It has interesting elements, undoubtedly, and the focus on cynicism/ irony is useful and pertinent, but there is more to be said about ideological consciousness than that. Ultimately, cynicism is not the defining mood of any generation because there is an incessant pull away from it: most people still cannot handle too much cynicism, and need something to believe in. It may not be something narrowly political: it’s more likely to be an abstraction like Love. Or what about Tolerance, a term Zizek himself has spoken and written on quite a bit? This, too, is a quasi-official  ideology that people espouse without apparent cynicism. The interplay of such powerful idealist concepts with the economic base is what could still be examined by an ideological critique, so there’s no need to throw it all out the window for an emphasis on an ideology of doing.

Phantoms of the Human Brain

[W]e do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

Above is a famous passage from Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology (written: 1846; first published: 1932). In a sort of impressionistic way, it is my favourite formulation of the concept of ideology. I am not really a Marxist: at least, I do not accept – or, at least, am not interested in as a form of analysis – the base/superstructure distinction; and certainly, the Althusserian notion that Marxism is a science is not one I share. But, as Marxism is the most well-articulated alternative to the institutionalization of greed that is Capitalism, no reflective person can fail to be interested in it. And ideology, taken in itself – indebted as any usage must be to Marxist use of the term – doesn’t necessitate that we speak of an economic base, nor does it have a pretension to a science in the references in German Ideology. Rather, to define the term at an unacceptably general level, it is a tool for examining the processes by which people come to hold conclusions on political and social issues.

One formulation in the above quote on ideology that appeals to me is that of phantoms formed in the human brain, which applies to all morality, religion, metaphysics. This has that element of naked scorn that I like in my thinkers. But, of course, academically, one has to question oneself before using such a phrase. Who are you (one asks oneself) to dismiss the ideas of others as phantoms? It were better, perhaps, to retreat from such blatant judgmentalism and simply perform a discourse analysis on certain expressions of these ideas, thus, it is argued, avoiding the epistemological assumptions of the ideologist. But the epistemological assumptions of Marx and Engels have a clear basis: observation of real, active men and their real-life processes. That is the key: not to derive a philosophy from arguments in the “discipline” of philosophy, but rather to strip all that away and return to observation of people in their everyday. For observation is relatively reliable, but idealist speculation is not. And here may be the key element missing in a discourse analysis – a commitment to beginning from real-life processes. For by beginning and ending with discourse only, such an analysis, while keeping itself safe from epistemological questionings, is, in precise proportion as it is doing this, sealing itself off from an ability to engage with anything beyond the purely textual. By thus limiting itself, it is keeping itself very much a “discipline”, but a discipline that will have to entirely collapse and remake itself if it is to make a bridge across the divide between textual analysis and a fuller engagement with all elements of being-in-this-our-world.

The Sage and the Man of Letters

In Victorian England, the class of person we would probably call a public intellectual went by other names. Two such names were Sage and Man of Letters. Both of these terms are, of course, heavily associated with Thomas Carlyle. John Holloway’s study The Victorian Sage (1953) takes Carlyle as its first case study, contending that Carlyle’s aim is the standard one of the sage, “to state, and to clinch, the basic tenets of a ‘Life-Philosophy'” (excerpted in H. Bloom, ed., Thomas Carlyle [Chelsea House, 1986], p. 17); with the term Man of Letters Carlyle is still more closely associated, for did he not write the classic 19th-century investigation into the concept, “The Hero as Man of Letters” in On Heroes? The titular personage of this  lecture-cum-essay was, said Carlyle, “altogether a product of these new ages.” He was, moreover, “sent hither specially that he may discern for himself, and make manifest to us, this same Divine Idea: in every new generation it will manifest itself in a new dialect; and he is there for the purpose of doing that.” Of course, there is some self-reference here, and Carlyle did himself become associated with the figure of the Man of Letters, see for example John Gross’ The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). So we can see that there is some quite significant overlap between these two categories, Sage and Man of Letters. What, then, is the distinction?

I’ve been reading Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984), and he attempts a distinction. The Sage, he says,

[R]epresents […] an attempt to rescue criticism and literature from […] squalid political infighting […], constituting them instead as transcendental forms of knowledge […]. Literature will fulfill its ideological functions most effectively only if it sheds all political instrumentality to become the repository of a common human wisdom beyond the sordidly historical. (39-40)

I’m not sure if “ideological” and “common human wisdom” really belong in the same sentence, unless there’s a shift in viewpoint halfway through the sentence. If one accepts the notion of “common human wisdom” one can’t consider it to pertain to anything ideological – which is, by definition, partial and biased. But, certainly, the notion of common human wisdom is one that is central to the Sage and particularly to Carlyle, and it did not pertain to political parties. As early as the French Revolution, this element of Carlyle’s writing was noted and appreciated:

He is not a party historian like Scott, who could not, in his benevolent respect for rank and royalty, see duly the faults of either: he is as impartial as Thiers, but with a far loftier and nobler impartiality.


