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The Culture of the Fragment

I haven’t been paying the closest attention to the National Book Critics Circle’s campaign to save book reviews (launched less than a fortnight ago soon after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced it was firing Theresa Weaver, its book editor)—less attention than the New York Times, at any rate—but a claim in Andrei Codrescu’s hem-haw essay surprised me:

the culture of the fragment, written and visual, has overthrown the considered paragraph, or, clinically put, ADHD is the next evolutionary or devolutionary state.

What’s surprising is that the fragment and the paragraph have already been figured as parallel images of modernity—so long as one assumes when Codrescu says paragraph, he actually means narrative. (What else can he mean? Fragments by themselves cannot constitute some symbol of culture. On film or on paper, they are added to each other. They are made into collages, analogues of paragraphs. The difference is that collages don’t form cause-effect relationships, the basis of narrative. Codrescu’s point must be about narrative, else it doesn’t make sense at all.) In America’s Sketchbook , Kristie Hamilton makes the case that the sketch—a literary genre popular in the nineteenth century—was the novel’s counterpart. Hamilton explores the sketch as an authorially democratic genre, polyglot because it was always a genre of between-spaces—most notably, between conceptions of public and private. On the one hand, a sketch’s intent might be to represent the private musings on a public scene; on the other hand, the intent might instead be to expose to the public the intimacies of private life. Moreover, where the novel formed experience into a rigid narrative with beginning and end, the sketch negotiated ever-fluid boundaries and allowed writers to represent discontinuity and change.

Because the fragment and the narrative have long coexisted, both of them formulations of the world as it is perceived to be, it seems rather unlikely that one has in fact overthrown the other, Codrescu’s claim notwithstanding. Instead, what’s happening is that, because publications which encouraged the privileging of narrative at the fragment’s expense are disappearing (e.g., book sections in major newspapers), persons who celebrate that privileging are being forced to acknowledge that the fragment is in fact more prevalent than they previously wished to know. I don’t know, however, whether Codrescu shares their dismay.



That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the finest material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle, to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification.

Walter Benjamin
Ursprung des deutschen Trauerpiels

in other news, i have just submitted an essay on a 1,360 page still-born behemoth, to quote the Indpendent, that is monumental but written in fragments, a novel in ruin…to quote the book.

The miracle is that we understand anything at all. In the end.
In her pages I have seen the Sistine Chapel made with Popsicle sticks, I have wandered with her ten years in the Amazon, to the ruins of the absolute book. I have tried to make sense of some small part of it. And now, maybe I have.

perhaps the best review of the book is not an essay but an image, a collection of fragments?

there are some truly sublime passages in it.

speaking of long novels… has anyone read Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead?

Hooray for finishing the essay!

I think K’s read Almanac... or maybe it’s Storyteller she’s read, which now that I look with Ceremony is on our bookshelf.