Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rancière, _Mute Speech_, part two

ONE MORE COMPLAINT about this Columbia University Press edition: no index?  What's with that?  No bibliography, either.

OK, let's see whether I can do this argument any kind of justice. First, Rancière sees a shift, as the eighteenth century moves into the nineteenth, from the literary being representational and mimetic to being expressive; the work does not reflect its subject so much as it embodies, incarnates it.  Subject, in early modernity, dictated literary genre; each genre had its own decorum; the great object of literature was to say true things well. With the shift, the idea that the topic dictates following certain conventions, that some topics are worthy and some not, evaporates. The work does not re-present a phenomenon so much as it becomes a presentation itself, mysteriously faithful to the quiddity of the phenomenon.

Out of this, the idea that literature is "mute speech": losing its old affinity with rhetoric and oratory, it says what it has to say in ways other than saying it. Rather than plainly speaking its meaning, it makes that meaning manifest. Furthermore, phenomena themselves have "mute speech"; the landscape speaks, folk culture speaks, the cultivated field speaks, the urban street speaks, but not in audible conventional language. The literary text re-creates the non-linguistic utterance of the phenomenon in its own particular carefully crafted language (even though, ironically, this special language is at bottom the same language that we use for conversation and commerce--it has to be wrought upon in some way).

One consequence: all subjects are now OK. Another: the novel, the genre that is not one (the one whose conventions and traditions are vaguest, most malleable), becomes the indispensable genre. A third: kinds of writing we think of as inflexibly opposed, the autotelic and inward (the evanescent, self-absorbed symbolist poem) and the utterly externalized novel-as-document (brutal, burly naturalism) share a root-system.  Both go back to the jettisoning of genre, both attempt to re-create rather than simply mirror. The projects of Mallarmé and Zola have more in common with each other, shall we say, than either's has with those of Corneille or Voltaire.

A fourth: as poetry was the art that other arts took as exemplary in the 17th and 18th century, music (or ballet) is the exemplary art of the 19th.  Music is "mute speech"--expressive, but not by means of explicit referentiality. Meaningful, but unparaphraseable. It utters, but does not speak.

(It seemed to me odd that Rancière fails to quote Pater's "School of Giorgione" on this point--"All art constantly aspires to the condition of music." For that matter, he also neglects to note that the Rivière-Artaud correspondence, to which he devotes a few pages, was brilliantly discussed in an essay by Samuel Delany, in ways quite congruent to R.'s argument. Sometimes it seems, does it not, that the French basically ignore us?)

With the vanishing of genre, decorum, and all the rhetorical baggage of belles lettres at the dawn of romanticism, the question becomes: if we have concluded that literariness does not reside in genre, decorum, etc., in what does it reside? Hegel, as Rancière sees it, decided that literature was basically over and done with, but the bulk of Rancière's book is about how a succession of great writers from Balzac to Proust framed and responded to this question. The question was never settled once and for all, but the attempts generated some of the pinnacles of world literature. I found this approach to literary history novel, persuasive, and exciting.

It would be tricky to show how this same process worked it way out in Anglo-Hiberno-American lit, whose history is bushier, crankier, more loaded with dead ends and excrescences, but I could see someone smarter and less lazy than I doing it. Rancière's argument applies uncannily well to Yeats, for instance, who both militantly insisted on the autonomy of the poetic imagination yet also wished to articulate the spirit of the Irish nationalist struggle; for R., this seemingly self-contradictory dual aspiration was bound to appear once literature sought to become "mute speech."

The argument also could help make sense of 20th century American poetry. Once Pound, Eliot, Whitman, H.D. (okay, and Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and many other less dazzling lights) gave iambic pentameter the heave-ho in the early years of the century--once versification, that is, was no longer what made poetry poetry--they thereby opened the enormous question of what does make poetry poetry. In the enormous spectrum of answers to that question, we have the enormous spectrum of 20th century American poetry, from Creeley and Oppen and Silliman and O'Hara and Moxley to Lowell and Bishop and Merrill and Graham and, God bless her, Gjertrud Schnackenberg--an extraordinary plenitude. Once poetry is no longer a courtier, depending on mastery of certain presentation skills and sharing an understanding of what the king will be willing to listen to, what is it? Weakened in many ways, but stronger in some ways as well.

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