The realist phenomenological response to empiricism argues that the structure of the universe is evident in how a human consciousness naturally tends to unify in some cases and differentiate in others. We stipulate first that “this is a literary work” and “this is not”, and then we decide what that term means. Human consciousness has an intuitive grasp of objects that belong together in categories—e.g., books, fictions, literary works—that allows us to recognize what kind of thing something is, what its species is (or, in philosophical terminology, its eidos or form). The same intuitive grasp of form allows us to read a work and identify what it lacks, what should have been done, what seems extraneous, what should have been cut.
So, what is a book? What is a literary work? By what principle are these in any way unified?
And what about the limit cases?
The beginning of any analysis is an intimate self-reflection. I am and should be concerned about what my particular baggage is bringing to these definitions, and why my particular circumstances might lead me to endorse one definition over another (this is true for all groupings, combinations and distinctions, not just those about books). A writer produces enough scribbled napkins to meet the page length of some form of book and declares they have written one, despite it being obvious to an outside observer that this collection of half-thoughts and musings isn’t meaningfully unified. There are parts that do not and cannot form meaningful wholes. A bunch of pages glued together may constitute, for the purposes of some publisher, a book—something which may yet be marketed and sold alongside other books. But such items may appear to our consciousness as something other than a unity, as if a baby were born that’s not a baby at all, but instead some indeterminate number of small human organs expelled from the womb, lacking the unity that constitutes the human form. Formal unity defines something as what it is. A literary work is a literary work is a literary work, and this thing is not.
My other concern is time. Definitions change, and we shouldn’t assume that what counts as a literary work in one period would count as such in another. Nor does such an assumption leave us grasping for something static and eternal on which to base our definitions. The fact that things change doesn’t mean it’s all relative. (While it used to be popular to conflate change and relativity, we no longer make that error as often.)
We should not take refuge in the material as something to hold on to, to grant us some measure of constancy, either. A literary work is not merely paper or some other arrangement of matter, composed just so for the purpose of appearing on a shelf. The material of a work of art is surely limited, but no particular material is essential to what it is. The same book is instantiated on paper, in other graphic representations (I’m thinking of screens), and in other forms (audio) that make clear to us what exactly is required of a material object to prove suitable to embody a literary work—and that is the capacity to embody language, or at least symbols. We require a physical form that’s capable of being arranged such as to carry the symbolic sounds and graphics that humans use to mean something. To stimulate another human’s thoughts to turn as ours have, in some particular direction.
A good method, when we’re trying to nail down a definition, is to look to the fringes, see what counts and what doesn’t, how something appears to consciousness when it’s a special case or at least a stretch. These cases have the most to tell us about how we think. Let’s have a look at some.
B.R. Yeager’s Pearl Death is described by the publisher as “a text in the expanded field of literature.” A deck of cards limited to 160 copies. I can only access the text as a .pdf by logging into the Inside The Castle ebook section of the website. Each card depicts and describes a fictional object, and these descriptions, taken together, conjure the image of an imagined history in which each object played a role. The reality depicted is at once violent and magical, a universe inferred by the reader only from descriptions such as this one of Mihaly’s Spindle: “Following the passing of his wife and child, it is said that Mihaly eviscerated their bodies, filled them with fine hay and sewed them shut with twine. These carcasses were kept in his sleeping quarters as a reminder to mourn. Variations on Mihaly’s original spindle soon became a symbol of the Mission of Cleanblood.”[i] What’s important to note (and to reflect upon) is that at no point in a reading of Pearl Death does the reader ever doubt that there is a unified reality in which these objects exist; fictional as it may be, it has a coherent history, an ambient ideology, a palpable life-world, and individuals who have been singled out for their significance within the whole.
And so, it might seem that, irrespective of materiality, symbols are what is essential to a literary work. They are capable of producing for someone else an alternative reality as an object of consciousness.
