Sunday, May 17, 2009

On the Historical Sociology of Literary Form I

*More PhD revision introduction material. This is part of the methodology section. Any comments will be appreciated*

Franco Moretti's Rhetoric of Fiction

[F]ormal patterns are what literature uses in order to master historical reality, and to reshape its materials in the chosen ideological key: if form is disregarded, not only do we lose the complexity (and therefore the interest) of the whole process – we miss the strictly political significance too. (Moretti, 2000a: xiii)

In key essays from the collection Signs Taken for Wonders (2005), in his analysis of the Bildungsroman in European Culture in The Way of the World (2000a), in Modern Epic (1996), and even through his more recent “quantitative turn” in Graphs, Maps, Trees (2007a), literary historian Franco Moretti has consistently performed his literary studies from a Marxist-based theory of the historical sociology of literary form.

For Moretti literature is neither fully autonomous from the society out of which it emerges and into which it circulates, nor is it determined by the mode of production in the last instance, as is claimed in the literary theories that base their metaphysics on the Althusserian problematic (Jameson 2003: 25-6). Literature, instead, works through a morphological bricolage that brings various symbolic forms, conventions of narrative, together in a single text (2000a xii, 5). These forms, or narrative morphemes, are generated out of “rhetorical innovations, which are the result of chance” (1996: 6). And yet the forces impelling which of these innovations are selected and how they are combined to enact the morphological bricolage of the individual literary text is a matter of “social selection” (6). These forces of selection point to “the idea that literature follows great social changes – that it always ‘comes after’. [Where] [t]o come after, however, does not mean to repeat (‘reflect’) what already exists, but the exact opposite: to resolve the problems set by history” (6).

In Moretti’s literary practise the analysis of the literary text’s form is to be placed into a dialectic with a sociological analysis that is mediated, and delimited, by the shared historical milieu of text and society (6). To invoke Said’s terms, acts of criticism move between text and its affiliations to the “world” by way of what he calls “genuine historical research” (Said 1991: 175). Like Said, Moretti aims his literary practise at understanding and explaining how and why literary texts operate on, with and even against “power relations” (6). He argues that a literary text’s“[r]hetorical ‘daring’ testifies to a will that wants to overturn the power relations of the symbolic order [while] ‘[c]ommonplaces’ and semantic inertia, for their part, are the potential result of that daring no less than its opposite” (2005 8).

For Moretti, “literary discourse is entirely contained within the rhetorical domain” as “the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms” (2005 4, 27). But what literature, in most but not all of its instances, is seeking to secure consent for, and what those cultural norms are, requires “[k]nowledge of the socio-historical context of a literary work or genre” (8). This historically specific sociological knowledge

is not [. . .] an ‘extra’ to be kept in the margins of rhetorical analysis. In general, whether one is aware of it or not, such knowledge furnishes the starting point for interpretation itself, providing it with those initial hypothesis [sic] without which rhetorical mechanisms would be hard to understand, or would tell us very little indeed. (2005: 8)

Moretti has tended to focus his literary history around moments of great transformation and crisis in Western European history. His study of the Bildungsroman situates its emergence

[a]t the turn of the eighteenth century [when] much more than just a rethinking of youth was at stake. Virtually without notice, in the dreams and nightmares of the so-called ‘double-revolution’, Europe plunges into modernity, but without possessing a culture of modernity. If youth, therefore, achieves its symbolic centrality, and the ‘great narrative’ of the Bildungsroman comes into being, this is because Europe has to attach a meaning, not so much to youth, as to modernity. (Moretti, 2000a: 5)

Similarly, his analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses reads its historical sociology as being no less than “the crisis of liberal capitalism” at “the end of the liberal century” – the nineteenth century (2005: 201, 189). While these judgements are made within powerfully persuasive essays of literary study, there is in Moretti’s palpable enthusiasm a tendency to fall for, in what he himself has warned is, the “’Zeitgeist fallacy’” where,

[a] satisfactory level of rhetorical [literary formal] analysis has been reached. The configuration obtained seems to refer unambiguously to a particular hierarchy of values. So one performs the conclusive welding-together of rhetoric and social history. Let us suppose that up until now the argument has been flawless. It is precisely at this point that one makes a mistake. One succumbs to the allure of the sweeping generalization[:] the idea – single, solitary, resplendent – in which a whole epoch is supposedly summed up. (2005: 24-25)