It is better to view it loftily from afar, like our mystic poet Mr Carlyle, than too nearly with sharp-sighted and prosaic Thiers. (Thackeray, qtd. in Seigel, ed., Thomas Carlyle The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 71.

Carlyle undoubtedly is a sage in Eagleton’s sense then. But what, then, of the Man of Letters. Eagleton defines this personage thusly:

[T]he bearer and dispenser of a generalized ideological wisdom rather than the exponent of a specialist intellectual skill. one whose synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest, is able to survey the whole cultural and intellectual landscape of his age.

Once again, “ideological” appears out of place here, jarring, for similar reasons to those outlined above, with the notion of the “synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest” – how can such a vision, if it is accepted as such, produce an ideological wisdom? (How, indeed, can wisdom, if one accepts that it is wisdom, be ideological?). Eagleton has written on the concept of ideology as much as almost any living author,so his usage of it is perhaps worth investigating. In the Eagleton passage I happen to have close to hand, he writes thusly:

[Ideology] refers more precisely to the process whereby interests of a certain kind become masked, rationalized, naturalized, universalized, legitimated in the name of certain forms of political power. Ideology, Verso, 2007, p. 202)

If this is representative of his view, then it’s a fairly classic Marxist take on the concept . For my purposes, it’s a little narrow – the idea that political power is behind ideology rules out various other motivations for the masking, rationalizing, etc., of interests. Perhaps social power would be better? Social is almost synonymous with the most extended meaning of political, but it does not  bear the same narrow meanings which give some ambivalence to Eagleton’s formulation. Both seem to contain the key point that ideology is of the collective, rather than of the individual. This, I would suggest is a more useful way to view it: to allow that a worldview, say, may be individual, but an ideology is individual consciousness inflected by the social (to keep it unfeasibly broad for the moment) – then, as you work towards a definition, the notion of falsity has to come in: the masking, naturalizing, the false consciousness (as Engels would have it), something along these lines. But not, at any rate, to be considered compatible with “common human wisdom” (a concept most contemporary academic critics would not accept, would, perhaps, laugh at, or even be embarrassed by), but which I, being partial to the outlook of the Victorian Sage (as the name of the blog suggests), find at least an attractive concept, if not one that is practically attainable or definable in a pure sense – that doesn’t, I frankly admit, exist in a pure sense, but is not therefore to be unceremoniously flung out of window (as Carlyle might say).

Detour over: after defining the MoL, Eagleton goes on to helpfully distinguish him from the aforedefined Sage:

Such comprehensive authority links the man of letters on one side with the sage; but whereas the sage’s synopticism is a function of transcendental detachment, the man of letters sees as widely as he does because material necessity compels him to be a bricoleur, dilettante, jack-of-all-trades, deeply embroiled for survival in the very commercial literary world from which Carlyle beat such a hasty retreat. (45)

This is a neat distinction, and one that fits with the connotations of the terms. An early meaning of sage is, according to the OED:

A man of profound wisdom; esp. one of those persons of ancient history or legend who were traditionally famous as the wisest of mankind

Thus the notion of transcendentalism fits well with a personage with mythic associations, while the more matter-of-fact man of letters has in Eagleton’s analysis, more down-to-earth connotations. Yet it is only at an abstract level that the distinction holds up: in reality, the 19th-century writers to whom those terms were applied (and Eagleton is using it in describing 19th-century criticism) were almost generally both. In historical terms, the categorization is unhelpful, and really speaks to the love of taxonimizing that afflicts many critics. To analyze is, to a large extent, to taxonomize, but history tends to break such distinctions down. Thus, my point simply is that though Eagleton’s analysis is somewhat interesting, it’s not one I will be trying to apply.

Nevertheless, I’m interested in the undisciplinary nature of the learning that the man of letters accrues. From a 21st-century academic point of view, this seems to me the most interesting element. The academic sees narrowly, methodologically, where the man of letters saw synoptically. The academic structures in place do not now allow for such a mode of vision. No, for that we have to close our Foucaults and open our Sartors, the opening chapter of which is one of the great paeans to intellectual freedom. In my humble opinion.

