Benjamin Kunkel, Benedict Anderson, and the Fate of the Novel

The first sections of Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson read like an unknowing echo to Benjamin Kunkel’s recent piece in n+1 regarding the fate of the novel. In that essay, appearing in a forthcoming collection about the future of books from Soft Skull, Kunkel recounts the publishing industry’s past and juxtaposes it with the digital present. His conclusion is that the novel is on its way out.

While Kunkel uses Regis Debray as his theoretical launchpad, Anderson is a different–but just as helpful–resource.

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Glossing on Fevbre and Martin’s work The Coming of the Book, Anderson points to the emergence of the novel as the emergence of a particular kind of consciousness, one that indicates the birth of an imagination capable of imagining a nation.

The Coming is a history of printing and full-length manuscript publishing. It gives us facts like this: Martin Luther’s theses could be found all over Germany in 15 days because of print-capitalism.

Anderson says the proliferation of the printed word in the form that it proliferated–the novel and the newspaper–show the birth of a “meanwhile” consciousness, one that is aware of multiple story lines occurring in time simultaneously but in different places. He opposes this to a consciousness that sees different events inhabiting the same place at the same time. The distinction comes from Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. Benjamin calls “meanwhile” time  “homogenous, empty” time and calls the latter “deific.”

Deific time reigned in antiquity. Anderson gives two clear examples of it. (1) A 14th century depiction of the birth of Christ where Mary is dressed like a peasant girl from the 14th century. Here Christ’s birth happens at year 0 but also, it seems, in the 14th century. (2) Christ’s crucifixion and Isaac’s sacrifice, the latter viewed as a prequil to the former. God sees all these events ocurring without timeline, without linear chronology–Abraham and Christ, Mary and 14th century fashion–and so does deific time.

Evidence of homogenous-empty (meanwhile) time is first seen in novels. A character does this and that and, meanwhile, another character does that and this. Then they meet. (It’s also seen in newspapers, where stories are told of events all over the world connected only by the day they occur.)

Anderson argues this kind of storytelling, homogeneous-empty, wasn’t happening in longer literary works before the novel. It was this kind of thinking, among other historical factors, that allowed our species to concieve of ourselves as belonging to a group composed of people we don’t actually know.

A big question mark punctuates the fate of the novel. The economic crisis hit the mammoth, aging publishing industry in ways it’s not recovering from. Technologies are evolving that present words in new ways. Instead of the printed word we have the digitized word. Fiction lives and breathes on the Internet and in e-books and e-readers and iPhones. If Luther were to write his theses now, they would be everywhere in the world in 15 seconds. What does this mean for the novel?

This is where Anderson is helpful. We can use his application of Benjamin’s time distinctions as a lens to look at the novel’s fate.

Our main question might be: Do these technologies constitute another change in our consciousness of time? Do they indicate a third kind of consciousness, different from deific and homogeneous-empty? Or are they just evidence that we’ve carried homogenous-empty time out to its fullest extent?

Lets say “Yes” tentatively. If the emergence of the Internet and related digitizations indicate a new consciousness of time then maybe the novel will become obsolete, just as other cultural artifacts underwent radical changes during the transition from deific time to homogenous-empty time. In this scenario the novel becomes a  stepped-upon rung of the ladder of our evolution, replaced as an art form in the popular mind like the orchestra was replaced by the band and the painted portrait by the photo and theater by film.

But even if we say “No” we get a similar answer. Lets say these technologies don’t indicate a new consciousness but rather they’re just a full flourishing of homogeneous-empty time. In this case the novel still has a predominantly historical role to play. The novel indicated the birth of homogeneous, empty consciousness and now that that consciousness has matured. We may have to build a monument to the novel’s importance, say our goodbyes, and expect a future that excludes it from the main stage though it helped to build the stage itself.

Either way you look at it, applying Anderson’s distinction yields what may be a disturbing concept: It’s neither the publishing industry nor its product but rather us, the human being, that’s changing as our technologies advance. Kunkel quotes Jonathan Franzen to this effect, “Haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?”

Our digitization is evidence  of a change in our consciousness, so it makes sense that the novel and its role in our lives must change with us.

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