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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Andrew Seal

A graduate student in American Studies at Yale University, Andrew also blogs at Blographia Literaria.

Email Address: andrew.seal@gmail.com
Website: http://www.blographia-literaria.com


Posts by Andrew Seal

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007)

Posted by Andrew Seal on 12/24/09 at 09:06 AM

Like so many films that revived old franchises this decade, this one poses as a sort of restart, asserting above all that the history of its previous incarnations has to be overcome to make the film make sense to current tastes. I can’t remember if it’s actually in the film or was in a review, but the basic premise is something like “John McClane: Analog. World: Digital. Sparks Fly.” (Okay, the actual line is “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” Mine’s better.) McClane’s skill set, his persona—all are threatened by the new world order—but not necessarily the one you’re thinking of. Even for an action film, Live Free or Die Hard‘s political imagination is stunted, like a libertarian’s (the film’s title is an extremely apposite one). The first Die Hard didn’t require much in the way of geopolitical awareness either (just a lucre-driven Hans Gruber), but in Live Free or Die Hard, it’s just taken for granted not only that America is the world, but that even its government exists largely to get confused and toyed with by unstoppable criminal masterminds.

The film’s engagement with politics may be blunt and uninspired, but it is almost metafictional in its overt engagements with the action film genre (and I mean that as a compliment). There is a competitiveness in the film, a desire to top not so much the first three Die Hard films as to best other action-film spectaculars of the past three or four years (particularly Transformers). A police cruiser launched into the air to destroy a hovering, menacing attack helicopter ("I was out of bullets,” says McClane) is the film’s most naked (and successful) effort to produce a special effect that exists as nothing but oneupmanship. In the film, the maneuver John McClane makes to produce this car-helicopter collision is not entirely gratuitous (the helicopter is a threat), but it is also enormously clear that McClane thinks of propelling a car into it before anything else, like running away. It’s exactly what will make him—and us—go “wow!” and so he does it. This is why one goes to see films like this.

But what fascinates me about Live Free or Die Hard is that the comparisons it begs are not to the Jason Bourne films or the Daniel Craig Bond films—which might be the natural comparisons (ostensibly “real” action heroes with no superpowers, no supervillains, not terribly reliant on gadgets, heavy emphasis on toughness)—but rather to what became the decade’s go-to trope of the superhero genre—the fear of obsolescence, of a public genuinely uninterested in heroics. Hancock, The Incredibles, Watchmen (obviously, in comic form, the origin of this trope), The Dark Knight. McClane isn’t really in danger of being pushed into involuntary retirement or protested against by the benighted citizenry, but there is more than token resistance on the part of everyone involved to the idea that heroics are still viable, and McClane himself has a sort of heavy-handed line about heroes no longer being appreciated.

This conflict goes deeper, however, than mere thematics—the film itself plays out a constant tension between wanting to make the computer hacking stuff actually seem threatening, the wave of the future, etc., and not completely making McClane seem obsolete through making the computer stuff compelling. The film’s effects are a question aimed at the audience—aren’t you sick of CGI? or is that what you really want, more hypertrophied toys and dancing pixels? But then again, the film admits, computers are pretty cool. Did you see that helicopter blow up? We can’t do that without computers. (The helicopter and car were real enough, but they had to add spinning rotors, falling people, and explosions into the shot digitally.)

It is a productive tension—in this film at least, and it pays off, surprisingly, in political terms, turning what could have been an extremely reactionary film into a sort of qualified rejection of nostalgia. Yes, Live Free or Die Hard is a libertarian fantasy and an analog finger in the digital eye, but the film’s basic conservatism isn’t ultimately resentful, much less revanchist, as so much of the conservative movement is today. McClane is not aggrieved by the prospect of his obsolescence, he doesn’t play the “I’m just taking my country back” tea-bagger tune. He’s just happy that heroics are still called for once in awhile; he’s just delighted he’s got another shot at blowing up helicopters with cars.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What Good Can Masterpieces Do?

Posted by Andrew Seal on 12/13/09 at 09:35 PM

In reading around for a paper I’m writing on Franco Moretti, I ran across an article (sorry, subscription wall) by Jonathan Arac with the title “What Good Can Literary History Do?” It presents a number of questions about the place and purpose of literary history, but the following struck me squarely if only, I suppose, because I haven’t thought much about it recently, and haven’t really been missing the concept at the center of its query:

Whether literary history is conceived as a reference archive or as a narrative, there remains the question of what elements of a literary field, such as works, authors, modes, and genres, are to be archived or narrativized. What role does a notion such as masterpiece play? Scholars have elaborated rich structures of significance to motivate their research into works from the past that no present reader would otherwise willingly attend to, but without some such notion as masterpiece, how can a student aspire to read distant, difficult work? What alternative categories of importance, or value, can we propose? I do not think the old, positivistic category of “representative selections” any longer wins much assent.

