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The History of Dialogue (5): Snobs on Snobbery

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TNI contributor Ryan Ruby and editor Rob Horning discuss difficult books and the politics of taste. Another weekend well spent, fellows!

From: Ryan Ruby

To: Rob Horning

Subject: Just a thought…

Date: Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 10:11 PM

Came across the following passage in Finnegan’s Wake, which made me think of you. “Qui quae quot at Quinnigan’s Quake! Stump! His producers are they not his consumers? Your exagmination round his factification for incamination of a warping process. Declaim!”

In the margin I wrote, “Producers = Consumers. Joyce as his own audience.” Then wrote the following and was wondering whether you thought the argument, hastily sketched though it is, helps solve the problem of the specific mode of literary consumption:

I have gotten of late into the lazy and, quite frankly self-servingly egalitarian habit of equating books and other consumer productions. I like literature and you like pop music (or organic food or fine wine or fashionable clothing) I would say, secretly complimenting myself for my magnanimity. Reading Finnegan’s Wake has reminded me of an essential difference between consuming literature and consuming other products, even aesthetic ones. A book is not fully consumed upon purchase (although there are many for whom reading ends at the cash register; these we might call connoisseurs of book spines); it must be read and grappled with, if not entirely understood. Literature lacks the sensuous immediacy of most other consumer items, even the most sophisticated ones, whereby one need only to open the eyes, ears, gullet to enjoy them. Reading requires work — and that is an old-fashioned value, especially in those domains which bear a more or less superficial resemblance to entertainment. 

True, there are those — and they represent the vast majority of that ever dwindling population which we might, with some generosity, call readers — who select books the experience of which comes as close to sensuous immediacy as the medium is capable; those who have a soft spot in their brains for obsolete forms of entertainment or those for whom reading is primarily a social act or a form of conspicuous consumption (though this latter act seems to me to be sufficiently satisfied by ownership and bookshelf display alone).

But I am not speaking of them. A truly difficult book, like Finnegan’s Wake, requires surplus effort, for which the product is a particular experience that is, strictly speaking, extraneous to the act of consumption, even if it was an act of consumption that made it possible in the first place (tabling for the moment the question of whether the human capital with which one invests oneself through education; this is not even necessarily the case: we still have public libraries after all).

“The attitude of the snob,” Walter Benjamin writes in his essay on Proust, “is nothing but the consistent, organized, steely view of life from the chemically pure standpoint of the consumer.” But why would a snob bother to read the books he buys? To achieve the status he is thought to desire, he’d need only be familiar with the critical organs of tastemaking that would allow himself to be outfitted with the most fashionable or well-regarded spines. A true reader, one who actually reads the books he buys, one who spends his energy and time to understand them if understanding isn’t immediately forthcoming, is playing a different game entirely. There is a difference between being (and the desire to be) well-read and being (and the desire to be) thought well-read. The former is not entirely a consumerist subject position whereas the latter is. The distance between them is far greater, both temporally and normatively, than the difference between knowing to purchase/being able to afford a Chateau Margaux and an empty glass.

From: Rob Horning

To: Ryan Ruby

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sat, Feb 19, 2011 at 8:09 PM

Thanks for thinking of me with regard to this. I think your “self-servingly egalitarian habit of equating books and other consumer productions” is a reflection of the way mediatization gives the impression of everything being a stream of signifiers, shallowly composed and infinitely redeployable in remixes and so forth. The concept of intrinsic meaning disappears, replaced by a sense of textuality, of contingency, of mutable contexts and provisionality. As for the work difficult literature prompts, I usually think it in light of convenience as a consumerist value, and the elimination of friction as the goal toward which capitalism has oriented technology. Removing friction in consumption or the exchange is usually a matter of eliminating people, but it is also a matter of reducing thought to impulse (“Blink,” says M. Gladwell).

Books increasingly come predigested — either written as such or embedded in a discourse that makes them more immediately apprehendable, consumable.Finnegan’s Wake certainly runs the other way, but it does rely on the author’s notoriety to be read in the first place and has spawned a cottage industry of interpreters who will read Finnegan’s Wake for readers but let them also play along at home.

Why would a snob bother to read a book bought solely for ostentatious taste display? I would say to protect himself from himself, to secure an alibi, or to hide from himself what he has turned his passion into (with society/capitalism’s help): sterile collecting and status mongering. The act of reading is when one forgets the alienation one has tried to impose on literature one has invested oneself in as consumer.

You write: “There is a difference between being (and the desire to be) well-read and being (and the desire to be) thought well-read. The former is not entirely a consumerist subject position whereas the latter is.” I think that unfortunately there is a continual fluctuation between these subject positions that is inescapable, and worse, we slide along the continuum between them by often imperceptible degrees.

