“Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all; – so no author who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. For my own part, I am eternally paying him complements of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.”
(Laurence Sterne, Introduction to Vol 2, Chapter 11, The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman)
So, back in 1759, Sterne was already well aware of the competing roles of the reader and the writer within any good work of literature.
I’m wondering whether the notion of competition is an entirely adequate unpacking of what Sterne has in mind when he decribes the interaction between the author and the reader as a conversation? That Sterne seems to think that it is the author who gives form to that conversation by creating space for the reader, and that part of the author’s job is to entice – even, perhaps, to seduce, the reader (“… eternally paying him compliments”), might in itself suggest that, “back in 1759” the relationship between author and reader might have been configured in terms closer to the erotic (broadly conceived – in this case the appeal is – quite explicitly – to the virtue and habits of “amicitia”) than they are to the mercentile. As Aristotle says, business partners can’t be friends. In other words, the language of friendship and the language of competition are incompatible.
Tyrone Slothrop said:
Is the idea of ‘competition’ now wholly identified with the mercantile and business? Is there no agon between conversation partners, friends, lovers, drinking buddies… ?
Sterne is, however, right into stimulation.
Eric Repphun said:
Tyrone (and Andre),
This may sound odd coming from an unrepentant Marxist, but Tyrone is absolutely right here in pointing out that the idea of competition has a very broad application outside of the narrow and uninteresting realm of commerce.
There is an argument to be made, in fact, that any relationship that we as individuals form with our material culture (textual or otherwise) can be seen as a form of competition: the reader/observer can act to resist the dominant codes of signification that are embodied in such objects and instead impose a more personal/negotiated meaning onto the world in which we find ourselves living, but which we had little part in making. There are at least two – and in reality, an an almost infitnite number – accounts of the world going on in the simple encounter between the text and the reader, and without some kind of competition, there would be no alternative or resistant readings and culture would be a log-jam.
As the underground Dunedin artist who appropriated various items of communal work – ducts, manhole covers, etc. – tells us: There can be no success without competition.
After all, a fully controlled and fully congenial conversation between author/text and reader would be intolerably dull.
Hey Tyrone and Eric,
I’m not sure I would wholly disagree with you, Eric. But I think I would still want to maintain that the account of the relationship between author and reader that Sterne is giving above is one that is difficult to explicate entirely, or even principally, in terms of the grammar of competition. Of course, it goes without saying that his account may be wrong, but that, I think, is a slightly different question.
As far as that broader question goes… I think that it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s claim that at the root of many philosophical perplexities is a mistaken belief that all terms are capable of ostensive definition. To note that the grammar of competition and the grammar of friendship or erotic love cannot be easily harmonized is not, it seems to me, in any way to suggest that friends and lovers do not, at times, contend and struggle against one another. Rather, it is to discriminate between different kinds of contention: to struggle against a friend is – or, at least in certain circumstances, may be – an action the intelligibility (or form) of which is quite different from that of an argument between people who relate to one another as competitors. Providing an account of why this might be so is a complex business (… although its worth noting that when Aristotle says business partner’s can’t be friends, part of what he has in mind is the idea that whereas a business partnership is all about the outcome, friendship, strictly speaking, has no point. This pointlessness does seem to me to have a bearing on what it is that friends, as opposed to business partners, are doing when they disagree or fight with each other). Nevertheless, to treat all acts of contention, strife, negotiation, resistance – of “agon”- as the same – to treat these words as if they each possess one determinate meaning – is, it sems to me, to pay insufficient attention to the particularities of language.
Tyrone Slothrop said:
Hmmmm… debating the precise adequacy of word used by a reader of a passage, when the passage is telling readers to use their imaginations in interpreting his text, huh?
I’m quite sure the notion of ‘competition’ does not ‘explicate entirely’ or ‘entirely adequate unpack’ Sterne’s writing. But in that lack of correspondence and imbalance, am I all the more faithful to it?
Is that an admission that your claim about Sterne understanding the notion of competition between writers and readers does not correspond to the Sterne passage you quote? If so, I’m confused. Why did you put the two together in the first place?
I think that one of the consequences of following through on the distinction between the grammar of competition and the grammar of friendship is that it allows for the kind of indeterminate meaning that I suspect both Sterne and yourself might want to defend. The idea that authors and readers are competitors presumes, I think, a univocal conception of meaning, just as when business partners compete against each other, they know what it is they are competing for. But if authors and readers are more like friends (or, as I think, like lovers), then it would make a lot of sense to think that the interaction between the two is capable of generating multiple (if not entirely indeterminate) meanings; or that if we are able to talk about the “meaning of the text”, then it is a meaning that is being constantly configured and reconfigured in all sorts of ways (including resistance). Bascially, then, I’m claiming that Sterne can inivite readers to use their imagination in interpreting his work precisely because he configures his relationship to them as one of friendship.