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4 Documentarity and the Modern Genre of “Literature”

Documentarity and Modern Literature

Published onOct 09, 2019
4 Documentarity and the Modern Genre of “Literature”

The inhabitants of bourgeois worlds are premised and defined by institutions and fantasies of second-hand knowledge—evidentiary texts, or “documents,” both of “fact” and “fiction”—including the knowledge of their own personal and social psychologies. Bourgeois identity and life is mediated throughout, in both its “interior” (the supposedly personal psychological “inside”) and “exterior” (the supposedly social psychological “outside”) aspects by documents. Its primary psychological indexes are built through documentation and documentarity.

At least since Western European Romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the written, spoken, and visual arts have been seen as the domain of human cultural expression, particularly the expressions of the rather recent conception of the modern individual self. With written texts, this domain has traditionally been thought to belong to literature. Popularly, literature is thought to be expressive of personal emotions or “feelings” and the depiction of fictional events and poetic manners of expression.

However, “literature”—more literally as it were—means that which involves writing generally. Just as in psychology the dividing line between emotive and cognitive expressions can be problematic, so, too, the division between literature and documentation becomes problematic, not least when we examine both as being “informational.”

If we view the specific genre of “literature” as a more or less modern phenomenon—for example, if we ask how and why there came to be “literature” as a category of information distinct from documentation—then we may begin to see literature as a reaction since the beginnings of modernity to the dominance of documentarity, as well as being part of the emergence of a new type of document or information that is grounded in the depiction of beings as broadly powerful particulars.

As we have discussed, though there have been styles that marked fiction as distinct from philosophy before the modern period, “literature” (particularly having to do with the self as a powerful particular and with the extended depictions of ordinary persons in realistic manners) is a modern genre. And while there were earlier works, such as the well-known example of Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which “showed the devices” of their construction, only with the modern avant-garde did this become a more generalized approach that also took “literature” (as a realist, representational, form) into its critical view. While the popular view is that it was the modern sciences that first separated themselves from a previous prescientific form of writing and investigation that was symbolic in character, I would suggest that it was modern literature, too, as a novelistic realm, that separated itself from such a symbol-based writing (save for modern literary symbolism, such as the Silver Age of Russian literature), and that it did so by mimicking the empirical sciences’ concerns with the particular, while also claiming to go beyond their abilities and domains of knowledge by literature’s ability to “organically” or “holistically” depict the emotional and social underpinnings of human beings and their relations to one another. “Literature,” as much as modern science, constituted a break from what came before, in so far that in both cases it was the symbol as the basis for meaning, which was supposedly distanced from and replaced by realist representation, and in the avant-garde, by performance and materialism.

While there certainly were lyric poets and there were prose perspectives in the first and third person before the modern period, the central concern of the self as an agent of feelings, particularly as one undergoing changes in character due to the social environment, became a unique hallmark of literature in the modern period and still today. Wordsworth’s diction as representative of not only his own voice, but also the expressions of the “ordinary” rural man or woman, Whitman’s similar concerns in his “Song of Myself,” Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s self-concerns in regard to social modernity, and the focus on the self in Beat poetry, Anglo-American “confessional” poetry, and New American Poetry of the 1960s—all these and so many more examples would have been impossible previous to the rise of the conception of the self in the seventeenth century, as a powerful particular with (as we will discuss in a later chapter) “inalienable” rights of expression and being. In romantic and broadly understood “modern” literature, an ancient literature of what Auerbach (2003) calls “high style” (depicting the aristocratic self as undone by hubris and fate—ancient tragedy through Shakespeare), or conversely, a “low style” (characterized by rabble or clever underdogs—Latin literature and up through picaresque novels), in other words, a literature of styles based on character types, is largely replaced by realist depictions of selves within social conditions. Likewise, French realism in the nineteenth-century novel took what was largely a woman’s form of high-style literature in the previous century, one that recirculated medieval romances, and turned this form on its head, situating the reader in the current or near-current moment and sometimes parodying the effects of “high-style” romances on more ordinary readers of the emerging middle class (e.g., in the case of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which we will soon examine).

The argument that I will pose in this chapter is that modern literature develops as a counter-discourse to the judgmental categories of the “high-style” literature preceding it, the latter of which followed a strong form of documentarity. And I suggest that it does this through not only a greater concern with ontological particulars, but also out of greatly expanded and intensified acts of depicted and performed sense associated with these particulars. In this, it gives a descriptive focus similar to the rise of experimentalism at the time, although in two forms: that of modeling via fiction and that of performance and formal critique and innovation. Thus, I propose three categories for modern literature and for art (“literature”—that is, aesthetic inscriptions more generally), in order to discuss them in relation to the “strong,” a priori documentarity that came before and accompanied them in both aesthetic and non-aesthetic practices:

  1. as the expansion and intensification of sense through temporally expanded fictional description and powerful particulars as characters (e.g., the modern realist novel);

  2. as the intensification of sense in empirical affects (i.e., the modern avant-garde as characterized by a privileging of sensation against normative cognitive representation or “knowledge”; e.g., Dada shock value, sound poetry, and up through 1960–70s, performance art and “happenings”);

  3. as the “deconstructive” (loosely phrased) revealing of the devices and the making strange of everyday discursive and also literary expressions that claim realist or naturalist representation (e.g., formalist and constructivist traditions from the time of the Soviet avant-garde to contemporary works in “Language Writing” [sometimes called “Language Poetry”]).

Our inquiry in this chapter is accompanied by questions (which we can only touch on in this book) about the relationship of “literature” and “information” today, such as: What is the status of the text in the modern documentary episteme of the “information age”? How does literature attempt to remain specific in the midst of the dominance of the current documentary episteme of information and data? How does it react to this dominance? How is “information” understood as distinct from modern documentation, and how does this have analogies or precedence in literature? What is the status of literature and “the humanities” (including the “digital humanities”) now that so much of our social world is textually mediated as stories and through poetic devices? And, do documentation and literature from the nineteenth century and into the twenty-first century form two poles of the modern any longer, a “modern” that has as its central idea that of information as evidence and proof (i.e., modern documentarity)?

In terms of the above third category, we must be aware that the performative critique of documentation through formal means has occurred not only in art and literature, but also in certain areas of philosophy, literary criticism, and even in the sciences in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century (i.e., in anthropology and ethnology [Debaene, 2014]) through a critique and performance of the notion of “the text,” as well as through the integration of literary style or textual analysis within these domains. The critical notion of “the text,” which pinnacled in French philosophy of the 1960s and ’70s and subsequently Anglo-American theory, takes on a particular character that poses it against not only documents as evidence, but also philosophy as a metaphysics of documentary evidence. The explicit literary character of some philosophy during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (e.g., Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as well as his use of aphoristic forms in his other books; Heidegger’s neologisms; Derrida’s blurring of literary and philosophical styles) adds to performative critiques of strong documentarity during late modernity.

I can claim little originality for some of the historical material given in this chapter. Much of it is well known and canonical. However, this is partly the point. How such became or becomes literature, as a genre, or has become canonical as art or poetics or literary movements, remains an issue that must be accounted for not only in terms of the history and sociology of the works and the biographies of literary writers and artists, but also in terms of larger sociological, conceptual, and historical explanations, not least those involving documentation, and today, the question of information or documentarity in regard to the text.

What is perhaps original in this chapter is the suggestion that the modern category of literature has appeared in different ways as both critical and intensifying to documentation, as part of an empirical response to strong documentarity (reference) and in support of weak documentarity (sense). To investigate “information in the humanities” doesn’t just mean to investigate bibliographic and other such resources at the service of humanistic and artistic practices, but to investigate the humanities and arts in terms of their critical and their supportive relationships to modern conceptions of information and to documentarity more fully.1

Literary Realism

Nineteenth-century naturalism as a type of realism, influenced by the social sciences of the day, focused on an aesthetic intensification of behavioral qualities according to social types (e.g., Zola’s works). Realism more generally, though, was committed to representing a more phenomenologically broad and more emotionally intense range of social behavior than could be afforded by the methods of the social sciences. Through fictional works, imaginative and psychological realms of particular persons and social spaces could be iconically modeled, in a past, present, and even in an imagined future.

