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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form and Derek Attridge’s The Work of Literature


The Work of Literature

Wednesday 29th April 2015: A journey to Brighton, desperately reading Derek Attridge’s new The Work of Literature for The Meaning of Form, an odd prelude to my Hi Zero reading… Another post here tells the story of that reading, but these notes will tell another, interior narrative, of my engagement, I hope my ‘hospitality’, to this book, as I read it on trains, in the sunshine in Brighton, where I seemed to be for a moment, appropriately ‘staged’ in the background of a short scene from the TV drama Cuffs. ‘That’s a terrible title,’ I told the girl who held me back while they filmed it again. And reading more in the bar of the Euston Tap, and on the train home to Liverpool.

The title of Derek Attridge’s book is accurate to his concept of the act-event of reading, and to the distinction between the text and work, both of which I think are newly emphasised concepts since his seminal The Singularity of Literature which forms a critical bedrock to my work The Meaning of Form. (See here for the manifold links to this work on this blog.) Indeed, it was an encounter with Attridge at a two-day conference in Salford, perhaps as long ago as 2000, where I was road-testing my Levinasian reading of Tom Raworth, that informed both the chapter on Raworth in The Poetry of Saying and the essay on poetry and ethics in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, that introduced me to the thinking in The Singularity. Derek Attridge kindly promised me a copy of his latest essay the next day, and lo! and behold! it (and he) appeared. (All I had at that time to give him was a copy of Far Language.) This sneak-preview prepared me for The Singularity of Literature which – when I discovered the New Formalists, from whom Attridge keeps a respectful distance – merged with their thinking (and with others, like Leighton and DeBolla and even Michael Wood), and laid the ground for the theoretical framework of The Meaning of Form. Therefore a new book on these theoretical groundings is both an excitement and a challenge. Arriving as it has at the point where (apart from the tracking down of typos, the elision of solecisms) I like to think of the book as ‘finished’, it would clearly be difficult to deal with complete changes of direction, but that is not in fact what I have found.

Attridge describes the book as both a ‘supplement’ (11) and a ‘fuller account’ (Attridge 2015: 11) of the argument of the earlier book, and indeed there are changes of emphasis rather than complete changes of direction. At certain points, a judicious quotation from the new book might operate as a supplement or fuller account of my own formalist readings, but I think I need to resist the urge to pepper the typescript with footnotes to it. Indeed, where I reference Attridge’s book on Coetzee, I think I will add a brief account of the new book and indeed declare that it was published in the final draft stages of writing the book. (Indeed, Attridge himself faces this dilemma: Badiou has a walk on part in The Singularity and Dewey is a new encounter in The Work of Literature. He also quotes Ranciere and uses the same quote I do; of course, there is a small and not very open part of myself that wants to claim having found that independently and not through this new book, and have the need to say so. I’ve said it. But on the other hand, this proves that this supplement is supplementary. We’ll get to the one disagreement later.) Attridge’s intervening book, The Forms of Poetry appeared in 2013 and I was able to integrate that work into still evolving critical debates. Here the supplement will be doubly supplementary (which is probably a good way of putting it).

He agrees with the ‘against method’ tendencies of the New Formalists, the sense that there isn’t a strong method. As Attridge says: ‘A critical method should be no more powerful than is absolutely necessary for the task it is called to carry out.’ (162) Why? Because: ‘The more powerful the critic’s technique, the less reliable the critical judgements it is used to make.’ (162)

What follows is a series of notes on particular aspects of the new book that add something new, and which might be smuggled into my text or appended as footnotes (where appropriate, and the level of appropriateness might be sensibly gauged as I progress through them). This is not a review or even a summary of the book. (Read it!)

The account of otherness seems strengthened, to remind us that otherness is ‘unencounterable’. (Attridge 2015: 55). It is still, though, ‘a dimension of the literary experience that manifests itself as surprise or unfamiliarity, whether massive or minimal’. (55) It also ‘refers to the work of art’s challenge to existing frameworks of knowledge, feeling, and behaviour’. (219) Singularity is ‘the welcoming of alterity’. (143) It is openness to change. ‘The singular work does not have a bounded and unchanging identity; on the contrary it’s open to change and reinterpretation.’ (56) But it’s also ‘a constellation made possible for both creator and reader by habits of interpreting, thinking and feeling’. (140) (The trio of ‘alterity, invention and singularity’ is emphasised in a way I don’t quite remember from The Singularity, and I think I might say so. Of course it is completely under the signature of these two books to say that the re-experiencing (or re-forming) of the first will be in-formed by the act-event of reading the second (in fact that’s already proved or I wouldn’t feel the imperative of making these notes.) OK: so ‘invention’ the third term, is ‘always the invention of the other’ (220).

