Friday, 5 September 2014

Objects in Utopia

My favourite literary theorist Roland Barthes once remarked that ‘Notre littérature a mis très longtemps à découvrir l'objet; il faut attendre Balzac pour que le roman ne soit plus seulement l'espace de purs rapports humains, mais aussi de matières et d'usages appelés à jouer leur partie dans l'histoire des passions : Grandet eût-il pu être avare (littérairement parlant), sans ses bouts de chandelles, ses morceaux de sucre et son crucifix d'or?’ Morris’s News from Nowhere might equally well be considered the moment when utopia discovered the object, when those rather colourless, merely generic utopian objects from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy give way to the intensely rendered object-world of Morris’s Thames valley: Dick Hammond’s damascened belt buckle, William Guest’s elaborately crafted pipe in the Piccadilly booth, and so on.

There are no doubt major benefits for utopia in this discovery of the object. The more sensuously embodied the abstract schema of your good society is, the more persuasive it and its values will appear to the reader. But there are paradoxical dangers here too. For if objects, landscape and even characters are indeed welcomely concretised and individualised in this fashion, there opens the possibility that they will acquire a thematic momentum and narrative force of their own, which may lead in directions that stray away from, or even directly challenge, the official thematic values that your utopia was trying to propound.

An ‘incarnational’ aesthetics thus proves to be a mixed blessing. It’s now hard to imagine a satisfying (or even readable) utopia without it, but it may also lead us to a view of the genre that veers close to the Marxist literary theory of Pierre Macherey: that the very fleshing out of the author’s ideological intentions – in this case, the abstract schema of a good society - in literary form may itself problematise those intentions, may revealingly expose their gaps, limits and silences. Whether or not Macherey's claim is true of literature as a whole, it certainly seems to capture the constitutive joy and dilemma of utopia as a genre, strung unsettlingly between politics (abstract) and literature (concrete) as it has been from More onwards.


Anonymous said...

Is there a translation for those of us with inadequate French please?

Tony Pinkney said...

My rough translation would be: "Our literature has taken a long time to discover the object. We had to wait until Balzac for the novel to become more than just a space of pure human relations, to become also a space of matter and habits which play their part in the history of passions. Could Grandet [in Balzac’s 'Eugénie Grandet'] have been a miser (literarily speaking) without his ends of candles, his tiny portions of sugar and his golden crucifix?". Hope that helps. But French is a beautiful language, well worth learning!

Anonymous said...

Why is Barthes your favourite theorist? I ask in relation to literary criticism more broadly. What gives a theory validity- is it because it ‘chimes’ with you on some level? By what yardstick is a theory valid to someone? I particularly struggle with this in relation to psychoanalytic literary criticism which seem very often to derive from unsubstantiated assertions. Althusser stated that people are positioned by prescribed ideologies; when I argued in a seminar that this could potentially be resisted, it was met with derision by the tutor. If his theories can’t be revisited how was HE able to articulate this and thereby attain at least some degree of intellectual freedom? It seemed to be the tutor slavishly following and revering theories in a Cult-like way-‘because Althusser says so’.And Lacan’s Phallic Symbolic Order. What gives such theories credence- because enough people get on the band wagon and debate it? More broadly this kind of literary criticism seems to be self-circulating, assertions made and then ran with. Is the point of such literary criticism that it’s all just an intellectual exercise conducted up there in the clouds without touching the earth? I don’t understand why I have to take such theories seriously- in other disciplines such as the social sciences and science, theories can be discredited- this seems harder to do in literary theory. So I’m struggling with psychoanalytic literary theories in particular-even in clinical Psychiatry Freud’s ridiculous theories (eg.Oedipus Complex) aren’t used, yet they appear in literary criticism. We actually have to read and debate this stuff.

Tony Pinkney said...

Barthes is my "favourite" theorist purely in a personal, anecdotal sort of way - source of some wonderful reading experiences (especially his 'S/Z') in my younger days. For me, literary theory, in the form of Russian Formalism, first arises from within literature itself, from the radical writing experiments of European modernism. And even Freud used to argue that the poets had got there before him. It takes a while to settle into a literary theory course - give it time and patience! Most people find it rewarding in the end (though that may admittedly take a couple of terms).

Anonymous said...

I’m not railing against all literary theory; I’m trying to understand on what basis one chooses which theories to admire/espouse and this is different for different people. Your comment ‘personal, anecdotal sort of way’ sums this dilemma up. I personally appreciate feminist critiques but this does have wide political and social credence, not just literary, which kind of validates it as it’s been ‘tested’ in a way. Whilst Freud is perhaps best known for theories of the subconscious he wasn’t the first to come up with this. And i come back to the point that his theories such as the Oedipus complex and the notorious Castration complex aren’t even used within a clinical psychiatry setting anymore because they have no basis. Is English literature the only arena where we do have to debate this nonsense. So why give any time to such theories- I think because it’s an established part of an Eng Lit’ course but that isn’t reason enough in my mind. I know this isn’t science where theories can be discredited more easily but there must surely be some – I won’t say truths – but credible understanding which forms the basis of a taught theory. And Freud doesn’t fit this description.

Tony Pinkney said...

Well, should there not be a place on a literature course where we stand back from the week-by-week crunching through of individual texts (which is what most of the modules will be) and give some general thought to issues such as: what does it mean to read a work of literature? what mental operations does one perform in decoding a text? how does literature relate to the wider culture and politics of its time? what makes a "great" work and who gets to define such criteria of value? and so on. And that space of standing back and reflecting generally on what one is doing is literary theory. However, we've come a long way from the original topic of my post - obects in utopia - so I shall leave the theory discussion at this point and wish you well in your studies.

Anonymous said...

How does your argument sit with the Social Realist literary tradition. Assuming I’ve understood your argument, doesn’t the ‘gritty novel’ succeed in marrying well the vividly descriptive and political?

Owlfarmer said...

This is an apt, I think, observation that flows into my favorite Morris topic: the education of desire. A good materialist desires things, but Morris suggests that we desire only those things that are truly beautiful and/or meaningful. So objects must be dealt with in utopia, but in a good society they will be emotionally, aesthetically, and practically needed as opposed to merely wanted. I'm always amused at the current "simple living" concept, which seems more of a fad than philosophically grounded. It carries with it the desire for posh storage boxes and has engendered a new career path: de-cluttering expert. One can hire a person to help reduce belongings to a manageable state, especially if one has bought into the consumer ethos whole-heartedly. At any rate, I also appreciate your mention of mapping. I've noticed the impulse (which I've shared) to provide a topographical view of utopia--like More's. Fantasy landscapes in particular seem to require maps. When they aren't provided, I often find myself wishing they were. Years ago, as I read Water of the Wondrous Isles longed for a better physical sense of Birdalone's journey. Later, when I read News From Nowhere for the first time, I had an old Ordnance Survey map and a tourist guide to the Thames region at hand, to help me envision Guest's travels.

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