Literary realism stresses the depiction of the psychologically and socially caused affective relations of human characters, while modeling their behaviors for the reader to identify with. It attempts to go beyond behavioral taxonomies by displaying the confused motivations and intentions of characters as selves, as well as social types of persons. Even in third-person narratives, the point of view is the character as an agent of expressive powers, whether as an agent of free will or as a reactive victim of circumstance.

I will begin my analysis of modern literature by discussing nineteenth-century realism as a literary genre that forefronts the self-evidentiary expressions of modeled characters in story forms. My example will be Gustave Flaubert’s famous 1856 novel Madame Bovary, composed of narrative representations built from the viewpoint of character-agents. Character, in the moral sense of the word, is the “virtual” or essential properties of selves that are actualized in situations and events. In the realist novel, as in real life, we hypothesize character—or a self—out of the regularity of complex expressions from an agent. The complexities and the contradictions of self are what separates the realism of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary from the satirical characters of his later Bouvard et Pécuchet or the naturalism of social types in Zola’s works, for example. The modern novel largely functions as the depiction of character in an extended story frame. Both elements—characters as selves and stories as complex, moralistic, allegories or models for lived life—are important elements in the genre form of the modern realist novel.

Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert’s celebrated novel of the mid-nineteenth century, Madame Bovary, continues the turn of realism from a stronger documentarity of literature (Auerbach’s “high style”) to a “weaker” one. In Flaubert’s type of realism in Madame Bovary, it is agents as powerful particulars that shape their destiny, rather than just their social types. While social forces are powerfully portrayed in Madame Bovary, and while the secondary characters conform strongly to the social types of the time, the central character of Emma Bovary displays a particularly powerful will in the midst of being shaped by social forces in the present and from the past. Her fate is a product of this will, even as it becomes recommodified by literary types, and personalities (e.g., the character of Rodolphe) of previous centuries. As distinct from the “high style” of ancient depictions up through the early modern period, Emma is an everyday, bourgeois character who still today bourgeois readers can identify with.

To understand the emergence of literary realism from a documentary influenced naturalism, which both came after it in literature and to some extent preceded it more broadly in writing (Auerbach’s “high style”), we may step back and look at an extended passage from Honoré de Balzac’s 1842 preface to his The Human Comedy. There, Balzac presents the emergence of human social types as analogues to animal evolution in nature, while adding the complexity of the human self. With, on the one hand, eighteenth-century natural philosophy and, on the other hand, subsequent Darwinian influenced biology and the emerging social sciences in the background, Balzac writes:

The idea of The Human Comedy was at first as a dream to me, one of those impossible projects which we caress and then let fly; a chimera that gives us a glimpse of its smiling woman’s face, and forthwith spreads its wings and returns to a heavenly realm of phantasy. But this chimera, like many another, has become a reality; has its behests, its tyranny, which must be obeyed.

The idea originated in a comparison between Humanity and Animality.

It is a mistake to suppose that the great dispute which has lately made a stir, between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, arose from a scientific innovation. Unity of structure, under other names, had occupied the greatest minds during the two previous centuries. As we read the extraordinary writings of the mystics who studied the sciences in their relation to infinity, such as Swedenborg, Saint-Martin, and others, and the works of the greatest authors on Natural History—Leibnitz, Buffon, Charles Bonnet, etc., we detect in the monads of Leibnitz, in the organic molecules of Buffon, in the vegetative force of Needham, in the correlation of similar organs of Charles Bonnet—who in 1760 was so bold as to write, “Animals vegetate as plants do”—we detect, I say, the rudiments of the great law of Self for Self, which lies at the root of Unity of Plan. There is but one Animal. The Creator works on a single model for every organized being. “The Animal” is elementary, and takes its external form, or, to be accurate, the differences in its form, from the environment in which it is obliged to develop. Zoological species are the result of these differences. The announcement and defense of this system, which is indeed in harmony with our preconceived ideas of Divine Power, will be the eternal glory of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier’s victorious opponent on this point of higher science, whose triumph was hailed by Goethe in the last article he wrote.

I, for my part, convinced of this scheme of nature long before the discussion to which it has given rise, perceived that in this respect society resembled nature. For does not society modify Man, according to the conditions in which he lives and acts, into men as manifold as the species in Zoology? The differences between a soldier, an artisan, a man of business, a lawyer, an idler, a student, a statesman, a merchant, a sailor, a poet, a beggar, a priest, are as great, though not so easy to define, as those between the wolf, the lion, the ass, the crow, the shark, the seal, the sheep, etc. Thus, social species have always existed, and will always exist, just as there are zoological species. If Buffon could produce a magnificent work by attempting to represent in a book the whole realm of zoology, was there not room for a work of the same kind on society? But the limits set by nature to the variations of animals have no existence in society. When Buffon describes the lion, he dismisses the lioness with a few phrases; but in society a wife is not always the female of the male. There may be two perfectly dissimilar beings in one household. The wife of a shopkeeper is sometimes worthy of a prince, and the wife of a prince is often worthless compared with the wife of an artisan. The social state has freaks which Nature does not allow herself; it is nature plus society. The description of social species would thus be at least double that of animal species, merely in view of the two sexes. Then, among animals the drama is limited; there is scarcely any confusion; they turn and rend each other—that is all. Men, too, rend each other; but their greater or less intelligence makes the struggle far more complicated. Though some savants do not yet admit that the animal nature flows into human nature through an immense tide of life, the grocer certainly becomes a peer, and the noble sometimes sinks to the lowest social grade. Again, Buffon found that life was extremely simple among animals. Animals have little property, and neither arts nor sciences; while man, by a law that has yet to be sought, has a tendency to express his culture, his thoughts, and his life in everything he appropriates to his use. Though Leuwenhoek, Swammerdam, Spallanzani, Reaumur, Charles Bonnet, Muller, Haller and other patient investigators have shown us how interesting are the habits of animals, those of each kind, are, at least to our eyes, always and in every age alike; whereas the dress, the manners, the speech, the dwelling of a prince, a banker, an artist, a citizen, a priest, and a pauper are absolutely unlike, and change with every phase of civilization. . . .

. . . Though dazzled, so to speak, by Walter Scott’s amazing fertility, always himself and always original, I did not despair, for I found the source of his genius in the infinite variety of human nature. Chance is the greatest romancer in the world; we have only to study it. French society would be the real author; I should only be the secretary. By drawing up an inventory of vices and virtues, by collecting the chief facts of the passions, by depicting characters, by choosing the principal incidents of social life, by composing types out of a combination of homogeneous characteristics, I might perhaps succeed in writing the history which so many historians have neglected: that of Manners. By patience and perseverance, I might produce for France in the nineteenth century the book which we must all regret that Rome, Athens, Tyre, Memphis, Persia, and India have not bequeathed to us; that history of their social life which, prompted by the Abbe Barthelemy, Monteil patiently and steadily tried to write for the Middle Ages, but in an unattractive form. (Balzac, 1901, pp. 2–5)

For Balzac, human social types exist, but they are variable and contested by individual character, complexities of culture or “manners” and chance. Characters in realist fiction, as individuals in real life, are made up of both selves (composed of unique collections of potential skills and expressions) and persons (composed of actions that conform to socially accepted roles and rules for behavior—i.e., to moral orders). The variances or deviations between self and person and how an individual negotiates this as a manifestation of their ontological and political “freedom” is one of the characteristics that make up realist works in this period and our own. Unsurprisingly, the realist novel arose in post-Enlightenment societies, when new social and psychological norms for “free” individuality spread, emphasizing the singularity of the bourgeois self, even in the midst of its intense social and cultural documentary construction and self-construction. We can see this in Madame Bovary, where the characters of a small country town appropriate as self-identities bourgeois social types taken from national and international cultural materials, such as newspapers and novels. They then contest and modify these person-types in their local circumstances and according to each, his or her, own self character, within an overall political narrative of social progress and individual self-development.

