- What Meaning Follows Form?Miss Lonelyhearts’s Inhuman Aesthetics
“Critique—that only means, anymore, observing observations, describing descriptions from a standpoint that is itself observable.”—Niklas Luhmann, “Modern Sciences and Phenomenology”1
“Objects exist and if one pays more attention to them than to people, it is precisely because they exist more than the people. Dead objects are still alive. Living people are often already dead.”—Jean-Luc Godard, Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)
“What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”—Don Draper, Mad Men (2007)
Nathanael West’s 1933 short novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, is a literary misfit. It tells the story of a journalist in charge of the letters to the editor column at a New York newspaper. He cannot adequately answer his readers’ pleas for help and advice, mistakes his job for a religious mission, gets overtaken by a deluded sense of hysterical omnipotence, and dies abruptly when he is accidentally killed by the shotgun of one of his readers. [End Page 573] Too short, too fast, and too syncopated to be described as a proper novel, too long and too jumpy to be called a long tale, Miss Lonelyhearts is a generic oddball. Uncertainty about how to classify Miss Lonelyhearts since publication has led critics and readers to view it in pathological terms, alternatively attributing morbidity to its narrative (surreal, unhealthy, savage), to its author (Auden notoriously wrote of it under the heading “West’s Disease”), or, most recently, its meaning systems.2 Indeed, recent post-humanist and media theory informed criticism sees Miss Lonelyhearts as a manifestation of the “reflexive pathology of its media relations” (begging the question about which media relations would not be pathological).3 If criticism has finally caught up with the radical alterity of this artwork, it may be because its singular literary form and self-conscious incorporation of a mass-medial apparatus makes it a perfect case study for the intersection of modernism, inhumanism, and media theory.4
My essay considers modernist inhuman form in Miss Lonelyhearts from a systems theoretical perspective in order to show how West’s novel exposes the limits of the conceptual vocabulary of mainstream philosophical aesthetics by exemplifying in literature how art as an autonomous system of meaning operates in society. The criticism of West has long been associated with the materialist vocabulary of the Frankfurt School and, to a minor extent, to Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic writings, where the notion of the autonomy of art is understood as intimately, dialectically connected to social operations. This is the case both in Adorno’s work on the culture industry and in his later Aesthetic Theory (1970), where he famously defined art’s relation to society negatively, indeed as asociality, or “the determinate negation of a determinate society.”5 The problematic status of West’s novels vis-à-vis mass cultural society, their approach to the reification of social life accelerated by the mechanical reproduction of experience, and the unresolved tension between the characters’ uncertain agency and the recalcitrance of the objects with which they engage have found resonance in Adorno’s unresolved questioning of the special status of the work of art vis-à-vis other cultural artefacts and in his implacable scrutiny of the relation between the subjective dimension of aesthetic experience and the problem of the structure of the artwork.
It is not my purpose in this essay to recast that history or to engage with it, except for pointing out that even if West shared Adorno’s critical commitment to art and its relation to society, his novels in general, and Miss Lonelyhearts in particular, present a notion of the autonomy of the artwork that is different from Adorno’s. Unlike Adorno’s aesthetics of negativity, West’s philosophy of composition is unperturbed by the critical problem of the resistance of the artwork to its social context. On the contrary, it directly exploits the hiatus between aesthetic and social forms to the advantage of the former by self-consciously—self-referentially, as we shall see—reintroducing the difference between the two as a meaningful, critical element of the literary self-construction...