The Novel & The Concrete: A Symposium
By: Edwige Crucifix and Emily Simon
Ian Watt argued in The Rise of the Novel that the modern English novel departs from previous prose literature through its intimate relationship with the “concrete,” taking as its object non-allegorical individuals, vernacular speech, ordinary experience, and the particulars of daily life. At the same time, the history of the novel suggests that it is a global form, uniquely capable of abstracting itself both formally and thematically from particular conditions. The novel, it seems, bears an intrinsic relationship to the fundamental reversibility of the category of the concrete, a term which indicates solid and sensuous material reality on the one hand, and a complex and often untraceable imbrication of different determinations, on the other.
Supplementing the novel’s realist pretension to particularity with recent directions in formalist scholarship—materialist, object-oriented, post-critical, non-mimetic, global—this symposium inquired into what work the category of the concrete accomplishes in the novel. How, this symposium asked, does the novel conceive the relationship between the abstract and the concrete? To what extent can the abstract and concrete reframe approaches toward the global novel and its historicity? How does the problematic of the concrete recast discussions of historical formalism? Furthermore, does the novel configure concreteness as a productive mode of reference, or can the novel become so concrete that it prevents the reader from moving through it? Is there a dialectic of the concrete, and how can the novel produce or help us to theorize it?
In addition to denoting a merely existing reality, the novel’s concreteness may serve to make visible abstract or non-existing social structures, exemplify in tangible form our ethical commitments, or stage the way that objects and material reality structure plot and activity. By revisiting familiar oppositions of history and form, description and reading, affect and critique, this symposium endeavored to rethink the status (including the politics) of critique or “symptomatic reading” in literary studies more broadly. We thereby hoped to do justice to Brecht’s thesis that the novel must make “possible the concrete, and [make] possible abstraction from it.”
Presentations & Response
Audrey Wasser’s paper, “Reading Macheray Reading: The Abstract and the Concrete in Literary Criticism,” relocated the twinned terms at the heart of the symposium—the abstract and the concrete—from the realm of the literary to that of literary criticism. Through her reading of Pierre Macheray’s Theory of Literary Production, she endeavored to parse the particular relation of critical discourse to its literary object. Macheray rejects critical practice that might obscure the complexities of literary production—assuming the givenness of the art object or supplanting its multiple modes of expression with a single meaning—advocating a rationalist mode of criticism that acknowledges these complexities and recognizes itself as part of the process of production. At the same time as literature is to be viewed as “autonomous,” existing in a differential and transformative relationship to its material situation, Macheray also characterizes literary work as “determined”—that is, concretely situated in and related to the world. This is the “double demand of literary criticism”: it must both appreciate the work as such and affirm the autonomy of its differential knowledge by producing a new discourse. Wasser answered this possible paradox by proposing “reading” as an intermediary practice; reading dwells in a work’s internal difference, but does not yet produce the new discourse of criticism. It is therefore reading, Wasser argued, that inscribes in critical discourse its constitutive “non-knowledge, blindness, or failure”—that is, its resistance—and that which saves criticism from becoming the kind of normative or evaluative practice he rejects. Wasser ended her talk by outlining the stakes of Macheray’s theorization of “reading” for literary studies today, arguing that it reserves for the discipline a radical receptivity and openness to new and other forms of knowledge, to “what we have not yet thought,” in the “textual encounter.”
In his paper, “Paratextual Art,” David Alworth considered the concreteness of a book jacket’s relationship to its contents, occupying that “abstract zone” where text meets context. Alworth’s framing concept of the “paratext” is borrowed from Gerard Genette’s analysis of the same title, which argues that paratextual material—like a book jacket—constitutes the dynamic, threshold space in which the story world makes contact with the “real world.” Through Genette, Alworth argued that the book jacket is not only an avatar for social, historical, and aesthetic concerns, but also as an important actor in these networks, constituting a bi-directional relationship between aesthetic media and our cultural situation. His case study was the cover art for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, designed by Peter Mendulsund of Knopf, and its strange entanglements with Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. The chance interaction of the two novels crystallized The Buried Giant’s implicit aesthetic engagement with genre fiction—signaled by the edge staining of its pages, the stamped gold foil of its cover, and other hallmarks of fantasy—while at the same time destabilizing and problematizing its generic classifications. Alworth ended with a gesture to the political import of Ishiguro’s complicated relationship with genre, one which may, in a mode that calls upon both lyrical realism and fantasy, offer a way of imagining otherwise: of proposing what the future might be by virtue of remembering the tradition from which it emerges.
In the final paper of the day, aptly titled “The Novel at the End of the World,” Emilio Sauri asked how art might make “the abstract appear within the concrete,” might possess the capacity to make visible what we ordinarily cannot see. He read Yuri Herrera’s novel Señales que precederán al fin del mundo alongside the photography of Alejandro Cartegena, both of which occupy a evocative border condition, and which escape the codification of particular spatio-temporal situations. The liminality of Herrera and Cartegena’s works enable them to interface with the abstraction of labor occasioned by the economic situation of Latin America. Through this reading, Sauri rejected the post-critical, post-hegemonic methods of writers like Jon Beasley-Murray, who argue that the aesthetic imperative is not one of representation, but of presentation: that is, that artworks, in merely presenting things to us, are no different than any other commodities. Rather, Sauri argues, it is labor’s abstraction that must be represented—that must be made concrete through representation—precisely because it is invisible to presentation. This necessity of representation secures for the novel the particular task of rendering the abstract visible, thereby enduing it with the revolutionary potential to envision other invisibilities, “to imagine what a future after the end of the world might look like.”
The symposium ended with a roundtable discussion, featuring four professors from Brown University: Tim Bewes, Ben Parker, Thangam Ravindranathan, and Melissa Clayton. In their responses to the three papers, the roundtable members asked a number of questions about the symposium’s key terms. Particularly, is the “concrete” more valuable than the “abstract” in the novel form? Is the concrete available to perception, and to reading? What of the duality of abstract and concrete: are they opposed terms, or are they interdependent and, in fact, co-constitutive? What is the status of realism, and of the unreality of language, in relation to the concrete? Might the abstract and the concrete not be things in themselves, both rather modes of relation and measures of proximity? Ultimately, “the concrete” began to appear itself as an abstraction, a “flickering thing” that always escapes our grasp. This indecision, however, seemed to bring us closer to Brecht’s maxim, enabling that abstraction from the concrete, which is the concrete itself.