(Arac, “What Good Can Literary History Do?” American Literary History 20.1 (Spring/Summer 2008): 3)

I, for one, do not find “representative selections” a very useful term, but Arac’s question allows me a moment to reflect on the degree to which I still find something like “representative selection” or “masterpiece” to be a “motivat[ing]” influence in the selection of the texts I analyze, or the degree to which I believe that it might cause “a student [to] aspire to read distant, difficult work.”

My initial reaction is mostly skeptical on the first count, but my skepticism is somewhat more qualified on the second count. I don’t teach yet, so I can’t speak to that perspective, but as an undergraduate I remember choosing literature classes more by period than by the individual selections, although I can remember course catalog entries clearly trying to play the “masterpiece” angle in advertising for a course on Tolstoy, or on Mann, or on Ulysses. I don’t know how effective these appeals were, or if they were necessary.

I would be interested in other people’s experiences—both as teachers and as students. To what degree is the idea of “masterpiece” used as a motivator toward venturing into “distant, difficult work,” and to what degree is it effective? And then, the other question Arac asks, “What alternative categories of importance, or value, can we propose?” And, finally, do we (pragmatically) need any?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“The Books at Hand”: James Wood, The “True Scholastic Stink,” and the Common Reader

Posted by Andrew Seal on 11/25/09 at 11:41 PM

I found Zadie Smith’s recent essay on essays and the novel tremendously frustrating for what I hope are some rather interesting reasons. The essay is frustrating in part because Smith confines her analysis of the history and current state of fiction to the titles and authors that come “off the top of her head,” even to the extent that this breezy shallowness causes her to ignore the highly relevant arguments from a much more deeply considered essay that she herself had written only one year earlier (one which received a great deal of notice). Elsewhere, I speculated that Smith might have been influenced or inspired by James Wood’s “A Note on Footnotes and Dates“ which prefaces his How Fiction Works, where he says,

As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford’s The English Novel: “This book was written in New York, aboard the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August 1927.” I cannot claim any proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume.

I read this as a rather absurd brag, a chest-thumping assertion of authority and erudition. But Daniel Pritchard pointed out in a comment that another (quite reasonable) way of reading it is to focus not on the author but on the audience—Wood may be not so much making a claim about what he can do as what his intended audience would like, or what they’re willing to tolerate. Or, as he says, “Mindful of the common reader, I have tried to reduce what Joyce called the ’true scholastic stink‘ to bearable levels.” (The link is to the page in Portrait where the phrase is used. Stephen and his friends are in fact referring to a more specific form of Aristotelian/Thomistic scholasticism and not to scholarly activity in general, but nevermind.)

So evidently, Wood’s disciplined confinement of his texts to those “at hand in my study” is a sort of favor to the common reader, but what kind of favor is it? If this is an attempt to address a preference on the part of the common reader, what preference is being assumed?

Continue reading "“The Books at Hand”: James Wood, The “True Scholastic Stink,” and the Common Reader"

Friday, November 13, 2009

Updating “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” by Nina Baym

Posted by Andrew Seal on 11/13/09 at 11:52 AM

Aaron has brought up Nina Baym’s canonical essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood” twice recently—once w/r/t Mark Greif’s essay on the struggle for gay marriage and then again in discussing the Publishers Weekly epic fail of coming up with a male-only shortlist for 2009. Not having read the essay (despite its presence in the embarrassingly mostly-unread anthology I own called Locating American Studies), I decided I better get down to it.

Having done so, I certainly share in Aaron’s enthusiasm for the essay—some 28 years later (that sounds like a zombie film), it’s still a bracing rush of argument and still feels largely on target, perhaps because its targets are still mostly at large. It has also, however, been frequently criticized in the intervening years for being largely blind to race—its feminism is very white—and for still not really finding any place in American fiction for the gay writer or for gay themes.

But because it still has such capacity for generating enthusiasm and a feeling of recognition ("yep, guess we still do that"), I would like to see if I can think through its major claims here in light of the American fiction of the past ten year and the general position of the woman writer in America today. My objective is not so much to read Baym’s essay freshly as to read the past decade’s American fiction using a(n arguably) still serviceable model.

