What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” has been making the online rounds for 20 years for a good reason: it’s an effective satire of writing in the humanities and some of the dumber currents of contemporary thought in academia.* It also usually raises an obvious question: How did “Deconstruction,” or its siblings “Poststructuralism” or “Postmodernism,” get started in the first place?

My take is a “meta” idea about institutions rather than a direct comment on the merits of deconstruction as a method or philosophy. The rise of deconstruction has more to do with the needs of academia as an institution than the quality of deconstruction as a tool, method, or philosophy. To understand why, however, one has to go far back in time.

Since at least the 18th Century, writers of various sorts have been systematically (key word: before the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, investigations were rarely systematic by modern standards) asking fundamental questions about what words mean and how they mean them, along with what works made of words mean and how they mean them. Though critical ideas go back to Plato and Aristotle, Dr. Johnson is a decent place to start. We eventually began calling such people “critics.” In the 19th Century this habit gets a big boost from the Romantics and then writers like Matthew Arnold.

Many of the debates about what things mean and why have inherent tensions, like: “Should you consider the author’s time period or point in history when evaluating a work?” or “Can art be inherently aesthetic or must it be political?” Others can be formulated. Different answers predominate in different periods.

In the 20th Century, critics start getting caught up in academia (I. A. Richards is one example); before that, most of them were what we’d now call freelancers who wrote for their own fancy or for general, education audiences. The shift happens for many reasons, and one is the invention of “research” universities; this may seem incidental to questions about Deconstruction, but it isn’t because Deconstruction wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t exist in the way it does without academia. Anyway, research universities get started in Germany, then spread to the U.S. through Johns Hopkins, which was founded in 1876. Professors of English start getting appointed. In research universities, professors need to produce “original research” to qualify for hiring, tenure, and promotion. This makes a lot of sense in the sciences, which have a very clear discover-and-build model in which new work is right and old work is wrong. This doesn’t work quite as well in the humanities and especially in fields like English.

English professors initially study words—these days we’d primarily call them philologists—and where they come from, and there is also a large contingent of professors of Greek or Latin who also teach some English. Over time English professors move from being primarily philological in nature towards being critics. The first people to really ratchet up the research-on-original-works game were the New Critics, starting in the 1930s. In the 1930s they are young whippersnappers who can ignore their elders in part because getting a job as a professor is a relatively easy, relatively genteel endeavor.

New Critics predominate until the 1950s, when Structuralists seize the high ground (think of someone like Northrop Frye) and begin asking about what sorts of universal questions literature might ask, or what universal qualities it might possess. After 1945, too, universities expand like crazy due to the G.I. Bill and then baby boomers goes to college. Pretty much anyone who can get a PhD can get a tenure-track job teaching English. That lets waves of people with new ideas who want to overthrow the ideas of their elders into academia. In the 1970s, Deconstructionists (otherwise known as Post-structuralists) show up. They’re the French theorists who are routinely mocked outside of academia for obvious reasons:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That’s Judith Butler, quoted in Steven Pinker’s witty, readable The Sense of Style, in which he explains why this passage is terrible and how to avoid inflicting passages like it onto others. Inside of academia, she’s considered beyond criticism.

In each generational change of method and ideology, from philology to New Criticism to Structuralism to Poststructuralism, newly-minted professors needed to get PhDs, get hired by departments (often though not always in English), and get tenure by producing “original research.” One way to produce original research is to denounce the methods and ideas of your predecessors as horse shit and then set up a new set of methods and ideas, which can also be less charitably called “assumptions.”

But a funny thing happens to the critical-industrial complex in universities starting around 1975: the baby boomers finish college. The absolute number of students stops growing and even shrinks for a number of years. Colleges have all these tenured professors who can’t be gotten rid of, because tenure prevents them from being fired. So colleges stop hiring (see Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas for a good account of this dynamic).

Colleges never really hired en masse again.

Other factors also reduced or discouraged the hiring of professors by colleges. In the 1980s and 1990s court decisions strike down mandatory retirement. Instead of getting a gold watch (or whatever academics gave), professors could continue being full profs well into their 70s or even 80s. Life expectancies lengthened throughout the 20th Century, and by now a professor gets tenure at say 35 could still be teaching at 85. In college I had a couple of professors who should have been forcibly retired at least a decade before I encountered them, but that is no longer possible.

