Monday, December 28, 2015

"Get rid of human beings!": Elfriede Jelinek, Literary Criticism, and the Scourge of Realism


In 1983 or thereabouts, future Nobel Prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek published a short piece on the theatre. Though she is famous for either her controversial Nobel or for her 1983 novel The Piano Teacher, Jelinek has had a rich career with the stage. Her short piece, its title often translated as "I want to be shallow," is the closest thing Jelinek has to an aesthetic manifesto. She writes of the actors on stage:
I don't want theatre. Perhaps I just want to exhibit activities which one can perform as a presentation of something, but without any higher meaning. The actors should say something that nobody ever says, for this is not life. They should show work. They should say what's going on, but nobody should ever be able to say of them that something quite different is going on inside of them, something that one can read only indirectly on their faces or their bodies.
I find that how I've regarded realism lately dovetails nicely with her outspoken resistance to interiority and "reality." The stage is not the proper place for a mimetic display of real life, no matter how "real" the subject (class, economics, race). And neither is the novel. If 2015 could be summed up for me, in terms of aesthetics and literary theory, a suspicion of realism seems to rule. In reviews of Barracuda and other cultural objects, I've found myself repulsed and repelled by the mainstream literary novel's promise of real life. I observed myself offended by this; I know intellectually that the novel is fabrication and fabulation despite its arrogant attestations of holding up a mirror to the world. The novel is lying to me and it's even lying about lying. I cannot help but wonder why the novel doesn't simply shrug and admit its constructed identity. Why can't the novel be honest with itself? Nicholas Spice, over at the London Review of Books, summarizes Jelinek's position in the essay:
Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the ‘luxuriousness’ of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individuated character. The writer’s task is to block this manoeuvre, to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye.
I should note that through my intensive Googling, I'm fairly certain people are quoting Spice when they claim they're quoting Jelinek. I don't read German, so I can't verify this exactly. The problem is that Žižek quotes Jelinek in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, which was published a year after Spice's essay. Žižek's footnote correctly attributes the section to Spice, but claims it's "Jelinek quoted in..." (my italics). So again, I'm taking this stance from Spice, but I am also quoting from a translation I've found on the Internet.

Returning to my precis, realism is "repulsive" because it lies. The actors on stage, the promises of reality, become a type of ornament through their ridiculous mimicry of reality. This ornament becomes in of itself an unreality, but one that affects to hide its nature. In substitution of this phenomenological posturing, the stage and the novel can jettison this fake artificiality as Jelinek writes that, "[w]ithout being concerned with reality the effect becomes reality." Reality comes through well enough when the author/creator/actors get out of the way, stop stumbling over themselves to promise interiority.


As an example, Spice writes of the style in Jelinek's novel Greed:
The artist’s technique, the brush strokes – the way the paint has been laid on the canvasses – at first seems chaotic, a doodling or scribbling, sometimes frantic, sometimes childish; but as the eye gets used to the disordered surface, it begins to discern uncanny shapes and shadowy forms in the tangle of lines.
Reality eventually comes through, through the style, the ideas, the force of those ideas. Spice coins a beautiful phrase; he calls it the "analgesic of realism." It's a numbing calming effect. Purporting to present the world as it is means presenting the contradictory and co-mingling ideologies that compose the observer. Offering knowledge as "common sense" means essentially reaffirming the truth statements that are presently disseminated by the status quo, by those that have the power to determine what knowledge is acceptable and what isn't.


However, I might arrest myself from working up a froth. Over at the LA Review of Books, Matthew Mullins reviews Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, writing that Felski's thesis is that the current de facto mode of literary analysis has become its own "common sense," obfuscating its own position as one of many other methodologies. The current style of critique, Felski argues is one of suspicion. Mullins writes of Felski's argument:
the suspicious critic as an inspector or detective. If critics read by digging down and standing back, then we write by working from effect to cause like good detectives always do... Every text has something to hide, and once the critic has figured out which social forces lie buried beneath its surface or hidden in plain sight, she must give a persuasive account of the text’s complicity. The text is always an accomplice, if not a perpetrator.
This "hermeneutics of suspicion" has shackled the critic to only two forms of critique: the "digging down" of Freudian style psychoanalysis and the "standing back" of Marxist discourse and its followers. The Freudian digs down into the text looking for clues of the author's psychological state, or at least, the social forces that animated the author to write the book. The Marxist stands back and considers the author or the text in its wider context, such as which social forces compelled the text into its current shape. Mullins writes that critics
distance themselves to situate, contextualize, and denaturalize the text. They mistrust what seems natural. These metaphors of digging down and standing back function as the centripetal forces of critique. They encourage the critic to adopt a distrustful attitude toward the text. Interpretation hinges on the assumption that all texts mean more than they say.
Felski writes that these "common sense" distrustful styles of critique have worked themselves into a corner; she writes that “opposing critique to common sense fails to acknowledge the commonsensical aspects of critique."

In other words, literary criticism has created its own monster—a Frankenstein of suspicion that demands critics find only evidence of a worldview they already subscribe to. Felski, despite her reassurances that she is not simply reiterating the critique's intrinsic problem of self-referential criticism, provides alternatives: "recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock, each outlining a less antagonistic methodology." This echoes, either intentionally or not, Darko Suvin's work in science fiction and Todorov's theory of the fantastic, of which I've written before.


