Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jennifer L. Fleissner reviews Site Reading

David J. Alworth. Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015. 224 pp.

Review by Jennifer L. Fleissner

            "By what method of literary interpretation," David Alworth asks, "does the analysis of prose fiction become an effort to fathom sociality?" (p. 19).  Where a more established sort of criticism might have pondered such a question through a panoramic lens like class, or kinship and inheritance, Alworth, inspired like a number of scholars today by the writings of the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, takes a more microscopic approach, looking to physical sites and the "actants," human and nonhuman alike, that populate them and bring them to life.  For such a project, a novel like Emma Donoghue's Room (2010), about a mother and child forced to inhabit an 11' by 11' space, can be exemplary; through the young narrator's voice, we hear less of the larger social realm they're missing out on, and more about the busy world they've created for themselves, in which "Plant" and "Rocker" act as reliable companions.

            Donoghue thus joins other contemporary novelists, in Alworth's account, in "doing sociology" in her own right, as we see in the more canonical case of Don DeLillo's minute, fascinated observations of how people behave in supermarkets in his White Noise.  Such an argument aims to move beyond the stalemate where literary texts either unthinkingly "participate" in the milieu that produced them or can do more than that only by engaging in critique (of, say, the shopper as zombie).  While the exemplary postwar sites Site Reading considers—the superstore, the dump, the road, the ruin—could all readily lend themselves to laments of excess and decay, Alworth's interest lies in the novelists and artists who are genuinely intrigued by the way such places model what it means and looks like to live together today.

            While such an approach takes cues from Latour (as well as from the midcentury sociologist Erving Goffman), Site Reading ends up venturing to claim territory more its own.  For starters, Alworth is rare among literary scholars for being attuned to crosscurrents among novels and contemporary art, which has thought a great deal, of course, about site specificity.  Moreover, even as their interest in the sites in question allowed Alworth's subjects to create a kind of physical map of contemporary culture, they also, in his treatment, push past that historically delineated goal to ponder something more like "sociality as such" (p. 22).  And surprisingly enough, doing so seems to have led many of them to ask after what we might understand as the limits of Latour's conception of infinite ongoing acts of association.  Instead, they end up inquiring, "If the social is a vast network . . . when and where does it end?" (p. 20).

            The very structure of Site Reading could be said to pose this question, as vast nation-crisscrossing networks persistently give way to startling images of the gravesites of sociality.  Hence, the supermarket chapter opens onto one on the dump, Jack Kerouac's road onto Thomas Pynchon's ruined Malta, until we finally arrive, in conclusion, at the postapocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  What is happening here?  As it turns out, Alworth's study pushes past "critique" less via the mode of flatness, or, alternatively, aesthetic appreciation, that we have come to associate with that contemporary gesture; rather, his chosen texts, and his readings of them, remind us of the power of everyday ambivalence.  Take the always tricky William Burroughs, who, Alworth notes, produces a "nightmare image of Latourian sociality" in the entangled mass of human and inhuman stuff that spills forth from the dump-text that is Naked Lunch (p. 20).  If what emerges here might indeed be termed a more minute description, it is in no way coolly neutral, but, rather, one charged with lust, excitement, disgust, and horror all at once.

            This perspective seems necessary, however, if we are to make sense of perhaps the most surprising feature of Site Reading.  Why, after all, does a book about "sociality," "collective life," train its gaze over and over on figures (often self-)removed from the social?  Burroughs half a globe from America; Joan Didion's Maria alone in her car; Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man underground; McCarthy's boy and man in a bunker—in nearly all these cases, the human-object relations so crucial to Latour's sociology clearly need to be thought not only as alternate forms of social life, but, unquestionably, in relation to "the failure of the social," as Alworth writes (p. 90).  Against all odds, then, this failure seems to be one of the subjects Site Reading is most powerfully about.

            This is underscored most fully in the "Asylums" chapter, which compellingly connects Invisible Man to Goffman's sociology through Ellison's and Richard Wright's work creating the LaFargue Psychiatric Clinic in Harlem in the 1840s.  Again, the striking feature of this chapter is the extent to which, despite claims about "the correspondence between self and site" (p. 103), its real subject turns out to be the failure of the two to correspond.  And in this case, that is an eminently good thing, for the shared interest of all of these writers, literary and social-scientific, is shown to lie in the ways in which, once again, individuals escape "total institutions" (from asylums to racist societies) that aim to mold them into selves suitable to those sites, by creating secret, solitary spaces of their own ("asylums" in the positive sense of the term).      

            It seems not at all accidental that this limit to sociological thinking of the "collective life" variety emerges so strongly in this chapter.  As Alworth himself notes (again showing the searchingness of his intelligence), Ellison felt a "'deeper science'" than sociology was needed to address the "'willful and complexly and compellingly human facts of the Negro'" (pp. 123, 134).  The specificity of psychology thus begins to come forward, and with it, the unavoidable fact that psychic responses to sites are necessarily going to distinguish us from our "object" friends.  These would include, signally, ambivalence toward the social itself, which can be understood only if we remember, as novelists nearly always do, that the social is never just the improvisatory freedom Latour celebrates, but also can be, literally, a drag—the dragging weight of history, inheritance, expectation and convention.

            Overall, then, Site Reading tells the genuinely exciting story not only of postwar American fiction but also of a young scholar coming to claim a voice of his own.  Beginning (through the supermarket chapter) by bringing us Latour, and already doing so with admirable literary-critical conviction, the book as it progresses increasingly chafes at the limits of that theory, bringing into focus a version of novelistic sociality that contemporary literary criticism may not yet have developed the tools to conceptualize.  And yet Alworth, admirably, never shies away from this counter-story, instead returning to it, thinking it over, again and again.  The result is a book able to remind us that, rather than moving "beyond" critique, we might, instead, want to take up a point made years ago by Gayatri Spivak: that "the most serious critique" is that of "things that are extremely useful, things without which we cannot live on."[1]




[1] Gayatri Spivak, "In a Word: Interview," interview with Ellen Rooney, in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York, 1993), p. 5.