Wednesday, October 05, 2005

barthelme on the shore

First: Shore’s book was a mighty engaging read after the leaden prose of some of our recent forays into psychological/cognitive anthropology. He moves through such a wide range of material with such ease that it is difficult to keep up and muster more than a gape-mouthed sense of awe.

Onward: I am offering a couple of half-baked ideas, so please forgive me if this doesn’t all cohere. I’ve been reading some short stories by Donald Barthelme for a class in Postmodern American Fiction. It would seem to me (not having read any poststructuralist criticism of B.), that poststructuralist critics would have a field day w/ him; his sentences are slippery; language is definitely at play here. Yet, I think there’s something in Barthelme’s stories that amounts to more than the internal play of signs, and somehow relates to Shore’s critique of structuralism/poststructuralism as failing to account for empirical and psychogenic motivation (330).

In Barthelme’s “The Balloon,” (1968) an artist temporarily exhibits a floating balloon that covers the sky over a large part of Manhattan (eerily prescient in light of Christo’s “The Gates” exhibit in New York earlier this year), in a way that transforms the landscape/cityscape, forcing New Yorkers to confront its reality and to reorient themselves w/r/t the balloon (e.g., “I’ll be at that place where it dips down into 47th St…”). Also, note the way that the poststructuralist stance that “meaning” (in scare quotes, of course) is passé is parodied:

There was a certain amount of initial argument about the ‘meaning’ of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena. It was agreed that since the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely, extended discussion was pointless…

I guess I read the story to be the fictional analog of some of the ideas in Ch. 14, which emphasizes “the experience of symbols rather than their formal properties,” so that they are “infused with psychogenic motivation” (360). The balloon has come unmoored from its signified, but it is still out there in the world, a shared experience that must be confronted, and in grappling with it the New Yorkers individually reconceive/remodel their environment.

Anyway, I wondered how artwork would fit into Shore’s conception of meaning-making (and forgive me if this is addressed in some of the middle chapters), especially for adults, whose “individual development manifests a movement from physiognomic to conventional apprehension of symbols” though “the transformation is never complete.” Can art be considered such a restructuring experience, a way of giving us (as individuals) agency/motivation to remake both language and the world (maybe something akin to reader response theory)?


Blogger Sean McCarthy said...

Eileen -

I like the way you are trying to figure a work of art as an explication of the ideas in Shore's book. I have been wondering about how we can apply these ideas to literary/criticism; the explications of the theories generally lie in the domain of ethnography, and using such a "static" text as an art work as an explication of Shore's theories seem limited at best.

So, to complement your question with another: what does cognitive anthropology have to offer the literary critic other than another spin on cultural theory? How can we move these kinds of theories into a field of literary practice?

4:51 PM  

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