Longing Over Valued Encores

Alexis de Tocqueville
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We cannot assume the existence of a "rep- resentative" aim independent of an ideological aim, for representa- tion always strives, through manipulation and the forced emergence of detail, to create an ideal that is the "real. What does it mean to describe something?

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Descriptions must rely upon an economy of significance which is present in all of culture's representational forms, an economy which is shaped by generic con- ventions and not by aspects of the material world itself. While our awe of nature may be born in the face of her infinite and perfect detail, our awe of culture relies upon a hierarchical organization of information, an organization which is shared by social members and which differs cross-culturally and historically.

Not our choice of sub- ject, but our choice of aspect and the hierarchical organization of detail, will be emergent in and will reciprocally effect the prevailing social construction of reality. As genres approach "realism," their organization of information must clearly resemble the organization of information in everyday life.

go Realistic genres do not mirror everyday life; they mirror its hierarchization of information. They are mimetic in the stance they take toward this organization and hence are mime- tic of values, not of the material world.

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It cannot escape history, the burden of signification borne by language before literature takes it up. Here we must go beyond the conventions of description, which mask its independent life and functions. The unsaid assumption un- derlying all descriptions is experience beyond lived experience, the experience of the other and of the fiction. In description we articulate the time and space that are absent from the context at hand, the lived experience of the body. Our interest in description may be stated most often as an interest in style, but in fact it is equally an interest in closure.

All description is a matter of mapping the unknown onto the known. To have an "indescribable" experience is simply to confirm the ideology of individual subjective consciousness. Each time we present a description, each time a description is "taken up" as the real, the social utopia of language, the belief in the signifying capacity of language and uniform membership in that capacity on the part of speakers, is confirmed. And where writing is concomitant with au- thority, the validity of written description will be held to transcend any contradictions everyday experience may present.

In this other- ness from the everyday, every text bears the potential of a sacred text. Thus an adequate description is always a socially adequate descrip- tion. It has articulated no more and no less than is necessary to the membership of the sign. Independent of this social organization of detail, description must threaten infinity, an infinity which stretches beyond the time of speech in a gesture which points to speech's helplessness when bereft of hierarchy. If such writing as that of the nouveau roman seems inhuman, unmotivated, it is because the surface of detail has been leveled to significance without hierarchy; it does not tell us enough and yet it tells us too much.

The tension that novelists like Puig or Robbe-Grillet present combines an objective surface of detail with a hidden and necessarily subjective subject, a subject formed from the pattern of its absences. Butor has characterized this mode of writing as a "structural inversion": "We might emphasize the impor- tance of a given moment by its absence, by the study of its surround- ings, thus making the reader feel that there is a lacuna in the fabric of what is being narrated, or something that is being hidden. Such objectivity may be seen as well in the work of contemporary "superrealists" such as Richard Estes.

In Estes's work we are overwhelmed by a detail that in every- day life has become taken for granted; thus this detail is presented so realistically it becomes illusory. The cityscapes Estes chooses to paint are cultural scenes; their detail is human, made within the signifying practices of man, and yet inhuman in that such paintings resist the imposition of "humanism" upon them.

We are overwhelmed by sur- face in these works, by the reflections of these scenes in the very glass they depict. Everything points to the surface of the paint, a surface made glaring by its lack of texture, by the absence of its mark. This is why a photographic reproduction of an Estes work is boring; there is nothing to distinguish it from a photograph of the material landscape itself.

The painting has sprung into being like the magical com- modities that contextualize it. In Estes's work or in the sculptures of Duane Hanson we search for clues of the subjective in the midst of an objective surface; hence our delight when we uncover the artist's signature the "Estes" which Estes invariably conceals somewhere in each work or, amid the Hansons, when the tourist turns out to be a real tourist after all. As the form of realism shifts to individual experience in its tem- poral and spatial context, the context of the interior of bourgeois space, it is the details of that context which become described, and such details must be described according to the conventions of bour- geois life.

