«Thesis presented to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Zurich for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Mark Staff Brandl of USA and ...»
Literary criticism accentuates the points where language (in its widest sense) falls apart. This could point toward contact with "reality" and toward the difficulty of the act — the beauty of what we call "stubborn fact." Beginning with such negatively framed epigraphs and comments, one would hardly suspect how important literary criticism is to my conjecture. I prominently utilize the idea of antithetical misprision from Harold Bloom and, like him, feel that I am both a member of and dissenter from literary criticism.
Bloom, the American literary critic and former professor at Yale University, is an ideal starting point for this discussion. His controversial theory of artistic influence is important to my theory. It is difficult to do justice to his marvelous yet labyrinthine theory in a short description. Nevertheless, I will attempt to quickly summarize what I find useful in his theory for my work, based on the full range of his publications. Bloom's theory of misprision is poststructuralist, yet in many ways an attack on the self-centeredness of other Poststructuralisms. Throughout his books and essays Bloom lets fly many well-aimed arrows of criticism at these thinkers. Inevitably they strike with deadly accuracy. For example, taking site on the field as a whole, Bloom asks rhetorically of "those problematics of deconstruction" if they "are not the death-throes of German Romantic philosophy?" 11 Shortly thereafter in the
same book, Bloom asserts that modern deconstructive critics "truly dispute only degrees of irony." 12 He is capable of summing up Postructuralist theorizing and dismissing its (selfignored) metaphor-model in an astute pair of sentences.
Deconstruction and other post-Heideggerian paradigms tend to the so-called linguistic model, which reduces to the very odd trope of a demiurgical entity named "Language" acting like a Univac, and endlessly doing our writing for us. I don't find this trope any more persuasive than the traditionalist trope of the Imagination as a kind of mortal god endlessly doing our writing for us. 13 The solid core of Bloom's theory is the concept of an essential, antithetical agon of each poet-creator. Revisionism is vastly expanded and exalted to the primal fact of artistic creativity. Agon is Bloom's term for the conflict arising from the anxiety of influence. Each and every author or artist must wrestle with his or her precursor, the ones who inspired them to be writers in the first place. That figure may be singular, plural or a composite one. This is not an intellectual choice of "favorite paragon." One cannot choose this figure, rather he, she or they thrust themselves upon the would-be creator.14 This spar can be seen as a synecdoche of the struggle against pastness in its entirety. Since this method involves sharp opposition, Bloom calls it "antithetical." An important aspect of this strife is the purposeful misreading of
the precursor's works, which Bloom terms misprision. He takes this word from Shakespeare:
"So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,/" (Sonnet 87).
"Misprision" for Shakespeare, as opposed to "mistaking," implied not only a misunderstanding or misreading but tended also to be a punning word-play suggesting unjust imprisonment. Perhaps "misprision" in Shakespeare also means a scornful underestimation: either way, he took the legal term and gave it an aura of deliberate or willful misinterpretation. 15 Creators create themselves and their works by battling their fear of being a Johnny-come-lately. "Strong" authors, as Bloom calls them, attempt to occupy the position of each of their precursor-figures, thus actually forming a new and independent spot for themselves. This, according to Bloom, is a continuous process, even against oneself and previous versions of oneself.
