On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection by Susan Stewart, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection

On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection

by Susan Stewart
Miniature books, eighteenth-century novels, Tom Thumb weddings, tall tales, and objects of tourism and nostalgia: this diverse group of cultural forms is the subject of On Longing, a fascinating analysis of the ways in which everyday objects are narrated to animate or realize certain versions of the world.


Miniature books, eighteenth-century novels, Tom Thumb weddings, tall tales, and objects of tourism and nostalgia: this diverse group of cultural forms is the subject of On Longing, a fascinating analysis of the ways in which everyday objects are narrated to animate or realize certain versions of the world.

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"Stewart's work provides an oasis in contemporary criticism, a place where theory and poetry, systematic reflection and the essayistic plunge into particular cases, come together in a refreshing synthesis."—W. J. T. Mitchell

"The historical richness, psychological insight and sociological subtlety of the analyses Stewart develops in On Longing are exemplary for cultural studies."—Barbara Herrnstein Smith

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Johns Hopkins University Press
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On Longing

Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection

By Susan Stewart

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7856-3



Still Life

Out of these landscapes, the distinction of point of view. In a world where access to speed is access to transcendence, point of view is particularly a narrative gesture. The point of view of landscape is no longer still, is instead a matter of practice and transformation. Modernism's suspicion of point of view can be seen as a critique of omniscience, but a critique rooted in a self-consciousness that proclaims an omniscience of its own ontology, its own history. Point of view offers two possibilities: partial and complete. What remains silent is the third and anonymous possibility—blindness, the end of writing.

In allegory the vision of the reader is larger than the vision of the text; the reader dreams to an excess, to an overabundance. To read an allegorical narration is to see beyond the relations of narration, character, desire. To read allegory is to live in the future, the anticipation of closure beyond the closure of narrative. This vision is eschatological: its obsessions are not with origins. For Bunyan at the end of The Pilgrim's Progress, for example, the reader's failure at closure will result in repetition, a further inscription of the narrative upon the world. For Bunyan, repetition proclaims the cyclical and identical patterns of history. Each turn through the text will result in the same reading. The locus of action is not in the text but in the transformation of the reader. Once this transformation is effected, point of view is complete, filled out to the edges. And wherever we look, we see the work of this closure—the image is indelibly stamped upon the world.

This confidence in the circularity of history and the complete vision of closure is broken with the advent of the industrial revolution, the advent of a new kind of realism and a novel kind of "psychological" literature. As Ian Watt has told us, two shifts in the concept of realism took place at the beginning of the eighteenth century. First, from the Renaissance onward, a tendency to replace collective experience with individual experience had evolved. And second, the particularity of everyday life and the individual's experience in this world became the locus of the real. Thus the realism of allegory has been displaced, has moved from the reader's "quickening," an internal recognition of signs through reading, to the reader's apprehension of an immediate environment that is nevertheless external and continually changing. The reader is in an observer's position, yet his or her vision remains partial because of this externality of time and space. The eschatological vision of allegory makes the reader the producer of the text in the sense that closure can be achieved only through conversion. But the production of the eighteenth-century novel is divided between the author and his reader, and the reader's production is subsidiary to, and imitative of, the author's work. We may see the picaresque on the interface between these two forms, the picaro an outsider, a "reader" of a set of locations on the one hand, yet, on the other hand, simply another character, whose partial vision as an outsider makes him or her ridiculous. In this generic progression, the convention of the "wandering viewpoint" has emerged, a convention whereby the reader is situated within the text, moving alongside a diversely coordinated set of textual time systems. Thus a new process of reading evolves from this new form of realism, a reading which gives the reader the status of a character. The reader comes to "identify with" the position of Tom Jones, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, with the "proper name" and not with a lesson, a signified. The reader becomes a character, a figure who looks for signs or clues—not a reader of signs and clues that fit together into a moral puzzle solved through the eschatology of closure, but a reader of signs for their own sake, a reader of correspondences between the signs of the world, the immediate environment of everyday life, and the signs of the novel. Thus the sign in the realistic novel leads not to the revelation of a concealed meaning uncovered but to further signs, signs whose signified becomes their own interiority, and hence whose function is the production and reproduction of a particular form of subjectivity.