Through reading mass media materials, the characters appropriate imaginations of their own individual being, which, in the case of Emma Bovary as a woman, results in her imaginations of romance according to aristocratic types. In Madame Bovary, we have a depiction of the historical transition from an aristocratic moral code to a bourgeois one, the latter which has appropriated some of the former’s figures, though always mediated by the need for a wage, and through it, personal and social progress (at least economically). Tragically, Emma takes her cad of a lover, the aristocrat Rodolphe, to be a model for the freedom to ignore what she sees as boring and hypocritical bourgeois social rules and roles, while she also looks down upon the rural peasant moral orders. This turns out tragically, because the freedoms of the aristocracy are not shared by the bourgeoisie, whose very existence and social advancement are dependent on social types and moral orders ideologically generated and maintained by newspapers, the church, education, and other such—largely documentarily mediated—cultural institutions.

Emma’s husband Charles was not a very enthusiastic student in his youth, though by the time he marries Emma, he has become—thanks to his mother’s overbearing force—a doctor, and he lives his life with Emma as a caring, but for her, dreadfully boring, husband, following the roles, rules, and social privileges of a small-town doctor. Flaubert depicts Charles, along with the other bourgeois men in the novel (to appropriate the English translation of the Austrian writer Robert Musil’s novel title), as a “man without qualities.” Charles accepts his social rules and roles, which have given him, despite his demonstrated incompetence, a certain level of bourgeois and professional respectability in the region, which Flaubert skews unremittingly, both through Emma’s eyes and through dry vignettes.

Probably one of the most tragic-comic illustrations of Charles’s pretentions as a doctor is the scene of his botched attempt to correct a laborer’s club foot, resulting in gangrene, the man’s foot being painfully amputated, and Emma’s further disdain for Charles based on her concern for damage to their social status if his reputation should fall. Flaubert’s description of Charles’s approach toward the amputation and Emma’s disdain for his clumsy efforts beautifully portrays the complicated manners by which social identities—derived from popular and professional documents in the present and from the past—position the characters as social actors and drive their desires and relationships. Emma takes Charles’s failure at the operation as one more failure of his character; he is, in her eyes, a buffoon, a caricature of a lover and of a doctor.2

It should be stressed, before quoting this section of Madame Bovary, that one of the hallmarks of documentarity in modernity is the extensiveness by which mass media creates identity types and how these shape both individual and social psychologies and politics, most of all in bourgeois social spaces where experience is heavily mediated by documentary, that is, “second-hand” knowledge (Wilson, 1983). In the bourgeois sphere, one advances by the attainment of technical skills and cultural awards, through education, institutions, and its documents; in other words, one socially advances through using and being granted evidentiary texts. Social powers are not inherited, as with the aristocracy, but rather must be striven for as class achievements, and this requires earned recognition in the public, and indeed, the private spheres. Personality is constructed and publicly expressed through writing, or more broadly understood, inscriptions. Documentarity, through the literal processes of documentational learning and attainment (documentality), accompanies moral psychology during the modern age. One earns and gives documentary evidence about who one is. One publishes texts and one “earns” (or otherwise receives) diplomas, and these constitute the professional and moral character of a person for the rest of his or her life. Public documents have the aura of creating permanent moral and psychological identity—of giving a trustworthy permanence to identity against time, interpretation, illness, cognitive variance, and the emotional flux of human relationships.

Flaubert writes in Madame Bovary:

He [Charles] had recently read a eulogy on a new method for curing club-foot, and as he was a partisan of progress, he conceived the patriotic idea that Yonville, in order to keep to the fore, ought to have some operations for strephopody or club-foot.

“For,” said he to Emma, “what risk is there? See” (and he enumerated on his fingers the advantages of the attempt), “success, almost certain relief and beautifying the patient, celebrity acquired by the operator. Why, for example, should not your husband relieve poor Hippolyte of the ‘Lion d’Or’? Note that he would not fail to tell about his cure to all the travelers, and then” (Homais lowered his voice and looked around him), “who is to prevent me from sending a short paragraph on the subject to the paper? Eh! goodness me! an article gets about; it is talked of; it ends by making a snowball! And who knows? who knows?”

In fact, Bovary might succeed. Nothing proved to Emma that he was not clever; and what a satisfaction for her to have urged him to a step by which his reputation and fortune would be increased! She only wished to lean on something more solid than love.

Charles, urged by the chemist and by her, allowed himself to be persuaded. He sent to Rouen for Dr. Duval’s volume, and every evening, holding his head between both hands, plunged into the reading of it.

While he was studying equinus, varus, and valgus, that is to say, katastrephopody, endostrephopody, and exostrephopody (or better, the various turnings of the foot downwards, inwards, and outwards, with the hypostrephopody and anastrephopody), otherwise torsion downwards and upwards, Monsieur Homais, with all sorts of arguments, was exhorting the lad at the inn to submit to the operation.

. . . The poor fellow gave way, for it was like a conspiracy. Binet, who never interfered with other people’s business, Madame Lefrançois, Artémise, the neighbors, even the mayor, Monsieur Tuvache—every one persuaded him, lectured him, shamed him; but what finally decided him was that it would cost him nothing. Bovary even undertook to provide the machine for the operation. This generosity was an idea of Emma’s, and Charles consented to it, thinking in his heart of hearts that his wife was an angel.

So, by the advice of the chemist, and after three fresh starts, he had a kind of box made by the carpenter, with the aid of the locksmith, that weighed about eight pounds, in which iron, wood, sheet-iron, leather, screws, and nuts had not been spared.

But to know which of Hippolyte’s tendons to cut, it was necessary first of all to find out what kind of club-foot he had.

He had a foot forming almost a straight line with the leg, which, however, did not prevent it from being turned in, so that it was an equinus together with something of a varus, or else a slight varus with a strong tendency to equinus. But with this equinus, wide in foot like a horse’s hoof, with rugose skin, dry tendons, and large toes, on which the black nails looked as if made of iron, the club-foot ran about like a deer from morn till night. He was constantly to be seen on the Place, jumping around the carts, thrusting his limping foot forward. He seemed even stronger on that leg than the other. By dint of hard service it had acquired, as it were, moral qualities of patience and of energy; and when he was doing some heavy work, he stood on it in preference to its fellow.

Now, as it was an equinus, it was necessary to cut the tendon Achilles, and, if need were, the anterior tibial muscle could be seen to afterwards for getting rid of the varus; for the doctor did not dare to risk both operations at once; he was even trembling already for fear of injuring some important region that he did not know.

Neither Ambrose Paré, applying for the first time since Celsus, after an interval of fifteen centuries, a ligature to an artery, nor Dupuytren, about to open an abscess in the brain, nor Gensoul when he first took away the superior maxilla, had hearts that trembled, hands that shook, minds so strained as had the doctor when he approached Hippolyte, his tenotome between his fingers. And, as at hospitals, nearby on a table lay a heap of lint, with waxed thread, many bandages—a pyramid of bandages—every bandage to be found at the chemist’s. It was Monsieur Homais who since morning had been organising all these preparations, as much to dazzle the multitude as to keep up his illusions. Charles pierced the skin; a dry crackling was heard. The tendon was cut, the operation over. Hippolyte could not get over his surprise, but bent over Bovary’s hands to cover them with kisses.

“Come, be calm,” said the chemist; “later you will show your gratitude to your benefactor.”

And he went down to tell the result to five or six inquirers who were waiting in the yard, and who fancied that Hippolyte would reappear walking properly. Then Charles, having buckled his patient into the machine, went home, where Emma, all anxiety, awaited him at the door. She threw herself on his neck: they sat down to table; he ate much, and at dessert he even wished to take a cup of coffee, a luxury he permitted himself only on Sundays when there was company. (Flaubert, 1904, pp. 217–221)

The operation, though, ends in failure, as the foot badly gangrenes. Flaubert later describes the corrective operation by a renowned Dr. Canivet from Paris, which Charles and Emma hear taking place at a distance by the fact of Hippolyte’s screams. Charles and Emma’s reaction to this, like all the other characters in the town, is self-centered, focused on those identities that they hold of themselves courtesy of the popular media and the popular and learned “opinions” that have bequeathed them; in the case of the Bovarys’ that of a respected professional man of medicine and his wife:

Then, without any consideration for Hippolyte, who was sweating with agony between his sheets, these gentlemen entered into a conversation, in which the chemist compared the coolness of a surgeon to that of a general; and this comparison was pleasing to Canivet, who launched out on the exigencies of his art. He looked upon it as a sacred office, although the ordinary practitioners dishonoured it. At last, coming back to the patient, he examined the bandages brought by Homais, the same that had appeared for the club-foot, and asked for someone to hold the limb for him. Lestiboudois was sent for, and Monsieur Canivet having turned up his sleeves, passed into the billiard-room, while the chemist stayed with Artémise and the landlady, both whiter than their aprons, and with ears strained towards the door.

