Parergy and the Beginnings of the Mass Market in the 1840s


1st page of The London Journal 1845

One of the key concepts was what I called the parergic after Derrida, though I used the term in a very different way from him. It was an attempt to explain in a serious and non-condescending but at the same time intellectually rigorous way the particular position in the literary market place of texts right at the beginning of the commercial mass-market: what was the relationship of these texts to the more general field? Here in this first post revisiting what seems like a long ago (and indeed I first came up with the idea in the 1990s), is an extract from the original. Later posts will test the concept against other work.

Having provided paragraph-length biographies of several journalists and marked their career paths – they all started aiming for high status and ended writing for money – I came to a conclusion and then sought to explain that conclusion and link it to curious stylistic features characteristic of these texts, features very different from the Edward Lloyd-type serials I had encountered previously which did not seem to care about their status as commodities. The material I was studying from The London Journal seemed worried about being ‘economic literature’ – how did this worry manifest itself exactly?


… The London Journal was thus a precipitate out of surplus labour which would prefer the greater symbolic (and at this stage usually economic) capitals of the up-market magazines. The desire for a unified cultural field that I discussed in Chapter 2 is visible here, supported sociologically by the very limited socio-cultural group that writers in general came from (Altick, 1989). In that sense, the impression gained from Vizetelly’s description of the magazine as staffed by ‘failures’ is correct.

The longing for the high but exclusion from it that such career paths suggest results in what I term the parergic. This comprises a set of specific textual effects and practices, which, while underpinned by sociological narratives, does not inhere in specific bodies or corpora (a writer, artist, a periodical or even an article may display the parergic or not at various points). It is a system whereby texts are based on originals that are invested with greater symbolic capital and authority. Officially respectful and emulative, the parergic is tinged always with a resentment, caused by exclusion from desired cultural areas, that brings about mutation in what is supposedly emulated. The parergic sometimes raids authority aggressively and seems therefore to attack it, but nonetheless paradoxically buttresses cultural boundaries even in the act of transgressing them. Unlike parody, which always in some sense undermines the authority of its original even while being complicit with it, the parergic fully acknowledges and maintains this authority even when it effaces its model. Unlike straightforward imitation of the high, which depends on large cultural capital to judge its value, the parergic does not use the exclusive codes or high prices that cultural authority wraps itself in to keep out the uninitiated.[1]

The weekly ‘Essays’ furnish typical examples of the parergic in terms of that practice which is ‘style’. Essay L on ‘The English Language’, signed by John Wilson Ross (III: 7-8), begins with the commonplace thesis that ‘the progress of language marks the progress of the human mind’, and swiftly interprets this in a nationalist sense. It continues by placing the ‘rise’ of the English language at the Reformation because then ‘men began to argue’ and to do so ‘they [had to] express themselves with precision’. Thereafter,

Addison was unquestionably the first of our writers who introduced elegance of expression into the composition of English prose. He found the writings of his predecessors disfigured by a loose, inaccurate, and clumsy style. He changed all this, and made himself a model for imitation. In his works we find no forced metaphor – no dragging clause – no harsh cadence, – no abrupt close. He is, also, a happy model for the use of figurative language. They seem to spring spontaneously from the subject: and are never detained till the spirit evaporates or the likeness vanishes. They are just like flashes of lightning in a summer’s night – vivid, transient, lustrous, – unexpected but beautiful, – passing over the prospect with a pleasing brightness, and just vanishing before you catch a sight of all the beauties of the scene they gild. The copious and classic mind of that writer gave our language the greatest degree of elegance and accuracy of which it is susceptible. Since his time fine writing has not improved. Simply, because it cannot be. You cannot give the English language a nicer modification of form, or a greater beauty of feature than Addison gave it. But you can give it more nerve and muscle. And subsequent writers have done so.                                                                                                     (III: 7)

It was Johnson, ‘[t]hat Colossus of English literature’, who provided the muscle. Since his time ‘there has occurred no variation in the style of English prose’ except, possibly, by increased use of the ‘Gothic, whence [English] sprung; and that is a feature in language which our readers will agree with us is more deserving of disgust than admiration, and a variation in style more worthy of punishment than praise’ (III: 8).

The essay’s claims to authority depend largely on the assumption of a common standard throughout the literary field…

Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula Part 2

I ended the previous post with a reference to Adorno’s appreciation of Lulu. I’ll return to Adorno later. Before I do, I want to remark on a particular structural element the critics find more fascinating than any other:  Berg’s obsession with palindromes – music that runs forwards and then backwards.

Perhaps the most commented on is the film interlude right at the centre of the opera – where I’ve inserted the blue line is indeed the opera’s exact centre – you don’t need to be able to read music to see that.

The centre point of Lulu

Lulu’s palindromes are narrative as well as musical. As you can see Berg’s screenplay for the 3 minute film at the heart of the opera very clearly organises its narrative palindromically.

