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The Age of Representation

The Passing of the Modern Ages

This is one mark the passing of the Modern Ages, which were ages of representation in the arts.  You can see it in painting, sculpture, writing.  The goal of the Renaissance, Age of Reason, Victorian Age and all was to represent the world "als es wirklich war" (as it truly was).  The words are Ranke's and refer to historiography, but look at Dürer's watercolor of a Young Hare, in which every hair [pun intended] is drawn in. 
Likewise, the novel was called "novel" because it tried to do in writing what Dürer and others were doing in painting.  Hence, the appeal to all five senses, the dipping into different points of view, the vivid descriptions of the landscape and humanscape, the multitude of characters each motivated by his or her reasons.  People were supposed to read a "novel" and say, "Yes, that is true to life."  I've been there; I've known people like that. 

It was part and parcel of the Scientific Age, in which all truth was objective and experienced from without.  The Renaissance, or Enlightened, or Victorian reader did not "identify" with any of the characters, but rather "observed" them objectively. 

The Post-Modern Ages, which began about a hundred years ago, or even earlier in the arts, began to replace objectivity and description with subjectivity and impression.  So, impressionism, and the mis-named "modern" art.  Nude Descending a Staircase is not a painting of a nude or a stairecase, which would be objective; but it is a painting of "descent," a subjective impression. 

As visual arts became sketchier and more impressionistic, the written arts became interior and minimalist.  One rarely sees the universal, omniscient narrator any more; one expects to ride the "novel" inside one of the character's heads.  One we can "identify" with.  Perhaps more than one character; but if you populate your book like Tolstoy or Dickens, the post-modern reader will complain that his head hurts and he can't keep the characters straight. 

A reader of one of my own stories once complained that I wasted too much time on character development.  He only wanted to know "what happened."  Content, not packaging.  He had not learned his Aristotle: the matter and the form are inseparable.  But he did reflect the post-modern movement toward minimalism.  We want to read as few words (and as short and simple) as we can.  And we can dispense with all those details and cut to the chase, the "bottom line."  What we call "novels" today are simply "really long stories."  We never did dare to describe every hair on the rabbit.  For art, a glance takes in it all; but the written word must be read linearly.  There was no Dürer in literature. 

My reader did buck the trend in one way: the post-modern delights in form at the expense of content.  You can see this especially in the movies, where people outrun explosions and strike iconic poses, sometimes in slo-mo.  But the same thing can be found in the written word to a lesser extent.  Consider Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" or Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."  There, the writing, the style, the way a thing is said outweighs what is being said.  Not that nothing is being said or that it is unworthy of being said, but there is more emphasis on style than plot, and the narrative description is restricted to that which serves a purpose in the character development or in the story line.(*)  Some stories -- and by no means poor stories! -- are little more than character sketches.  Read William Trevor's "The General's Day", or "The Ballroom of Romance."

Now writing, by its nature will always be more logical than iconic.  It uses words (logos) not images (ikon).  And science fiction, with its right foot planted firmly in the "scientific programme" of the self-described Age of Reason, will always seem even more "retro."  But nowadays, we see more fantasy than science fiction; we watch more movies than we read books.  So-called "graphic novels" eventually appeared.

None of this is necessarily bad, which is a difficult thing for Moderns, still in thrall to the Enlightenment Thing, to realize.  Nor is it necessarily good, a difficult thing for rebellious Young Turks to realize.  The new age is neither a good thing nor a bad thing.  It is only a thing.  I will miss the novel; I will miss science fiction - although I expect both to last my lifetime - but I also like a good fantasy and the new medium of interactive games may provide a wonderfully unexplored mindscape for the writer.  (If they can get away from hackneyed stereotypes and point-and-shoot action.) 


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2010 08:45 am (UTC)
I love graphic novels. Particularly the Sandman series.
Mar. 7th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
the novel dead?
Death of a whole literary genre? Not unheard of, but not something to hope for, either. I hope St. Leibowitz comes along first before that happens.

Mar. 7th, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed reading this. :)
Mar. 7th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
I have always thought that, to kick Strauss & Howe's theories up to the Civilization level, the Victorian Age was a classic example of a mega-High. It had all the characteristics of a High only writ very large and going on for most of the 19th century.

From that it follows logically that the 20th Century (~1890(?)-1964) was a mega-Awakening and that we are currently in a mega-Unraveling.

We actually know what a mega-Unraveling looks like. For those who don't want to dig into the history books, Neal Stephenson has written a doorstop series called The Baroque Cycle that gives you a very good (and colorful)overview of the last one.

(Which means the Age of Enlightenment would have been a mega-Crisis; any French citizen will tell you the same.)

And the Renaissance a mega-Awakening. And the last mega-High? On the Anglo-American timeline, I'd say the long reign of Henry VII, but that it was more of a Recovery than a High.