From: Ryan Ruby

To: Rob Horning

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 2:31 PM

That’s all very bleak, my boy. So there’s no egress? Capitalism conquers all? And consumerism is all-determining? Not saying, certainly, that my little note represented a solution to the problem; but reading yours made me despair that one was even (metaphysically) possible. Just out of curiosity, for I am interested not just what people are invested in, no pun intended, but why. So, I hope I would not be too forward in suggesting, for your consideration, that there’s a certain somewhat masochistic pleasure you take in this view? Either that, or your love of the true is heroically unstinting, for I cannot imagine being able to operate in the world you describe.

From: Rob Horning

To: Ryan Ruby

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 2:36 PM

I think that efforts to mitigate capitalism have the potential to change the depth to which we can appreciate art/literature, which I think is sort of hopeful. Also I take a lot of pleasure in products as products — e.g. Trollope novels.

I think reading against the grain starts with the reader rather than the text. And this makes one not a snob but a self-experimenter of a sort, trying to find unknown pleasure in resisting smooth texts. Some masochism in that too, definitely.

From: Ryan Ruby

To: Rob Horning

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 2:55 PM

Hmm, that worries me even more: Do I understand you rightly? that aesthetic problems are really problems of political economy? As if what prevents us from truly experiencing the sublime is capitalism (which seems to me to imply that art isn’t capable of doing sublime all by itself)? I do like the self-experimenter model you propose, though this, historically speaking, is as much a development of liberalism and capitalism, if not more so, than snobbery, which predates it and will survive as long as humans organize themselves hierarchically (i.e. probably forever). And I think you’re right to suggest that it’s masochistic too: But man, if we’re going to prostrate ourselves before the whip we might as well really enjoy it! That, I suppose, would be to move from romantic pessimism to Dionysian pessimism?

From: Rob Horning

To: Ryan Ruby

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 3:13 PM

I agree with that last part totally — I think the capitalist sublime is something I’m guessing that we reject categorically but looks like Avatar in 3-D or something. Snobbery, precapitalism, was an unselfconscious living out of class habitus; postcapitalism, it becomes more pointed and desperate, less straightforwardly, unreflexively pleasurable, perhaps.

I think you and I differ in that I think the reader is more important than the work; a good work can make up for a bad reader, but a good reader can redeem almost anything. I sort of reject “great works” for the most part, though with obvious exceptions.

From: Ryan Ruby

To: Rob Horning

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 4:03 PM

I suppose that’s true: I’m not much interested in readers. They’re so… mortal. I read somewhere that when a poet is drowned by his work he becomes a reader. Nonetheless, I suppose homo lisens remains my primary identification — but I do like books that don’t privilege this status, ones which make you come to them, as it were. Still, I’m very interested in this notion of the “good reader” you mention. I imagine him to be capable of discoursing on any subject — whether highbrow or lowbrow, historical or contemporary, aesthetic or political, immortal or ephemeral — and in so doing, allows the latter term of these binaries to have a day in the former term’s sun. This is what I understand by “a good reader can redeem almost anything.”

But what about those things that just aren’t worth redeeming — the infra dig, if you will? I just don’t understand why such a person would bother. There, it seems to me, four psychic positions one could take here. (1) That of the genuinely omni-interested, who don’t admit the existence of this category; (2) that of the ironic bad consciences, who actually prefer the infra dig, but feel ashamed about it; (3) that of the unselfconscious, who wouldn’t therefore count as “good readers” but would nonetheless mirror the members of category 1 in their enthusiasm and those in category 2 in their true preferences; and (4) that of the “snob,” who simply ignores what isn’t obviously worth redeeming (though let’s say, for the sake of discussion, in order to take questions of character out of the equation, that he doesn’t explicitly use this as a mode of distinction). Of these, the best would be category 1, of course, but failing that, I’d say 4 is to be preferred to 2 and 3.

From: Rob Horning

To: Ryan Ruby

Subject: Re: Just a thought…

Date: Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 5:19 PM

That is a good analysis. The surfeit of reading material makes the main issue, paradoxically, access: What is at the top of the pile that reaches the “good reader”? What do the friends of the “good reader” recommend or stick in front of her face?

The discussion ultimately turns on what motivates the selection of reading material — the “classic” status of the work, the pretensions of the reader, peer pressure, etc. — and which of these motives seem “authentic.” Escaping authenticity seems to me the essence of the problem — down with Heidegger!

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(Image via the remarkable blog Wake in Progress, Illustrations of Finnegan’s Wake)

 

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