And if detail lends hierarchy and direction to our everyday lives, so does it lend hierarchy and detail to the novels of realism. It is the mark of a successful realistic novel that it be frittered away by detail. We can see in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century realistic novels echoes of two major themes of bourgeois life: individuation and refinement.

If reality resides in the progress of the individual, it is that individual's context which should be used to define him or her. The description of the material world, the world of things, is necessary for a description of the hero's or heroine's pro- gress through that world, and the "finer" the description, the "finer" the writing.

Such description provides a categorization of value; its catalog links the abstractness of language to the materiality of things. In his Semiotics of Poetry Riffaterre concludes: "As reality, the details are indeed minor. As words, however, minor details are worth notic- ing merely because they have been recorded: their insignificance is but the other face of their importance as signs.


This semantic given is the model for all the other details, which function not just as picturesque notations or constituents of reality, but as embodiments of the semiotic constant. There is no point to the detail in bourgeois realism aside from its function within the world of signs, its message that it is the trace of the real. The ornament does not dress the object; it defines the object.

We find an analogy to our position in Guy Debord's critique of the spectacle forms of what might be termed the semiotics of late capital- ism. It is the heart of the realism of the real society. For those who set the measure of the times. John Cheever.

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In sum, having a supportive mate may well be a necessary condition if women are to have it all, but it is not sufficient. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. He began his career in working as a production designer and directing television commercials. But with the creation of fictive worlds that are re- moved in time and space from the context of situation, an increasing distance is placed between producer and consumer and the symme- try of conversational reciprocity is replaced by the specialized values of performer and spectator. Thus near-sightedness and far-sightedness emerge as metaphors for understanding, and they will be of increasing importance as this es- say proceeds. September 11th Memories.

Best selling novelist and master of the short story. An award winning author who savors the bittersweet taste of American life in timeless narration. Detail illuminates John Cheever's writing. Just as detail inspires every Rolex craftsman. Created like no other timepiece in the world. With an unrelenting, meticulous attention to excellence in a world fraught with compromise. A great work designed to stand the test of time.

The substitutability of Cheever's signs for the sign of the watch sig- nals not only the commodification of the artwork but also the mutu- ality of exchange within the system of objects. The recent film Diva, with its emphasis upon the articulation of the brand name again the substitution of the Rolex in a gesture of "trading up" as one "trades in" , makes an analogous point: the ideology of trading up always promises an imaginary social mobility for the subject, an improve- ment in "style of life" that is here a virtual transformation of time.

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Refinement has to do with not only the articulation of detail but also the articulation of difference, an articulation which has in- creasingly served the interests of class. Baudrillard, in his study of the bourgeois system of objects, noticed this class-related phenomenon of refinement; for example, he described the bourgeois interior as dependent upon the discretion of "tints and nuances. Hence the naivete of semiotics in assuming signs that are not symbols; par- ticularly in the era of late capitalism we can see all aspects of the material world become symbolic of class relations, all signs referring with careful discrimination to their place in the system of signs.

Thus far we have been addressing the detail in relation to the description of the material world: the world as still life. And just as the still life is a configuration of consumable objects, so the book's minute description of the material world is a device which tends to draw attention to the book as object. The configurations of print and the configurations of context-as-decor bear an intimate relation which oral genres, pointing to the time and space of the body, do not par- take of. Description of the material world seems self-motivated, seems to be directed toward a presentation without direction.

Thus, whereas the still life speaks to the cultural organization of the material world, it does so by concealing history and temporality; it engages in an illusion of timelessness.

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The message of the still life is that nothing changes; the instant described will remain as it is in the eye of the beholder, the individual perceiving subject. As Louis Marin has sug- gested, "Et cependant, avant d'etre peinture de vie silencieuse, la nature morte a eu pour fonction et objectif, de parler, de murmurer a l'oreille du contemplateur, un certain discours qui ne pouvait etre compris la encore que de ceux qui possedaient consciemment ou inconsciemment les codes hautement elabores d'une culture.