These three things depend upon the engagement with the text, of course. I’ve always borrowed from reader-response theory the notion of the active reader. I wrote somewhere that Lee Harwood’s work forces us to engage with it, to become active. In the TLS, Peter Robinson rightly corrected me, and pointed out that Harwood’s work is the least coercive of works (which is way I now write of the ‘gentle art of collage’). Attridge may help here. In The Singularity he insists upon the fact that genuine literary engagement (that is when one is reading non-instrumentally) is both an event that occurs and an action that the reader does, that is both passive and active. ‘The coming-into-being of the work of art is, I’ve been arguing,’ Attridge argues, ‘both an act and an event: it’s something the artist does … and something that happens to the artist’. (220) Creation and reception are similar: ‘I use the term “act-event” in order to capture the strange duality of this process in which active and passive are not clearly separable – whether we’re talking about the work or the person responding to it. In this way, the work is remade each time it is read’. (247) (This definition I might invite into the text, offer it hospitable re-definition.) Reading is a ‘willed passivity’. (2)

Music is dealt with briefly and Attridge makes a remark very close to the way I’d already adapted his thinking to talk about the music-poetry collaborations of Geraldine Monk (which I’d written about at great length on this blog as preparation for the concise but phenomenological ‘reading’ of the resultant ‘text’ (though now I must be coaxed into thinking of it as a ‘work’). He remarks: ‘Our active listening to a musical piece is a kind of performance of the performance we are hearing’. (68) And so I might add are my revised posts. (Here’s one.)

Attridge makes the distinction between a ‘text’ which is simply text (words or whatever) and the ‘work’, which is when it is elevated to being read in a literary way ‘as distinct from other cultural practices’, as he puts it. (98) I agree with this, but I’m not sure it isn’t too late to police every use of the words in my book. This distinction is for later. Or never. Attridge himself has ‘my engagement with the text,’ on one occasion when he is referring to a text that becomes a work. (302) It's a difficult distinction to maintain in ordinary critical discourse (unless one is writing about Barthes, of course, who also, but differently, uses this binary).

Both Adorno and Susan Stewart talk about exclusions in terms of literary creation. It is one of the scenes of guilt Adorno advertises, and Stewart reinforces the notion that any aesthetic choice (‘Mespotamia’ is in prose) presupposes what could have been otherwise (‘Mesopotamia’ as a verse-novel!). (I can’t find quotations to deal with this. As can be seen, it is covered from other angles in my book already.)

Notions of form are vital to Attridge’s argument, although he doesn’t say a lot here. ‘The event of the literary work is a formal event, involving among other things, or rather among other happenings, shifts in register, allusions to other discourses … the patterning of rhythms, the linking of rhymes, the ordering of sections, the movement of syntax, the echoing of sounds: all operating in a temporal medium to surprise, lull, intrigue, satisfy’. (117) ‘What’s traditionally called “form” is one aspect of this moving complex, inseparable from what’s traditionally called “content”.’ (117) This isn’t a surprise after my assimilations of his thinking for The Meaning of Form but underlines eventness as a element of form, so that this quotation might appear somewhere in my lightly revised text. The interinanimation of form and content is well-covered already in my book, but this might be interesting to new readers of this blog. The idea that form stages the encounter with the text is present in the earlier book, and quoted in mine, but this particular formulation seems a powerful way of presenting the point: ‘It’s through formed language that we’re invited to participate in its emotion-arousing capacities; this means we feel the emotions, but always as performances of language’s power.’ (267) Responding to this handling of form makes it literature.

Ethics, when it appears, seems to be related more to the 'ethical turn' of The Poetry of Saying than to the present study, my 'formal turn', as I put it in my introduction. (My first and last footnotes trace this congruence. Here.)  I might also skip over this while acknowledging the extraordinary account of responsible reading on page 147 in the chapter 3, ‘Singularity’. The final chapter on hospitality is a brilliant exposition of a post-Levinasian late-Derridean ethics; indeed, after Derrida, Attridge reminds us that ‘ethics is hospitality’.

One of the themes that I picked up from Peter DeBollas’ Art Matters is that – unlike Guinness – art may not be (automatically) good for you. Attridge reminds us of this too (and it is salutary reading for those who want to argue for instrumentalist functions for the arts in terms of wellbeing, including some in my own university). ‘Otherness is otherness: there is no way of knowing in advance whether its advent will be beneficial or disastrous,’ Attridge says. (149) ‘There can be no absolute guarantee that this change will be for the good, but without this risk – minimized, fortunately, by the operations of the norms of conditional hospitality (including ‘a system of norms and conventions’ (p. 149)) – there would be no genuine openness to the other and no possibility of doing justice to the singular work of literature. (305) Maybe worth tempering the De Bolla with that. After all:

we’re at a love poem
that causes you to think
war with just about anyone 
it bristles with
implication as you touch
its forms you form it in acts
of forming not
tricks and triggers upon
the wall of cognition for the forms
know a thing or two and not one
might be good for you as
a voice slaps across the screen

(My poem ‘Trigger Warning’, dedicated to my students and included here.)

