Tom McCarthy (whom, as you may be aware, we at Obooki’s Obloquy highly rever) puts forward an argument, the other day, that novels are mere “echo chambers”, repeating the phrases and opinions in the world around us – and that they certainly aren’t examples of “self-expression”. (It seems to be generally agreed this is not a new argument, and has been used before by several continental philosophers and/or literary theorists).
Obooki would like to suggest some problems with this argument:
- If novels cannot be considered “self-expression”, then it seems to me we have to generalise the proposition, and suggest that all forms of expression (speech, for example) cannot be considered “self-expression”. Everything we say, too, must just be an “echo” of the things we’ve heard.
- Are we presuming then that there is no form of mediation involved in this process? – I think we must be, because if there was any form of mediation interfering in the reception and transmission, then that would be tantamount to “self-expression”. Some faculty within us (what we might call a “self”) would be choosing what to express and when to express it.
- On the other hand, if there were no mediation, it would be hard to see how there would be any order or sense in our expressions, or how they would be able to refer to anything we experienced. We would just spend our lives making random irrelevant remarks to one another (this is certainly a possibility, from my experience, but it doesn’t explain how we then re-order them in our minds to make sense of them, which still implies some form of mediation!).
- If I stub my toe and exclaim “Ow!”, I do so because I connect a reasonable amount of pain with the expression “Ow!”. This connection in my mind implies mediation: it implies I have learnt at some point, perhaps by observation of others, that the word “Ow!” is connected with pain.
- If there is no mediation, then I cannot make any such connections. They are not self-evident in themselves.
- This is, of course, all an old Kantian argument against John Locke’s tabula-rasa empiricism (which these theorists’ views remarkably resemble, though of course they despise Locke for his “rationalism”); I didn’t think any of it up.
- So we are led too to wonder, how does any expression at all arise, if we are mere echo-chambers of one another? It could never have come about (unless it were some God who started it). (Perhaps this is a proof of the existence of God?!)
- How does it come about that people have different opinions? Surely we should all think exactly the same thing, if we are mere echo-chambers of one another?
- How can breakthroughs in science be explained? Surely we should never be able to think up anything original, since we are merely re-transmitting the thoughts of others. This is, after all, precisely the view we’re putting forward in relation to arts.
- And, most important of all, why would Tom McCarthy believe his writings more important than those of “sentimental humanists” just because he is “aware” that novels are mere “echo chambers” and devoid of “self-expression”? If he is right and we are mere echo-chambers of the opinions of others, what does he mean anyway by claiming to be “aware” of something? Doesn’t this imply a mediating “self”, which can feel this “awareness” and use it to write more important works of fiction?
- And why does McCarthy bother giving interviews, if he doesn’t believe in the possibility of “self-expression”? Is it because human-beings are just on auto-pilot – but then why does he consider his “default” setting superior to that of others?
I’m sure these questions (and many others) will all be answered by my commenters – though I’m not sure why I shouldn’t know the answers already!