Wednesday, 28 December 2005

MLA: "Contemporary Fiction & The Novel of Ideas" 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...

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