[W]ould Criticism erect not only finger-posts and turnpikes, but spiked gates and impassable barriers, for the mind of man? It is written, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Surely the plain rule is, Let each considerate person have his way, and see what it will lead to. For not this man and that man, but all men make up mankind, and their united tasks the task of mankind.  (Sartor, Ch. 1)

John Ruskin’s Traffic in Penguin Little Black Classics

In celebration of their 80th birthday, Penguin have introduced 80 short volumes (55-ish pages each) on sale for 80p in England or one Euro here in Ireland in a range called Little Black Classics. It’s somewhat of a “best that has been thought and said” (Arnold) range, not unlike the Penguin Great Ideas series of a few years back. It even has quite a few of the same authors: Dickens, Ruskin, Nietzsche. There is only one text, I think, that is included in both series: Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. According to a sales ranking I think I saw somewhere (but I can’t find it now), the Manifesto is actually the biggest selling of the new series, despite its availability in many editions.

But unlike the wholly non-fiction Great Ideas, Little Black Classics mixes fiction with non-fiction and poetry. The volumes are also smaller and much cheaper than the earlier series. One euro per volume is a fantastic price. Of course, all these Classics are well out of copyright, which makes costs of publication much lower than it would otherwise be. On a recent trip into Hodges & Figgis in town, I picked up a selection of five from the large shelf devoted to Little Black Classics. Given their sleekly stylish black-and-white cover design, they look good together on a shelf. Penguin always tends to come up trumps for simple and elegant cover design.

Ruskin's Traffin in the Little Black Classics edition

Ruskin’s Traffin in the Little Black Classics edition

Of the five I picked up, I immediately went to read Traffic by John Ruskin (#5). The volume contained the titular essay (or rather transcribed speech) and “The Roots of Honour”, the first essay in Unto This Last (1862). I had read both before, but Ruskin is always worth a re-read. Ruskin is unfashionable in some senses: his politics is resolutely paternalist, and his gender attitudes were influentially rebuked by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1969), wherein his work was contrasted with that of his proto-feminist contemporary John Stuart Mill, thus rendering him something of an exemplar of outdated and offensive gender politics. He also featured in the recent biographical film Effie Gray (2014), portrayed rather negatively as the husband of the titular character, an oppressive and sexually inadequate spousal presence.

He has his good points, though, and “Traffic” shows some of them. It was initially a speech given to merchants and citizens of Bradford, ostensibly to give them guidance as to how their projected exchange building should be designed (Ruskin was a noted architecture critic [The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice]). But Ruskin had other ideas, as he makes clear at the outset. I do enjoy Ruskin’s opening gambit in “Traffic”:

My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build: but earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind. I cannot talk, or at least can say very little, about this same Exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not willingly; — I could not deserve your pardon, if when you invited me to speak on one subject, I wilfully spoke on another. But I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours.

If, however, when you sent me your invitation, I had answered, ‘I won’t come, I don’t care about the Exchange of Bradford,’ you would have been justly offended with me, not knowing the reasons of so blunt a carelessness. So I have come down, hoping that you will patiently let me tell you why, on this, and many other such occasions, I now remain silent, when formerly I should have caught at the opportunity of speaking to a gracious audience.

In a word, then, I do not care about this Exchange, — because you don’t; and because you know perfectly well I cannot make you.

(Available at Victorian Web)

His first move is to tell his audience bluntly that he is not going to do what he has been engaged to do. His next is to attack his audience’s motives and their ideology. His word choices are perhaps just polite enough to escape hostility from his listeners, but combative enough to call into question all of the presumptions of a capitalist enterprise. He goes on to especially attack the idea of “getting on”, which he cites as the ruling practical ideal of his countrymen. In place of Christianity is the worship of the Goddess of Getting On. But the difficulty about Her is, Ruskin notes, that “while to one family this deity is indeed the Goddess of Getting on, to a thousand families she is the Goddess of not Getting on.”

So that’s the problem with Getting On as a ruling idea: it privileges competition over co-operation; one gets on at the expense of another. What Ruskin ultimately calls for is for that the notion of Getting On and the amassing of wealth be discarded, and that commonwealth should be the ultimate notion to which all practical politics should be subordinate. Commonwealth has little to do with material wealth, and much to do with finding ways towards a simpler life. What the commercial classes of Bradford thought of it I do not know, but to my eyes it remains a mainly sensible, eloquent, and effective piece of writing.