Anyway, thanks for pinpointing the 20th Century mega-Awakening so well. As someone said, "Western Civilization - yes, I remember that."
Mar. 7th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
P.S. Speaking of Stephenson -
The best line ever in a book review, off the misleadingly named "TV Tropes" website - about "Anathem" -

"Weaponized Platonic metaphysics."
Mar. 7th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
Interesting read.
I always thought the greatest danger to the novel wasn't movies but video games. You touched on that a bit. As someone who grew up playing games I'll admit I find it draws me in a way novels cannot. I'm not sure what that says about me exactly. I've actually witnessed rejection of reading altogether because of gaming. To be fair though some modern games do have some decent story telling in them. It's not all shooting gallery. Although I admit I find that fun as well at times. I wonder where all of this is headed?
Mar. 7th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC)
Re: character development, I get very impatient with boring crud _pretending_ to be character development. _Real_ character development is interesting. (And you do a good job of it, methinks.) I admit that there were a few times when I really really wanted the plot to advance a little faster, even though the character devel was interesting (in Eifelheim and in January Dancer). But that was just a matter of finetuning the pacing, and it may have been my reading pace that was off. :)

Re: looking at hairs, I find that Russian fantasy and science fiction still has a lot of connection to the Russian writers of yore. Pehov's Shadow Prowler that's just out has a lot of that going on, even though he justifies it by having a POV character tell you about his city instead of an omniscient narrator. If there's ever a Russian novel where they don't give you the weather report as a thematic device (and because weather is just so important in Russia, I guess), you can knock me over with a feather.

But it's not really all that different from Leiber or Brust or Hodgell, all of whom love their fantasy city descriptions. :)
Mar. 8th, 2010 02:57 am (UTC)
Scott McCloud's triangle
McCloud's 'Understanding Comics' triangle of art convinced me. He puts all graphic art inside a triangle with three points; 1)representation, 2)letters, 3) abstract.
Well, as photography and printing made the first two points victims of an age of mechanical reproduction, what else could drawing schools teach but the third?
Can't see civilization collapsing over this. And I liked 'Riders of the Purple Wage'. Stunty, but Philip Jose Farmer was having fun. So do readers.

Mar. 8th, 2010 04:49 am (UTC)
Re: Scott McCloud's triangle
Oh, so did I.

But as for photography putting paid to representation in the arts, try taking a photograph of this:


What killed representation, imho, was that they had reached the point of doing it so well - the Melk Abbey ceilings are in 3-D fer crying out loud - that no one after could ever do it better.

So they had to do something else.
Mar. 8th, 2010 11:25 am (UTC)
Re: Scott McCloud's triangle
But that's like saying, "Now that we have audio recordings of rain, there's no point in writing tone poems of rain or having rainsticks."

Representative art isn't a matter of photographic reproduction. In fact, that's why photographers can't keep their mitts off Photoshop -- because they want to be more like graphic arts and less like photographic reproduction. Ditto the motion picture and television industry, which now uses special effects on the green screen for even the most trivial shots. They long to turn the camera into a paintbrush.
Mar. 8th, 2010 09:05 am (UTC)
Hmmm, some big generalisations there. The 'post-modern' strand in literature is as old as Tristram Shandy - or arguably even the Arabian Nights. Cultural history is seldom as homogeneous as we sometimes like to think.

Also, most people place the shift to the postmodern around the 1960s - indeed, the term was first used with reference to literature in 1971 by Ihab Hassan. High modernist works (Joyce, Woolf etc.) are usually considered part of the Enlightenment project, being a search for psychological truth rather than external truth (in the jargon, their concern is epistemology) - but still believing in the possibility of a single truth. Postmodernism rejects this in favour of a plurality of interpretations, and is more interested in how different narratives 'construct' reality. Brian McHale characterises this as a shift from epistemology towards ontology (a term that I confess I find hard to pin down).

I think the SF writer that most closely embodies the shift to the postmodern outlook is Philip K Dick. Almost from the beginning, he was interested in simulation and constructed realities - classic postmodern topics.

Cheers, Mike A
Mar. 8th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
I was using "post-modern" in a broader sense than the lit-crit usage, although that may be part of the trend. Once you have defined what the characteristics of the Modern Ages were, you can begin to see whether society had begun to move away from them. Some earlier than others. There are signs as far back as the Gay Nineties. Klimt, Mahler, Freud, etc. Although as you say, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between the apotheosis of the Modern and its rejection. Freud, for example, claimed to be doing science, a prototypical modern stance, but in retrospect we see he was doing myth and specifically rejected a brain-based psychology.

I agree with you that the decade of "the Sixties" so-called marks an axial point, although the turning began in the Adult Abdication of the Fifties. But of course the Modern Ages did not go out like a light-switch, it faded in a burst of color, just as did the Middle Ages in the fifteenth cent.
Mar. 9th, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
Met a physics in a nut's hell
Me [being] -> Not-me [other stuff] -> how I detect the difference [knowledge of knowledge]

Ontology -> Cosmology -> Epistemology

It was in my kindergarten library, Fun with Aristotle & Jane.

Mar. 11th, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
Painting and Reality
I just finished reading Painting and Reality by Etienne Gilson and Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. If I understood them correctly, both are saying that imitation is not the goal of painting. The artist has a germ of inspiration for a painting. The success of the painting is not how well it imitates nature but how well it fulfills the original germ of an idea. The artist is not imitating nature but actually creating a new "being" in the work of art. In their opinion, the Renaissance was a misstep in the history of art that lasted until the late 19th century when artists began to break away from the requirement to imitate nature.

Have you read either of those books?
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Painting and Reality
No, I have not. Cutting edge postmoderns, they. Henri Matisse said much the same thing: "The Renaissance was decadence."

But in all fairness, the mandate to "represent" was never the same as to "imitate." There are very few paintings in the representative style that are photographic in nature. The artist always altered the landscape to accommodate artistic balance; even portraiture brought out telling details. And some of the most representational artwork - such as the covers of many SF magazines - represent scenes that could never possibly be photographed.
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