Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 4: Literary Stuff


One thing that reading The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century by Cynthia Sundberg Wall amply demonstrated to me is what a lacuna I have when it comes to 18th century British literature. I'm conversant with the Restoration and okay on Victorian literature, but the Augustan/Georgian period is a big black hole. The history I know pretty well, which is why I think I found Wall's book so approachable and important. I'll confess, diving into her thesis and looking at how the British literature of this period approached descriptions of things and spaces and how they changed over the century was a little overwhelming.

But let's begin looking at her thesis. I'll blockquote it here from the Introduction:
This book argues that the changes in the rhetoric about and the employment of description to accommodate and then absorb the ornamental into the contextual are related to at least four larger cultural changes: experientially, to technologically new ways of seeing and appreciating objects in the ordinary world through the popular prostheses of microscope, telescope, and empirical analysis; economically, to the expansion of consumer culture in the increasing presence and awareness of things on the market, in the house, in daily life; epistemologically, to the changing attitudes towards the general and particular, the universal and the individual; and, narratively, to the perception and representation of domestic space. (Wall 2)
That's pretty persuasive all by itself, before even getting into Wall's manifold analyses. The one historical fact I brought to this book before even cracking the cover was the knowledge that 18th century Britain saw an enormous increase in the availability of exotic consumer goods and luxuries, and that the seeds of many of Britain's most notable modern museums began germinating in this century. The acquisition and cataloguing of things was a particularly 18th century obsession. But with her detailed literary analysis of works stretching back (and forward) from the 18th century in Britain, Wall reinforces these purely economic and social causes of the expansion of description over the 18th century, using literature to extrapolate into psychology and the changing epistemology of the regard of objects.

Why take the time to describe a scene in a narrative? To the contemporary reader, or even the Victorian one, the answer would be "to set the scene, to give context, to allow the reader immersion in the world of the narrative." Yet to the pre-18th century rhetorician (and even to some 18th century thinkers), this sort of description was believed to be counterproductive, to take away from the work as a whole. I thought it was very clever of Wall to find examples of anxiety over description, and how looked down upon it was in the period prior to the 18th century in her first chapter. Literary critics and thinkers in the English Renaissance and afterwards found pure description to be "surplusage" (Wall 27) or bring the work to a freeze through "refrigeration" (Wall 27). To these theorists, influenced by the ancients, economy of words brings clarity and perfection.

What changes the philosophical and epistemological imperative to describe? I feel like Wall is trying to say it all comes down to utility. The "why" of description in the 17th century gets taken in many different directions. The Puritans, whose political and scientific influence after the English Civil War was profound and even dwelled in British style after the Restoration, shunned ornament, but also desired an ability to read the world for spiritual reasons. This meant a new attention to detail and interpretation (Wall 77-78) enabled through technology like the microscope. And in the spiritual world of other nonconformists like Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan, detail and description of people and things took on the allegorical and emblematic imperative. While Bunyan himself denies that his work is a straight allegory, and that instead his characters are characters named after traits to make the work instructive (Wall 105), the things and objects and places that Bunyan takes the time to describe are important: he shows great plenty laid upon the tables of the moral characters of his world, and the immoral characters dwell in penury and sickness and violence who wander without a home.

The "why" of description in later, 18th century literature has more to do with psychology, especially the psychology of the home and of material gain. Daniel Dafoe's works Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders both revel, but revel in fairly succinct descriptions of the objects around them. For the character Crusoe, while we may be merely reading lists of the plenty that his island provides, Wall asserts that there is a catalog of pleasure being presented here, and so the reason behind this particular description is to demonstrate God's/nature's bounty on the island and the pleasure taken in it (Wall 109). Likewise, Moll Flanders's catalog of thefts are described again succinctly, but with much demonstration of the envy that Moll feels in stealing them (Wall 111-112). In Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the uncannyness of the giant objects raining on Manfred's castle serve the Gothic imperative of demonstrating a family and a place haunted; but why choose giant objects other than simply the reason that the image sprung from the oneiric logic of Walpole's dream-imagination (Wall 117)? It is the weight of memory made material; another allegorical emblem, made alien by its literally outsized intrusion into the "real" world.