Consequently, the personnel churn that used to produce new dominant ideologies in academia stops around the 1970s. The relatively few new faculty slots from 1975 to the present go to people who already believed in Deconstructionist ideals, though those ideals tend to go by the term “Literary Theory,” or just “Theory,” by the 1980s. When hundreds of plausible applications arrive for each faculty position, it’s very easy to select for comfortable ideological conformity. As noted above, the humanities don’t even have the backstop of experiment and reality against which radicals can base major changes. People who are gadflies like me can get blogs, but blogs don’t pay the bills and still don’t have much suck inside the academic edifice itself. Critics might also write academic novels, but those don’t seem to have had much of an impact on those inside. Perhaps the most salient example of institutional change is the rise of the MFA program for both undergrads and grad students, since those who teach in MFA programs tend to believe that it is possible to write well and that it is possible and even desirable to write for people who aren’t themselves academics.

Let’s return to Deconstruction as a concept. It has some interesting ideas, like this one: “he asks us to question not whether something is an X or a Y, but rather to get ‘meta’ and start examining what makes it possible for us to go through life assigning things too ontological categories (X or Y) in the first place” and others, like those pointing out that a work of art can mean two opposing things simultaneously, and that there often isn’t a single best reading of a particular work.

The problem, however, is that Deconstruction’s sillier adherents—who are all over universities—take a misreading of Saussure to argue that Deconstruction means that nothing means anything, except that everything means that men, white people, and Western imperialists oppress women, non-white people, and everyone else, and hell, as long as we’re at it capitalism is evil. History also means nothing because nothing means anything, or everything means nothing, or nothing means everything. But dressed up in sufficiently confusing language—see the Butler passage from earlier in this essay—no one can tell what if anything is really being argued.

There has been some blowback against this (Paglia, Falck, Windschuttle), but the sillier parts of Deconstructionist / Post-structuralist nonsense won, and the institutional forces operating within academia mean that that victory has been depressingly permanent. Those forces show no signs of abating. Almost no one in academia asks, “Is the work I’m doing actually important, for any reasonable value of ‘important?'” The ones who ask it tend to find something else to do. As my roommate from my first year of grad school observed when she quit after her M.A., “It’s all a bunch of bullshit.”

The people who would normally produce intellectual churn have mostly been shut out of the job market, or have moved to the healthier world of ideas online or in journalism, or have been marginalized (Paglia). Few people welcome genuine attacks on their ideas and few of us are as open-minded as we’d like to believe; academics like to think they’re open-minded, but my experience with peer review thus far indicates otherwise. So real critics tend to follow the “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” model described by Albert Hirschman in his eponymous book and exit.

The smarter ones who still want to write go for MFAs, where the goal is to produce art that someone else might actually want to read. The MFA option has grown for many reasons, but one is as an alternative for literary-minded people who want to produce writing that might matter to someone other than other English PhDs.

Few important thinkers have emerged from the humanities in the last 25 or so years. Many have in the sciences, which should be apparent through the Edge.org writers. As John Brockman, the Edge.org founder, says:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

One would think that “the traditional intellectual” would wake up and do something about this. There have been some signs of this happening—like Franco Moretti or Jonathan Gottschall—but so far those green shoots have been easy to miss and far from the mainstream. “Theory” and the bad writing associated with remains king.

Works not cited but from which this reply draws:

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Paglia, Camille. “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.” Arion Third Series 1.2 (1991/04/01): 139-212.

Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. 1 ed. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism. 2 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Windschuttle, Keith. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. 1st Free Press Ed., 1997 ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Star, Alexander. Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca. 1st ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Cusset, Francois. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult, 2014.


* Here is one recent discussion, from which the original version of this essay was drawn. “How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” remains popular for the same reason academic novels remain popular: it is often easier to criticize through humor and satire than direct attack.

The Marriage Plot — Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is very competently done, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it; some things may even be done particularly well. The problem is, as my faint praise indicates, a novel isn’t a student essay: it’s not enough for nothing to be particularly wrong. Something has to be smashing and fantastic for it to really matter. The Virgin Suicides, with its ceaseless questioning of what happened to the Lisbon sisters and its unusual narrative structure in the form of a chorus of outsider men who were once boys attempting to understand something they never quite can, had this quality. There’s a haunting, melancholy quality to the story and the way its told. Middlesex is imaginatively powerful because of Cal’s parents’ unusual relationship (does love conquer all, including biology?) and Cal’s own inter- or transexual state, which is so unusual amid novels that mostly cover straight people, occasionally cover gay people, but very seldom cover people whose bodies and minds don’t quite match like they should.

