John Pistelli


Why Texts Are Not Actions


(via Anthony)

With all due respect to both scholars— And let me pause, because in this case I really mean that. Felski’s Gender of Modernity is required reading for anyone interested in the socio-political history of modernism, while her recent article “After Suspicion” is crucial to developments in contemporary literary theory. As for Toril Moi, even putting her other achievements aside, her book on Ibsen is essential as a historical corrective for all those who want, at this late date, to rehash a realism vs. modernism argument; if we’d all read Moi on modernism’s development out of the late-nineteenth-century challenge to idealism—and not realism per se—our own present aesthetic debates would be wonderfully clarified.

So, with all due respect to both scholars, we surely do not know our way about.

Texts cannot be actions. For one thing—and please take this from a novelist seeking publication, so far unsuccessfully—a text is wholly inert, a totally lifeless thing, unless it is read. The action is reading, an answer to the prior action of writing; but mediating between these actions is the textual object. “Texts are actions” is a statement biased by the routine perusal of the most influential texts, whose readers have brought actions about as a consequence of their reading. But if no one had read those texts (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, say, or The Communist Manifesto), then no actions would have ensued. An unread book is in itself totally powerless, only as good for action as a rock is: i.e., you can throw it at somebody.

Moreover, if texts were actions, then they, like actions, would have one immediately observable and direct result, even a predictable and iterative result. But no text has such an effect on its readers, not even the most influential text. Don’t groups from anarchists to fascists, from Opus Dei to Quakers, find warrant for their beliefs and actions in the Bible? If I were to hit you hard enough in the face, you would cry, no matter who you are; it would be a purely physiological reaction, admitting of little to no interference from your conscious mind or your social context. If Dickens were to write a novel intended to provoke tears, many people would indeed cry, but Oscar Wilde, and those whose tastes Oscar Wilde educated, would laugh. A violent action can kill you; no text can.

Which brings me to more troubling implications. If texts were actions, then their authors would be subject to sanction as the agents of an action. If texts are actions, then a library is a legitimate military target, and opening fire on a writer as justifiable, in war, as opening fire on a soldier. Redefining texts as actions removes a whole set of legal and social protections from the authors of texts; these protections were understood to be necessary for writers—and related figures, such as scientists—to work undisturbed by the immediate imposition of social norms and political dictates in order to produce disinterested* knowledge—that is, knowledge good for all humanity, not unduly prejudiced by its discoverers’ need to pledge fealty to any particular social interest. If texts were actions, then would the Biblical literalist not be correct to understand the scientist’s written statement of the earth’s true age as a direct and literal assault upon him? We postmodernists know the critique of disinterestedness very well, of course; both Felski and Moi rely from time to time on Bourdieu in their work, and the sociologist famously said that disinterestedness has an interest, in that it was promoted by a particular social group for that group’s own advancement. But Bourdieu well understood that only the ethos of disinterestedness allowed him to say such a thing: only a social system that allows disinterested speculation can allow for the internal critique of its own bias. This is the full, rich meaning of the slogan that the answer to false or hateful speech must be more speech, true and without hate.

If texts were actions, their protection from legal and social regulation would of necessity have to expand to encompass all the types of actions now regulated; for instance, some texts will be characterized, purely and simply, as assaults. “Good!” you may say, “some texts are assaults!” Maybe so (though I doubt it), but why do you imagine that you and those who share your values will be the ones to make the judgment as to which texts? I was educated by nuns who felt no less literally assaulted by pro-abortion discourse than some others may feel by sexist religious discourse. Of course, the nuns were not assaulted; it is just an extravagant manner of speaking. But it is one with consequences for the freedoms that artists and intellectuals have fought for over many centuries now.

I don’t believe history has laws, but if it did, one would certainly be this: the trap you prepare for others will be sprung on you in the end. Redefining texts as actions was a trap prepared, not wrongly, for those who argued that texts were wholly unworldly and that their circulation was without social effect. This trap will be turned on its devisers when the regulation of texts’ supposed social effects becomes the responsibility of those devisers’ enemies.** (Witness the affair of Steven Salaita and the consequences of what some felt to be his violent speech; in this case, the left’s own emerging standards were used against one of its own members.) Much better to scale back the claim and understand texts as objects whose effects are wholly contingent upon human action and decision—upon, above all, interpretation. I know this lacks the avant-garde glamor of imagining the book that explodes, I know that it takes us back to that oh-so-uncool Grecian urn whose very muteness—i.e., inactivity—invites thought and more thought and endlessly recomplicating thought.*** But why, after all, disparage thinking?****

*That the word “disinterested” has almost entirely lost its meaning and is now in common usage a synonym for “bored” is symptomatic of our whole regression from modernity; we may yet bore ourselves to death.

**This is maybe a slight exaggeration, but it seems to me that when I was a child and adolescent (about 20 years ago), it was mostly right-wingers who thought that texts and other representations and artworks (video games, music, etc.) had direct and dangerous social consequences. This view now seems to be the property largely of the left. What happened?

***The point of Keats’s poem, I take it, is that its own ambiguity and density become a surrogate for the urn’s mute and enduring mystery. Every reading of the poem restages the speaker’s encounter with the urn. In that sense, the poem may metaphorically be said to enact its meaning, but let us not get carried away with the metaphor: in fact, it can enact nothing without the reader’s contemplation and agency. We act, not the poem. In the speaker’s sexist vocabulary, the urn/poem can only “tease,” and what within the logic of sexism is a tease but a woman who will not perform the man’s desired action? (Thus we can read the poem against the speaker’s sexism, as a caution against it.) The poem (my all-time favorite, admittedly) is a meditation on the mystery that an inert object, whether urn or poem, can provoke—precisely by doing nothing, which is to say that the word “provoke” is an imputation of agency to a non-agent—an infinitude of thought and feeling. But this is only a mystery if we understand both text and urn not to act (hence the chill of their pastoral and the silence of their music). I have described elsewhere what I believe to be the pernicious consequences of attempting, in literature, to rush past the moment of arrested thought so as to arrive at unmediated existence. 

****Without wishing to drown in the weeds of high theory, I want to clarify one thing: you may be wondering if the view above does not commit me to a rather tedious mimetic view of literature, such that texts are simply representations, more or less faithful, of existing reality or an idealization thereof. By no means; this is dreary neo-classicism by way of Stalin, and I do not support it. I am a Romantic modernist, more or less, in a tradition running from Coleridge and Keats through Pater and Wilde to Joyce and Woolf and (somewhat against his better judgement) Eliot and represented in our own time by Don DeLillo and Kazuo Ishiguro and (somewhat against her better judgment) Toni Morrison, explained here by Brad Bannon. In this tradition, the text is a heterocosm, an autonomous creation for the reader to examine and explore. For the avant-garde tradition of text-as-action, the text is a process that the reader undergoes; in my Romantic modernist tradition, the text is a place readers visit, where they may or may not undergo something or anything, according to their desires and dispositions as they interact with those of the text. 


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