Bovary during this time did not dare to stir from his house. He kept downstairs in the sitting-room by the side of the fireless chimney, his chin on his breast, his hands clasped, his eyes staring. “What a mishap!” he thought, “what a mishap!” Perhaps, after all, he had made some slip. He thought it over, but could hit upon nothing. But the most famous surgeons also made mistakes; and that is what no one would ever believe! People, on the contrary, would laugh, jeer! It would spread as far as Forges, as Neufchâtel, as Rouen, everywhere! Who could say if his colleagues would not write against him. Polemics would ensue; he would have to answer in the papers. Hippolyte might even prosecute him. He saw himself dishonored, ruined, lost; and his imagination, assailed by a world of hypotheses, tossed amongst them like an empty cask borne by the sea and floating upon the waves.

Emma, opposite, watched him; she did not share his humiliation; she felt another—that of having supposed such a man was worth anything. As if twenty times already she had not sufficiently perceived his mediocrity. (1904, pp. 229–230)

Emma and Charles and many of the other, bourgeois characters inhabit a world heavily mediated by second-hand (i.e., documentary) knowledge. Just as bibliographies and other library indexes position and point to books within collections of library texts, and so as they also position persons as types of users in regard to them, media spheres index documentary materials and bring people as social types—“users”—into relation with such information and thus to themselves as identities, as well (Day, 2014). Unlike peasant illiterates and near illiterates, and unlike the aristocrats who could travel or have foreign guests, the middle class (then and now) largely gained privilege, enlightenment, knowledge about the world, and power secondhand, through books, newspapers, public and institutional documents, and other documentary information. At the same time, lack of formal education and reading among the peasantry and proletariat were (and still are) seen by the bourgeoisie (today, middle or even upper-working) class as a sign of the lower classes’ ignorance and lack of social progress, even when their suffering is a result of trusting the assumed knowledge held by the bourgeoisie. The “ignorance” of the lower classes supposedly is not only of the contents of such documents, but also of the “fact” that such sources of knowledge bring power. This is the trust that such lower classes supposedly lack, which is the contract that makes up the bourgeois state, understood as “democratic” and “progressive.” That the documents that the bourgeoisie have access to are usually mediated by corporate or public spheres controlled by wealth, and that the bourgeoisie often lack direct access to research or the ability to understand such documents (e.g., medical research), is a lacuna that in itself constitutes their very faith in institutional documents, institutions, and professions. Their faith in their own ability to progress and their faith in progressive nationhood or “civilization,” that is, their faith that knowledge is power, are precisely rooted in their ignorance. Their knowledge is not even secondhand in most cases, but further down the scale. The entirety of bourgeois existence and their trust in the state lies in a faith in documentary mechanisms largely beyond their immediate knowledge.

If the aristocracy exists through their own otherworldly fantasies and self-satisfaction, the elite through knowledge of the sociocultural mechanisms and facts of power that keep them in power, the poor through local “street smarts,” and the peasants through tradition and immediate values (especially if they are illiterate—e.g., children instead of speculative financial investments as insurance for the future; successful harvests and food on the table instead of long term, speculative threats; warm and long lasting clothes instead of fashion3), then the bourgeoisie existed in the early nineteenth century and still exist today through the mediation of documents and other texts, which today include all types of media, including their own imaginations of actively performing all the above classes in bourgeois fantasies of personal progress, personal success, manual labor, and wealth and leisure (e.g., going back to the land; affordable fashion; supervisory roles in jobs; voting; and land ownership, vacations, and moments of relaxation and luxury). The inhabitants of bourgeois worlds are premised and defined by institutions and fantasies of secondhand (or thirdhand) knowledge—evidentiary texts, or “documents,” both of “fact” and “fiction”—including the knowledge of their own personal and social psychologies. Bourgeois identity and life is mediated throughout, in both its “interior” (the supposedly personal psychological “inside”) and “exterior” (the supposedly social psychological “outside”) aspects by documents. Its primary psychological indexes are built through documentation and documentarity.

However, as shown in Madame Bovary, even among the bourgeoisie, there was and continues to be a hierarchy of knowledge that splits along lines of high-culture and “morally virtuous” canonical journalistic, philosophical, and scientific literature on the one hand, and that of other types of “lower” literature (fictional and romantic) on the other. These latter were the documents of life, however, that became much of the modern genre of “literature,” based on the supposed difference between evidence-in-fact and evidence-in-fiction.

In France, women novelists such as Madame de Tencin (1682–1749) and her Memoires du Comte de Comminge and Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701) and her novels, and the many similar authors at the time and those that came after them, provided the romance, dialogue, and beyond all else, the rules and roles necessary for a woman’s social advancement (DeJean, 1991), all of which were lacking in Emma Bovary’s sheltered bourgeois house and village existence. (One of the striking elements in Flaubert’s novel is Emma’s almost total lack of female companionship, save for her nanny and servants, whom, of course, Emma shows little empathy with or sympathy toward.) The fancifulness of the novels and their settings provided “as-if” models for women, particularly perhaps those cut off from other women by class or domestic isolation.

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert ruthlessly displays the limits and powers of this secondhand knowledge and its importance in creating personal and social identity for the characters, while also showing that the new genre of “literature” provided a rare textual outlet for the emotional aspects of their lives. Below, for example, is Flaubert’s commentary on Leon—another, earlier, love interest for Emma just after her marriage to Charles—in a scene later in the book depicting Leon’s renunciation of romantic passions. Literature is shown as a sociological reaction to an organized, documentary world (“senior clerk,” “notary”), but such literature is, for bourgeois culture, also filled with stereotypes and tropes (“immense passions,” “heroic enterprises,” “oriental princesses”), though of a supposedly “escapist” form, and so is inappropriate for a young man attaining a professional or semiprofessional social status. Flaubert writes,

At last Leon swore he would not see Emma again, and he reproached himself with not having kept his word, considering all the worry and lectures this woman might still draw down upon him, without reckoning the jokes made by his companions as they sat around the stove in the morning. Besides, he was soon to be head clerk; it was time to settle down. So, he gave up his flute, exalted sentiments, and poetry; for every bourgeois in the flush of his youth, were it but for a day, a moment, has believed himself capable of immense passions, of lofty enterprises. The most mediocre libertine has dreamed of sultanas; every notary bears within him the debris of a poet. (1904, p. 77)

Here, Flaubert tell us that in the social development of men the emotional and literary world of women (“passions”) must be renounced; fiction gives way to documents, evidence of desire to facts. The sexual division of labor takes place along lines of private and public spaces for evidence, with sexual desire as the dividing line, for what is considered essential and also practical. Sexual desire—at least understood as fulfilled or unfulfilled passions—demarcates sexual identity, while also confining the two sexes to private and public spheres that follow this same demarcation.

While characters such as Rodolphe could live the last vestiges of the aristocracy and enact the heroic or “high style” of literary character (and also abandon it at will, as he abandons Emma), it was up to women like Emma to evoke these aristocratic privileges of “passion” and natural right against emerging bourgeois values, earned rights, and technological progress. In truth, however, both Charles and Emma are situated in moral and social classes of earned, not aristocratically inherited, rights. They cannot escape their bourgeois class assignment because to do so would be to abandon the very means toward class advancement that they dream of and to abandon the moral rules and roles, without which they would fall into the working class and peasantry. This is the reason why all the main characters other than Rodolphe (who is a self-absorbed hypocrite) in Madame Bovary can be nothing other than essentially self-parodic: in whatever way they reach out for freedom, it is in a way that has already been mediated for them by means of bourgeois culture itself and the political state that claims to represent it.

