Sunday, June 26, 2011

Avant-garde and Capital, volume one (Macris not Marx)

[Another older, draft post.].
For mediation in Benjamin has more of the character of a switch between circuits (opening a gap in Gadamer’s ‘closed circuits of historical life’, triggered by the metonymic structure of the image) than the production of a shared conceptual space, since the terms of its relations are located in different temporal dimensions.
Peter Osborne, The politics of time : 151

The intention to produce an avant-garde novel is rarely matched by its realisation. The odds weigh heavily against success. Primarily, the reception, or consumption, of the artefact as avant-garde depends on the serendipity of the chosen form and content: for to be ahead of the contemporary is partly a gamble on behalf of the primary producer and the work-gang involved in production, manufacture, packaging, distribution, and promotion. Expensive market research might assist in this task, but such mercenary information-gathering is so antithetical to the codes of author-novelist as artist-prophet, that even the whiff of market measurement immediately removes avant-garde from our table of evaluations.

Why this seems a natural response is itself interesting and something that Pierre Bourdieu has, in part, analysed and explained in his The Rules of Art, by way of arguing that aesthetic autonomy is a value created in opposition to economic and political power. The power of the creative work gains its critical and forerunning position because it negates and distances its immanent content from what its contemporary audience take to be the dominant poles of economic and political power, since bourgeois liberal capitalism became ascendant.

However, Bourdieu’s sociological analysis of the literary field’s creation of symbolic capital , and the importance of avant-garde-ness to this type of capital, is too reliant on a sociological reading of the content of fictional narrative: in particular Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, which Bourdieu models as a map of pre-1848 Paris, in which the novel’s representation of the movements and locations of socio-political-economic classes of men, with the hero Frederic Moreau structuring this literary geography, are read as an ur-map of how the rules of the literary field are both played and inaugurated. Within this genealogy of the French literary field, the avant-garde assumes its rule-like status as an innovative break in both the dominant forms and in the composition of the dominant personnel. The social break is largely driven by a biologically generational turnover. Franco Moretti, in the first chapter of his Graphs, Maps, Trees, concurs with Bourdieu here: generational change is homologous to generic change.

This leaves the question of form. For it’s one thing to propose that generational change drives, and is at, the centre of the modern literary field’s renewal and production. But such biological new-ness has no necessary relationship to generic innovation – whether such innovation is mere bricolage is another question. And to what extent is avant-garde status, avant-garde production, aesthetic innovation only? Indeed, can avant-garde, a term with etymological roots in military discourse, have a non-political import?

For Bourdieu what is innovative, and thereby a decisive instance of literary avant-garde-ness, about A Sentimental Education is that the novel’s realism is present in its focus on everyday events and objects, and yet the description and presentation of such everyday events and objects, is formally sophisticated – the artistry of the language is intended for its own pleasure. Art for art’s sake. The innovation here, for Bourdieu, is that literary aesthetics achieves here a form of autonomy for the text, and symbolic capital for the author, who, from the consecrated position of being judged by their peers to have achieved such autonomy (in fact negating power- business and politics), obtains a right to practice judgement over and against power. For Bourdieu, the public intellectual, in France at least, represented by Zola during the Dreyfus affair, and subsequently Sartre, derives their symbolic capital through mastering the rules of the literary field, and its version of the rules of art.

However, what is conceptualised as avant-garde here, in Bourdieu’s history, or genesis as it is subtitled, is based upon an understanding of time and history which is infused with that mixture of modernity and linear progress that Walter Benjamin termed historicist.

In a basic way Anthony Macris’ novel, Capital, volume one, pitches its claim to innovation with its dualistic structure: the chapters alternate, with the odd-numbered chapters told in third-person, present tense, set in a highly compressed time-space, and situated in sections of the London Underground train network. The even-numbered chapters are conventional, first-person micro-stories, or episodes, concerned with coming of age –style subjects; their style is reminiscent of the epicleti (little epiphanies) of paralysis classification that James Joyce gave his short story collection The Dubliners. But what is of particular interest here is that the London Underground narrative is both self-consciously avant-garde, and that its self-consciousness extends to the political philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, alongside David Harvey’s Marxist geography of the condition of postmodernity. My argument here is that this degree of self-consciousness in the London Underground narrative of Macris’s novel, presents a constant switching between circuits not only within this thread of the novel, but between this thread and the other, more conventional one.

Indeed, while Benjamin’s multi-temporality, his messianic time as exterior and ultimately redemptive of all of history, might be a model for how avant-garde-ness functions, for how to escape the nightmare of history, what Macris’ novel does, instead, is to generate a rhizomic root-weave of potentially live switching-points, through which the reader can enter the novel, not as a spatialized circuitry that takes time to flow or move through, but as a multi-temporal text-machine capable of generating “a ‘model’ of the Messianic, ‘shot through’ with ‘chips’ of Messianic time, a site of a ‘weak’ Messianic power.” (Osborne, 149) . . .

We need a conceptual bridge back from now-time to a new narrativity, such that its disjunctive power might have a transformative effect on modes of identification and action. Unless we can find one, Benjamin’s ecstatic ‘now’ will remain a mere ‘time-lag’ or ‘in-between’, without historical force. (Osborne, 156)

Hypothesis: Capital, volume one attempts a now-time in its London Underground thread - an interruption in which the detritus of history doesn’t so much pile up as recombine through text, and in which the Young man is like the angel of history, blown by the wind coming in from paradise. The interruption here is signalled from the first sentence, ‘The young man in the fawn trench coat cannot wait to get off the train.’ (1). The re-seaming of this now-time, in which chips of the Messianic shoot through, into the episodes and chronotopes of the bildungs – one the key literary genres of modernity, and of modernisation – narratives, enacts this conceptual bridge of a needed new narrativity. How successfully is another matter, but I think there is a strong claim to this being part of the novel’s intent.