But what if a literary work did not produce a reality for us? What if the text instead stymied our habit to try to form such an alternate world? Conceiving of a fictional work only as a world in which I am not is a limitation that is also threatened by certain contemporary works of fiction. A literary work is something that means (insofar as it is constituted of symbols that also mean), but it’s not evident that the world represented by any particular work need maintain any unified meaning. That is to say, I do think it possible that a unified literary work refer to no unified world, in which all its representations cohere. I think it is fair to say that our usual way of conceiving of a literary work is through its represented objects: we take what is explicitly represented, fill in the blanks of what the author left to the imagination (i.e., “unfulfilled aspects,” or what Ingarden would call the “schematized” aspects, emphasizing that when any object is represented in any way, it necessarily limits the ways in which that representation may be completed by a human consciousness) and fit them together until we think we have a good idea of what the literary work is about.[ii] But the literary work may be about something that isn’t unified. As Schrödinger points out in his paper (the one with the cat), “There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”[iii]
Evan Isoline’s Philosophy of the Sky is, precisely, a snapshot of clouds and fog banks. With regard to its physicality, Isoline’s book is more easily conceived of as a book, in that it has pages that are glued together in an order with a physically imposed beginning and end (you know you’re done when you get to the back cover). The content draws heavily on Isoline’s background in drawing, painting and printmaking and defies our concepts of where on the page text should appear and the order in which it is typically presented. While we may generally trust that words can be read in the usual order of left to right, that’s not always the case. On certain of the unnumbered pages, text appears along with shapes somewhat diagrammatically, or is actually (partially) obscured by other texts and shapes. A careless reader may miss some of the book, such as this line appearing in a light grey atop three text boxes (the obscurity of the statement is expressed in its formatting on the page): “I was born on the eighth day and lived on the ninth. I didn’t have any money.”[iv]
The images Isoline conjures nevertheless maintain a unity, which I contrast with the unity of Yeager’s Pearl Death, given that in Pearl Death there was a world, while in Philosophy of the Sky what we get is a consciousness directed toward a world. The resulting unity leaves the world open. Instead of limiting our possible concept of a fictional world, the horizon of Philosophy of the Sky is that its potential to represent an actual world isn’t limited to what is digestible. There are no landmarks (or tethers) to mark its boundary. If I were pressed to say what the book is about, I’d say it’s consciousness as a potentially infinite activity—potentially infinite, because while there is no restriction on what consciousness can take as its object, there are practical difficulties in taking infinity itself as an object. Every expression in the literary is particular, even ones like, “Eat the Dead”, which Isoline writes three times in textual rectangles.[v]
An insidious counterpart to Isoline’s unity of consciousness is the dissolution of the subject that Lindsay Lerman accomplishes in her forthcoming What Are You. The narrative is not second person (that’s another literary trend, not what I am discussing here); Lerman’s narrative is addressed to a “you” where the “you” expresses some multitude of others. There’s consistently an “I” and a “you” in the novel, but neither are static or defined entities. The “you” of Lerman’s novel is ambiguous, distinguishable by context—just as every “you” is an other whose function is to punctuate the experiences of an implied narrator, there are at once many “yous” and no single “you” to which the term refers. At one point, “You’ve made me long for nothing more than to be reduced to the object of your desire.” But then also, “You left me for dead, time and time again.”[vi] I take the term as an indicator of a more general concept of opposition, as the text is certainly aware of how an individual is formed out of and in reaction to its relations with others. Drifting from hostile to affectionate “yous,” “you” becomes at times a term of endearment and at other times an accusation, at times the recognition of a beloved independent consciousness and at other times the brutal enforcement of that division—you are in contradiction to I, and so forever may it remain.
Always subtle and expressed in a language by which one feels almost swept away, Lerman’s novel radically questions whether or not the limitations we impose upon both consciousness and the world are superficial impositions, as are the representations of those things in literary works. As long as a human is alive, consciousness has the capacity to alter; thus, to impose unity upon it implies a tyranny of static form that Lerman refuses to abide by. An infinitely open point of view situated in a dynamic world where concepts, objects and others proliferate indefinitely, the novel approximates our actual experience by its refusal to neatly package itself, its narrator or its world. Nevertheless, the oppositional nature of “you” in all its instances allows us to infer that there is something universal to their directionality—a unity of some singular effect of which they are all disaggregated causes. The nature of that thing is to defy our grasp; however, it is our nature to continue attempting that grasp in perpetuity (the existential human condition).
What I think these limit cases show is that there is room for chaos in the form of the literary work, that, instead of declaring once and for all what is and what isn’t a book, it is necessary to recognize literary works with horizons, works that are not closed systems but left intentionally open. While an immovable boundary serves to confine, a horizon is a limit condition that is by its nature malleable, movable, and dependent on how and where the work is situated. Literary works that are horizonal have the capacity to adapt and move—to live and to survive.
[i] B.R. Yeager, “Pearl Death” (Lawrence, Kansas: Inside the Castle, 2020).
[ii] Cf. The process of concretization in Roman Ingarden’s exposition of the literary work of art, described here by Jeff Mitscherling: “This intentional activity of the fulfillment of schematized aspects is a central component of the general activity of ‘concretization’. As no character, for example, can ever be exhaustively presented by an author—no character, that is to say, can ever be portrayed as fully and completely determined—the manner in which this concretization is to proceed can be only schematically determined by the literary work through its stratum of these schematized aspects.” Jeff Mitscherling, Aesthetic Genesis: The Origin of Consciousness in the Intentional Being of Nature (Lanham: University Press of America, 2020).
[iii] Erwin Schrödinger, “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics: A translation of Schrödinger’s ‘cat paradox’ paper,” tr. John D. Trimmer in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 124 (1980), pp. 323-38.
[iv] Evan Isoline, Philosophy of the Sky (Minneapolis: 11:11 Press, 2021).
[vi] Lindsay Lerman, What Are You (Troy, NY: Clash Books, 2022).