The aristocracy lives in a world of surplus fantasy, but the bourgeoisie live in a world of necessary imaginaries, mediated by documentary evidence of all sorts. Documents in all media types make up much of the symbolic capital of bourgeois life. All their striving for an aristocratic wealth is already foreclosed in the very means of getting it (for to be aristocratic means to inherit that surplus—not just financial, but moral). All the bourgeois institutions that educate and certify the bourgeoisie are, paradoxically, the means to both their desired freedom and their class enslavement. They seek to earn by the wage the freedom to live without it. They try to live the “free” sexual and financial lives of the aristocrats and they end up ruined and morally condemned. Emma and Charles and their ilk demonstrate that their social class and the modern psychology of individuality associated with it arise together: the individual is free insofar as he or she occupies a social type that is seen as free, and so, such persons can never be free in the same way as those born to inherited wealth (nor even to those who are illiterate). Mediation—epistemic, sociological, psychological, and in sum, ontic—in what I’ve called the “modern documentary tradition” (Day, 2014)—is deeply tied to class position and the documentary means for it.

Emma is locked in a struggle for freedom against the governing mechanisms of taste and social rules and roles that inscribe her, but she wages her battle through the same inscribing mechanisms that limit her freedom. Her battle is a flight against capture done through inscribed sexual lines, through genre forms that both capture and intensify her emotional needs and inscribe her as a bourgeois woman and wife of her time. The novels that she reads provide her with the “evidence” of her lacks and the lacks of her life, which in turn create her needs for moral characters like Rodolphe and for more women’s novels. Like Charles and like all the other bourgeois characters in Flaubert’s novel, Emma’s hopes for social advancement are predicated on a faith on documentary evidence, though of a past, not of a present.

We may recall again Bruno Latour’s characterization of maps as providing performative and prescriptive guides for moving through the real. With the novels that Emma reads description is prescriptive and the prescriptive is descriptive; reference and sense are poles of cognition and action. Below is a well-known map of life’s romantic journey for women to follow, from Madeleine de Scudéry’s romance novel, Clélie. The map depicts a woman’s prospective travels from a new love to the “dangerous sea” and the unknown lands beyond, passing through bad and good moral attributes and the large “Lake of Indifference” in the middle of her journey (figure 4.1).

Emma’s life is caught within a genre war between men’s documentation and women’s literature, that is at times equally fictitious and real in turn, depicting science and medicine and critical and philosophical thought on the one hand and desire and passions on the other. She attempts to transcend this bourgeois sphere with actual romance in order to gain the certainty of aristocratic freedom. She uses the “map” of earlier women’s romance novels to do this. Faced with hypocrisy and uncertainty in the realm of reason, Emma turns to the “certainty” of desire and sensuality, in literature and in life.

Figure 4.1 Carte de Tendre, from Madeleine de Scudéry’s ten-volume 1654–61 novel Clélie

As is shown also in Jane Austen’s novels, in Flaubert’s novel there are pictured the two gendered sides of the literate canon in modernity: on the one hand, the “best authors” who represent “true” or “considerate” thought in science and philosophy, and on the other hand, the moral spheres of the passions in novels. Two quotes about libraries in Madame Bovary serve to depict the literary divide that marked off “serious” literature from romance tales. Early in Madame Bovary, the character of Leon first meets Emma at the home of Yonville’s pharmacist. While Leon and Emma flirt with one another, discussing fiction and poetry of the emotions, the pharmacist, who imagines himself a man of educated reason and taste, awkwardly interjects about the availability of his library, which offers everything on natural, social, and moral fact, excluding of course the very type of discourse and ways of life that are being performed in front of him by Leon and Emma. With this interjection, Leon and Emma’s two-and-a-half-hour flirtation comes to a dead stop. Flaubert (1904) writes,

“Has it ever happened to you,” Leon went on, “to come across some vague idea of one’s own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, and as the completest expression of your own slightest sentiment?”

“I have experienced it,” she replied.

“That is why,” he said, “I especially love the poets. I think verse more tender than prose, and that it moves far more easily to tears.”

“Still in the long run it is tiring,” continued Emma. “Now I, on the contrary, adore stories that rush breathlessly along, that frighten one. I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in nature.”

“In fact,” observed the clerk, “these works, not touching the heart, miss, it seems to me, the true end of art. It is so sweet, amid all the disenchantments of life, to be able to dwell in thought upon noble characters, pure affections, and pictures of happiness. For myself, living here far from the world, this is my one distraction; but Yonville affords so few resources.”

“Like Tostes, no doubt,” replied Emma; “and so I always subscribed to a lending library.”

“If Madame will do me the honour of making use of it,” said the chemist, who had just caught the last words, “I have at her disposal a library composed of the best authors, Voltaire, Rousseau, Delille, Walter Scott, the ‘Echo des Feuilletons’; and in addition, I receive various periodicals, among them the ‘Fanal de Rouen’ daily, having the advantage to be its correspondent for the districts of Buchy, Forges, Neufchatel, Yonville, and vicinity.”

For two hours and a half they had been at table; for the servant Artemis, carelessly dragging her old list slippers over the flags, brought one plate after the other, forgot everything, and constantly left the door of the billiard-room half open, so that it beat against the wall with its hooks. (pp. 103–104)

The second quote that refers to libraries in Madame Bovary that I would like to point to comes from an exchange later in the book between Charles and his mother. Charles is concerned once again with Emma’s rapidly shifting moods and poor health, which Charles blames on the environment or on her innate constitution. His mother, however, blames Emma’s emotional turpitude on her lack of work and spending too much time reading. Flaubert (1904) writes,

Then he wrote to his mother begging her to come, and they had many long consultations together on the subject of Emma.

What should they decide? What was to be done since she rejected all medical treatment? “Do you know what your wife wants?” replied Madame Bovary senior.

“She wants to be forced to occupy herself with some manual work. If she were obliged, like so many others, to earn her living, she wouldn’t have these vapors, that come to her from a lot of ideas she stuffs into her head, and from the idleness in which she lives.”

“Yet she is always busy,” said Charles.

“Ah! always busy at what? Reading novels, bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child. Anyone who has no religion always ends by turning out badly.”

So, it was decided to stop Emma reading novels. The enterprise did not seem easy. The good lady undertook it. She was, when she passed through Rouen, to go herself to the lending-library and represent that Emma had discontinued her subscription. Would they not have a right to apply to the police if the librarian persisted all the same in his poisonous trade? (pp. 157–158)

Repeatedly in Madame Bovary, the main characters express themselves through the indirect and direct mediation of texts. The moral spheres of textual evidence originate their actions and socially and psychologically position them. Bourgeois social space, unlike the hypocrisy of aristocratic space, as demonstrated by the actions of Rodolphe, is shown in the novel as made up of rules and roles for behaviors that are not expected to be the façade of courtly or aristocratic life, but rather the core of the self and its agency in finding and securing an earned and rightful social position. This is what Emma finds so stifling and what clashes with her imaginative flights and desires. Emma’s fight against the documentary nature of bourgeois social identity by means of flirtation, dialogue, and the novels that valorize such mirrors the tensions in Flaubert’s own book, which is both a romance novel and itself a realist document of bourgeois life at the time and place of its composition.

Madame Bovary offers an example of novelistic realism that, in comparison to earlier literatures and scientific accounts, intensifies evidential depictions of reality (particularly at the points of expanded emotional content) and focuses upon powerful particular agents and the complex social interactions of such agents. As fiction, the book offers a descriptive and prescriptive model by which readers can understand a former time and place and still find directions for choices in their own lives because of shared class morals. Morals show that little has changed in the construction of class since Flaubert’s time, despite radical changes in the technology of modes of production.

As Doty and Broussard (Broussard & Doty, 2016; Doty & Broussard, 2017) have argued, information can take fictional forms that model and guide human behavior. In this book, I have taken a broader notion of “information” than that of twentieth-century information theory: that of the document as evidence, and the still-broader notion of the philosophy of evidence as constitutive of Western metaphysics. I suggest that modern realist fiction must not only be accounted for as a counter-discourse to modern notions of documents or information grounded in an epistemology of fact, but also that we must see such literature as part of a dialectic within a logic of the representation of reality through forms of evidence (documentarity). The evidence offered through modern realist fiction is that of a model that emphasizes expanded emotional content, the power of particular agents, and complex social interactions in time and space specific horizons. Particularity and phenomenological completeness of description are intrinsic to its descriptive power.

