Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled. Continue reading

Quote: Indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and narrative

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative”, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 44

Quote: Style and the linguistic bases of Roman rhetorical devices

I decided recently to brush up on my Latin (it has been a damp week in Ireland so far), and so dug out old grammars, dictionaries, and anthologies. I turned to Cicero (kik-er-oh I keep reminding myself), as the flavour of some of the orations seemed appropriate to the times, and thus perhaps I was more likely to drive on with my revision. O tempora! O mores! I have a copy of J.B. Greenough and G.L. Kittredge’s Select Orations of Cicero (New York, 1896) which I picked up for a song somewhere, sometime (but html version here, and pdf here). Reading the introduction, I came across the following passage:

Of course he is not always at his best, but it is never safe to criticise his compositions without a careful study of the practical necessities of the occasion.

Thus Cicero’s style is often criticised as redundant and tautological, a criticism which must proceed either from ignorance or inattention. One of the great arts of the public speaker is to keep before his audience a few points in such a way that they cannot be lost sight of. To accomplish this, these points must be repeated as many times as possible, but with such art that the fact of repetition shall not be noticed. Hence the same thing must often be said again and again, or else dwelt upon with a profusion of rhetoric, in order to allow time for the idea to gain a lodgement. [...] Literary tautology is in fact a special oratorical virtue. A spoken word you hear but once unless it is repeated, and there are things which have to be heard many times before they can have their effect.

Again, apart from “repetitional” tautology, it must be remembered that the Latin language was in a sense a rude tongue, lacking in nice distinctions. Such distinctions must be wrought out by a long-continued effort to express delicate shades of thought. Hence it often becomes necessary in Latin to point the exact signification of a word or phrase capable of several meanings, either by contrasting it with its opposite, or else by adding another word which has an equally general meaning, but which, like a stereoscopic view, gives the other side of the same idea, and so rounds out and limits the vagueness of the first. Thus the two together often produce as refined distinctions as any language which has a larger and more precise vocabulary. ['Cicero as an Orator', p. xliv]

This strikes me as a singularly incisive, hermeneutic overview of the myriad ways which a language can function. On the first level, it gives an explanation for those rhetorical devices I have long read about, and wondered how something so artificial, so formal, could be accepted by a listener. Surely the auditor would hear the first part of this figure of speech, and get bored. “Yes, I know what you mean, you don’t need to say it twice or thrice.” This passage shows up the condescending (not to say anachronistic) nature of my long-held assumptions.

Beyond this, it nicely distinguishes between formal and informal logics, the appropriateness of both, and the reasons for one being used rather than the other. We delve a little deeper into language, beyond the stage of it being spoken, towards the theatre machinery of the entire language’s vocabulary and grammar, and beyond this into the box office and foyer to the point of content with the outside world. We see language as it works, where it comes from, and what is beyond its remit or outside its control. Might be worth while drawing attention to the related figures hendiatris and hendiadys here, as the editors do further on.

What Ursula K. Le Guin has taught SF

(Or, on two kinds of science fiction): With Worlds of Exile and Illusion, Ursula K. Le Guin presents us with an alternative notion of what science fiction can be. In a previous post, I was somewhat concerned about setting up a gender-based dichotomy of this genre, but this doesn’t worry me so much now. As such, I want to suggest that Le Guin gives us an alternate vision, a departure from traditional space operas, those great books that extoll the great works of great men.

In giving us tales in this collection of Hainish cycle novels (namely: Rocannon’s WorldPlanet of Exile, and City of Illusions), we read about an interstellar civilization, and we would superficially appear to be in a realm similar to Asimov, Banks, or Simmons. But we are not privy to the thoughts and memories of galactic administrators, generals, or politicians, those most powerful in our imagining. What we get are not the great ceremonial city squares, the heraldry, the displays of might that cross the gulf of immeasurable distance (in time, space, imagination). Instead, we are told of the weeds growing up between the flagstones in these grand civic spaces, the forgotten semi-sanctioned research foray, and of those who have escaped the attention of Greatness.

