Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Social Theory and the Novel

"It seemed to him that everybody, literate and illiterate alike, had in the privacy of their unconscious worked out a vast social novel by which they could make sense of society." (Norman Mailer, 1970)

Reading James Wood's review of Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory brought this remark from Mailer's A Fire on the Moon to mind. This sentence in particular: "The power of Houellebecq's critique has less to do with its persuasiveness as social theory than with the spectacle it offers of the author's bared wounds" (80). Let's let that biographical moment pass. It's the first part of the sentence I'm interested in. I am personally completely unpersuaded by social theory as such. Reading a novel "as social theory" strikes me as not a little wrongheaded. Interestingly, Mailer's unconscious Novelist was precisely to complement his more famous existential Navigator. The Novelist was to "draw up new social charts upon which the Navigator could make his calculations." It is telling that Mailer does not propose a Cartographer, and more telling still that he does not propose a Theorist (or Sociologist). A novel is as close as we get to a map, to a theory, of the social. Thankfully.


Justin said...

I'm all about a cultural division of labor, so I'm fine with social theorists reading novels as social theory, as long as they don't make a fuss when a novelist reads a novel as a novel, etc.

Thomas said...

I'm increasingly against theorizing social practices, as I stated in a comment on another blog, citing Noam Chomsky and Richard Feynman for support.