Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pi and PoMo

I haven't read much serious literary analysis in recent years, but after following a SiteMeter hit, I found myself reading this interesting essay that begins with an analysis of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, from an online publication called Anthropoetics.

Those who have read Martel's novel know that, at the end of the novel, the reader is suddenly presented with an alternative version of the plot and is, in a sense, forced to choose which story is the more believable. The article's discussion of this is fascinating. Here is part of it:

The problem is not so much that Life of Pi resolutely resists deconstruction; it’s that Pi deconstructs its own metaphysical conceit so completely that there is hardly anything left for the canny poststructuralist reader to do. This happens because Life of Pi shifts the framework of its argumentation from an epistemological plane to an aesthetic one. The book says, in effect: "given that we can never know for sure what is true, isn’t it better to enjoy what is beautiful, good and uplifting rather than dwell on what is ugly, evil and disillusioning?" The book doesn’t however just pose this question as an abstract postulate. Instead, it forces it on us in terms of a concrete choice: we are given a long, beautiful story and a short, brutish one and asked to decide for one or the other. And this choice, of course, is part of a larger aesthetic set-up or trap. Readers opting for the more plausible, ugly tale will tire of it quickly and let the whole thing drop. Readers choosing the beautiful, untrue tale, by contrast, will continue to reflect on it while treating its precepts as something that might be true. This type of novel elicits a specific, aesthetically mediated performance from readers by forcing them to believe in a character or event within the frame of the fictional text. Indulging in this doubled suspension of belief might at first seem incautious or naive. However, it is a necessary precondition for all future acts of interpretation, which in themselves may be ironic, intricate and subtle.

Alas, the essay is all downhill from there, as the language deterioriates into the PoMo gobbledygook I have come to loathe. A sample:

The kind of framing or forced identification described above doesn't rule out intertextual citations or critical reflection. These external factors must however always be subordinated to the unbending outer frame of the text. The frame, in other words, fences the text off from the truth conditions of discourse in general--that endlessly shifting, infinitely open realm in which seemingly singular, unequivocal arguments can always turn into their exact opposites. While it may indeed be possible to be very skeptical about certain aspects of what is going on in the story, we nonetheless accept it because we have been made to find it beautiful. This makes the aesthetic mode--something that has traditionally always been roped off from the conditions of practical everyday judgment--the privileged place of argumentation. The difference between this performatist type of aesthetic and the traditional Kantian one is, however, that this one works by coercion: instead of adhering to formal, presumably transcendental attributes of beauty, the text forces us to decide for beauty in terms of a relative, very narrowly defined scene or frame. Performatist aesthetics are in a certain sense "Kant with a club": they bring back beauty, good, wholeness and a whole slew of other metaphysical propositions, but only under very special, singular conditions that a text forces us to accept on its own terms.

Sweet mother of penis. "Kant with a club" indeed. Almost makes me wish I had a club.


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