In this productive mapping of sign upon sign, world upon world, reality upon reality, the criterion of exactness emerges as a value. And exactness, always a matter of a concealed slippage between media, is moved from the abstract, the true-for-all-times-and-places of allegory, to the material, the looking-just-like, that sleight of hand which is the basis for this new realism. The allegorical figure who moves in a binary fashion within a world by means of correct and incorrect actions is replaced by a member looking for signs. Exactness is a mirror, not of the world, but of the ideology of the world. And what is described exactly in the realistic novel is "personal space," the space of property, and the social relations that take place within that space. We must remember that Crusoe sees the social as a mark upon, a tainting of, his private space, and greets the trace of the human with "terror of mind": "Then terrible Thoughts rack'd my Imagination about their having found my Boat, and that there were People here; and that if so, I should certainly have them come again in greater Numbers, and devour me; that if it should happen so that they should not find me, yet they would find my Enclosure, destroy all my Corn, carry away all my Flock of tame Goats, and I should perish at last for meer Want." Yet the illusion of the emperor surrounded by his riches, the illusion of Crusoe, lord of the island, is the most inimically social of all illusions.

The movement from realism to modernism and postmodernism is a movement from the sign as material to the signifying process itself. The reflexivity of the modernist use of language calls attention not to the material existence of a world lying beyond and outside language but to the world-making capacity of language, a capacity which points to the arbitrariness of the sign at the same time that it points to the world as a transient creation of language. Like the first juncture between pre- and post-eighteenth-century fiction, this shift toward the sign itself can be linked to the development of the political economy. The exchange value of language, a value we see at work in oral genres even in modern society (e.g., the reciprocity of puns, the joke-swapping session), is replaced by a form of what we might, in analogy, call surplus value. Literary discourse is performed not within the ongoingness of conversation but in the largely private production and apprehension of the text, and the relationship between literary production and consumption becomes one of increasing distance in time and space. The forms of alienation arising from preferences for difficulty and the exotic as qualities of the modernist text reflect an increasing distance between the forces of literary production and those of literature's general consumption. At the same time, they reveal the concentration of those productive forces resulting in and from the hegemony of mass culture.

In his essay The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Dean MacCannell suggests that we see the relation between commodities as a "semiotic" one: "In Marx's treatment of it, the system of commodity production under capitalism resembles nothing so much as a language. A language is entirely social, entirely arbitrary and fully capable of generating meanings in itself." Yet to say that the system of commodity production "resembles" language is not enough; it is necessary to outline the nature of that resemblance, to note the symbolic nature of the commodity once it is transformed from use value to exchange value and defined within a system of signs and their oppositions. "It is possible to consider the exchange of commodities as a semiotic phenomenon not because the exchange of goods implies a physical exchange, but because in the exchange the use value of the goods is transformed into their exchange value—and therefore a process of signification or symbolization takes place, this later being perfected by the appearance of money, which stands for something else," writes Umberto Eco. Hence the notion of a "pure semiotic" realm of exchange; a realm analogous to the most reductive accounts of a pure "poetic language" (Hugo Ball, for example) would find its locus in the gift shop and in the deliberate superfluousness of "tokens of affection."

If we consider the relation between commodity production and the organization of fictive forms as part of an entire semiotic system, we can posit an isomorphism between changes in genre and changes in other modes of production. Not the least important implication of this relation is the influence of generic changes upon the prevailing notion of history as narrative. In other words, the distances between audience and performer in a culture's genre repertoire outline the place of the self as agent, actor, and subject of history.

Just as genre may be defined as a set of textual expectations emergent in time and determined by (and divergent from) tradition, so history may be seen as a convention for the organization of experience in time. Yet historical and generic conventions cannot be mapped upon the real; rather, these conventions are emergent in the prevailing ideological formations that are the basis for the social construction of the real. Here we might take our position from Vološinov:

Genres are definable in terms of specific combinations of features stemming from the double orientation in life, in reality, which each type of artistic "form of the whole" commands—an orientation at once from outside in and from inside out. What is at stake in the first instance is the actual status of the work as social fact: its definition in real time and space; its means and mode of performance; the kind of audience presupposed and the relationship between author and audience established; its association with social institutions, social mores and other ideological spheres; in short—its full "situational" definition.

Rooted in the ideological, the literary genre determines the shape and progress of its material; but, at the same time, the genre itself is determined by the social formations from which it arises. The relation between literary producer and consumer will be reflected in the form of the genre. Consider, for example, the rule of turn-taking, which plays such an important part in our concept of "conversation" and in the various "conversational genres": repartee, verbal dueling, riddling, punning, telling proverbs, telling jokes and joking, and constructing narratives of personal experience. The reciprocity of the utterance underlies both fictive and nonfictive forms in these conversational contexts. But with the creation of fictive worlds that are removed in time and space from the context of situation, an increasing distance is placed between producer and consumer and the symmetry of conversational reciprocity is replaced by the specialized values of performer and spectator. The spectacle, the stage play, the novel, exemplify this increasing distance between performer and audience.

