Objects, Will, Resistance: Thoughts on Tyler Bradway's "Critical Immodesty and Other Grammars for Aesthetic Agency" at the Stanford Arcade
The following is a response to Tyler Bradway's fabulous post at the Stanford Arcade, which appears as part of the "We, Reading, Now" colloquium convened by Dalglish Chew and Julie Orlemanski. Tyler's post is here, and everybody in the world should read it. The below was posted as a comment on the blog page, but I've changed a few things and added some links in this fuller version.
UPDATE! Tyler has responded (brilliantly) to my comments at the Arcade website, here.
This is a fabulous post, one whose arguments about agency and objects I’ve been turning over in my mind since I first read it. This time, it had me writing YES and HOORAY in the margins, even as it pushed me to think harder about my own teaching and writing and about where, in those critical practices, I locate agency. Does “resistance” or “critique” or “social commentary” come from the reading/writing/teaching subject (me, Nathan) or the read object (Jane Eyre, say, or Clarel, or Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management)? Does oppositional or counternormative energy derive from inside or outside the mind of the (heroic?) critic typing up blog posts like this one?
These are provocative questions, and I’m enchanted by Tyler’s claim that current trends in so-called post-critical reading “overloo[k] the political forces and effects that aesthetic objects marshal through their surfaces”; this twist on surface- or object-oriented methods wants to account for “the critical and creative forces that aesthetic objects harness to press back against the impasses of their contemporary moment.”
I love this. Of course, one way to understand this claim about “how aesthetic surfaces are engaged in social and political critique” is the noncontroversial, even banal one -- to say that literary works are themselves political. It’s in this sense that North and South or “The Cry of the Children” is political because it has directly political content: they’re about the horrors of industrialization. But I don’t think this is what Tyler’s after in this provocative and generative post. (Of course, distinctions between “directly” and “indirectly” political works hinge not just on the old Marxist dichotomy of form and content, but also on the fascinating problem of “aboutness” as such: the question of what something is "about," what is “obvious” in it, to whom it is obvious, and by what epistemological mechanisms it is considered to be so.)
Tyler doesn’t take this detective-story question head-on, but instead asks what is, to me, a yet more consequential question: “What social agency,” he asks, “what critical forces…can art possibly muster when it has been so fully subsumed within consumer capitalism and other dominant schemes of power?” Beautifully framed here, this agon between insurgent “forces” and “social agenc[ies]” and “dominant schemes of power,” is, in a way, a canonical one, and no less engaging for that. It is, for example, the question around which Adorno and Horkheimer build their still-mindblowing “Culture Industry” essay, and since I recently taught that text, I found it fascinating
to see how Adorno and Horkheimer look in light of Bradway. One thing to note is that Tyler’s emphasis on the variable affects texts can produce --happiness and fun being some of them-- seems way more cheerful & enabling than A/H’s hilariously persistent glumness. (Remember the parts that **make fun** of laughter?!) Anyway: in one of the few glints of hope emanating from that somber essay, A/H hint at how fully commodified cultural forms might nevertheless resist or oppose their conditions of emergence. “The moment in the work of art by which it transcends reality,” they say,
cannot … be severed from style; that moment, however, does not consist in achieved harmony, in the questionable unity of form and content, inner and outer, individual and society, but in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. (DE 103)
What A/H note is that artworks themselves do not have agency or “will,” in the sense of a singular or ontologically unified purposiveness; rather they are internally divided, at war with themselves; there are “moment[s] in the work of art” -- “traits” inside them -- that introduce rupture or suspension into the same work’s own efforts to secure closure or self-identity. These aberrant or discordant elements are the ruptures by which cultural objects avoid inertly recapitulating the world and instead (in an extraordinary term) “transcen[d]” it. Despite the prejudicially modernist flavor of all this, the instances of internal disruption or immanent critique A/H describe here resonate, for me, with the “queer cultural creation” Tyler calls for. That's because these counternormative or unscripted moments are new -- excessive, I mean, to the inputs that produced them-- and for that reason unpredictable in their effects. They are possibility itself.
I agree totally with Tyler that one way to reinvigorate current discussions of what literary studies accomplish is to think more explicitly about this capacity for art to conceive of the new: art imagines new worlds, introduces virtual possibilities that can become actual -- and not just (as A/H remind us) at the level of content. Formal analysis can show how even the most determined or coopted works have cracks and fissures through which gleams of a new world might issue.
One way to reinvigorate current discussions of what literary studies accomplish is to think more explicitly about this capacity for art to conceive of the new.
I take this internally-divided capacity of objects to be one way of understanding Tyler’s brilliantly-pitched call to move away from critique in its negative sense, and toward “an idiom for creation, for affirmation, for the production of new forms of life, for the imagination of new relations and durable forms of being and belonging.” YES and HOORAY, was what I wrote in my margin next to that line.
But again following Adorno -- am I showing my hand here?-- my final question has to do with the tendency of Tyler’s essay to call this “agency” and to locate this capacity in objects themselves, whether on their "surface" (as TB says) or elsewhere "in" them. I’ve been reading Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and there as in other “object-oriented” projects I’ve read, I find the insistence on the agency or purposiveness of objects to be a kind of fantasy; much as we desire to escape the dialectical situation of subjects and objects and find refuge in the world of objects "themselves," I remain unconvinced that we can do so. (Adorno describes in Negative Dialectics how the urgent and necessary critique of identity thinking "grop[es] for the preponderance of the object," and construes as its ideal the immolation of the subject in favor of what we might dare call an object-oriented mode. Unfortunately, Adorno notes, subjects and objects are forever entangled, and "[t]he object's preponderance is solely attainable for subjective reflection, and for reflection on the subject" (ND 185).) I don't love everything Adorno says, but here it seems like he's on to something.
In my own work I’ve thought about this desire to let objects speak (which I share!) through the trope prosopopaeia, whereby, via rhetorical trope, human qualities like agency can be *ascribed* to nonhuman members of the object world. The question partially concerns what we construe the term “object” to mean, of course --and where we draw the boundaries between those and "subjects." But when Tyler refers to the “new modes of critical agency that aesthetic surfaces bring into being,” I think he is talking more about how we apprehend those surfaces rather than the surfaces themselves -- that is, how we read them. Do the critical agencies of objects inhere in them as objects, or are these energies brought into being, conjured, or actualized in the encounter between object and reader, it and us?
Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. E.B. Ashton, trans. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edmund Jephcott, trans. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.
Bradway, Tyler. "Critical Immodesty and Other Grammars for Aesthetic Agency." Stanford Arcade, March 16, 2015. Web.