Thursday, March 27, 2008

Aesthetics of Process

I've been perplexed by the problem of how to write a review, the kind of review I want to write, the kind of review I would like to read. I have something in mind, but I don't know what it is. I launch an effort to write about a piece of fiction and come to a dead end before I've filled a page. There are reviews I greatly admire--but at the same time, I hear myself say as I read them--this is very good, but it isn't it. This isn't what I'm looking for. Clavdia Chauchat's recent post on Letters from a Librarian, Notes on Valéry's Aesthetics, touches on a matter central to my problem: the difficulty of articulating an aesthetics of process--the difficulty of writing about those slippery choices that go into the making of any work of art, choices that have been erased by other choices, and which are themselves erased in turn, until the making comes to an apparent conclusion and nothing remains of the making itself. And yet, I'm convinced, that the very thing that engages us is what we don't see or hear, and yet calls us back into that invisible process when we confront the work.

I wonder if that part of the response to a work of art that takes place below or outside the threshold of reason isn't made of something like a reversal of the process of the making, that that shimmering illusion of inevitability sets off a chain of endless, alternatives, driven by a need to restore to the work its lost possibilities, restoring the potentiality which the completed work appears to deny.

A critical response that addressed process would ask, why this word and not another? Why this scene described from one point of view and not a another, or another, or another? The completed work confronts the viewer or reader as though from a state of high entropy which is anything but a state of rest-- as far from finality as the universe was as a singularity before the Big Bang. An aesthetics of process would explode the Platonic singularity into an infinite universe of expanding elements, all traceable back to their origin... the work itself, beyond which we cannot penetrate.


  1. This is a really interesting post, partly because you've given me a very good phrase ("aesthetic of process") but also because you're setting yourself a fairly daunting task, and maybe one that's too big for a book review (unless it's extremely long form). I love the idea though, and I'd love to see it in practice. Let me know when you take a stab at it.

  2. I've been thinking more about how to review short fiction than novels, which seem to me to deserve different methods. As for this post--I'm not sure what suggested is possible, more an ideal that might inform practice.

    Thought experiments...

  3. I felt such empathy reading this post. I know exactly what you mean about wanting to find the right format for writing about books and no matter what I do I still a) write the same way and b) can't put my finger on what I want to change. One other thing, though: I've only ever written criticism of the more creative literary type out of a state of confusion. That snagged in my mind somehow with all those pathways and abandoned choices.

    Have you read the collection of Joan Acocella's writings? They are not perfect, but I'm finding them pretty astoundingly wonderful.

  4. No, but I now have Joan Acocella on my reading list.

    I was so unhappy to have lost the copy of the New Yorker with Primo Levi's Man's Friend. I'd been thinking about writing a piece on it--even had a dream about it. Can't find it anywhere on the web, other than The New Yorker's CD archive.

  5. I've been wondering for a long time how to write about short story collections. I've read two in the past 4-5 months that I thought were great to excellent (Merce Rodoreda's in particular) but they're stuck in my mind and I can't get them out.

    I'm dissatisfied with all my reviews, really. The posts of mine that I most like don't look like "reviews" to me. And the scope they cover is so narrow...

  6. I could have written this post. For, precisely these reasons preclude me from writing reviews of the books I so want to.

    However, I think I am in a fix because I do not want to write a review which praises the style or plot. How does one praise Dostoevsky? There are no words. I would rather want to write about the experience of reading that book - if it makes you think, if it poses a question, if it is fun to read, if it transforms you into a different world altogether. However, giving expression to such aesthetic feelings become too difficult. However, the desire and the struggle continue.