I keep copies of both Eugenides’ earlier novels, but I’m selling my copy of The Marriage Plot. I can’t imagine rereading it. In The Curtain, Milan Kundera wrote something that has long stayed with me because of how right he is:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Eugenides has that ambition. I concede The Marriage Plot might outlast its author. But I’m skeptical it will: the religious stuff Mitchell experiences doesn’t measure up, and the mostly banal problems faced by recent college graduates doesn’t quite live up to anything. Leonard is the only person with real problems, both in terms of his ailment (manic depression) and his work (as a biologist: he is confronting the natural world, and some of the most interesting sections describe both his efforts in taming yeast and his status in a science lab). Madeleine, like so many of us, is committed to love with a person who maybe isn’t worth it. In listening to her sister’s trouble, we find this: “like anyone in love, Madeleine believed that her own relationship was different from every other relationship, immune from typical problems.” She isn’t, and her relationship is more like that of other people than she’d like to imagine it to be. And The Marriage Plot is more like other novels than I want it to be.

There are long sections of background that we might not need. We find that “Leonard had grown up in an Arts & Crafts house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall.” Grisly, but not vital to the story. “[. . . ] Madeleine took the opportunity to make herself more presentable. She ran her hands through her hair, finger-combing it.” Nothing wrong with this: it’s just average. Maybe too Victorian. Later: “Ground personnel rolled a metal stairway up to the plane’s first door, which opened from inside, and passengers began disembarking.” Do we need this? Or can it be eliminated? On their own, these sentences are okay, and I’ve committed such sentences many times, despite Martin Amis warning me not to. I want to put this book on a diet, to convince it to render only the essential. Too much of it makes me want to cut more; I can also now say that the only thing worse than taking an essay test of your own is reading about someone else’s essay test, especially when that essay test involves religion.

There are also some strange sentences; this one makes me wonder if the last word is a typo: “Years of being popular had left her with the reflexive ability to separate the cool from the uncool, even within subgroups, like the English department, where the concept of cool didn’t appear to obtain.” What does “appear to obtain” mean? Perhaps it’s supposed to be “appear to apply.” The good ones are still good, though: “Dabney had the artistic soul of a third-string tight end.” I’ve met Dabneys. And I get what Madeleine gets: people who declaim one kind of hierarchy or status system are always setting up another, whether they recognize it or not. I also find it intriguing that Madeleine can be an intense reader and also intensely popular. The two seldom appear together in fiction. Perhaps the combination makes her an astute social reader of everyone but herself.

She also understands Mitchell, who acts as a beta orbiter for most of the novel. He provides her with extra male romantic attention mostly because he’s a fool, and she knows it on some level: “Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.” Being “smart, sane” and “parent-pleasing” is another way of saying “boring.” He also doesn’t make a move when he’s effectively asked to. At one point, Madeleine takes Mitchell home and goes to his attic room wearing only an old shirt—then resents him for not making a move when he obviously wants to and she does too.

She has a point.

When Mitchell is too eligible, that “eligibility” gets held against him. And he buys into ideologies that encourage him to remain a fool. A priest says to Mitchell: “Listen, a girl’s not watermelon you plug a hole in to see if it’s sweet.” Tell that to most women who do the same of men. There are plenty of sexist assumptions in this statement alone to get a feminist writing an angry paper about women, innocence, desire, and sexuality. Perhaps you shouldn’t take romantic advice from someone sworn to a life of celibacy and thus ignorance in a realm that most of us take to be vitally important. To be fair, Mitchell mostly doesn’t, but that he’s seeking knowledge from a source like that tells us he doesn’t even know where to begin to look for help. And Madeleine exploits this weakness. She says, “[. . .] one night the previous December, in a state of anxiety about her romantic life, Madeleine had run into Mitchell on campus and brought him back to her apartment. She’d needed male attention and had flirted with him, without entirely admitting it to herself.”