Again, at the LA Review of Books, the impressive Joshua Adam Anderson writes of genre:
Genre has always been an ethical and political issue; remembering this will help us transcend the illusion that genre-mapping is an objective activity. Genres emerge when a multitude of forces conspire to place creative works into a schematic model; the problem arises when we treat genre categories as givens rather than as constructed classification systems.
Parallels between Felski and Anderson's arguments are apparent: common sense beliefs are essentially tautologies and a self-consciousness and praxis are required to consider them and their power. In his essay on science fiction, Anderson writes that insisting on genre classifications such as "science fiction" strangles the literary and epistemological possibilities of the genre. Science fiction has, ironically, become a genre with staid static boundaries despite being the perfect genre to transgress those boundaries. Anderson continues, citing Todorov:
Todorov establishes a logic that persists to this day: the fundamental dogma that texts are either realistic or unrealistic. Both concepts — both the uncertain space of the fantastic, where explanations elude the reader, and the dizzying fluidity of that which is both familiar and unfamiliar in Freud’s uncanny — work to divide the world of texts according to what we know to be possible.
The task of the critic, then, would be to dismantle the dogma. The critic is, after all, meant to be the outsider, the individual who can see the establishment and its tendrils everywhere. The critic refuses to settle for the common sense, the dominant discourse, the ideology that 2 + 2 = 5. How then to dismantle a dogma that separates realism from non-realism and not fall into the trap of replacing it with just another non-realism? Felski wants us to expand the possibilities of critique from suspicion to other affects, such as shock or enchantment. Anderson suggests a possibility that's quite compelling. He writes:
We can articulate a new fantastic, by rearticulating — retaining, but modifying — the logic of the fantastic, in order to say something like the following: The new fantastic is evinced by the ways in which something deviates from a normativity. When practically applied, this takes the form of a question: In what way does something deviate from a specific particular normativity? (Anderson's italics)
There is a subtle difference between rejecting realism outright as Jelinek does and rejecting suspicion as Felski seems to argue. Anderson's New Fantastic (I'll supply the capital letters) does not at first seem to apply to realism, but realism's potential to destabilize and uncover can be a deviation from normativity. Recalling Jelinek's forceful suggestion that the lack of reality becomes an effect of reality, when realism gets out of its way, tries not so hard to insist upon itself, an actual reality emerges from fuzziness, the fabrication, the fabulation, the fantastic.


Consider Jelinek's The Piano Teacher. The novel is angry, vehemently vitriolic, pouring scorn upon all aspects of Austrian society. The repression of women, both economic and gendered, the purposeful mass amnesia about Austria's complicity in Nazism, the co-opting of culture (such as "classical" music) by the state for nationalism and control, all these elements are very real and force themselves upon the constructions of the titular piano teacher. The sexual affair between Erika and Klemmer is violent, sadistic, pleasurable, painful, disgusting, voyeuristic, masturbatory. These are all real things, but it is not simply the overall social forces that shape these characters; it is also the writer and the texts outside the text that form the cast. Spice sums up the affair between the two characters thus: "At first the balance of power tips towards Erika, but it’s only a matter of time before the underlying structure asserts itself. Nothing in Erika’s psychological armoury is a match for Klemmer’s brute force." While Jelinek rails against both the economic and gendered oppression of women, she is not content to simply depict this as a universal struggle between female sexuality and male perversion. To do so would be reductive. Instead, Jelinek depicts the pervading normativity of exploitation. Her inversion or even subversion of this normativity using specific individual flat characters shows a deviation from normativity, paradoxically as they reaffirm the normative discourse of female-male asymmetric sexual relations. It is not simply that these characters stand in for social forces. Nor is it that the characters stand in for Jelinek and her circle of relations. Rather, these constructed characters remind us of their construction, their unreality. They are not inconsequential despite being unreal. The characters are actors, empty shopping bags to be filled by us, the audience.

Jelinek writes that on the stage we must "Get rid of human beings who could fabricate a systematic relationship to some invented character! Like clothes, you hear me? Clothes don't have their own form either. They have to be poured over bodies that ARE their form." The novel then needs to be shaggy, shapeless, but not static, not rigid in its limits and edges. Jelinek observes that clothes come in different shapes and functions but all mostly have the same core form: "Each piece is defined, but at the same time not too tightly delimited with respect to what it is supposed to do. Sweater, dress--they all have their leeways and holes for the arms." We can see a genre emerging from the wreckage; we can see "uncanny shapes and shadowy forms in the tangle of lines" as it coalesces not into something monolithic but rather as an epistemological move; realism then as a departure from the normativity.

How does this realism appear, practically speaking? I'm not sure. I know only that the current mode of realism is broken, boring, old, worn out. I know only that the critic and the creator, working in dialogue, can produce new possibilities. They need not abandon entirely realism. After all, Jelinek, for example, still works with a real Austria, with real things. To wit, she uses cardboard cutouts to play act the reality she sees. Realism does not need to loom menacingly over all of literature. Nor does its genre need to be apolitical. Frankly, nor does criticism. Rather, the creators should apply different understandings of genre and form to their ideas to produce deviations from normativity to which, in a cyclical manner, the critic will apply non-normative affects (ie ones other than suspicion), producing new ways of apprehending genre, texts, and even reality.

Anderson says it best, I believe:
Placing literary works at the nexus of a wide range of possible vectors along which its various fantasticities could be evaluated could open up a whole host of political, aesthetic, and critical possibilities.
In other words, we need new vectors. We need to get rid of human beings to save realism from itself.

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