Later literary and art traditions, which must be accounted for in modernity in regard to documentation and information, are those that emphasize not the modeling of emotions, but their appearance in aesthetic shock, and also that of the construction of reference and sense by means of formal innovation (“technique”). In shock, the machine of aesthetics is seized and used against harmonious affects, and in the second tradition, formalism and constructivism, the devices of aesthetics are used for new, nonrepresentational ends. Both these modes constitute the modern literary and artistic avant-garde of the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Powerful particulars here are less depicted and more performed, becoming agents for constructing the future.

The Modern Avant-Garde

With the modern literary and aesthetic avant-garde, we see a critique of representational realism as not just a literary genre, but as a “social ontology” within a semiotic field (e.g., political discourse or online information and communication). The realist commitments in literature parallel those in documentation in the “strong” semantic techniques of classification, and they reemerge through algorithmic mediated searching and subject indexing through probabilistically calculated needs and use. As the title of the writer Carla Harryman’s literary book puts it, in different strong and weak documentary manners, these are literary and nonliterary commitments to evidence and being in the metaphysical and political “mode of,” which is to say, in the language of this book, in the mode of documentarity. In the theory of the avant-garde, however, performative technique interrupts realism and the dominance of semantic space in our lives with “disruptive” performances against normative, containing (“of”), frames of representation, and suggesting new forms. Realism is inverted from being the frame for seeing reality to being one of many different types of inscriptional devices, and so the empirical real is opened up again within a semantic space depicting agency, relations, and action.

The nineteenth-century French realist novel critiqued, but also intensified, documentary realism by creating characters with intense and subtle emotional range and internal mental dialogue, situated within, and responsive to, modern social conditions (not least, created by mass media). Like today’s “information,” it closed down the space between the reader and itself as document, inscribing the reader in the world of its own senses, leaving the reader to enact interpretive reading in the analogical application of its “content.” Reference was intensified by means of complexities of sense, both in regard to the internal states of the characters and the world around them. In contrast, the modern avant-garde, particularly in the early twentieth century, pushed toward a counter-discourse of evidence rooted in sensation and in the creation of new forms out of semantic materials. “Characters” in the modern avant-garde are largely the viewers and the readers themselves, along with the artist or writer, in acts of performing, rather than representing, situational affects. Consequently, the realm of “fiction” as a mimetic representational space is replaced by empirical or “material” events. Ideological horizons represented in historical fiction are made present by performance in the avant-garde.

Dada and its presentation of the artwork as a shock effect stressed the materiality of performance against modern Kantian aesthetics’ erasure of materiality in the latter’s adulation of content in the harmonious form of the beautiful. With this emphasis upon materiality there also came an emphasis upon performance and the site and time-specific nature of the performance. The degree to which performance and sensation by means of the work in the artistic and literary avant-garde was seen as an end or “event” in itself or the degree to which such materiality acted as a mode of defamiliarization toward social, cultural, and political reconstruction (as in Soviet Constructivism) varied. In the performative tradition of the avant-garde, which could to be said to reach from earlier twentieth-century Dada up through later twentieth-century Fluxus and performance art, shock value and the materiality of objects, sounds, lights, and the human body were valorized in displaced settings.

Hugo Ball’s 1916 poem of nonsense sounds, “Karawane,” for example, offers imagined “words” whose sounds depend upon the language they are interpreted within. Different readers apply different linguistic rules or habits upon the written script. Readers naturally attempt to make sense out of these “nonsense” inscriptions (figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2 As we see with the text of “Karawane,” the work’s contestation of meaning can occur in different registers of materiality: linguistic meaning and visual meaning (and sound meaning, when read). Visual language here gives the possibility of verbal contestation and invention.

Unlike representational aesthetic works, which in Kant’s (2000) formulation create harmony or disharmony in the viewer or reader’s mind by corresponding to pleasurable forms (the beautiful) or by their falling outside of the harmonious boundaries of representation (the ugly or sublime), the art and literature works of the modern avant-garde prioritize the experience of the viewer in relation to the material of the work in the face of normative expectations. They are less representational, and more presentational. This creates a self-reflection of the viewer in the face of the work, as the work is posited as a reworking of normative conceptions and values for the meaning and use of language and imagery. This tradition continued through mid-twentieth century minimalism (where the meaning of the work as an art object was contested, often within the frame of art institutions) and conceptualism (where the concept of the meaning of the work is contested by distortions or extensions of meaning and scale in site and time specific contexts [Watten, 1984]).

In conjunction with the purposeful disruption of meaning, there is also a tradition in the avant-garde of arbitrary or aleatory techniques (e.g., later in the twentieth century by poets such as Jackson MacLow or Clark Coolidge), which both isolate linguistic units and, like Ball’s works, draw in the cognitive and sociocultural frames and assumptions of readers. Intentional representation by the author is minimal or absent in such works, with both sense and reference being largely created by the source text and reader response. Multiple horizons of possible sense and reference are available for the reader to draw upon, thanks to language, common experiences, and publicly mediated discourses, and the author makes use of these horizons for either empowering the reader and/or challenging these horizons in a contestation of meaning. Here, for example, is an arbitrarily chosen section from Clark Coolidge’s 1974 book The Maintains, a book composed of aleatory chosen language drawn from a dictionary:

such like such as

of a whist

a bound


the mid eft


the mode

own of own off

partly of such tin of such

the moo

which which

lably laugh

meter it’s too

too maybe

lately too

same the marge


by down which say

such way

ken ablative

sand’s off

the lend the so

can which of


(Coolidge, 1974)

The Maintains has one foot in performance and another in a constructivist rebuilding of meaning using social horizons (Watten, 2003). This dialogue between language and its reception in social space depends upon writing as technique, and it is upon writing technique as a critical apparatus for social construction that the avant-garde, from Russian formalism through constructivism and then through recent Language Writing (sometimes called “Language Poetry”), focuses on, and which we turn to next.

Writing as Social Contestation and Construction

Russian formalist theory and constructivist practice in the first quarter of the twentieth century gave priority in art to technique in the construction of new meaning. Constructivist techniques in art and literature, when applied in a tactical manner to social and cultural materials, can be used to build new forms for meaning.

Russian formalist theorists such as Victor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, and Roman Jakobson theorized that there were poetic devices, such as metaphor, metonymy, rime, alliteration, and assonance, that worked to not only cohere rhetorical units, but to also defamiliarize normative meaning. In Russian constructivism, Russian futurism, and in allied movements across the arts, literature, and film, formal technique was seen as not only capable of defamiliarizing normative meaning, but it could also be used for generative practice in order to construct new meaning. For the formalists, these “poetic” devices were the sources of all literature. The Soviet artists and writers saw themselves as participants in creating a new society through such making or poiesis, using these devices for new ends. Rather than intensifying (realism) or “shocking” old meaning (Dada), and rather than simply reducing meaning to its material base of language (sound, letters, etc.), constructivism attempted to reconstruct meaning at the level of its semantic materials in order to reconstruct society. Documents are taken as the materials of art toward examining their meaning and in creating new meaning. The representational assertions of nineteenth-century realism and naturalism are rejected, and instead a new “realism” (composed of empirical semantic materials and their devices) is shown and engaged. These formalist and constructivist traditions in art and writing continued through the twentieth century and are still prevalent today. In literature, the movement of “Language Writing” (or “Language Poetry”) from the 1970s through today continues the formal and constructivist traditions, and so it is to some examples from Language Writing that we will now turn.

Language Writing

Barrett Watten (2016), one of the leading writers and theorists within Language Writing, has argued that, in Language Writing, the “radical particular” is important. From Objectivism in American poetics earlier in the twentieth century and continuing through New American Poetry in the 1960s, there was a concern with the radical particular, and especially in New American Poetry, the radical particular of the self. Louis Zukofsky’s works and William Carlos Williams’s implementation of his famous phrase “No ideas but in things,” would be examples of particularism within American Objectivism in the mid-twentieth century; Robert Creeley’s concern with the self and with linguistic indexicals or demonstratives, as well as with presence and place, or the works of Charles Olson, would be examples in New American Poetry after Objectivism, with particular emphasis on the psychological self rather than linguistic objects or “particulars.” And, of course, the “Beat” writers were famous for viewing writing as descriptions of individually lived experience.

