On Transmission

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!


6 thoughts on “On Transmission

  1. Yes, I think the Kraftwerk lyrics clinched it for me. He could also have mentioned Joy Division, who have a song called Transmission – even though I have little idea what it was about.

  2. Well, as the resident Joy Division expert, I can say I believe it refers to people receiving transmissions (of meaning) from outside themselves (possibly aliens, or just the radio). There’s a perhaps appropriate line in the song: “No language, just sound, that’s all we need to know to synchronize love to the beat of the show”. Incidentally, Bauhaus covered it, for whatever that’s worth.

    Also, this brings to mind an American poet much beloved by our current avant garde who believed Martians dictated his poems to him (Jack Spicer). A possible third way?

  3. I don’t remember Bauhaus ever covering Transmission, but then I just to look at Youtube. Ah, I also find Low have covered it.

  4. Funny, isn’t it, how these “theories” always arise from mediocre writers?

    You wouldn’t hear Nabokov, Gass, Lobo Antunes say that novels are mere echo chambers repeating phrases and opinions around them; these writers would have to have the good luck of living surrounded by wordsmiths who can dole out unpredictable metaphors, musical, alliterative sentences, profound sentiments your average football-lover couldn’t express, and a rich vocabulary nobody uses in daily life.

    Of course judging by the crappy prose McCarthy fills his novels with, I can easily believe he does nothing better than sit at Starbucks listening to teens talking on the cellphone, and appropriating their clumsy, illiterate syntax to weave into novels.

  5. I’d forgotten about this post. What I was thinking reading Tom McCarthy’s apology for his latest novel, is that he fundamentally doesn’t understand what art is about. He’s very influenced by the plastic arts, which of course revolutionised in c20th in a way the novel never did – or seemed to, or claimed to; – that is to say, aesthetically: there was a change in what the reader/viewer was prepared to accept to be art; which, for all the “innovations” of c20th, I don’t think has changed in any way in terms of literature: it remains basically a matter of use of language and the structure of story-telling.

    (If you wish to deny the existence and value of the individual voice, then writing literature seems a strange career choice.)

    (It’s as the old saying says: Those that can, do; those that can’t, conceal their incapabilities behind appeals to continental philosophy.)

    The question how genius/new insight arises is one which has interested me for a long time. We are all brought up under roughly the same influences (our parents, the society we live in), and yet those same influences have different effects on different people (I think differently from my brother, for instance). I have this idea that, even if we are all automata who process information in exactly the same way, because of the minute variances which must occur in the data we receive, no matter how similar our upbringing to others, we will become completely different people; though it remains likely that people brought up in a similar environment will retain similar attitudes. (Similar to the way in which genetics works in terms of physical characteristics).

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