28 July 2005

- Rereading Redux -

Readers of my earlier post ask some very good questions. I'm quite sure I don’t have satisfactory answers to all of them—maybe not any of them. As I put it in my reply to David, I’m very much groping here, because I feel that something has changed if rereading has indeed lost its resistance to the “commercial and ideological habits” of society.

Though I didn't mentioned it in my previous post, I also think that rereading has to be differentiated from repetition, the social imperative to return to a text as a means of desensitizing us to its affect/effect. Here, radio play of a hit song might serve as the exemplar. Yet the recycling of hit songs in oldies formats suggests that such desensitization cannot be final. These old hits return, however, filled with nostalgia: we return to them to capture, for a moment, a time that seems lost.

Narrative is structured by lack—I think that's an unspoken premise I'm working with here. Narrative moves, as it were, by filling in what is not yet present in the text; but narrative never completes its task of revealing everything of the world it relates: as it closes, it also opens. It’s only the rhetoric of final closure that makes us believe that the narrative has run its course, has presented all of its world that needs to have been presented. Yet if narrative has done its job, it leaves us pondering. Why? Because not all has been said. The lack is foundational.

Ultimately, I would say that narrative is about managing this lack, instrumentalizing it to a certain end, circulating it within a particular economy. How that lack is exploited is a crucial ideological moment of a narrative text. I would agree completely with Jody's statement that "When people fall in love with a world, they want to enter it again." I’ve read The Lord of the Rings about a dozen times. I’ve seen the old trilogy of Star Wars more times than I care to admit. If I had time, I’d read the Harry Potter books, and I’m sure I would love and reread them as well. Indeed, I’m looking forward to having that time.

But how does this “love” relate to rereading as Barthes describes it? While Barthes would agree, I think, that reading gives intense pleasure and that “love” is not too strong of a term to describe it, I doubt he would see rereading as this sort of return, for in the formulation above, which again I think is entirely accurate, this return strikes me, like the oldie, as structured by nostalgia. In this sense, one seeks not more from the text in returning to it, but the same thing all over again. Of course, the text cannot reveal what it once did, so in this sense its excess appears as a lack, and the book is on its way to being consumed, worn out, for our love of it. I don't think this is the whole story, however, and I will return to it in a moment.

Serials partake fully of this economy of return, though from the opposite side as it were. They are structured by excess: they do not demand rereading butmore reading. Yet they stand under the sign of consumption: consuming more narrative. That's the whole point of the cliff-hanger—a textual lack that needs to be filled, that will be filled in the next installment only to leave us hanging again. But each chapter of the serial is presented as "disposable" in just the sense that Barthes suggests: each chapter is consumed as its cliffhanger is resolved: each chapter exists only to produce this cliff-hanger. That some serials also "succeed" when compiled simply shows that they can also succeed as books—I'll postpone discussion here of what that distinction between serial and book might mean.

I don’t know enough about the reading habits of the late nineteenth century to know how often such books might have been reread, but I have to wonder how much income from book sales was calculated into the production of the serials. That is, did authors serialize in order increase book sales or were books understood as an ancillary market to the serials? Did the books circulate primarily in leather bound editions on expensive paper (suggesting that they were being archived as art) or in inexpensive editions that would quickly "wear out"? In any case, my sense is that these books were not sold with the idea that readers would return to them over and over again as viewers do with, say, Star Wars. (I admit that I have to probe this issue more with respect to the issue of the society of the trashheap becoming the society of the archive.)

Gone with the Wind, which Jody introduces as a counter example, is a good piece to consider, as it falls outside the normal mode of Hollywood production at the time, and so is more similar to the modern blockbuster. I can also easily imagine a set of GwtW dolls and a replica of Tara for kids to play with. I’m sure that’s what would happen if the film had been made today. Yet, here are some things to think about: it was made as a "prestige" picture. As with all Selznick pictures, it was also marketed under the sign of "art." So the question remains: was the film designed for re-viewing in the way that Tolkien and Rowling are designed for rereading, and Star Wars is designed for re-viewing? Perhaps. It’s also important to remember that like most film musicals based on Broadway hits GwtW is a derivative product, and the film version was understood, I think, as a means of broadening the audience of the book, no doubt also as a way of “bringing it to life.” The re-releases, in that sense, can be understood as means of further "broadening," bringing the film to "a new generation" of viewers. Subsequent editions of novels can be understood similarly.

I'm still uncertain how the issue of the blockbusters fits into the whole thing. Star Wars was the first film predicated, I think, on repeated viewing. If it wasn’t Star Wars—Jaws, Close Encounters, and a few other films of the early 70s had similar success—it was Star Wars that fundamentally reoriented the film industry toward releasing blockbusters in the summer when adolescent audiences were available to view the film over and over again. Yet, arguably, this re-viewing is simply repetition in the sense that the hit song is repetition. What’s fascinating to me is that this doesn’t seem to be how repeated viewings of Star Wars worked. Instead, each viewing seemed to generate a real desire to see it again, to find something new in it, as well as a desire to flesh out that world in the imagination by recreating it with toys, video games, etc. Yes, of course, tying toys to films had happened before, but I don’t think the exploitation of the connection was ever before quite so systematic. To my mind, Lucas' insistence on owning the rights to the ancillary products clearly demonstrates that he had a real sense that the situation had fundamentally changed, that there was serious money to be made by investing in the world rather than the film, whose income would last only so long as the film played.

I think something similar is true for Tolkien, though it was a long time in coming, and prior to films had spawned mostly ancillary textual products (such as the Guide to Middle Earth and the various edited volumes of Tolkien’s drafts) and unauthorized derivatives such as Dungeons and Dragons. It is clear, however, that Tolkien could have had no idea that his world might grab the imagination of his readers in this way.

I have to think that Rowling did—though probably not at first. You can see the calculations starting to kick in when the first ancillary products start to appear: the little books on quidditch and monsters, for instance, which served to fill in information about Harry Potter's world not available elsewhere. I think this desire for more of Harry Potter’s world goes beyond the excess generated immanently by the serial; I think it goes beyond film adaptations or re-releases. I think the desire to reread the Harry Potter books will continue after the series is completed (even if Rowling does something really, really stupid in the final book, as Lucas did with his prequels). For this world, like Star Wars and Tolkien’s, is not one that is meant to be consumable, to be thrown away. It is also not one that is contained by the novel. Indeed, Rowling, Tolkien, Lucas—all these worlds are predicated on not being disposable commodities. Yet none of them seems committed to be inconsumable in the way that modern art has been. They all seek to profit from these fictional worlds; these worlds—not just the texts—are now managed as real properties. This strikes me as a sea change, a movement away from the planned obsolescence of writing that Barthes complained about. If this is the incipient form of the new capital, a capital invested in the control and management of intangible, inconsumable intellectual properties and informational commodities, where can resistance to it be lodged?

Rereading in the Barthian sense has seemingly lost its power to disenchant society. What might we do with that recognition?

Richard's comment that the investment of time in reading narrative is far greater than that for viewing narrative would probably factor in here as well: if an acceleration of consumption follows an acceleration of production, but our commercial and ideological habits are turning toward archiving rather than disposal, time becomes very precious. How would that figure into the economy of rereading?