Moretti’s warnings aside, what is singularly productive about his practises of literary history is how he brings the concept of symbolic form to the forefront of his literary history and situates it on the boundary between the literary text and the historically understood operations of that society which it shares. His studies of the Bildungsroman, while at times bordering on the dangerously historicist in that the conception of modernity he uses positions Western European modernity as the avant garde of human development, provide an exemplary application of the “the idea [. . .] that literary genres are problem-solving devices, which address a contradiction in their environment, offering an imaginary resolution by means of their formal organization” (2006: 73). His analysis of the classical Bildungsroman as a genre structured by youth as a symbolic form which works to make sense of Western Europe’s “dreams and nightmares of the so-called ‘double-revolution’ [through which it] plunges into modernity, but without possessing a culture of modernity” provides a model for analysing the symbolic form of youth as a highly-charged trope during the period of Grunge fiction’s production and reception: the 1980s and 1990s (2000a: 5).

Moretti argues that the signifier – youth – comes to carry a new conception in the late eighteenth century, “a symbolic shift” in which being young is no longer defined by not being an adult, but comes instead to symbolise a period of open uncertainty; of “exploration”, “mobility” and “perennially dissatisfied and restless” “interiority” (4). Youth is chosen to symbolise the protean nature of the industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century “because of its ability to accentuate modernity’s ‘essence’, the sign of a world that seeks its meaning in the future rather than in the past” (5). As Moretti argues, however, youth can become this central symbolic form for Western European modernity because it also ends (5-6) The protean, revolutionary nature of capitalist modernity that Marx writes of as a “[c]onstant revolutionizing, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation [. . .] All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air” finds in the symbolic form of youth a symbolic end, as youth itself ends and comes of age with the onset of adulthood (Marx cited in Berman 95).

This symbolic form of youth structures the plot and narration of the Bildungsroman genre through which ideological content is presented and naturalised. One of Moretti’s most striking claims is that the political work that the Bildungsroman performs is not to embed “intolerant, normative, monologic” ideologies into a culture so much as to provide a symbolic form that allows the bourgeoisie to think a contradiction that, rather than being solved, must be lived with “and even transform[ed] into a tool for survival” (2000a: 10). The Bildungsroman, on this reading, is a form that helps the modern subject to live with that “interiorization of contradiction” that, for Moretti, marks “modern socialization” (10).

Moretti’s analysis of the morphology of the Bildungsroman enables us to begin to extricate the complex political and social affects and ideas that ‘youth’ carried as a symbolic form in Australian political culture in the 1990s. As the discussion in the “Reappraising Grunge fiction” section above sought to make clear, the trope of youth has been at the centre of not only the critical reception of Grunge fiction, but has also acted out a primary part in the generationalism that structured significant sections of the culture war debates in Australia in the mid-1990s. The symbolic form of youth as a period of experimentation, rebellion, innocence and irresponsibility carries the implication that such conduct will settle into patterns of adult behaviour, and that this maturation take shape on the foundation of a coming-of-age, or Bildungs – a formation of the autonomous and socialized self. In Grunge fiction, however, this formation fails. And its failure is less a matter of authorial immaturity than a generic convention. The question that Moretti’s methods of historical sociology of literary form raises in the case of Grunge fiction is how do what type of modernity do we read these failed Bildungs with and against?


While Moretti’s method of an historical sociology of literary form provides the primary literary model for the readings of literary texts that are performed in chapters two, three and four his historical sociology comes close to universalising a conception of Western European modernity that is historicist, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s pejorative sense of the term, and that flattens out geographic and localised specificities (2000: 6-16). In order to borrow the model of Morretti’s methods without its grand periodising and Eurocentric assumptions, chapter one will present a compressed and localised temporal and spatial grid out of which an historical sociology that affiliates with Grunge fiction will be presented. Before coming to this historical sociology, key aspects of Fredric Jameson’s methods of literary criticism will be considered as these are also the bases on which the readings will be conducted in the later chapters.

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