The theory of misprision stresses the prominence of allusion and the trope of metalepsis. Metalepsis, also called transumption, is that figure of speech which plays a trope on another previous trope, often in an anachronistic or "frame-breaking" fashion. This tropeof-tropes becomes the tool for an allusive yet affirmative struggle of reversals, performed with purposeful discontinuity on a stage of one's own knowledge, with psychological and spiritual desire. The precursor's, and history's, presence is nether denied in feigned or sought out ignorance, nor granted a forfeit win through worship. It must be emphasized that for
Bloom the work itself is central. It itself is the achieved anxiety of influence, not some relic of the same. He affirms "the self over language, while granting priority to figurative language over meaning." 16 Bloom's controversial theory grants artworks substantial bedding in the acts of individual creators, something which appears self-evident to me, yet has been expunged from most contemporary theories. Theorists such as Ricœur relegate artists to something akin to symptoms, expressions of societal sickness. I seek a way to include agency, the conscious contribution creators make, not only in their formal proficiency but also what they have to say, so-called extra-formal concerns. Artists are often active intelligences, expressing yet also critiquing the cultures of which they are a part. When I discovered Bloom, his work offered a new dimension of understanding for me, one that impeccably supplemented my later encounter with cognitive metaphor theory. Upon my discovery of George Lakoff, I realized that my hypothesis of the invention of a central trope could be best envisioned as the end result of a subjective contest with social and moral dimensions. In Lakoffian terms, my hypothesis is that a vocabulary of foundational cognitive metaphors is at work in the formal, aspects of the works of artists. One central trope is brought into being through a figurative vision of one or more aspects of the form. To Bloom's agonistic "why," cognitive linguistics wed the "how," when supplemented by my own ideas and those described in this chapter.
However, I am jumping ahead of myself on the trail of my survey.
To return to Harold Bloom, not all poets, authors and other artists conduct this agonistic struggle fully or to its end. Those who do not are creators as well, yet ones whom Bloom terms "weak." More graciously, we could call them "less resolute." They can be engaging, but only interesting at best, not riveting, according to Bloom. At worst, they are the derivative contemporary equivalent of the Academicians of art: faded reflections of previous, "strong" artists (again Bloom's terminology).17 Such incompleteness, perhaps even timidity, is often quickly rewarded nowadays, as many critics, curators, publishers, editors and others in power above creators are themselves similarly "weak" thinkers, or at least unrepentantly derivative, unwilling to do the appropriate antithetical battle with their own precursors. (These are field and role specific, such as various forms of criticism, earlier forms of exhibition, former publishing endeavors, influential past gallerists, curators, historians, and so on.) I will not delve into the intricacies of Bloom's "revisionary ratios," and so on. Yet, I sense they would accord as well with paintings as with poems.18 The fact of "agon" itself is his perspicacious discovery: the essential struggle with what is inherited; with the inherited precursor(s), probably composite, who inspired one to be a "poet" at all (read: novelist, painter, scholar, critic, curator, publisher, et al.), yet whom one must defeat to become a real artist and not a borrowed whisper of derivativeness. As a case in point, in his book The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom discusses his agonistic struggle with William Shakespeare, as well as that author's own agon with his contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was both a positive influence on the Bard, due to shaking off earlier moralistic conventions, yet also a negative one due to the fact that Shakespeare saw a way to improve on Marlowe by
deepening the humanity and personal psychological factors of his characters, in opposition to Marlowe's, who tended toward caricature. In a similar fashion, Bloom discusses how Shakespeare was influenced by, yet overcame, the influences of Ovid and Geoffrey Chaucer.19 Although clearly inspired by Freud, Bloom can be pushed beyond the simplicity of most interpretations of Oedipal father-figure relationships. In truth, I see a clearer source for Bloom's thought in the Biblical account of Jacob's struggle with the angel (or God) than in the Greek myth of Oedipus. I explore this side-issue in Chapter Seven.
Another literary theoretician who has served as an inspiration behind my thought is Mikhail Bakhtin, who, perhaps unfortunately, has been claimed by all. Theorists of every bent seem to find him a compatriot. This may be a result of "confusion," as Gary Saul Morson suggests in his essay "Who Speaks for Bakhtin?" due to Bakhtin's "peculiar, elusive, even weird biography and style, not to mention his breadth of interest."20. However, Bakhtin is important because he invented several genuinely remarkable ideas; ones which are insightful and serve as necessary solvents for unproductive philosophical notions gumming up current theorizing. More positively stated, Morson goes on to assert that reading Bakhtin encourages us to make a "meaningful escape from an endless oscillation between dead abstractions." 21 This is a better explanation of why he has such importance to me and so many others.
