Who is that guy?
Those were the words that passed through my head when I shared an elevator with a substantial fellow sporting full Grimace regalia (matching purple sweat pants and shirt) on my way to this panel. He wore an MLA badge so my best guest is that I occupied an elevator with someone so eminent he had no need for buttons or zippers. Thin strips of elastic around his wrists and waist and ankles suffice.
Michael LeMahieu, "Embodied Ideas and Emergent Forms of Life in Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations"
First speaker on the first panel of my first MLA and boy are my arms tired. LeMahieu couched strong claims about the nature of the novel of ideas in unnecessarily trendy but "always already" dated terms. (Immediate ironic moment to follow.) His skeletal argument that affect is the constitutive feature of the novel of ideas could have been made flesh had he discussed the conceptual basis of that claim at greater length. Instead he chose to pack his presentation with insightful but tangential facts about the Gold Bug Variations . . . like how Powers puns the letter "g" throughout the novel. There are Gold Bugs, Goldbergs, Glenn Goulds, Gattaca & tribes of unlisted others. All of which is interesting enough, but how it relates to his specific claims about the novel of ideas escapes me.
His other asides largely consisted of popular invocations of misunderstood or misapplied scientific principles. He discussed Moore's Law of technical innovation as if it were a law and not an estimation of technological development barely accurate enough for government work. He then applied the "predictive" power of Moore's law to the novel of ideas in order to claim that the idea of obsolescence "encoded" (his word) in such novels dictates that they will always be behind the curve. The mechanics of publication being what they are, by the time the contemporary novelists of ideas finishes his novel, the ideas contained within it have traded in their ominous novelty for daily banality. What the contemporary novel of ideas escapes the news-cycle logic which confuses novelty for significance and adopts a recursive model. His model of recursion? Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
Each return to the novel alters its substance by an act of reading equivalent to inability to determine the position and direction of an electron. According to LeMahieu, Powers encourages this recursive mode by concluding the novel with the phrase which translates "once more, with feeling." The affective response to the ideas should be magnified with each return to the novel, LeMahieu suggests, but he leaves it at the level of suggestion. A quick remark at the end of his talk about contemporary theories of the embodiment of affect failed to connect the various strands of his argument in any meaningful way.
A disruptive cell-phone call which interrupted his discussion of the Goldberg Variations captured the "feel" of his talk: while LeMahieu discussed Bachian fugues a Verizon customer in the audience announced his solidarity with Mozart via ringtone. The opportunity for perfect synthesis slouched into the room but refused to be born.
Lindsay Waters Count: 1
Reed Way Dasenbrock, "Alternative Histories in Tariq Ali's The Islam Quintent."
Dasembrock prefaced his presentation with an acknowledgement that everyone in the room had already internalized the formal and narratological thought of the past three decades. That is more thought than years I've been alive. He followed with an admission that his more recent book argued for the need for objectivity in liteary studies and that his next will rally the troops around the banner of authorial intent. What strategic intent lurked behind his rhetoric? He wanted to cast suspicion on his credentials as a reader of both serious philosophical works and the novels to which they give birth. Why? Because in the end he values the mode of philosophical discourse he claims has been subsumed by the novel of ideas: the philosophical dialogue. His argument about Tariq Ali's Islam Quintet fulcrums on the notion that people have intentions even if they know not what they do. (This point would be repeated in the evening in the Q & A session of the panel on Our America, about which I'll have more to say later.)
Dasenbrock laments the loss of the sort of playful hypotheticals and counter factuals which constitute the "narrative" of an Ali novel. The quasi-philosophical dialogues in the first novel in the quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, concern the state of Islamic society after the recapture of Al-Andalus by the suddenly barbarous Christians. Muslims had ruled the region with cosmopolitan flair and the characters in the novel discuss the proper reaction to Christian intolerance. Some claim that they should have been more intolerant when they were in power since that would have prevented the Christian ascension. But in the novels in this series Ali sides not with that position, which he believes unintentionally led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, but with the almost utopian cosmopolitanism of Al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire.
How does he know that? He consulted Ali's popular works of nonfiction. So one aspect of his peculiar admission can now be accounted for: Dasenbrock relies on the extratextual apparatus of Ali's political theory to identify the objectively correct positions taken by the characters in Ali's novels. Now the other odd confessional falls into place: the objectively identifiable claims of Ali's novels are not subject to interpretation so much as explication. Ali's novels are meant to be read like his works of nonfiction, Dasenbrock suggests, because their polemical intent provides access to correct and incorrect conclusions drawn from the dialogical structure of his novels. He champions an idea of literature as propositions whose claims to truth are measurable. All interpretations of novels of ideas are bound not to the normal strictures (such that they are) of literary interpretation but to the rigorous forensics of philosophy and political theory. (Were I not committed to representing these panels "as was" this discussion would segue perfectly into the Our America panel. Have no fear: I will remind you of the salient points when the time comes.)
Lindsay Waters Count: 2
I will not discuss Neil J. Levi's "The Catastrophe of Ideas in Nicholas Mosley's Catastrophe Practice" at this time because doing so would entail confronting the manner in which Mosley and Levi apply evolutionary theory to human culture. I need time to measure my largely positive but possibly quixotic reaction to his talk. Those are my windmills after all. So more on Levi later. I should add that I may not be nailing home the points the presenters intended to communicate in these summaries. I try to infer the shape of their thought from their short presentations. That may be an inordinately silly thing to do. In other words, if the authors stumble across my stumblings I hope they are not offended by potential misrepresentations of their claims. Were condensing complex arguments into intellectual soundbites easy there would be no need to engage in the larger projects from which they cull these bites.