15 October 2013

Of Lists and an Aesthetics of Experience

— I read to sense the doubling of time: the time of a book’s form, which pertains to the enclosure and topology of rooms, allegories, houses, bodies, surfaces; and the time of my perceiving, which feels directional, melodic, lyric, inflectional. Then, because of the book’s time overlaying my own, reading opens a proposition. It receives in me the rhythm I didn’t know I missed.
- Lisa Robertson, “Time in the Codex”, Nilling
Gérard Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretations athletically theorises those liminal, marginal, associative, and attendant objects that inevitably accompany, and indeed, as he argues, are co-constitutive of, a text: the notes, lists, colophons, addendums, errata slips, biographical lines, dedications, epigraphs (to name but a few); as well as the material circumstances of typesetting, printing, binding, scanning, distributing, reading; and finally the larger, more abstract textual markers, like the century or language that a text is written, or the gender or sexuality with which a writer is interpellated. For Genette, a paratext is any thing that contributes to the actualisation of a given text. He refers to paratexts as “thresholds” that comprise a kind of “fringe at the unsettled limits that enclose with a pragmatic halo the literary work”. “The paratext” he writes “is empirically made up of a heterogeneous groups of practices and discourses of all kinds and dating from all periods.” Crucially, and perhaps surprisingly, he argues that the paratext is “characterized by an authorial intention and assumption of responsibility”—or, to put it differently, “something is not a paratext unless the author or one of his associates accepts responsibility for it”.

I read this emphasis on intentionality and responsibility as one that serves Genette a focus on the specifics of a textual object in its pragmatic materiality. One could easily, as I will suggest here, dilate this definition to include the unintended (which is not say Freudian), unreciprocated, unknown, and unanticipated textual nightlives and afterimages that accompany, sometimes at a distance or wonky angle, any textual form. For, alongside the text is a swarm of paratexts whose very capacity to live alongside affords them a particular kind of subtle efficacy.

At one point, Genette asserts that while there is no text without paratexts, there are paratexts without texts. He means this in an historical sense: there are lists, annotations, indexes, and appendices for which no object survives. These oddities serve as footnotes to an unobtainable textuality that can nonetheless be read via a different, more distant, or perhaps more interrogative, inquiry. To this category of the paratext-with-no-text, Craig Dworkin — American poet-critic and key figure in the so-called and somewhat-contested scene of ‘conceptual writers’ working towards a kind of post-author poetics — adds contemporary examples of purposefully paratextual objects. The paratext-as-text, Dworkin argues, is an aesthetic mode that ironises the sanctity and autonomy of the artwork while critiquing the assumed uniqueness of the artist or author. To this category, Dworkin recruits a number of artists and writers whose work constructs material and thematic paratextualities in the manner of lists, inventories, speculative documentaries, and databases.

The list is a paratextuality with an especially social discursive life: lists most readily point away from the rhetorics and stylistics of the text in which they occur; also, lists are often independent from a single text, say, for example, in the case of a shopping list. In the history of poetry, the list form has figured as a constructive conceit—one that, through the seemingly paradoxical affects of repetition and difference, speaks of a world both heterogeneous and somehow harmonious. Walt Whitman, an exemplary list poet, used the performative affect of the litany to emphasise his most beloved subject: multitudinousness.

Bruno Latour, too, is an accomplished composer of litanies — so much so that Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology gives Latour’s name to the list-forms that have become a stylistic trend in speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, especially in the work of Graham Harman. These ‘Latour Litanies’ function as exemplary strings of ‘objects’ in the broad terms set out by this new philosophical position. Objects, as defined by Harman et al, should not be imagined as being restricted to inert lumps of matter as in previous metaphysical schema, nor should they be imagined as restricted to the abstracted realm of the prototype or general category. Rather, they should be readily called on by way of example and in order to demonstrate their radical alterity. An example is this one from Harman, who is explicitly citing Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern: “neutrinos, stars, palm trees, rivers, cats, armies, nations, superheroes, unicorns, and square circles”. This kind of rhetoric is strategic—it aims on the one hand to seem arbitrary and on the other to seem a measured education on ‘flat ontology’: if everything is equally and irreducibly an object in a world of objects, then there can be no such thing as an exemplary object and only a swarm of equal-footed and de-privileged objects. Thus, the litany here becomes a kind of de-emphasis by emphasis.