Rather nasty. Even worse than he falls for it. The optimal solution for Mitchell: find another girl, ideally one hotter than Madeleine, and use the other girl as leverage. Moping around doesn’t get the girl. As Sean Connery says in an otherwise lousy movie called The Rock, “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” Mitchell hasn’t realized or internalized this. Contrast Mitchell’s neediness with that of his rival’s distance: “The more Leonard pulled away, the more anxious Madeleine became.” She’s desperate for Leonard, which enables him to make her like him even more. Mitchell is on the opposite side of this recusive dynamic. He should read Radway’s Reading the Romance, which describes how women like to read romance novels in which the heroine falls for major alpha males. Radway doesn’t use this term, of course, and works to explain away women’s preferences for alpha males, but the descriptions still shine through.

Still, there are funny bits to The Marriage Plot; on the same page where Madeleine assesses Mitchell as a beta, her mother says that she “saw a program about Indian recently,” as if “a program” on TV could convey much about the country—but wanting to say she’s seen it does convey a lot about her. She goes on to say, “It was terribly depressing. The poverty!” Mitchell says “That’s a plus for me [. . .] I thrive in squalor.” The unexpected reaction to Madeleine’s mother and reframing of expected values makes this funny and shows us that Mitchell isn’t the stiff he might otherwise appear to be. And the book isn’t the stiff it might otherwise be. It’s just not funny consistently enough or deep consistently enough. It’s a muddle, even when I do laugh at lines like, “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” Love isn’t so easily eliminated, however: it only takes belief to sustain it.

And the characters are more self aware than I’ve sometimes depicted them here. Madeleine, for instance, knows that graduating from college, for a certain class of person who is expected to go to college, just isn’t that hard. On graduation day, “she wasn’t proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented.” If college is mostly a test of showing up, it’s hard to blame her; and majoring in English probably isn’t very hard for most hard-core readers (it wasn’t for this one, anyway; to me reading was fun, which meant that I did so much more of it than most of my classmates that class itself wasn’t very hard). And she finds that the deconstructing education she receives isn’t much use when she’s confronted with the messy reality of interpersonal relationships, including her relationship with Leonard. Saying manic depression is a socially constructed discourse won’t get help like lithium will, even with lithium’s side effects.

Leonard’s stay at Pilgrim Lake, a biological research facility something like Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, is among the novel’s most interesting sections. I would’ve liked it longer and Mitchell’s Indian sojourn shorter. Leonard is researching reproduction in yeast; this yields a predictable but impressive number of metaphors for human dilemmas. His work also can’t be solved by appeals to socially constructed discourse, and I suspect many of the scientists at the lab are more interesting than Madeleine at Mitchell. For example, Madeleine observes one of the very few female research scientists and observes:

Madeleine guessed that MacGregor [who just won a Nobel Prize] made people uneasy because of the purity of her renunciation and the simplicity of her scientific method. They didn’t want her to succeed, because that would invalidate the rationale for their research staffs and bloated budgets. MacGregor could also be opinionated and blunt. People didn’t like that it anyone, but they liked it less in a woman.

Tell us more about the “simplicity of her scientific method.” How does that relate to literary theory? Could we see MacGregor take more of an interest in Madeleine? Who are the people who “didn’t want her to succeed,” and how does she react to them? I wouldn’t want to turn the novel into Atlas Shrugged, but there are rich idea veins here that go unmined in favor of Mitchell’s noodlings. My suggestions are somewhat unfair, as I’m violating Updike’s first rule of book reviewing—”Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”—but I think an exploration of gender in science more interesting than an exploration of gender and mating habits among relatively average 20-somethings. Maybe because I fit into that group I’m too close to the subject to find it remarkable, but I think the novel has a smaller-than-life quality to it, in the same way B. R. Myers describes Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom at the link:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality … was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.

The Marriage Plot is a much better novel than this, but one detects the same kinds of maladies at work: “dull minor characters,” a problem beyond “craft or execution” (which are, again, well done here), “little worries” for the most part (until an unconvincing ending), and a general feel that life is elsewhere. Around the same time, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy, Richard Stallman, and many others were coalescing around Silicon Valley to change the world. I wouldn’t be communicating with you right now via this medium if it weren’t for their work. Which isn’t to say every novel set in the late 70s or early 80s should be about computers, technology, or technologists: but in the face of banality, I can’t help drifting toward thoughts of people whose work really, incredibly, resolutely matters.