It is important as much as anything as an example of an intellectual speaking outside of the intellectual classes, something academics need to pay attention to. Ruskin doesn’t place himself among his audience – he is decidedly oppositional, not one of them. But he does address them with great straightforwardness, not afraid to place his ideas before them unadorned by verbiage or technical language. Not afraid also, to start by annoying rather than placating them, a technique well worth studying, if one wishes to bring unpleasant subjects before the public – and what other subjects are worth bringing forward?

Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875)

Apparently, Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday was last Friday. As it happens, I was just finishing The Way We Live Now (1875). This once-neglected novel has become now possibly Trollope’s best known: for example, it has appeared in Robert McCrum’s ongoing Guardian list of 100 Best English-Language Novels. Quoth McCrum:

The Way We Live Now is a wonderful, melodramatic tale-of-the-times, by a master of his craft. It begins in satire and finally resolves into entertaining social comedy. As a savage commentary on mid-Victorian England by a marvellously addictive writer steeped in every aspect of an extraordinary society, it could hardly be bettered. No wonder the first reviews were atrocious.

I think its status as tale-of-the-times is important. It is both a good narrative and, equally importantly, a historical document, as is clearly announced by the book’s title. However, it is not really considered a part of the Condition-of-England genre of the mid-19th century, because despite its length, scope and interest in politics and economics, the issue of class doesn’t come in strongly. Trollope was a writer of the middle and upper classes, and though there is a sub-plot about Ruby Ruggles, a working-class woman who is embroiled in a relationship with aristocratic ne’er-do-well Felix Carbury, there is no questioning of the relationship between the classes on a larger scale, no forays into industrial relations, trade unions, strikes and the like, as in Hard Times, North and South, et al.

That’s the curious thing about Trollope. He’s able to get inside his characters’ heads without regard for class or gender (especially gender, he seems to give more time to his female characters’ thoughts than the male ones), but his empathy stops at the individual. He’s able to be sympathetic to all characters, without questioning any of the social conditions that creates the inequitable relationships he describes. Thus I disagree with McCrum’s use of the adjective “savage”: Trollope is the very opposite of savage, being unerringly mild and even bland in tone, in contrast to say, Dickens.

Thus, Trollope can present all sorts of situations in a fairly frank manner, without seeming to draw attention to or critique them. Looking through my notes on reading The Way We Live Now on Kindle, I came across a reflection on suicide. Typical Trollope, he goes into detail on the aftermath and the technical details of an inquest. The question is whether the suicide is mad; this is important because if not, (s)he has committed a crime and cannot be given Christian burial. The narrator reflects:

Perhaps it would be well that all suicides should be said to have been mad, for certainly the jurymen are not generally guided in their verdicts by any accurately ascertained facts. If the poor wretch has, up to his last days, been apparently living a decent life; if he be not hated, or has not in his last moments made himself specially obnoxious to the world at large, then he is declared to have been mad. Who would be heavy on a poor clergyman who has been at last driven by horrid doubts to rid himself of a difficulty from which he saw no escape in any other way? Who would not give the benefit of the doubt to the poor woman whose lover and lord had deserted her? Who would remit to unhallowed earth the body of the once beneficent philosopher who has simply thought that he might as well go now, finding himself powerless to do further good upon earth? Such, and such like, have of course been temporarily insane, though no touch even of strangeness may have marked their conduct up to their last known dealings with their fellow-mortals.

The narrator is contemplating the absurdities of criminalizing suicide, and his suggested remedy is not any questioning of a bad law, but a suggestion that it can be quietly circumvented – implying that it is a bad law, but not directly confronting that fact. Someone like Dickens would have denounced the law, demanded its repeal, and mocked those who supported it. The impression created of Trollope here is one of overpassing, excessive mildness and inoffensiveness.

He’s similar in his dealing with such matters as anti-semitism in this novel. He documents the anti-semitism shown by the English middle and upper classes towards the Jewish Brehgart, but explicit and even implicit critique is absent, just as assent is absent. He is curiously dissociated from his subjects, sympathetic but aloof. Perhaps it the relative aloofness from social problems that gives him the unshakeable reputation as a writer favoured by conservatives (see this, for example, from Conservative journal The New Criterion). It’s not that Trollope avoids such problems; he documents them, but not as problems, just as stuff that happens in society – in a society that he evidently takes such pleasure in viewing that it almost reads at times that he enjoys even the blatant injustices of it.

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