At the moment of the coining of the term ‘Latour Litany’, Bogost writes:
Let’s adopt ontography as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity. From the perspective of metaphysics, ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind. Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence.
Bogost continues: “The inherent partition between things is a premise of OOO, and lists help underscore those separations, turning the flowing legato of a literary account into the jarring staccato of real being.” Next, Bogost evokes Barthes, a connoisseur of the list, while also somehow asserting the list form as non-literary. “The off-pitch sound of lists to the literary ear”, he writes, “only emphasizes their real purpose: disjunction instead of flow. Lists remind us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens”. This comes before a rather unenergetic reading of Barthes’ ‘I like, I don’t like’, an autobiographical list poem that Bogost finds “delightfully strange” in a way that seems at odd with his own analysis. “Like literary prose,” he writes of the piece, “the account is meant to help the reader grasp something about Barthes, yet by fashioning a list he also draws our attention to the curious world outside his person, as filtered through the arbitrary meter of likes and dislikes. Unlike his literary and critical works, this list disrupts being, spilling a heap of unwelcome and incoherent crap at the foot of the reader.” Here, Bogost makes two partial claims about the Barthes’ piece: on the one hand, it is “like literary prose” because it supposed as something to be “grasped” “about” a subject; on the other hand, it is “unlike his literary and critical works” because, as he writes, it “disrupts being” by heaping up “arbitrary” preferences. Now, to be sure, Barthes hardly needs my defense here, however, it’s worth mentioning that firstly, Barthes’ list-making was an important, if not signature compositional mode for his literary and critical work—indeed, there was no definite distinction between the literary and the critical, the fragment and the thesis for Barthes. Secondly, to imagine that one’s likes and dislikes are arbitrary seems a quick dismissal: reading the short piece, one gets in fact quite a clear sense of the taste-making and preferential differentiations of a particular figure and his milieu. To assert one’s performative preference for, for example, “loosely held political convictions” over “the politico- sexual”, is at once a critical, ethical, and aesthetic position. Bogost is overinvested in a reading of Barthes’ that renders the list an irreconcilable catalogue of “unwelcome and incoherent crap” so that he can argue that the list form functions to “break with being”.

What’s interesting about Bogost’s oddly rushed and ill-conceived moment of literary criticism is the way in which it indexes a broader problem with speculative realism, and in particular, with the core proponents of an object-oriented ontology. The problem is one of aesthetics—for, despite considerable attempts to frame this philosophical position as one critically concerned with both aesthetic experience and with proposing new methods for accounting for aesthetic experience, it does so rather inadequately. In his essay, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism”, Graham Harman offers welcome critiques of both New Critical and Deconstructionist critical praxes, positing instead the “countermethod” of an object-oriented reading strategy: “Instead of dissolving a text upward into its readings or downward into its cultural elements, we should focus specifically on how it resists such dissolution”. By way of a practical example, he suggests: “the critic might try to show how each text resists internal holism by attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens.” Similar to Bogost’s over-determination of the incoherence of Barthes’ list, Harman’s suggestion of speculative replacements as a critical methodology seems a little under-theorised. There are, surely, more rigorous ways to engage with a text’s unsubstitutionability—for example, by considering the kinds of knowledge that a text occasions in its reading and reader.

Steven Shaviro, perhaps the speculative realists’ most careful and generous frenemy, suggests that the major difference between the contemporary cell of Object-Oriented Ontologists and earlier philosophers who similarly argued for the deprivileging of the human subject in metaphysics—most notably, Alfred North Whitehead—is one of aesthetics. He suggests that ultimately, Harman’s insistence on the unknowability of the object’s withdrawn thingness, its ‘allure’, corresponds to the sublime—an aesthetics predicated, as Shaviro reminds us, on the “attraction of something that has retreated into its own depths.” Whitehead, on the other hand, posits a metaphysics of the beautiful—in which, by Shaviro’s account, beauty is defined as “a matter of differences that are conciliated, adapted to one another, and ‘interwoven in patterned contrasts’ in order to make for ‘intense experience’”. Here, some things ought to be noted: experience refers to any and all modes of perception, of which the human kind is merely one therein; also, the definition of beauty is also a definition of objects, that is to say, a definition of materiality, sociality, and existence in Whitehead’s capacious ontology. Hence, for Whitehead, everything is beautiful, which as Shaviro points out, might seem an embarrassingly naïve position to us today. However, Shaviro continues, in fact the beautiful is the more apt aesthetic category for us now, as we come truly out of the twentieth-century’s lust for the sublime. Shaviro writes: “We live in a world where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely combined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales. Nothing is hidden; there are no more concealed depths.” Of course—there’s still difference, and mistakes, and secrets, and fakery, but these are the result of overlaps and stacks—not, as it were, because of unplumbable and alluring depths or gaps.

I began by remembering the paratext and its peculiar relation to the material of the text object. A paratext is neither equivalent to, nor other than its corresponding text or texts. And, a text never arrives on the scene alone—it is always flanked by its paratexts. Similarly, for Shaviro’s Whiteheadian adjustments to contemporary object- oriented philosophy, the object is never quite the alien it might seem. Its relations to others, its ambivalent affects and minor influences, its interventions and its co- authorships, its laterality and its one-way parasitisms, its violent behaviour and erotics, its appetite, its umwelt: all this differential intensity is what, for an aesthetics of existence, co-constitutes both the entity and the world. An aesthetics of existence is both a metaphysics and a critical methodology—and if it is assumed that the aesthetic object is irreducible to any of its becomings, it is nonetheless able to be taken up into discussion of what those becomings, in their particular assembly, make happen.

The list form may be the stylistic device of choice for the OOOers, but what the list demonstrates, cannily from within the theses of mutual alienation, is something of a relational objecthood, in which the specificity of non-narratival but nonetheless action-packed collection of things with real effects does not break from being, but rather, gives one account of its diversity. 
- Astrid Lorange, 2013

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