Here we can see that all description is depiction, an effort to enclose a seemingly infinite amount of detail within an absolute frame. That frame is the social convention of adequacy, which functions to provide closure. Descrip- tion allows us to "see" remote experienc. If the notion of depiction implies a relativity and authorship which a more "scientific" notion of description does not, it is because we simultaneously have need for an ideology of individual creativity in the first case and an ideology of replicability and transcendent viewpoint in the second.

Narrative closure articulates boundary in such a way as to separate one temporality from another, to point to the disjunction between context of narration and the context of the narrated event. When narrative moves into the "detailed" description of action rather than material life, it calls attention to itself as a manipulation of tem- porality. A detail of movement is a skewing of narrative time, a ma- nipulation of the reader's access to knowledge.

In the detail of move- ment we see the possibility of using detail to digress, to inscribe a circle around an object in order not to divulge it, and at the same time the possibility of using detail to tantalize.

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The digression stands in tension with narrative closure. It is narrative closure opened from the inside out. It holds the reader in suspension, or annoyance, for it presents the possibility of never getting back, of remaining forever within the detour. Fantasy literature in particular exploits this device of narrative looping, for the fantasy presents what is framed as an absolute other world, and so the detour does not have the hierarchi- cal constraints that a realistic narrative must internalize.

Digression in narrative might be seen as the equivalent, on the discourse level, of syntactical embedding. Just as syntactical embedding is a matter not just of additional information but of a restructuring of information in such a way as to throw light upon and help define the position of the speaker in relation to the material and the listener in context, so narrative digression articulates the narrative voice, its control over the material, and consequently its control over the reader's passage to- ward closure.

Instead of offering the reader transcendence, the di- gression blocks the reader's view, toying with the hierarchy of narra- tive events. What counts and what doesn't count must be sorted. In the detail of the scene we see nature transformed into culture: the material world is arranged and transformed with regard to the exigencies of plot or in order to allow the reader to enter the signify- ing practices of the work.

In the detail of action we see narrative triumph over everyday temporality, forcing the reader to participate in the speed of the narrative. In either case the reader must acknowl- edge with a statement of membership the community of readers. The text will draw upon and transform the ideological practices brought to it by the reader in this dialogue between inside and outside: the book as both idea and object, finalizable as meaning and materiality at once; the interpenetration of milieu and inference, sign and symbol, that marks the function of details for the bourgeois subject.

Space of Language Speech leaves no mark in space; like gesture, it exists in its immedi- ate context and can reappear only in another's voice, another's body, even if that other is the same speaker transformed by history.

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But writing contaminates; writing leaves its trace, a trace beyond the life of the body. Thus, while speech gains authenticity, writing promises immortality, or at least the immortality of the material world in con- trast to the mortality of the body. Our terror of the unmarked grave is a terror of the insignificance of a world without writing. The meta- phor of the unmarked grave is one which joins the mute and the ambivalent; without the mark there is no boundary, no point at which to begin the repetition.

Writing gives us a device for inscribing space, for inscribing nature: the lovers' names carved in bark, the slogans on the bridge, and the strangely uniform and idiosyncratic hand that has tattooed the subways.

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Writing serves to caption the world, defining and commenting upon the configurations we choose to textualize. If writing is an imitation of speech, it is so as a "script," as a marking of speech in space which can be taken up through time in varying con- texts. The space between letters, the space between words, bears no relation to the stutters and pauses of speech.

Writing has none of the hesitations of the body; it has only the hesitations of knowing, the hesitations which arise from its place outside history-transcendent yet lacking the substantiating power of context. The abstract and material nature of language, apparent in speech as sound and significance, is all the more apparent in writing.

Raymond Williams tries to resolve the matter by drawing a distinction between inner sign-inner language-and the material sign, one located within consciousness and the other located in sociallife. Certainly not in its degree of sOciability, for the language we use to formulate, experiment, fantas- ize, and reason "internally," that is, without speech, is the same language, with the same history, be it "personal" or "cultural," that we use in our relations with others throughout our everyday lives.