Domesticity also changed in the 18th century, and as such, the reflection of the home in both novels and in more utilitarian texts (home decor instructions and catalogs) slowly unfolded into greater depths of description. The 18th century women romance novelists that Wall cites in chapter five find the importance of detail in events related to action and trauma: when plucky protagonists are pursued, chased, or captured, their surroundings are described in greater detail than probably any authors we've looked at thus far. Is this just an extension of the "refrigeration" theory mentioned above, meant to "chill out" the narrative as it heats up?

By the time we get to chapter six on lists of goods, catalogs, auction listings, and advertising, we are on the ground that I assumed this book (by its cover!) would deal with. This chapter was solid scholarship, although you feel Wall again needing to concede that this topic has been dealt with elsewhere in greater detail. But if we again get into the questions of why writers are all of a sudden taking care with lists and descriptions of objects, we get the pure economic reasoning – there is simply more "stuff" to describe on the market and available for the expanding middle class to buy, sell, and spectate – but there is also that same emblematic purpose. Is this plenty not the same plenty of the tables of Pilgrim's Progress, except instead of directed towards a symbol of salvation, now is a symbol of world-spanning empire, of power? Surely the average "consumer" on the streets of London in the 1770s reading a newspaper may not have been aware of this, but the matrix in which he or she lived has been powerfully riven by this profound change in Britain's place in the world.

This brings me to one of my few complaints about the book. It is called The Prose of Things, and yet I feel like, with her intriguing discussions of maps for travelers/consumers in chapter two, of interior spaces in novels, and then in her discussion of interior decoration and population of the new 18th century house with objects in chapters seven and eight, Wall is making this book just as much about the Prose of Places as things. The eye sees, and where the eye cannot see the word describes, and for the allegorical homes in literature just as the aspirational homes in late 18th century auction guides and country home surveys, the surveying of interior space is crucial. Surely, things make up a house but it is their context and relation spatially to one another that makes a difference. Perhaps spatial relations are outside of the scope of Wall's work (and to be fair, she does talk about clutter increasing in the 18th century), but I do feel like ontologically, "spaces" and "objects" are different. This might be nitpicking. Edit: And aware as I am of Wall's citation of Barthes on the still life from Le monde-objet (Wall 153) about the psychology of place and thing being tied together, I am still not convinced that these topics of space and geography dovetail neatly with the topic of objects.

Just a fun set of random observations: there were so many analogues to modern anxieties in this book, especially on the consumer side! The idea of the roads and buildings in the geographical guidebooks changing from chapter two made me think of modern mapping programs and apps, and how sometimes Google Street View will present you with a house that is no longer there. Even the 21st-century panopticon fails when confronted with the fourth dimension of time. And the idea of cheap, clear glass creating the modern storefront was fascinating; technology again impels trade, which in turn speeds up technological development. It was like a case study out of a modern tech company.

Two questions for class, related to my questions above: 1) Do you feel, as I do, that objects and spaces are fundamentally different ontologically and as such cannot be treated as the same in the same work? 2) Can you think of any examples from periods/places you've discovered where social or economic change impels a change in the artistic style/quality of that place and time?

American Psycho, well, what can be said. Again, as the lesser of the two reviews this week, this is the book I did not read for class but I read it as an undergrad. Not knowing what I was getting into. But paired with the work by Wall, it takes on new meaning. Patrick Bateman can only relate to his frankly interchangeable co-workers and colleagues by what they wear, what they own, what kind of typefaces are on their business cards. The music he "listens" to is banally interchangeable as well; as a young 19-year-old music snob in 1994, I was made angry by his entirely missing the point of Genesis, of his embrace of Whitney Houston's most banal platitudes, by his unironic love of Huey Lewis and the News, of his inability to enjoy the Joshua Tree tour (except to get hidden subliminal messages from Bono). Yes, the mostly women victims of his tortures are also objects, and Ellis's descent into violence, dissection, rot, and abjection serves as the counterpoint to the literally gleaming surfaces of Bateman's life. American Psycho and the world it describes are a world of objects, of people as objects, of 18th century mercantilism and cataloguing taken to its parodic, satirical extreme. While I do, knowing what I know now in 2016 about Ellis, doubt the sincerity of this critique (and honestly, sometimes it shows in 1991 Ellis, simply in how seductive his authorial voice finds all the consumption and the violence), it still stands independent of the author. To bring back Barthes from Wall's book, Ellis is channeling the late-80s hypercapitalistic, existentially violent zeitgeist as "scriptor," as the way in which late capitalism has perverted and twisted all human relations helps write the work.

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