This is a rueful SF, possessed of a knowledge that the greatest effort of all is not to be found in priapic  displays of techno-prowess, but in attempting ever greater fidelity to discovering what the human is. Unlike some other SF authors, Le Guin is not interested in trouble-shooting the implications of products which have not yet been invented. She does not mine as yet undeveloped markets for narrative fodder (nor in so doing, hasten their coming). She treats us as essentially human, rather than incidentally so. She treats the human as an end in itself. By doing so, her readers are considered with greater respect than by any other author I can currently think of. This is the animating spirit of everything Le Guin writes, never way-laid or silenced for cheap pay-offs or lazy plot effects.

In this reading experience, we are not played, nor led, nor otherwise dictated to. Authorial imperiousness is nowhere to be found – and what a relief this is. There is no “LOOK AT ME. Amn’t I terribly clever?” which can infect this genre of ideas. Curiously, Le Guin’s authorial voice is one that listens, and one which encourages us to do the same through its willingness to quieten itself. It is silent in that manner of walking along a path with a companion, and having our conversational gambit go unanswered. We look askance at our friend, but in that precious moment we see, and hear their attention directed away from us. So we stand in silence – and listen. With Le Guin, we quieten the din that accompanies living and reading. We still the contact between author and reader, moving beyond trust to something else. This something else, this elsewhere, this otherwise, these fringes, these lapidary shards of the previously unnoticed are why we should read Le Guin.

Open question: the interplay of narrative and the physical text

In any story, there is a tension between its content, the narrative flow on one hand, and the actual object by which it is conveyed on the other. The ‘immaterial’ informational content has a medium of material conveyance (to such an extent that calling information immaterial is moot to my eyes). A tale may appear to be coming to its resolution, but the thickness you hold in your right hand, the individual pages combined together to make up ‘the-rest-of-the-book’, belies this sense of an ending. It is a curious feedback, manifested in physical form, between the world of fiction, and the real world of the reader.

Which has the greater claim on us? Do we extend the suspension of disbelief into reality? Do we temporarily dissociate ourselves? My question is whether anybody else has written of this or engaged with this question at greater length? Of course, the McLuhans spring to mind in terms of a medium/message tension, but even in the Laws of Media I couldn’t find anything on this. Likewise, I assumed that in literary theory and criticism, the ‘reader response‘ theorists might have something on this, and ought to have discussed it. All I could really find of use was from Wolfgang Iser‘s The Act of Reading, when he discusses that literary texts do not ‘serve merely to denote empirically existing objects.’:

Even though they may select objects from the empirical world – as we have seen in our discussion of the repertoire – they depragmatize them, for these objects are not to be denoted, but are to be transformed. [...] The literary text, however, takes its selected objects out of their pragmatic context and so shatters their original frame of reference; the result is to reveal aspects (e.g., of social norms) which had remained hidden as long as the frame of reference remained intact. (p.109)

This is an approach to my question, but it remains in the realm of the literary text, or the text as literary, rather than the text as literary and as material. Theory and thought may have been considering itself as immaterial for rather too long, if there is no repertoire of ideas through which we might confront this. I am sure, however, that this question has been addressed by somebody out there, given the new status of the narrative in the time of Kindle and Kobo e-readers, as well as tablets on the whole. There the status of the narrative vector is to be found in the “X of Y pages”, or the sliding bar indicators of one’s reading progress. Indeed the fact that to display reading progress in this matter is simply a choice, a merely technological decision, would have interesting implications if an author decided to do away with this “40 of 200 pages read” option for their works. In that manner the reader would be engaging with the narrative in a rather different manner than those reading it as a physical, paper book. There are also analogies to be made with the previous model (such as with Dickens) whereby a novel was serialized. Anyway, all comments and suggestions of people to be read are most welcome! Just put them in the comments below.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction – Ursula Le Guin quote


If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

The first cultural device was probably a recipient. . . . Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.

So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women’s Creation (McGraw-Hill, 1975). But no, this cannot be. Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m not telling that story. We’ve heard it, we’ve all heard all about all the sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.

And yet old. Before–once you think about it, surely long before–the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger–for what’s the rise of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug the ones you can’t eat home in–with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home. It makes sense to me. I am an adherent of what Fisher calls the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution.

Ursula Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in Dancing At The Edge of the World.

Available as webpage here and as a pdf here.