Franco Moretti and the Chinese Novel

I went to a talk by Franco Moretti, more or less because it had been a long day and inertia made it easier to stay in the department than to venture out into the cold rainy night. And while I tend not to take notes at talks (not because it trains me to better use my memory, as I sometimes rationalize, but because I’m lazy), I quickly started writing things down on the back of a course reader very quickly. Taking off from Adorno’s attack on Veblen for explaining culture in terms of kitsch, not vice-versa, he said that he disagreed with Adorno but found the point aptly put: we shouldn’t see a “high” cultural form — say a Henry James novel — as a stand-alone object of aesthetic achievement, and from that conclude that pulpy dime-novels, kitsch, or other forms of “low” cultural writing are simply poor versions of the same thing, efforts that lack the same achievement as a great aesthetic object. Instead, he argued that the high aesthetic novel is more of an epiphenomena of a mass commodity culture than the transcendence of then. Far from a Darwinian battleground, in other words, in which the critics job is to weed out the weaker novels by ignoring them, literary culture is something like an ecology, in which the great novels feed and are dependent on the great mass of “lesser” novels.

This was just the opening salvo, though; the major question of his talk — the real provocation — was why the Chinese novel didn’t develop like the novel did in Europe. And the interesting thing about Moretti is that he seems smarter than this, seems to see the foreclosures structured into that question, yet asks it anyway. That intrigues me.

For example, his obvious unspoken answer to that question is Capitalism!, the great unmoved mover and ideological structure of feeling that can always be relied upon to “explain” the difference between Europe and not-Europe, the common horizon of European capitalist modernity in which non-Europe has, for what ever reason, been unable to share. For this reason, narratives of the rise of capitalism, from Marx to Weber, all have the same problem explaining the capitalist structures of non-Europe: by assuming that capitalism developed internally out of largely internal structures (albeit with certain gestures towards exploited others), the spirit of capitalism gets so clearly identified with the West that effectively capitalist structures (or alternately capitalist structures) cannot appear within the schematic. Weber is the classic example of using ethnocentric glasses to derive a structuralist account of capitalism and modernity, but so many other accounts share in this tendency that when anyone refers blithely, as Moretti did, to “feudalism’s transition into the bourgeois age” I start glazing over, confident in my presumption that I’m not missing much. The fact that China was more powerful and more “modern” than “the West” for most of the last two thousand years is simply not thinkable in such accounts; similarly, that the West derives so much of its core values from Islamic civilization, the paradigmatic non-West, as to make the term historically incoherent is something that a narrative of “the West” cannot address. If you want to understand what makes the Chinese novel work and why it’s different than the Western novel, in other words, the most central factors for your inquiry have been obscured by ideology from the start.

So that wasn’t winning him many points. And the rhetorical construction that Moretti adopts — why is the non-Western form different than the Western form? — is, also, the sort of argument that normally makes me gag. Why shouldn’t it be different? Why is that what needs to be explained? Only if we assume a Hegelian model of historical convergence, in which all societies tend towards the same telos of implicitly Western capitalist modernity, do we need to worry about why this doesn’t occur. The question for me is why the Chinese novel even gets called a novel in the first place, why a term of art derived from the French word for “new” under a very historically contingent set of circumstances, in Europe, would be considered appropriate (to anyone) for reference to the classic long fictive prose narratives in China.

Still, what saves Moretti for me is the productiveness of these questions, the way he manages to ask them so carefully, so knowledgeably, and so cleverly, that the foreclosures of his formulation are not as limiting as they would be in the hands of someone with a similar project but lacking his sense of critical responsibility. Capitalism seems to be a place-holding structure for him; he is aware of the limitations of it as explanatory term (indeed, I think this is why he’s constantly implicitly referring back to a capitalist narrative without explicitly saying so), but such narratives do reference particular explanatory factors that he wants to make use of; the explosion of commodity culture, for example, in “bourgeois” Europe, may be problematized by pointing out both the incoherence of terms like “Europe” and “bourgeois,” but that problem doesn’t ultimately take away from the explanatory work that it is possible to do by that reference. It becomes possible, for example, to suggest that the “high” aesthetic novel developed in ecological economy with the “low” trashy novel because aesthetics needed an impermanent commodity form to supercede: to be more than a commodity, the “high” novel needed a “low” novel that embodied that commodification.

Using the Chinese novel as foil for the rise of the novel in the West seems a more helpful way of explaining the Western novel, of course, than the Chinese novel, and the fact that Moretti’s own expertise in Sinology is impressive only relative to people in English departments demonstrated this quite clearly. In this sense the question he asks — why didn’t the Chinese novel do whatever the Western novel did — can’t ever really be answered. It can only be, in being posed, a new way of approaching the Western novel itself. But it’s a marvelously productive one: struggling to define the Chinese novel’s divergence from the model might strike me as the wrong way to understand the Chinese novel itself (since making divergence into a problem incorrectly presumes convergence as the normal state of being), but it does help cast a variety of formal features in the baseline expectation, hitherto taken for granted, in a new light.

In this sense, the major conceptual problem of his approach — the clash of theory with history — needs to be addressed as contradiction, but it also needs to be seen a productively unsolvable problem. There are some real logical problems that need to be addressed in Moretti’s approach, and it came out clearly in the Q and A: is he a theorist or a historian? This isn’t the first time the question has been asked, but its persistence points to the intractable problem at its roots, which is whether a novel is a novel because of historical or formal characteristics. One narrative of the rise of the novel points to the historical circumstances, the social factors that produce a particular kind of textual object and invest it with particular meanings and significance. Another narrative derives it from a structural form: the novel is a fictional narrative which is long and written in prose. That these “objective” features are historically defined (what it means to be fictional, for example, requires a secular consciousness) needs to be suppressed, as does the fact that giving history a legible form requires treating unreliably contingent objective forms as if they really were objective. But while history and form define each other, and are really separable, neither do the narratives collapse into each other. Is Robinson Crusoe a novel because that’s what it was called at a certain point in history, or because it achieved some essentially novelistic form? If the former, a historical paradigm, then there can be no Chinese novel at all, just something that looks superficially similar from a distance. Yet if its the latter, a formalist definition, then how can a Chinese novel be Chinese? Ian Watt and other older scholars could rest comfortably on the Weberian assumption that the spirit of the West made such questions a tautology, that the form was derived from history. But in such a narrative there can be no Chinese novel, except as an offshoot of the West, and even introducing the term (which is why, I think, Moretti wants to) upsets the comfortable assumption that some Hegelian spirit produces the novel as aesthetic epiphenomenon.