For Watten, however, a poetic focus upon “radical particulars” in poetry brings with it a negation of totalizing form or argument and a leveling of ideational constellations. In Language Writing, the radical particulars are the materiality of language or the identity and agency products of that. Rather than focusing upon the empirical particular as leading to a radical departure from a poetics of concepts (as Williams or Olson did, in contrast to “academic poetry” in their eras), Language Writing has focused upon contesting both modes, contesting the sociocultural construction of social empirical entities and their concepts. Watten writes in his book Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences (Watten, 2016):

At the basis of Language writing’s productivity are its three most distinctive features: (1) radical particularity, the making of poetic form out of the serial accumulation of myriad particulars, each a differential fractal of a larger form; (2) aesthetic negativity, the critical distance from original contexts taken by the making of radical particulars and their contestation of larger forms of organization and subordination; and (3) formal agency, the critical alterity and interpretative openness of the work. (p. 8)

Particularly in the second chapter of Questions of Poetics, Watten discusses the radical particular as a linguistic unit in regard to poet Ron Silliman’s notion of the “New Sentence” (as a sentence indexed to social and material fragmentation in late capitalism) and Carla Harryman’s mixing of genres and her leveling of hierarchical orders through narrative (which we will soon examine). The New Sentence is but one technique by which genre assemblages such as the lyric and story are challenged, as the stress upon the assertion of the sentence, above the hierarchal or organic whole of the paragraph or poem, is prioritized. Watten writes,

The crux of the relationship between technique and method in Language writing, between its radical particularity and open form, is its privileging of the part over the whole, particular over universal, signifier over signified—the formal “dominant” found everywhere in the work. (p. 85)

Watten’s own poetic works have often marked the “missing x” of particular agencies and materials in political space by engaging the problem of what is absent in public forms of information (such as the media). His poetic work has been a continual attempt to think the “not” in both its negation and its affirmation (including through the construction of the poem itself as a social act). While this has been a problematic for the historical avant-garde generally during the twentieth century, Watten’s poetry and scholarly works put to the fore the tensions inherent within social and political positioning via writing or inscription, rather than finding comfort in assumed subject positions via reifications of “the body,” “self,” or “experience” (as was the case in performance art, New American Poetry, and Beat poetry). In the place of propositional statements or assertions (or as we have characterized their larger form, documents) as evidence of what is, Watten offers their negation, which, in his long poem Progress, results in a positioning of knowledge (and the self) as everything that “is not the case” (inverting Wittgenstein’s famous assertion in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the world is everything that is the case). In Progress, the self is not a representation, but the absent index of documentary assertions made in political and social spaces. The ironic progress (the negative dialectics) of the poem gradually reveals the self as what is left out of what is socially reported, and politically functions, as the represented world. “Progress? / To identify a body by pain / Of cultural space inscribed” (Watten, 1985). Through the form of the poem the radical particular appears not only in linguistic elements, but also in the negated self in the midst of its continual mediation (and finally, abjection and exclusion) by mass media.

Another example of Watten’s critical poetic engagement with public information and media is his 1988 book Conduit. In Conduit, Watten critically engages what Michael J. Reddy (1979) termed the “conduit metaphor” for communication and information (e.g., in Warren Weaver’s interpretation of Claude Shannon’s information theory, where communication is assumed to be the transfer of information from one individual mind to another). With the conduit metaphor, what is left out is the site and time specificity of expression and understanding, the cultural and social forms for any meaning, and the “mind” as a cultural form or toolbox of expression. (The conduit metaphor has been a mainstay model of cognitively based information theory in information science, despite its early twentieth-century origins in folk psychology [Day, 2000].) Watten’s long poem contests the conduit metaphor by supplying the invisible labor of meaning creation. Argument remains in what is left between statements, rather than organizing statements into meaningful memes of “information.” Here are excerpts from the introduction to Conduit and from the beginning of the poem:

The world is structured on its own displacement. “We don’t believe our senses. The level of automatism we have to deal with . . .” is functionally exact. There is a continual need for new forms through which this distance might be converted into a formulation of the immediate present. The present no longer appears likely in the form of an identification; rather, assertions mark the limits that identity can only fill in. For if the world were only what it is, there would be no place for us.

. . . The forms of a riddle travels through spaces and time. We question a question in order to fill in its form. Its meaning is the questioning act. If “existence” is calling itself into question, we can easily supply the answer because in that case we know; the question has become ourselves. If “existence” is the question, writing will be perceived insofar as that is the question it asks. Here there can be no objects of thought but only an extension of the temporary that effaces any motives. Then the world is only this kind of instantaneous act? Its history falls like an oily rain. Only a rigorous avoidance will tell us anything (will tell us “it is like that”). Fashion models twist and turn in front of the camera as the shutter clicks. The public reads Sartre on busses. We make something out of what’s missing by filling in the blanks, giving our meaning to what has been negated. Such are the limits of art.

The world is everything that is not the case.


An arrival in history only coincides with defeats.

The invisible body is a mirror of containers.

Perfected, a chain of commands speaks.

Every road ends in an object. Unfolding, a

world of parts in a display of same.

A sign revealed in buses for the driver or


Each utterance is unique only in a theory

that specifies a point in time and space.

Then all the pawns fall.

While a model faces perception. Behind every

Survival is a whole totality in words.

I.e., parentheses it is a text. To answer a

question in runic workings of quotations

behind which passion slips.

And left, imagining a sum: an I inverted to

an it.

At the same time as an impostor.

(Watten, 1988, pp. 151–157)

Here we do have aesthetics (“feelings”)—not in the Kantian sense of a relation of mind to the harmony or disharmony of an artwork or to the natural world, but rather as abjections and negations of the self within and through socially and politically generated normative representations of reality. The response to this by utilizing art technique is to fill in those missing holes of where one exists and what can be done. As Walter Benjamin suggested, if the news was meant to bring ordinary people closer to events in a world of their experience that they could act in, it utterly fails. It is not meant to do this, however, but rather to distance people from their inclusion by presenting the world “as it really is”—that is, without them or their participation.4 Abjection, not inclusion, is the goal of the mass media. “This is what the world is, and as such you don’t belong in it,” the objectivity of the news tells the reader or the viewer. The suggestion is always that one is not enough for the world “as it is.” The subject can never measure up to the problems and needs of the “objectively” reported world, and so she or he can only participate by commenting on it or voting on “its” issues. The poetic work responds to this with techniques for reasserting the “missing x” into the frame of the real.

We encounter a different strategy of techniques than Watten’s in the narrative works of Carla Harryman. In Harryman’s works, narrative is used, but not in the form of traditional modern realism (i.e., typically, with a story composed of beginning, middle, and end, causal effects between characters’ actions and results, moral outcomes, and characters starting from or created into social types). Such literary devices for representational framing aren’t discounted in her work, but rather they are taken as materials for constructing narrative, rather than structuring such. In her works, narrative is a stream of relations, as commented on in this short fragment from Harryman’s Gardener of Stars (2001):

building a world of roads

connecting everything to everything else

(p. 104)

We see in Harryman’s works a critique of universalization and possession as the products of the assertion of categories and transcendental essences. (The phrase “in the mode of,” the title of her 1992 book, could be a synonym for what I’ve called “strong documentarity.”) In her book Adorno’s Noise (2008), Harryman writes,

For me writing often involves a necessary dissimulation, dismantling, undoing, refusing, renegotiating, criticizing, and diminishing of the weight and values of symbols. Or I could say encounters with powerful symbols, including the “phallus,” “the flag,” “the canonical,” “the famous,” “the family,” “the good movie,” “the poet,” “the argument,” “the essay,” “the binary,” “the war,” “the government,” “the mall,” “the museum,” “the philosopher,” lead to questions about what is presumed to be held in common. But what if instead, my tactics were to place symbols under a kind of magnification? Such that they expanded to the point of disintegration, thus no longer identifiable with things but diffused in a total environment—as if particles in the air we breathe? (p. 173)

For Harryman, narrative can pressure, rather than create, representations, to the point of exploding their meaning. By “connecting everything to everything else,” argument, genre, plot, and character, for example (i.e., rhetorical devices for representation) become revealed as devices or tools. Harryman’s technique tends to connect particulars with one another. And narrative is built up at the level of sentences, rather than forcing sentences (and the meaning generated through them) to work from ideational categories, from top-down argumentative structures (via topic and thesis sentences), and in literature, from genre assumptions.