In his careful exploration of these distances in relation to folkloric forms, Roger Abrahams has suggested that

at some arbitrary point in the unarticulated—but obviously unconsciously sensed—spectrum of performer-audience relationships, folklorists decide that there is too great a distance between the performer and his audience to call an enactment folklore.... A similar and equally arbitrary cut-off point is observable in the realm of material folklore. In this case, however, the relationship with which we are concerned is between maker and user, not performer and audience. At some point of the maker-user relationship spectrum, the removal between the two becomes so pronounced that we call it a product of technology, not material folklore.

We might go on to address the historical and ideological formations underlying these shifts in genre. For example, in a reciprocal-exchange economy, performer and audience are functions of situation, functions into which (if only theoretically) any social member can step. But in a society in which these roles are specialized, the role becomes larger than the member who assumes it; the role is determinate. The mysterious power of our metaphor of "the person behind the mask, the person underneath all this 'role playing'," arises from the stratification brought about by the latter phenomenon. Rather than being in time, in history, these latter and increasingly fictive genres are viewed as being outside time and unmodified by the contingencies and responsibilities of historical time. The product of technology is not a function of a mutual context of making and use. It works to make invisible the labor that produced it, to appear as its own object, and thus to be self-perpetuating. Both the electric toaster and Finnegans Wake turn their makers into absent and invisible fictions.

An important dimension of these relationships between audience and performer, subject and agent, the collective and the individual, is the difference between speeds of performance. Conversational genres, and even, more generally, the genres of face-to-face interaction, are marked by the simultaneous and reciprocal experience of time and space undergone by both performers and audience. It is only with the advent of mechanical reproduction that this original temporal and spatial context has become physically manipulated. In his classic essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin outlined some possible consequences of this technological revolution. The authority of the object, the authority of the "original," is jeopardized, the object is detached from the domain of tradition, the work of art is emancipated from its dependence upon ritual, and, consequently, exhibition value begins to displace cult value, the increased mass of participants in the arts results in a new mode of participation: "A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it.... In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art." Although Benjamin was concerned primarily with the impact of technological innovation in the visual arts, the impact of printing on the verbal arts also must be considered. Except for such children's genres as tongue twisters, visual puns, and feats of memorization, the verbal arts do not concern themselves with the manipulation of speed or with the manipulation of the physical space surrounding the utterance. With the invention of print, however, the material aspects of the discourse emerged as an aesthetic factor. While oral verbal art unfolds in time, written verbal art unfolds in time and space; the book offers a concrete physical textuality, an "all-at-onceness" of boundaries which the oral performance allows to elide into the surrounding context of situation. Yet, in the way it is bound, the book denies us a transcendent simultaneity; we must unfold the pages in time, and this unfolding bears little relation to the actual speed of the text. With print, the time of the performance becomes remote and the text's potential for the fictive is increased. We might consider that the fantastic possibilities the book presents have their antecedents in those oral genres—like the Irish märchen tradition—that take as their context the night lit only by fire. In Ireland, Fiannaíocht sa ló (storytelling in the daytime) was said to beunlucky. While some learned tales while haymaking or digging potatoes during the daytime, the most prevalent context was the night: fishermen at sea at night as they waited to draw in their nets, or men and women passing the night, making fish nets and telling tales to one another. The blank spaces of night, the blinding whiteness of the page before print, offer themselves to the fantastic, to a reading of fire or the tracks of animals. Although the technology of artificial light destroyed the context of the oral fantastic, the technology of the artificial word created a space for its eruption. In each case these storytelling contexts metaphorically and physically remove themselves from the immediate and historical context of everyday life.

The printed text is cinematic before the invention of cinema. The adjustable speed of narration, the manipulatability of the visual, turns the reader into a spectator enveloped by, yet clearly separated from, the time and space of the text. Michel Butor has offered an illuminating discussion of the reader's position:

As soon as we can speak of a literary "work," and hence as soon as we approach the province of the novel, we must superimpose at least three time sequences: that of the adventure, that of writing it, that of reading it. The time sequence of the writing will often be reflected in the adventure by the intermediary of a narrator. We generally assume a progression of speeds between these different "flows": thus, the author gives us a summary, which we read in two minutes (he might have spent two hours writing it), of a narrative which a certain character might have told in two days, of events extending over two years. Thus we have organizations of narrative of different speeds.


Excerpted from On Longing by Susan Stewart. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Susan Stewart, Professor of English at Temple University, is the author of Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation and Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature.

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