Friday, June 4, 2021

Three critics on the eclipse of the novel and the rise of film [rank shift | singularity]

My friend, Adam Roberts, just yesterday (June 3, 2021) begins a review-essay:

I don’t propose, here, to write a proper review of Joseph Bottum’s The Decline of the Novel (St Augustine’s Press 2019); which is to say, I won’t write a review of the kind I might undertake for a scholarly journal or newspaper. [...] Bottum argues that the novel has lost its cultural force. Lots of them are still being written of course, and some of them sell many copies; but he thinks the form is no longer as central to our collective identity as it was in its heyday, when Scott and Dickens and their like not only reflected society’s nature back to society, but shaped people’s sense of what it meant to belong to such a society, to be as a human being. “For almost three hundred years,” he writes “the novel was a major art form, perhaps the major art form, of the modern world — the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves.” The book ranges widely, though often shallowly: with only 150 pages in which to stage its argument many of its points and references are mere gestures, brevities, sketches for larger analysis. There are whole chapters dedicated to Scott, Dickens, Thomas Mann and (oddly, perhaps) Tom Wolfe but in these Bottum concentrates mostly on just one title by each. Bottum has a thesis as to why the novel has declined: Protestantism, Weberian disenchantment, Taylor’s A Secular Age, this great shift in the social-cultural life of ‘the West’, which the novel attempts, says Bottum, to re-enchant.

A bit later he offers some remarks about science fiction (SF):

I also argue that the primacy of the ‘SF Novel’ was short lived: SF novels were a small (though I think significant) part of the first great boom in novels in the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Short stories were the backbone of the Pulps in the first half of the 20th-century. Then as the Pulps began to lose ground a swarm of ‘fix-ups’ led to a great period of SF novels through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But the novel is no longer the primary mode of SF (though SF novels are still being produced in great number — by me, amongst many others) The primary mode is, and has been since the prodigious success of the first Star Wars movie, visual texts: films, TV, video games. In this latter form SF/Fantasy has come to dominate recent and contemporary culture: of the top 20 highest grossing movies of all time, 18 are SF or Fantasy. The various iterations of Star Wars, all the Harries Potter, endlessly proliferating Marvel superheroes, hobbits and thrones, hungry games and vampires are everywhere at the moment. What used to be a fairly niche fandom is now ‘the’ mainstream.

Both aspects of the main thesis of my History of Science Fiction anticipate Bottum’s argument in The Decline of the Novel. Or to be more precise, as for the second, Bottum deplores what he sees as the banalization of culture represented by the shift from novels to TV shows, pop songs and so on, where I tend to celebrate it.

That's two critics, Bottum via Roberts and Roberts himself, on the eclipse of the novel and the rise of film and TV. During my undergraduate and graduate years film studies was a relatively minor pursuit in the academy, though I happened to attend schools that took film and other media seriously (Johns Hopkins and SUNY Buffalo). Now let's consult a third, the late J. Hillis Miller (who was at Hopkins when I was there).

This is from Miller's "My Fifty Years in the Profession" published in the ADE Bulletin (No. 133, Winter 2003, p. 65):

In the fifty years since I joined the Johns Hopkins English department, we have gradually, and now with increasing rapidity, moved out of the print age into the age of electronic media. Radio, cinema, television, DVDs, MP3 music, and the Internet now play more and more the role literature once played as the chief interpellator of citizens’ ethos and values. During’s literary subjectivity is becoming rarer and rarer among our citizens. They go to movies or watch television. That is what makes them what they are, not reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen, Dickens or Henry James, much less Donne or Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery. I am sure hundreds or thousands of people have seen TV versions of novels by Austen, Dickens, or James for every person who has read the books. One reason that university administrators have stood by and allowed English departments to dismantle themselves is that they, no doubt unconsciously, feel that it does not matter so much any longer what these departments do.

A spectacular example of this sort of thing is the State University at Albany where an administrator closed Jewish studies, French, German, and Russian studies. He just closed them arbitrarily because he had the power to do that and wanted to use the money otherwise. My advice to Albany—not to any of you, it’s your own business what you do—would have been to tell the English Department at Albany to take this as an opportunity to sit around together and concoct a new programme which would not be called the English Department but something like ‘Teaching How to Read Media’ or ‘Understanding Media’. This new department would include Film Studies and also include all those other language programs, so students could read literature and theory in the original. You’ve got to know German to read Heidegger or Adorno properly, French to read Derrida or Baudrillard. So rescue the languages as part of this programme! I don’t know whether it would work. You could at least try. You could say, ‘We’re teaching students essential skills in how to live in this world of new media. We’re teaching them how to read television ads and political ads and not to be so bamboozled so easily by the lies they tell’. Television ads have a complex rhetoric, which I have begun to study.

This smells like RANK SHIFT to me. We're witness to a major change in human cultural expression and organization, a singularity in the sense that John von Neumann used the term:

“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Stanislaw Ulam, from a tribute to John von Neumann.

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