The conclusion to the book is worth quoting, because it neatly wraps many themes within it, especially the last two expressed above: ‘The outcome of a hospitable reading … is a change in the reader, perhaps not only in the way he reads other works but more widely too. Without hospitality to what is new, other, outside the borders of my comprehension and comfort, I will put down the poem or the novel, or leave the theatre, just the same as I was before my engagement with the text. There can be no absolute guarantee that this change will be for the good, but without this risk – minimized, fortunately, by the operations of the norms of conditional hospitality – there would be no genuine openness to the other and no possibility of doing justice to the singular work of literature. (305)

(I’ve another passage marked in my journal for what it speaks to poetics, of the art of writing, which is always a sub-stratum of my critical work. Another post here soon!)

This makes it seem (as is largely the case) that I have only found confirmation rather than challenge in his new book. This is not so at all, but I have a particular interest in establishing continuities of theme. The reader (if there is one) may be pleased to find a disagreement with the text, one that comes out of the fact I found my own answer to a question he did not deal with in the earlier book, but which is raised elsewhere in the new formalist canon.

This ‘argument’ (if that’s what it is) haunts The Meaning of Form: form thinks; forms think. The question is raised by Peter de Bolla and Simon Jarvis, as well as by Robert Kaufman to a lesser extent and also by Michael Wood (whose work is now only a footnote, after publisher’s readers’ comments; you can read a post here soon). It’s an interesting, surprising, perhaps counter-intuitive, question, and although Attridge doesn’t answer it in The Singularity of Literature, he does turn to the issue in The Work of Literature.

I came to my own conclusions about this. This was to regard form or literary artefacts as embodying 'extended mind', as in the thinking of Lambros Malafouris. I explained the thinking in outline here and in detail here, but also in the final ‘tight little paragraph’ which (oddly) few people have read, and which might be the best place for a reader to reprise my argument. Here. (Though a longer piece accessible here, expresses my extended thinking on extended mind.) Malafouris says: ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states; they are an extension of those states.’ (Malafouris 2013: 74) It follows that ‘cognition has no location,’ or no fixed location between mind and things. (Malafouris 2013: 85) The same goes for form, I conclude (whilst still acknowledging the conjectural nature of the thinking about form that I examine). Malafouris himself - we exchanged emails - is interested that his thoughts should be useful to the literary scholar. 

Although Attridge opines that ‘When a work seems to be possessed of its own capacity to think, to question, to harbour knowledge, so much so that we call on metaphors that supply it with a brain, a will, a consciousness, it’s a sign of both its otherness and its inventiveness,’ (Attridge 2015: 253) this apprehension (he dubs it ‘anthropomorphism’, or ‘metaphor’ (Attridge 2015: 242)) does not alone account for an artwork’s cognitive aspects (will and consciousness is not an issue here). For Attridge, ‘Works of art don’t “know” or “think” … though they can involve the viewer, reader or auditor in a performance of knowing or thinking.’ (255) This doesn’t deal with the embodiment Malafouris argues of human artefacts. Even though ‘Every work is a knowing work, every work smiles enigmatically, because there is no way we, or it, can satisfy the thirst for knowledge that it generates,’ (257) this does not do justice – to use one of Attridge’s key terms – to the cognitive material engagement that an artwork summons into activity.

As ever, Attridge has gifted to the literary (and, I’d say, the creative) world (see a post here soon), a fine account of how we read a text as a literary work. From my point of view, form is central (nothing can be staged or performed unless it is formed) and this book helps to access that mystery. The final chapter on hospitality, as I’ve said above, brings my two theoretical critical works, The Poetry of Saying and The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (to give it its full new title) together. My strictly literary critical Odyssey seems rested. It looks like, feels like, Ithaca ahead, but is it? Could it be a mirage, a phantom of some spell-binding enchantress? It could almost be part of my ‘responsibility not to give the reader something that is wholly and immediately intelligible, but to leave a space open for individual interpretation,’ that signals my need to arrive in disguise, and disappear. (304)


Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
Attridge. Derek. (2015). The Work of Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2013.

A brief summary of the theory of The Meaning of Form project may be read here (and a 200 word version here), but the best place to start is probably the hub page of links to all the working posts towards this book, here. Though there is a later post where a paragraph from The Work of Literature is highlighted for its contribution to writerly poetics, here.