#1 Barth's NIGHT-SEA JOURNEY
Contra-reformism postmodernism, “Night-Sea Journey”, and my quest to fund the whole ordeal’s rational destruction for the low-low price of One Trillion US Dollars.
Accepting a postmodernist's (correct) rejection of reformism as materially viable, taking issue with the suggestion one needs to go no further before concluding drowning is the only outcome.
Reformism, in this context, as literary theory sees it, goes to the idea that art has the ability to influence, positively, the social and political order, that (in this case) literature has a moral and ethical responsibility to address and challenge societal malady, and through the process of consuming said literature, the reader becomes an agent for affecting this change.
In the first story of Lost in the Funhouse, “Night-Sea Journey”, Barth’s narrative challenges many of the traditional conventions of storytelling, but centers thematically around rejection of reformism, which Barth argues is a misguided and ultimately futile pursuit. He likens it to being an adept, but inadequate swimmer, one fated to drown eventually in a big enough body of water.
At the heart of Barth's argument is the idea that literature cannot and should not be used as a tool for social and political change. He contends that the true purpose of literature is not to address societal problems, but rather to explore and celebrate the beauty and complexity of the human experience. In other words, Barth believes that literature should be concerned with the individual, not the collective, and that it should focus on artistic expression rather than social activism.
The story itself centers on an individual sperm, a meditation on the nature of the journey to fertilization, “the swim”, and whether or not it’s an individual or universal construction, is this real, is this choice, is it worthwhile, or is it inherent. It is, nevertheless, speaking materially, crucial for life to occur, so its innateness is perhaps, in its constancy, why it’s a subject for philosophical interest— the subject sees no more value in “reaching the shore” than it does in the journey itself, how this (life) may turn out is not a source of curiosity, but something to be humored, to see through for its own sake, whether its purpose is by accident or design by its Maker. It asks a lot of questions that are rich in philosophical possibilities, and broaches the subject of nature of experience of an individual coexisting with individuals who all seem to be in the same collective experience, but alone and their failures, deaths, are singularly their own, but extending the metaphor to a matured sperm, a human, living in society, what does it make of the question of the conditions one is born into being inherently a collectively experienced struggle, as much as ones personal experience in it is their own, one of many such experiences.
Contra-reformism, as I’ll refer to it in this series referring to an entrenched rejection of reformist intent and view of incrementalism as a whole, is also a key characteristic of postmodernism as a whole. Postmodernism, itself, is a literary and cultural movement signified by skepticism towards grand narratives, preferring to reject traditional modes of representation (which presents a fascinating counterbalance to Barth’s commentary in the preface to the Anchor Books edition, likening the work to premodern storytelling like the Decameron, which has a narrative structure not unlike this volume in some key structural ways), and a focus on individual rather than collective/collectively incentivized experiences of art (i.e. the use of art for ideological work— something like Soviet Realism, for example). Like Barth, many postmodernists argue that literature should be concerned with artistic expression, not social activism (if we want to be reductive about the postmodernist’s view of ideological work, that they bear ideology in their rejection of it as a collective interest), and that it should reject the idea that it has a moral or ethical responsibility to address societal (which they see as distinct, not expanding upon or connective with, individual) problems.
Postmodernism’s contra-reformism misses something, crucial, however, about the nature of what the real collective effort is, seeing activism as futile, which is correct, when not revolutionarily predisposed, which is why postmodernism prefer its artists to transcend the belief in mass change, dismissing it as inherently incremental (and therefore, insufficient, correctly), and radicalize the form instead as an individual, part of a movement, but a discrete part. This is, however, contrary to the reality that the reformist position is, perhaps, not the one that this is reactive towards, even if it is the intended opposite end of the spectrum upon which these concepts can be based.
This contra-reformism is in direct opposition to, for example, Theodor Adorno's aesthetic theory. Adorno argued that art does carry with its production the moral and ethical responsibility to engage the reader in this case. Adorno argues that art should be engaged with the material realm, and extending the ideological basis further, using the dialectic to weigh and work the problem before the public. In contrast to Barth's belief that literature should be concerned with the individual, Adorno argues that it should be concerned with the collective betterment. This is less aimed at the vague notion of collective incentive to address social problems, but more concretely injustices incurred by material reality, and how social forces can be influenced to address them, yes, along a collective ideological line.
To critique the justified contra-reformism of postmodernists as reactionary, I’ll clarify, would be misguided, but it allows for the encapsulation of all duties of art as either reformist in nature, or individually and singularly revolutionary but on that basis alone. Adorno, to be clear, was a Marxist, and the material lens he would have used was the world as understood through a Marxian economic, so inherent to his Marxism, in his view, art was a crucial tool in the struggle against capitalism, and therefore bore that responsibility. The contrast here is that the two schools of thought diverge about the nature of action resulting from art, where it would seem self-evidently false that because reformism (a half measure in the eyes of either) is eminently ineffectual, that this is an indictment of holistic material influence on the social outcomes of a populace, and one that, as the logic might dictate, would somehow have to come at the expense of art.
To understand the relationship between the two, one need not look further than modernism itself; reflecting the friction of man in modernity, this is the material condition against which one must create art. Postmodernism tackles this question by giving voice to the personal, the experience and vantage understanding of an individual, rather than that of an individual in a society, whose individual expression. is incidental in, reflective of, societal material condition. Modernism, itself, is concerned with the influence of the modern on the individual, but this occurs systemically, to a class of consumers, rather than to the consumer discretely, whereas the exhaustion from such terrorism results in the kind of self-reflexive commentary, parody, etc. of the postmodernist that understanding the pains, without seeing a need to collectively act in response, one can act on collective behalf by being a singular voice. In “Night-Sea”, we see this in the metaphor of the sperm, but the language evokes a body so vast as to be an ocean enough to drown in, while a sperm’s journey is at least plausibly navigable. It eschews a materialist’s sense of proportion, and perhaps that what makes the trope of postmodernism as an exercise in self-indulgence so potent, when it is a rich vein of philosophical inquiry, but as the basis of more and not for the sake of itself, what of the modern horrors? Simply exhausted by things hardly seems like a way to go through live, to say nothing of producing art or experiencing life. Barth might respond to an argument like this, referring to the conclusion that the subject of the text may be experiencing its own in-progress death, only to be overcome by the accomplishment, as a universal axiom for many as described by one, and that this is the value of such an orientation to philosophical inquiry as applied broadly.