Novel Terms Symposium Recap

Novel Terms Symposium Recap

By: Matthew Taft and Hannah Rogers


In light of recent debates about the meaning and efficacy of "critique" and "suspicious reading," the graduate student planning committee desired to provoke a broader conversation about the use of critical terminology in the field of novel studies. Theories of the novel have relied on a wide variety of terms—e.g., realism, biopolitics, dialectic, network, plot, totality, scale, temporality, character, chronotope, critique, neoliberalism, infrastructure, and form—to describe its elements. Yet, critics cannot agree on what these terms mean, much less on what they can do. We wanted to pose a series of questions: does the novel generate a different set of terms from other cultural phenomena? How do we account for the fact that novels—at a certain point in the twentieth century — began to develop their own terminology which seems to change not only with novels themselves but also with the terminology we use to make sense of other cultural historical phenomena. How does a critical term gain explanatory power, thrive, multiply, and die? What does a term allow us to do with fiction? What does a concept render out of bounds, even invisible? Are some terms due to be cleared away and others revived? What sort of rhetorical and/or political work does our current critical vocabulary accomplish? We asked each of our three presenters (Leigh Claire La Berge, BMCC CUNY; Josh Gang, UC Berkley; and Kenneth Warren, University of Chicago) to consider a term central to novel studies to organize their talk. The roundtable, which concluded the day’s work with a panel of scholars, took up the questions raised by the speakers and their terms (labor, mind, and representation) and broader questions in relation to terminology in the field of novel studies. 

Presentations and Response

"Payment is on an unpaid basis." With the reading of this job posting, Leigh Claire La Berge began her analysis of the composition of labor in our economic present. La Berge coins this phenomena "decommodified labor" — labor that is no longer waged but remains in the commodity chain — and that thereby retains the organization, rhythms, commitments, and narratives of work. Work minus the wage. Decommodification, rather than freeing one from work, indicates an intensification of the possibility of extraction from the labor relation. La Berge explored decommodified labor to assist in periodizing our current capital-labor relation in an economy where financialization reigns. Decommodofied labor was contrasted with other attempts at periodizing our current conjuncture through the composition of labor—affective labor, immaterial labor, cognitive labor, digital labor, etc. La Berge provided a timely critique of these periodizing claims, asserting, following Moishe Postone, that there is no new labor in capitalism. It has not become more affective or cognitive nor any less material. Predicating a periodization of labor on technological change, La Berge stated, was to proceed "at a misguided level of mediation" as technology is labor and thus another abstraction is required to periodize it. La Berge concluded her talk with a brief exploration of how decommodified labor "generates some of our most timely cultural forms." She discussed how decommodified labor circulated within cultural production, particularly in the field of participatory art. Though the incorporation of decommodified labor such work, La Berge contended, critiques "not only their own art's emergence and sustainability, but our economy at large." 

Joshua Gang, in a paper entitled "Literary Minds—or, 'all novels annoy me as I annoy all novels,'" focused on the term “mind.” He incited the audience with a provocative question: why do we, as readers, grant literary characters, narrators, and implied authors mental states that are incongruous with our factual knowledge of literary texts as objects? Why, Gang asked simply, do we perceive minds where there are none? Gang was primarily addressing psychologistic and cognitive approaches to literary texts that rely on an unacknowledged comparability between two incomparable elements—a real mind and a textual mind. Gang stated that we have to acknowledge that minds and texts have different properties and follow different sets of rules. Therefore, when we perceive that literary minds possess mental states we make a category-mistake. When we read and impute mental states to literary minds, Gang contended, the sense of absurdity that usually characterizes a category-mistake dissipates. Indeed, "our modern sense of literariness itself entails the categorical misattribution of mental and physical properties," Gang proposed. This conception of the literary text as papering over a category mistake is, Gang remarked, an essential and overlooked component in understanding the relation between reader and text. Gang concluded by noting that if we want cognitive science and evolutionary biology to make a meaningful contribution to literary studies then we must have a sense of these theories' logical entailments as well as a sense of what these theories can and cannot apply to. In starting from what is typically held as a truism—the incongruity between our knowledge of the literary object and experience of the same object—Gang led the audience to a lively Q&A that raised fundamental questions about our relationship to literary characters and to the novel as a form that possess a certain criticality. 

In the final talk of the symposium, Kenneth Warren took up the term “representation” in relation to the novel in his talk “Revisiting Representation (again): The Novel and Identity.” Beginning with a discussion of mid-twentieth-century African America novels, Warren argued that scholars have identified a tension between intellectuals and writers over what, precisely, Black writers should capture in their work. The split, up to around the 1960s, between whether Black writers should offer a look into a universal “human condition” or produce work that speaks to a specific Black experience, would conclude in what Walter Benn Michaels would call “the triumph of the subject position,” and therefore, “black distinctiveness.” By positioning his work within this larger debate, Warren sought to show, in the displacement of realism/representation, there is also a “project” of seeking to displace the work of art in order to show there is very little difference between the text (or its representation of the world) and the world in and of itself. To put it another way, Warren argued, in raising the question of the relationship between the text and the world, one is also raising the question of representation — no matter how that question is answered in the end. Turning to Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden as examples, Warren stated that both preferred work that would be seen as an “aesthetic object” over a “political statement.” Warren ended his talk by challenging this dominant viewpoint, citing Fred Moten’s work, that many Black writers and scholars critique Ellison and Bearden’s stance. The final word was left to Moten, who, for Warren, the “crucial move” was to deny the last word to the work itself.” The talk was followed by a thoughtful Q&A session that raised how Warren positions himself in the field and what it means that Warren gave Moten the “last word.”

A roundtable of scholars, featuring Rita Monticelli from the University of Bologna; John Marx, from UC Davis; Lloyd Pratt from Oxford University; and Rey Chow from Duke University followed the three talks. Picking up on questions posed throughout the day, the scholars led the audience in a discussion that posed questions such as “are there any fields where a citation is just a citation — or is it always an engagement of reading?” and “how are terms shaped by their connection to the field?” The notion of a work of art, including the novel, was called into the question — what counts as the work, or labor, that goes into art itself? Panel and audience members pondered what it means for novel studies when we use certain types of key terms and what happens when we repurpose those terms. In identifying the gap between the conceptual terms we use as scholars and the work of art that is the novel, the day ended considering that more work needs to be do in order to align the terms we use with the way we read, write, and discuss the novel form.

For more on Novel Terms, you can watch a full video of the symposium.