The following section from “The Male” in Harryman’s 1989 book Animal Instincts shows her challenging “realist” compositional methods and their semantic and pragmatic outcomes:

WOULD YOU PREFER the examples? The pancakes? Or the words?

Oh, I have been used as an example so many times, said the Male. I think I . . . Do I? Do I think? said the Male.

Pancakes are good, I reminded him.

If, said the Male, I say anything, I reveal something of myself, my stupidity, or arrogance, or inability to make selections. I can’t speak . . .

If you could only make a choice, I could say, for example, well the Male prefers pancakes, and that must mean something. Words pain the Male, I could say. And then I would attempt to apply that information as an example. Everybody would be able to make sense out of the expression the male’s pancakes. When in the galleries, I could point to the portrait of an ancestor and say “the male’s pancakes,” and everyone would laugh from the pleasure that words and things can so transform each other they make the most sense when used in tandem.

. . . The Male by nature prosaic, moving from one place to the next in an unrhapsodic way, thinking hard perhaps, but communicating little, allowing his motions to speak for him, so that he was followed by a trail of his own making? Would others follow this trail, each having their own experience of it, each wondering what it was like for anyone else to have been there? (For instance, what it was like for Orphan Annie? The cranky-looking filling station out the window? The hoses on the pumps having lost their resilience? The attendant limp as grease? The comic-strip reader in a sunlit, airy place?) Life is like a book, any book, even technical manuals.

On the other hand, there is the body, a form, and who knows what goes on in the Male’s mind? The Male would exhibit a deep, ponderous blank. And yet, I do not have a verse in any of my thoughts. Is a landowner a landowner all the time? The landowner would either say “yes” or “no, I’m just a person.”

I am just a person, I said to the Male, but you are not just a male. I don’t know why I chose to present myself in this way to the creature. (1989, 12–13)

Similarly, in the text below, from her book In the Mode Of, Harryman critically engages the proposition “of” and its grammar of possession and containment:

I like to think about prepositions as possessing character, narrative or metaphorical qualities. I think of all prepositions as being compromised, as social and autonomous, visible and barely there, subordinate and subordinating. Of is the most subordinating and aggressive pronoun. It is also the enforcer of social assumptions. Of would be a difficult person to like.

Needless to say, the difference between having a vision of what one is of and not having a vision or imagination of it is significant.

Or one body becomes part of another body. A body is subsumed by a body. Hierarchies and imbalances are affirmed, created, and subtly invoked. The distinction between one thing and another, one person and another, is leveled and consumed. (The daughter of Bob). Confusion, overlapping, boundary erasure. A conduit of aggression and destruction: the destruction of the people or the celebration of the people may represent two sides of the same /invisible agency. If OF were a mythological character it would be the god of illusion and instability. (1992, pp. 29–30)

In Harryman’s works, literature and art contest what is seen as political and psychological containment—“power,” in the containing or repressive sense of this term in English. In the avant-garde, the inversion of material form (e.g., language) and ideational content presents a “materialist” insertion into the supposed transparency of language as representation.

The critical turn of this in relation to documentation and information is that the distance between signs and what is represented—between “poetics” and “knowledge”—appears as technical and tactical. Institutional knowledge and personal knowledge are not transparent through language, but rather, they are constructed, and sometimes as representations. In the avant-garde tradition of art and literature, of poiesis, the construction of meaning is pushed to the forefront of any assertion. And conversely, assumed representational “information” is defamiliarized, “evidence” is questioned.

In modern literature, and more generally, in art, there are thus two very different “realistic” traditions: in most nineteenth- and twentieth-century realistic novels and smaller works of modern and contemporary fiction, realism is the extension of representation to the furthest recesses of depicted sense. Conversely, in the avant-garde tradition, the devices for representation are made available for sense and knowledge production, rather than acting as a frame for such.

From Poetics to a Critique of Information and Knowledge

Before we leave this chapter, I would like to further note, in wake of my analyses of Watten’s and Harryman’s works, that the tradition of critique of representation in the avant-garde has not, of course, remained bifurcated between art and literary “practice” on the one hand, and philosophical or theoretical “critique” on the other. Both Watten and Harryman have works in both domains and their works cross these domains. And in the works of artist, poet, and academic theorist, Johanna Drucker, for example, they have crossed these two traditional domains in a critique of textual, but also quantitative and visual, information forms. Drucker’s works critically engage both bibliographic and data information at many levels of construction, including their technical construction in digital design.

Drucker’s body of work is unique and amazingly broad in this respect; it seems informed by her early work in Language Poetry, her work as an illustrator and artist, and then her scholarship in bibliography, digital humanities, and information visualization. Her work in digital humanities and visual representation emphasize that the representative frames for information should not be taken as natural, but rather as arguments, and as such need to be revealed and critically discussed. For Drucker, the humanities bring critical and interpretative tools to information, including to the tools and assumptions of the quantitative digital humanities. Drucker (2009) writes:

The digital humanities community has been concerned with the creation of digital tools in humanities contexts. The emphasis in speculative computing is instead the production of humanities tools in digital contexts. We, however, [i.e, Drucker and her colleagues at the University of Virginia in the first decade of the twenty-first century] are far less concerned with making devices to do things—sort, organize, list, order, number, compare—than with creating ways to expose any form of expression (book, work, text, image, scholarly debate, bibliographical research, description, or paraphrase) as an act of interpretation (and any interpretative act as a subjective deformance [sic]). (pp. 25–26)

These qualities are particularly important for quantitative information, where the a priori and the aesthetically constructed elements of argument can be most hidden. For Drucker, the representational tools of visual information should be revealed and subject to critique as devices and arguments. Drucker writes in her book Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production:

The basic categories of supposedly quantitative information, the fundamental parameters of chart production, are already interpreted expressions. But they do not present themselves as categories of interpretation, riven with ambiguity and uncertainty, because of the representational force of the visualization as a “picture” of “data.” For instance, the assumption that gender is a binary category, stable across all cultural and national communities, is an assertion, an argument. Gendered identity defined in binary terms is not a self-evident fact, no matter how often Olympic committees come up against the need for a single rigid genital criterion on which to determine difference. By recognizing the always interpreted character of data we have shifted from data to capta [sic], acknowledging the constructedness of the categories according to the uses and expectations for which they are put. Nations, genders, populations, and time spans are not self-evident, stable entities that exist a priori. They are each subject to qualifications and reservations that bear directly on and arise for the reality of lived experience. The presentation of the comparison in the original formulation grotesquely distorts the complexity, but also the basic ambiguity, of the phenomenon under investigation (nations, genders, populations). (Drucker, 2014, p. 129)

The academic works of Drucker unmask the technical and conceptual devices that go into the construction of information and information infrastructures. Her works uniquely engage a critique of information as representation through a broad range of academic and artistic modes across a lifetime of practice. They argue for the dual use, and at times the merging, of critical theory and artistic practice in a critique of information and knowledge representation, and for a material practice of revealing the devices of representation in art, information, and scholarship.

As discussed in the introduction, after looking at documentarity in the beginning of this book from the aspect of a priori categories, we end this current chapter from a “near-zero” point of representation and a poetics of critique and constructivism. In the next chapters we will examine documentarity more from the aspect of performed expressions and their affordances and a posteriori inscriptional registers. Beginning this turn, in the next chapter, we briefly look at two subgenres of literature (jokes and fables), as well as at the psychoanalytically derived theory of trauma, in order to see expression performatively appearing from implicit or repressed premises through literary-social devices.