Eugenides is clearly interested in the inner workings of people—the problem is that Mitchell and Madeleine do not have particularly interesting or engaging insides. Mitchell needs a copy of The Game to be time-warped to him, stat, and Madeleine needs to better realize what reading nineteenth-century novels should prime her to know: that she’s not the first person in the universe with unwise love decisions or family problems. Why doesn’t she better analyze her own situation in terms of the novels she loves so much? Why doesn’t she better realize that, yes, her life could be one of the fragments in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse? It could be, as Eleanor Barkhorn says in “What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn’t Understand About Women,” that Madeleine doesn’t have any real female friends, but I’m not convinced: I’ve met women who have few or no real female friends, and I don’t think that aspect of Madeleine’s life is unrealistic. The bigger problem is her lack of friends in general, so those friends can’t say the obvious to her: Why Leonard? Do you realize what you’re giving up? And if she does, and she gives up much of herself anyway, then the problem is her own blindness—a topic that I don’t find tremendously satisfying to read about, since it basically implies Madeleine is stupid. Characters can only be stupidly blinded by love for so long before one removed the “blinded” and turns “stupidly” back into a noun.

Most of my problems with the novel aren’t with its prose on a micro level, although it has those issues: it’s with the dearth of real ideas in the novel. It doesn’t quite go with the literary-theory-as-life metaphors, which drop out partway through. It doesn’t quite go with the alpha-beta-male decision that Madeleine faces. It doesn’t quite go with the manic-depression-as-serious-issue-maybe-linked-with-creativity issue that Leonard has. It’s a host of “almosts” that reminds me some of a sunnier version of Michel Houellebecq, especially in The Elementary Particles and Platform.

Houellebecq, however, is willing to engage in a kind of brutal realism—for lack of a better phrase—that Eugenides doesn’t get to. Yet that’s what the characters need: less understanding of their petty problems and more context, or a harder eye, or someone to smack Mitchell and Madeleine, then explain both their problems. I could explain their problems. I’ve met a million Mitchells and Madeleines. Hell, I used to be one in some respects. But the world has a habit of correcting your faults, if you’re paying attention to the signals the world is giving. Mitchell and Madeleine aren’t. That’s what makes them so unsatisfying. As three of the characters go, so does the very, very competent novel that doesn’t get past competence and into transcendence.


You can read my initial impressions here.

Bullshit politics in literary criticism: an example from Deceit, Desire, and the Novel

I’m reading Rene Girard’s great book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961) and came to this:

Dostoyevsky [was] convinced [. . .] that Russian forms of experience were in advance of those in the West. Russia has passed, without any transitional period, from traditional and feudal structures to the most modern society. She has not known any bourgeois interregnum. Stendhal and Proust are the novelists of this interregnum. They occupy the upper regions of internal mediation, while Dostoyevsky occupies its lowest {Girard “Deceit”@44}.

By 1961, it was pretty damn obvious that Stalin had murdered millions of his own citizens in the 1920s and 1930s. It was pretty damn obvious that Russia was a totalitarian country, which I don’t really buy as a form of “the most modern society.” The political reality is simpler: Russian hasn’t really passed “from traditional and feudal structures.” It’s still a dictatorship, only this time it’s softer: Vladimir Putin doesn’t rule with an iron fist and direct gulags, but by co-opting putatively democratic institutions and controlling TV stations. Except for a period in the 1990s and perhaps the early 2000s, before Putin had completely solidified control, Russia was something other an autocracy or something close to it.

So a sentence like “Russia has passed, without any transitional period, from traditional and feudal structures to the most modern society” is about as wrong as one can get outside of the hard sciences, if a phrase like “most modern society” is to have any meaning at all. Given the choice between Russia and countries with “bourgeois interregnums” that manage not to murder their citizens, I’ll choose the latter any time. Most of the analysis in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is so good that I pass over the occasional gaffe like the one above, but it’s symptomatic of where literary criticism goes wrong, which most often happens when it touches politics or economics in a naive or uninformed way.

If you’re interested in this sort of criticism, read Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

Edit: On the subject of Russia’s slide into autocracy, see also Russia’s Economy: Putin and the KGB State.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch’s Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch's Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

What Ever Happened to Modernism? — Gabriel Josipovici

I’ve been meaning to write about What Ever Happened to Modernism? for a while, but this This New York Review of Books essay by Eliot Weinberger hits the major points I’d like to make better than I would’ve. It also describes the major issue I have with What Ever Happened to Modernism?: we never really find out what, if anything, happened to Modernism—or who, in Josipovici’s eyes, we should admire. Weinberger notes that “There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”) [. . .]” and that “Regardless of whether a climate can see—and Josipovici’s condescension that laureled mediocrities can’t help being what they are—the argument is undermined by the fact that he declines to name a single living author who should be praised.” Both are true. Polemics work best when we have positive and negative examples. Josipovici mostly gives us the negative.