Structure of film in the middle of Berg's Lulu

He stuck very closely to Wedekind’s original text, though he had to cut it down by 4/5ths. The cuts are significant: they make the whole work structurally tauter, emphasising the text’s repetitions and balances which appeared in the original but by no means as starkly. Most important of all, the final scene is key: Berg turns it into a recapitulation of the first half of the opera, that is, the whole of Wedekind’s first play. By now Lulu is reduced to plying her trade as a prostitute in London, accompanied by her 3rd husband’s son and the seedy old Schigolch, a hanger on who may or may not be her father. In the Wedekind, she has 4 clients, the last of which is Jack. In the Berg she has only 3 – the virgin university lecturer is cut – and each of these 3 is a reincarnation of one of Lulu’s husbands. Each client has the same music as the relevant husband and even is, so Berg directs, to be sung by the same singer.

Now this emphasis on musical recapitulation and double roles means that everything after the mid point of the opera takes on what George Perle in his magisterial study of the opera calls a déjà vu quality. The musical symmetries seem to bind the characters into a machine-like helplessness.

In terms of narrative justice – and justice is staged at the heart of the opera with Lulu’s filmed trial  –  the plot is governed by the retributive and symmetrical  lex talionis of Deuteronomy — an eye for an eye. A cold, simple and inflexible justice. Lulu kills and is killed, an active is balanced by a passive verb. The narrative, judicial conjunction here becomes a copula marking a predicate,  a cause and effect of equivalent force: the balance of a palindrome. End of story.

Although Adorno never mentions the lex talionis, acceptance that this is the way of the world is what some of his praises of Berg suggest. Berg refuses the happy end of commercial texts – that happy end which may not always be happy for the characters but which suggests catharsis for the audience, or the possibility of hope for a better future – or even, as Adorno devastatingly suggests in his analysis of Hollywood film in some aphorisms from the 1920s in Quasi Una Fantasia (pp. 49-50), the minimal happiness which lies in the audience’s knowledge that happiness is not for them (“the old mother who sheds tears at someone else’s wedding, blissfully conscious of the happiness she has missed”). Berg, for Adorno, looks on the human condition objectively and not sentimentally (i.e. commercially). Berg does not impose his subjective response to the narratives he presents in either of his two operas. It is this, along with the music’s extreme complexity and ingenious logic that renders Berg able to escape the constraints of his society’s ideology. This is a huge and important claim – for how far is it possible for any of us to escape ideology? What of the gender and sexuality conventions that Berg, following Wedekind, exploits for his theatre piece – the tragic half-man lesbian, the sex-obsessed Woman? Is this not ideology?

Adorno has, however, to admit that Berg sided with the lost, and that in this  Lulu is similar to Berg’s earlier opera Wozzeck. But Wozzeck, said Adorno, quoting Berg himself,  could easily put its first bar after its last and the whole tragedy could happen all over again. The narrative is an endless cycle of suffering with no possibility of escape. No answers are given, just deixis – a pointing out of the human condition into which no intervention is possible, and from which there can be no transcendence. Alban Berg was passive, stresses Adorno, not assertive, and it is his siding with  non-action that allows him to escape ideology. This is good, for action is, according to Adorno, always geared towards making a population act in a certain way, and therefore must of necessity be ideological.

The palindrome contrasts with ideology by suggesting a self-contained universe beyond the arrow of time we experience in the phenomenal world – the critic John Covach has suggested that for Berg the palindrome represented a timeless heaven deriving ultimately from a Swedenborgian description in one of Balzac’s lesser-known  novels. This is perfectly consonant with the mystical leanings of the musical circle Berg moved in ‑ and of course it matches Adorno’s promotion of Berg as offering a non-active refuge from the evil of a world that could produce the ideology of Nazism.

There are two things that interest me in these claims. Yes, I love tracing the music’s formal complexity – it has all the charm of a musical puzzle and a practical rhetorical lesson for my own compositions (how did Berg derive that chord or instrumental line from his musical materials?). In either case, its analysis is a very abstract activity indeed, like maths. But it’s of course very dependent upon my access to a very particular mediated version of the music – the printed score. To print I can return again and again – abstracted from society, abstracted from death and the onward rush of time. This is a characteristic of the medium of print, as envisaged in the very first image of a printing press known to us. Death takes away the men, but the books and printing press remain.

The earliest known illustration of a printing press, from the Dance of Death, Lyons, 1499

Adorno’s vision of abstraction from ideology depends, it seems to me, on a particular organisation of the media industry, which enables the stable reproduction of very complex printed musical instructions – to write them out by hand would require literally years and, as all students of media history know, would generate an unstable text.

But my relationship with this medium has also shown me how the large scale palindromes so commented on aren’t exact. How dare I say this when so many critics have not noticed it?

(to be continued)