Bakhtinian notions which have helped inspire me include his sense of the living fluidity of expression; his concepts of heteroglossia, polyphonic form and dialogic form; his insight that these may engender the liberation of alternative voices; and his presentation of the carnival as a suggestive metaphor. 22 In Bakhtin's view, language is not a neutral static object (à la Ferdinand de Saussure). Language, especially creative language, is an "utterance," a social act of speaking, involving struggle, ideology, class, speakers and listeners. I see this as describing the socio-political context of the development of artistic tropes. Therefore works of art are not "uni-accentual." That is, they are not limited to having simply one of a small range of possible meanings. Rather, heteroglossia defines the state of meaning in all discourse. By this, Bakhtin means that a multitude of voices naturally resonates within each utterance. This is the chief source of richness in all expression and, prescriptively speaking, should be emphasized and built upon by authors. Nevertheless, he believes, heteroglossia is generally suppressed, if unsuccessfully, in order for those in power to feel comfortable in their attempts to control others. Bakhtin supplies us with an artistic version of the philosophical necessity of accepting belief in the existence of other minds. Artists' works interweave multiple social points of view as well as being individual expressions. Likewise, a specific artistic trope is only possible within the confines of the time and place where it is created, thus it reflects the cultural and temporal dependency of all tropes, even Lakoff's so-called foundational metaphors, at least in their concrete manifestations. Any theory I fashion must too, then, be
framed by context. Yet I see this frame like the walls of an arena. Within its confines lie the elements with which the thought-game can be played, both in and against the rules.
Heteroglossia may be envisioned as an unsystematic, almost chaotic struggle of a variety of voices. Likewise, the "strongest" artworks (to return to Bloomian terminology) are many layered and composed, yet often not truly systematically unified, I contend. I see this in the novels of James Joyce, some of Pablo Picasso's most important works such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and the early installations of Dennis Oppenheim such as Early Morning Blues.
Continuing this line of reasoning, Bakhtin both asserts heteroglossia as a foundational truth and promotes its exploitation in writing. This is approach I use in my dissertation as well. Bakhtin finds an exemplary version of heteroglossic literature in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. This author created what Bakhtin terms a new polyphonic or dialogic form. The various points of view which arise in a novel, within or between characters, are presented and utilized, but not hierarchically ordered. The invention of a unique self in art, of a central trope as I will discuss in following chapters, comes about through antithetical struggle, as I have repeatedly asserted, hence I am frequently tempted to use the term dialectical when describing it. However, this term suggests very ordered conflicts between simple pairs of contradictions, which then result in clear syntheses. The formation of artistic tropes, and creative thought in general, I find accurately described in Bakhtin's terms. An artistic trope is dialogically forged and used. It revels in the interplay of equivocal, interlocked meanings.
There are multiple theses and antitheses yielding no synthesis, but rather the opportunity for even more conflict. Such struggle is subversive and liberating. Similar to Bakhtin, I will define my theory as being fundamentally true of the arts, and yet I am also propagandizing for its more conscious and proficient application.
Finally, Bakhtin's use of the carnival as metaphor is attractive, albeit perhaps too often cited. Bakhtin asserts that literature can undermine the dominant conventions and rules through jesting and unruliness. In our time such festivities have disappeared, been commercialized beyond use, or have degenerated into exploitative, sexist, drunken sprees.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri envision plurality itself as a potential carnivalesque arena of liberation in their book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, one resistant to neo-liberal globalization and homogenization.23 I believe the spirit of the carnival, as Bakhtin imagines it, lives on in the creation and enjoyment of tropes. Raman Selden describes this spirit as "collective and popular; hierarchies are turned on their heads...; opposites are mingled...; the sacred is profaned. The 'jolly relativity' of all things is proclaimed." 24 In my theorizing, the carnival as trope is replaced by the trope as carnival. Borrowing a phrase from Morson in his essay "Tolstoy's Absolute Language" wherein he describes the novel in Bakhtin's eyes, we might say that all central tropes"are framed by an implicit 'for instance'."25