n+1: Nicholas Dames on the use of Theory in the realist novel

Hey Jacques, can I list “ability to deconstruct social realism” under the Skills section on my resume?

At The New School for Social Research, we graduate students loved, and loved to hate, Theory. With Continental thinkers like Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Bataille, we had fraught, emotional, and often competitive (“I understand Milles Plateaux so much more profoundly than you,” “Really? You haven’t read The Order of Things?”) relationships.

Reading Nicholas Dames’ book review in the current issue of n+1 is probably worth the equivalent of six months of psychoanalysis for people who went through this kind of higher education experience. It outlines the role of Theory in realist novels by authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan–which perhaps is really no mystery, but I’ve yet to see someone draw the line so clearly between works of Theory and these literary fiction writers. (If you’re intrigued and want to read the essay, you can get a copy of the current n+1 issue for $10 at their issue launch party tomorrow/Saturday night, at Recess Activities, 41 Grand Street, 8pm, at which you can also feel free to buy me a drink because I don’t get paid for writing this blog, you know. Apparently, Theory doesn’t help you get a job.)

Dames: “No small fact, then, that so many of these novels take the shape of the bildungsroman, that most antique of realist modes. The punctured innocence of Moore’s Tassie, the callowness of Egan’s Mindy–these are paradigmatic steps on the way to an education in Theory. First comes getting used to a style (of insouciance, strange combinations, rejection of middle-class norms); next is learning how to use it to make sense of your own maturation. Francois Cusset coined the term bildungstheorie to describe how Theory operates in the American setting, and Moore and Egan…know that Theory is now, for an American college graduate of a certain kind, part of the sociology of late adolescence. Theory is swallowed by the ordinary developmental process that it so often sought to disrupt.”

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