The other thing I notice in What Ever Happened to Modernism? is the slipperiness of definition, which leads to the larger problem of Modernism and Postmodernism in general: we can get point to some works that we think embody some values of either movement, but we find deriving general principles from those specific works hard, if not impossible. Now, the real question to anyone who says anything about Modernism or Postmodernism is, “What do you mean by those words or artistic movements?” Even the phrase “artistic movements” might be wrong, since some have argued for the political value of them, and to the extent art and politics are separate one should note the binary.

How do we decide on what Modernism is? We can’t, really, as Weinberger notes:

Every general consideration of Modernism quickly crashes on the rocks of categorization: Which Modernism? Is it Rilke or Tristan Tzara? Matisse or Duchamp? Thomas Mann or Gertrude Stein? Arnold Schoenberg or Duke Ellington? Nearly anything that can be said about the one can’t be said about the other. Josipovici attempts to navigate these waters by simultaneously broadening the definition of Modernism itself, while greatly limiting the range of its concerns, its varying contexts, and its enormous cast of twentieth-century characters.

The more specific the definition, the more it leaves out; the more general, the harder the whole idea is to discuss. That doesn’t stop writers of polemics, of course, and as I read What Ever Happened to Modernism? I did think. . . something. I’m just not real sure what exactly I thought or why. I’m flipping through my much-marked copy, looking for a characteristic passage or turn of phrase, but you’d be better off reading Weinberger on Josipovici.

I suspect I’m not the only person with such a hazy reaction. Lately, I’ve been rereading novels I really admire as I start another novel of my own. Those I admire include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Tom Perrotta’s Election, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. After reading them, I almost always have a better sense of what I should be doing as a writer and what a particular book should do. This feeling isn’t limited to fiction: I get the same sense from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, or John Barth’s essays in The Friday Book. They’re all enmeshed in individuality.

Josipovici is aware of his narrativizing tendency and some of the dangers of definition; he says:

Naturally I think the story I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that take more or less account of the facts. I am aware too that these stories are sites of contestation; more is at stake than how we view the past.

There are many stories, and I don’t fully buy his.

Speaking of Barth, I find myself most drawn to his formulation in The Friday Book, which is cruelly out of print:

I happen to believe that just as an excellent teacher is likely to teach well no matter what pedagogical theory he suffers from, so a gifted writer is likely to rise above what he takes to be his aesthetic principles, not to mention what others take to be his aesthetic principles. Indeed, I believe that a truly splendid specimen in whatever aesthetic mode will pull critical ideology along behind it, like an ocean liner trailing seagulls. Actual artists, actual texts, are seldom more than more or less modernist, postmodernist, formalist, symbolist, realist, surrealist, politically committed, aesthetically ‘pure,’ ‘experimental,’ regionalist, internationalist, what have you. The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.

Notice how Barth conveys his view of generality in a single word: “suffers,” as if literary categorization is a disease. In the wrong person, it is one. Discussing generalities is not much fun unless you have a lot of specifics to back them up, and I have no way to paraphrase or add to Barth’s last sentence from that quote: “The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.” Martin Amis’ Money, regardless of how you categorize it, still stands out to me as being a) unique and b) good, which very few novels of any sort achieve. To lambast Amis in general, as Josipovici does, is to miss all those particularities that make him stand out. Of course, I’m committing the same sin here because I’m not citing specifics in Money. But I also sometimes rise to the level of the work being discussed, so perhaps that sin can be excused.

Boredom in books according to Alain de Botton

There are, so Montaigne implied, no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied. Carefully used, boredom can be a valuable indicator of the merit of books. Though it can never be a sufficient judge (and in its more degenerate forms, slips into wilful [sic] indifference and impatience), taking our levels of boredom into account can temper an otherwise excessive tolerance for balderdash. THose who do not listen to their boredom when reading, like those who pay no attention to pain, may be increasing their suffering unnecessarily. Whatever the dangers of being wrongly bored, there are as many pitfalls in never allowing ourselves to lose patience with our reading matter.

—Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

%d bloggers like this: