In Issue 9 of n+1, the critic (and UCLA English professor) Mark McGurl describes the problem facing the contemporary novel this way:
What should the novel do once consciousness has been physically “explained”? What happens to the tradition of novelistic realism stemming from Austen when the reality is that we are all a bunch of tottering skin-bags animated by neural subroutines? The second half of the 20th century witnessed an eruption of skepticism about the reality of fictional characters on the part of literary critics and writers like William Gass: these “people,” it was said with some disdain, are only a set of tired linguistic conventions, nothing more than words on the page. Perhaps that revelation was a quaint preface to the deeper and more widespread intimation of “posthumanity” we are witnessing so vividly in popular culture now, when neuroscience is letting the air out of some assumptions that have propped up our species’ self-image for as long as we can remember.
The above comes in the middle of McGurl’s lengthy review of three new books about zombies, including Seth Grahame-Smith’s pop-sensation “mash-up,” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I quote it partly for its helpful chronological recap, and partly because it provides a vivid illustration of the extent to which today’s critics subscribe to the idea that the twentieth-century novel demonstrates its importance by reflecting and incorporating the “eruption of skepticism” caused by “progress” in other spheres of society. Novels, McGurl implies, had to change as it became clear, due to pioneering breakthroughs in fields like linguistics and genetics, that in “reality” we are all “tottering skin-bags.” Now that neuroscience has deflated the “assumptions” that determined our self-image for millennia, the novel will have to adapt to the new truth, which is that we are all zombies.
McGurl’s argument parrots decades of vaguely demeaning left-wing thinking about literature, in which the novel appears chiefly as a vehicle for expressing the “truths” uncovered by semiotics, cultural studies and finally natural science—including and in some sense epitomized by that incredible truth that we are all just bundles of genes and chemicals, “animated by neural subroutines.” McGurl finds Smith’s book “strangely appealing” not because it is good literature by any critical standard, but because in its very mediocrity it seems to reflect something about the contemporary situation. What he thinks it reflects is our dawning recognition that “character” was just a “mark in the historical record”—that is, a convention, reflecting beliefs in individuality or subjectivity that were also conventions. McGurl’s essay assumes that to prove this convention is historical or—what is the same thing for him—non-scientific, is to “let the air” out of it, a salutary benefit considering our species’ “propped up” self-image. The best art today is therefore the art that is most honest about our “essential stupidity” as revealed by science. McGurl concedes in his final paragraph that it will be a “mostly depressing” development when science “complete[s] the task of explaining the world,” although he perceives a “utopian dimension” to the way such a development might destabilize current social and economic arrangements.
It can hardly be considered reactionary to wonder whether the novel might meet such “depressing” developments with something other than capitulation verging on celebration. As McGurl ably recounts, we have had decades of education on the fact that human beings, and the novels purporting to be about them, are nothing but signs, nothing but language, nothing but culture. The incomprehension and neglect with which American readers have tended to greet such “facts” was the impetus behind Jonathan Franzen’s famous 1996 Harper’s essay about the waning social relevance of advanced American fiction. The difficult novels now counted as the landmark achievements of the preceding era—Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, DeLillo’s White Noise, Ellis’s American Psycho—might be justified on several grounds, including as dark social critique. But the vanguard of the liberal establishment, known within literary studies as postmodernism, has taken a different tack. Writing in 1971, Ihab Hassan endorsed the profusion of an “artistic Anarchy in deeper complicity with things falling apart.” For Fredric Jameson in 1984, the relevant new literature would have to reflect the “end of the bourgeois ego,” which meant “liberation from anxiety but [also] a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling.”
There are various ways of responding to such a presentation of our current situation, including to dispute the evidence (I still feel like I have a self!). But the problem is one which takes a similar shape in other areas of our culture, where innovation, the questioning of convention, and hostility to fixed beliefs become synonymous with a “liberation” envisioned as an end in itself. The virtue of conservatism in literature cannot be dissociated, then, from its virtue in other realms. Conservatism reminds us that conventions are not always arbitrary or repressive—nor can what is good and bad be reduced to what is new and old. The conservative asks: Liberation from what? And for what? For we un-liberated ones, stuck with bad old human bodies and attempting to make some sense of our lives, the question is not an avoidable one—although we may certainly choose to avoid a literature which fails to speak sensibly to it.
The concept of conservatism’s value to literature will strike some readers as oxymoronic. The arts, it is commonly held today, are universally progressive. The Democratic Party supports artistic freedom and encourages the cultivation of creative capacities in public schools. Artists themselves are empathetic, tolerant people who spend their free time speaking on behalf of the environment, the presidency of Barack Obama, and whatever can stop gentrification in Brooklyn. The Republican Party, meanwhile, appears hostile to art and especially to elite art. Republicans have been known to speak of censoring art, and they have lobbied for decades to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts. The arts under a Republican regime occupy approximately the position of the sciences, with both subjugated to moral and religious dogma (The Passion of the Christ was a “very interesting” film, according to Laura Bush), although the sciences are considered more useful within their proper sphere.
Such truisms obscure rather than reveal the tradition of conservatism in the arts, which should not be reduced to the prejudices of the current Republican Party. According to New Criterion editor Roger Kimball, the conservative art critic today performs two vital tasks:
The first is the negative task of forthright critical discrimination. To a large extent, that means the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector. … An equally important part of criticism revolves around the task of battling cultural amnesia. From our first issue [of The New Criterion], we have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization.
Kimball’s implicit attack on the liberal literary establishment is an old one: (1) liberal critics do not distinguish between good and bad art according to qualitative standards; and (2) liberal critics do not have enough respect for our culture’s “vast storehouse” of achievements. Both criticisms are more or less justified, although writers like McGurl expressly attempt to undermine the idea that qualitative standards bear any relation to what should “interest” us culturally. The bigger problem is that the conservative art critic, as Kimball describes her, offers only a vague and backward-looking outline for how we ought to evaluate and distinguish the quality of any specific contemporary artwork.
The application of conservative criticism to the arts could actually be much broader than Kimball conceives of it, if only his conservatism were less conservative. In the past, the conservative challenge to the arts has been taken to its extreme by thinkers who question the right of art—and not only contemporary art—to exist, primarily on the very conservative grounds that the artist’s confusion of innovation with progress causes him to manipulate men into moral hazards. While acknowledging their profound talent and appeal, Plato banished the artists from his republic because they were deceptive and impious, teaching children the wrong lessons about justice and injustice. For Rousseau, the arts were one of the chief sources of human misery in modern times, at the root of a “revolution” which replaced man’s natural goodness with an insatiable social vanity or pride (amour-propre). According to Tolstoy, art was meaningful when it helped express whatever happened to be the highest religious or moral sentiments of a people—the modern artist, who was not really an artist, disavowed this purpose and therefore forfeited the only reasonable justification for his existence.
Ironically, Plato, Rousseau and Tolstoy testify with their cautionary critiques to the remarkable power of art, which is denied by the liberal commentator convinced of its vague, salutary benefit. More importantly, they offer conservative criteria for value which move beyond shrill appeals to the inviolability of the canon. These criteria do not deny that art may play a part in the “progress” of man, but they define progress in language that would now be considered conservative: for Tolstoy, art was indispensible to man’s “progress towards well-being,” which was a moral and religious progress. In their own way, each thinker suggests that art should be judged according to its practical value for human happiness or, what was the same for them: human virtue.
We may recoil today at such a vague and antiquated qualification, which, it would seem, has nothing to do with art, unless by virtue we mean something like social justice or economic equality. Actually, some of the most coherent contemporary left-wing art critics have set a standard along just these lines. Walter Benn Michaels, for instance, judges artworks according to whether they successfully re-raise the Cold-War era struggle over class. (For Benn Michaels, The Wire is a better show than The Sopranos and Bret Easton Ellis a better writer than Toni Morrison.) Benn Michaels takes his bearings from Marx and, more proximately, from Adorno. Modern art, according to Adorno, could be justified only if it raised awareness about the catastrophic state of man under the conditions of late capitalism. Taking the left-wing viewpoint to its extreme, Adorno assents to the extreme conservative assumption (Plato’s or Rousseau’s) that the arts have no self-evident “right to exist.” For the conservative, art earns its right to exist by providing moral instruction. For Adorno, art earns that right insofar as it can be understood as increasing awareness of the “horror” of life today.
It is worth noting that neither Adorno nor the conservative critic is concerned—as is the philistine who raves that art is “delicious” and “sumptuous”—that the world will be boring without art. We will always find things to amuse us, and these things may even go by the name of art. To say the world will be boring without art is to imply that art is good because it is pleasurable, diverting, or tasty; this is to speak of something not worth judging according to standards, or at least not the same kind of standards we want to apply to art. But Adorno and the conservative critic share another point of convergence. Both seek to distinguish and protect art from science, primarily by insisting on the importance, for art, of individual experience. Theory may in fact “conceptually surpass solipsism,” Adorno admits, but art “is nevertheless bound up with feeling, with the immediacy of experience; otherwise it would be indistinguishable from science, at best an installment plan on its results and usually no more than social reporting.” The traditional novel’s emphasis on “character” is not the product of some conventional prejudice that ought to be transcended; rather, it is the property which alone vouchsafes the authority of the artist as against the evidence of the scientist. “The extreme case” of an art that fails to acknowledge its debt to individual experience is “a literature which undialectically confuses itself with science and vainly tries to fuse with cybernetics.”
Here, as in other places, the Marxist might discover surprising common ground with a conservative critic like Hilton Kramer, loudly declaiming “the nihilist imperatives of the postmodernist scam.” The point is not to endorse the content of this criticism of postmodern art, but to recommend the impulse behind it. Art is, romantic slogans notwithstanding, for the sake of human beings. And if the art critic wants to say that a work of art is good, she must explain precisely how it is good for us. This requires her to say something about what art is, and also something about who we are. Every critical appreciation of a modern artwork should be grounded in a discussion of how this artwork, against all odds, demonstrates art’s right to exist—a stance that requires us to consider the possibility that art may not be good for us at all. Indeed, in some cases, the people may have to be protected from art by intelligent criticism—criticism that would consider the ends of art and not only its means.
To consider the ends of art is to consider the source of art’s authority. This has been a modern critical problem since art broke decisively with religion in the eighteenth century. From the perspective represented by McGurl, art’s current authority is synonymous with the authority of science; the best or most interesting works are the ones that demonstrate, whether wittingly or not, our situation as revealed to us by the sciences. The conservative, on the other hand, insists that art should neither reflect nor endorse progressive concepts, but rather evaluate and criticize them from the perspective of human experience. The works that have done this best throughout history are preserved in the Western canon, and it is neither possible nor desirable that they should someday be “superseded.” In fact, we decide whether to grant authority to a new and innovative work of art at least in part by comparing it to what has the honor of being known as old and established.
It is often said, sometimes by conservatives themselves, that to emphasize the authority of the canon, tradition, or the “storehouse of cultural achievement,” as Kimball calls it, is to deny the promise of change and stifle art’s creative nature. But the conservative need not necessarily pit himself against innovations in artistic technique. Obviously, formal artistic conventions must evolve over time; neither Sophocles nor Dickens can provide today’s author with a blueprint for communicating with today’s audience. As Paul Ricoeur has pointed out, the concept of tradition itself presupposes moments of innovation, which “can always be reactivated by a return to the most creative moments of … composition.” Yet a work of art, just like a practical action in life, is conceived in the context of certain received wisdoms, often known as conventions, which the conservative warns should be transgressed, at the very least, with caution; moreover, the transgressor ought to be able to explain himself—that is, what he is transgressing for.
The difficulties of a literary criticism absorbed by questions of means was evident in the confusion that greeted much of twentieth-century literature. In the first half of the century, modernist writers, painters and musicians were faulted by critics of all political persuasions for taking formal innovation too far, but the grounds of these objections were as dubious as were many of the arguments in their favor. One of the constitutive challenges of twentieth-century criticism has been to explain how artistic obscurity may be demanded at certain historical moments; every argument for the authority of Picasso, Joyce, Pollock or Beckett is shadowed by the suspicion that the obscurity of these artists is evidence of a merely idiosyncratic whim, or the artist’s corruption at the hands of one of those monstrous twentieth-century specters: “nihilism,” “relativism,” “multiculturalism.” Changes in formal conventions, however, do not necessarily represent an attack on the conventional more generally; sometimes they can be employed to reinforce it. One could argue that stream-of-consciousness writers and surrealist painters were committed to certain traditional assumptions about character and representation in theory even as they criticized and updated them in practice. An even better argument would be that such writers felt themselves in some manner compelled by experience to describe the world as they did; that is, that they could think of no better way to say what they knew.
It would be harder to make such a case for writers and painters in the second half of the century, who joined linguists and biologists in announcing the theoretical end of subjectivity—that is, of the individual as it had been known approximately since Euripides. This represented a transgression of convention radical in an entirely different sense than the questioning of “realism” in novels or “representation” in painting. The existence of a (more or less) free individual subject is not a mere convention, but, in some sense, the convention that makes our form of life—and also our forms of art—possible. Perhaps the major novels of this period could be justified for making explicit, via exaggeration, the dehumanizing horrors of Western society in Adorno’s sense. But to the extent that they applaud the fictional innovations of Barthes, Pynchon, Gass and the authors of the burgeoning genre of zombie fiction, critics like McGurl seem rather to conceive of them as members of a cross-disciplinary progressive vanguard. This vanguard treats disciplinary distinctions as merely formal (art and science have different methods, but share a common enterprise), and is unconstrained by anachronistic categories like good and bad. According to it, there are interesting novels and retrograde ones. We can distinguish between the interesting and the retrograde according to how well a given work reflects our “essential stupidity.” The most interesting novels (such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are those that can be conceived as offering a preview of their own future irrelevance. (When we are all zombies, who will need novels about zombies?)
It is no accident that these critics are almost pathologically obsessed with what they like to call the “death of the novel,” which will go hand-in-hand with our “liberation” from every convention that gave rise to the novel and sustains—perhaps illegitimately—our interest in it today. Having introduced this grim prospect, they tend bizarrely to insist that the novel might nevertheless remain relevant by disintegrating its elements so that it can adequately reflect the death of the author, or the death of meaning, or the exhaustion of literature, or the “complete explanation” of the world by science. What really threatens literature today is not brain science but the critical perspective that would reduce the novel to a ratifying mechanism for whatever may be considered society’s most “progressive” concepts. It should not take reminding that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” (David Foster Wallace)—even and especially when being human means having to contend with triumphalist predictions of the death or transcendence of human being.
Thankfully, fiction itself remains less progressive than its critics. Regarding conservatism’s relation to actual novels or novelists, it is a surprising and perhaps uncomfortable fact that many of the greatest novels of the previous century offer a pedagogy more appropriately labeled conservative than liberal. One of the things that distinguished Wallace from his peers was his refusal to abandon the field of values and his endorsement of what was, in some sense, a conservative and even a reactionary conception of the good life. Major twentieth-century writers such as Eliot, Faulkner, Bellow, Updike, Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson have all, to varying degrees, endorsed elements of conservatism against what they conceived to be the excesses of liberal culture. Part of the service rendered by these artists has been to remind us of the costs of “progress,” and also of the scars borne by its adherents. For whatever we may desire, only zombies go forward painlessly, and without thinking.