IowaLit 4: The Limits and Dreams of Ambition, Composing, 19/02/2014

Continued from previous. Yet literary singularity remains a paradoxical matter, at least in the account of it that I gleaned from Eric Bennett. The perfect articulation of a literary singularity is a description so precise and detailed that no general description or summary could be fully adequate to it. There is always some remainder. 

Derrida's embrace of seemingly insoluble paradoxes
include his decision to make a living as a writer, despite
considering language inadequate to reality in many ways.
Typical negative theologian.
Literature of the evocative image actually strives for a remarkably ambitious goal, which the Derrida-influenced streams of literary theory would actually take to be impossible. One of Jacques Derrida’s most intriguing concepts in his philosophy of language is that any linguistic expression is inherently inadequate to reality itself. The words of language are themselves generalities because they are applicable to more than one unique situation. In any description at all, there is always some remainder, some facet of the described reality that escapes the ability of language itself to describe it. Yet in the atmosphere of institutionalized middling that is Bennett’s experience of University of Iowa’s creative writing program, the supposedly unambitious evocative paradigm strives for a genuine impossibility.

Language puzzles people, I think more than literature. Despite the overrated break between analytic and continental philosophy over the last hundred or so years, one can make a solid case that the major philosophical discourses and controversies of the 20th century revolved around the nature of language. For examples, see any of the following list: Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, Bertrand Russell (though his work is often misunderstood by ignoring his dual focus on both language and mathematics), Alfred Tarski, Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Carnap, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Beaudrillard, Saul Kripke, Willard van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, Elizabeth Anscombe, David Lewis, John Searle. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of people.

That century was even more inventive in its innovations in the forms, techniques, and subject matters of literature. Compared to the innovations of the last century, the 21st would seem rather bland in comparison. Literary creation is far more corporate, and authors no longer innovate quite so wildly, and when they do, those experiments do not receive the same popular enthusiasm as the experimental works of, for example, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon. Bennett’s essay is not only an advertisement for his own book on the genesis of the Iowa program, but is also part of a collection exploring the tensions between the MFA program establishment and the major New York publishing houses. The 21st century seems dominated by corporate priorities instead of artistic ones.

You need not restrict that last statement to the world of the arts alone.

Art and commerce have always had a
problematic relationship, but sometimes the
art is too amazing to worry too much about
all the problems. This caption brought to you
by Netflix, where you can watch Breaking Bad
until you starve to death on your own sofa.
Yet the literature of evocation quietly hides this mad ambition. Writing a wildly ambitious novel is openly and obviously a grand gesture. I have always had sympathy with artists who strive to create works that serve for the cultures of this century what Joyce, Marcel Proust, Beckett, Pablo Picasso, the Beatles, or F. W. Murnau supplied for the last one. And what Paul Cézanne, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herman Melville did for the 19th century. Perhaps we’ll remember David Simon, Vince Gilligan, and Death Grips that way in decades to come. Writing the Great American Novel (or even the Great Canadian or Kenyan novel) is an ambition that includes all the skills of literary, narrative, and philosophical creation in a single, enormous project. Its writer becomes a bonfire that can be seen from a long way away. 

But here is the calm, sedate, humble style of evocative literature strolling out of Iowa with an ambition to do what some of the great thinkers of the last century have called impossible: craft language that is ontologically adequate to reality and life itself. The genre mashups that characterize my own Under the Trees, Eaten and some of the other ideas for short novels that I’m mulling over, have a different focus, which is less ambitious in this regard. 

My own literary works are philosophically informed art, but don’t strive for this kind of singularity. I’m too comfortable in the pulpy world of science-fiction to fit into the culture of Iowa as I understand it. My work in this realm, like the works of philosophy that I most admire and value, aims to provoke a reader to think differently about their life, and perhaps even change it, even in the relatively minor details of their thought and ethics. When some brilliant writer of the Iowan model finally does accomplish the impossible and craft language completely adequate to the singularity of reality, I’m not sure what can happen after that, how the form can move on. Literature whose motive is to change the world will always be vibrant because the world will always have problems to solve, and those solutions will constitute further, different problems in the future. Evocative literature seeks to reflect the world perfectly. But philosophical literature seeks to change it.

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