A very short essay commenting on “Melodramas” in the aforementioned Locating American Studies anthology summarizes Baym’s main argument succinctly:

She argues that male literary critics’ theories about what constitutes the best of American literature—and thus what characterizes the writing worthy of inclusion in the Ameican literary canon—have been hopelessly gender-biased. Influential critics have defined the central myth of American culture as the struggle of an (implicitly male) individual against the natural world of the wilderness and the constraints of society, both of which are coded as female. The “best” American literature, according to these critics, exemplifies this myth.

A couple of supporting points need to be added from the essay itself to flesh this out: first, Baym’s focus is on the themes present in American literary criticism; her argument is not so much that American novelists have written books that inevitably feature men as protagonists and women as either representative of the “entrammeling” forces of society or the landscape, but that this is the only way that American literary critics have thought of books which they consider great, and that any book which absolutely cannot be re-shaped to fit this narrative (the majority of which will be by women, and constituting the vast majority of women’s fiction) will be rejected as inferior or will simply be ignored. A good example of this is The Scarlet Letter, which she points out has often been re-imagined by critics as if Dimmesdale is the true protagonist, not Hester; that he is the one with the human drama and she is merely caught in an allegorical or mythic drama. Thus and only thus, does the novel fit the American myth, and because The Scarlet Letter is a demonstrable masterpiece, it must be.

Second, American literary critics have tended to emphasize that the “best” or “greatest” American literature is also the “most American” literature—the literature which best expresses the “American ideal” or the “American mind” or spirit or character or what-have-you. So the project of canon-formation is identical with the project of defining a unified “American character” or a universally underlying “American mind,” categories which these literary critics (D. H. Lawrence, Lionel Trilling, the myth and symbol school, F. O. Matthiessen, et al.) have basically assembled themselves to give a sense of impermeable continuity among the American writers they consider “great.” If that sounds circular, it’s because it is: theories of what constitutes great American literature proceed from a set of writers already selected for various reasons, and then those theories are used to judge whether writers not at first considered fit the narrative. You start out, say, with Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Whitman, imagine not only the real historical connections between them but a spiritual-artistic unity floating through each, and then you try it on others: does Theodore Dreiser share in this unity? No, throw him out. Edith Wharton? No, throw her out. Scott Fitzgerald? Maybe yes!

So, taking as our quarry literary criticism that has attempted to identify not only the best novels but the “most American” novels (even if they’re not always labeled such explicitly), let’s glance over the last decade. The point is to see if the novels that have been acclaimed as the decade’s “great” literature are still being so acclaimed because they fit the myth Baym critiques. Let me say before things get out of hand, though, that I am not attacking these novels; in fact, many of them are among my unambiguous and unconflicted favorites of the decade. Others aren’t, and I bet you can tell which ones, but my dislike for them isn’t comprehensively premised on the ease with which they can be assimilated to the American myth Baym describes. Okay, first stop, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

Continue reading "Updating “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” by Nina Baym"

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Golden Notebook and the Sex War

Posted by Andrew Seal on 11/03/09 at 10:05 PM

Before I begin my griping on what some may find to be a point unrelated to the novel itself, let me say that The Golden Notebook is astonishing on every level; I have read few novels which strike me both emotionally and intellectually with equal force. Which is not to say that it is either a “novel of ideas” or a “novel of emotions"—if I were to think of a book I would feel almost comfortable calling “a pure novel” (a term which I inveterately distrust), this would be it. I certainly don’t guarantee its appeal to all audiences—I imagine the repetitious dilations on the nature of activity within the Communist Party or among socialists will seem merely repetitious to some, and the swirling cast of deficient men provoked more than a few sighs of frustration from me—but I imagine there will be some readers who, like me, will like it a lot.

Onto the gripe.

In her 1971 introduction, Lessing says [I’m going to skip around a bit in the introduction, but it will be better, I think, just to get all the quotes I want together now rather than spread them out over a number of paragraphs]:

[T]he book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war… But this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation… Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assume a crystallisation of information in society which has not yet taken place. This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed… I was so immersed in writing this book, that I didn’t think about how it might be received… Emerging from this crystallising process [of intense focus purely on the writing of the novel], handing the manuscript to publisher and friends, I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hardest Road to Renewal or, Cultural Studies Now!

Posted by Andrew Seal on 09/24/09 at 10:29 PM

Bill has pointed out the ongoing kerfuffle which was kicked off by Michael Bérubé’s jeremiad on the past, present, and future of cultural studies in the Chronicle. The Bully Bloggers have posted two responses, one of which is rather extreme (the other is linked in Bill’s post and I think will be addressed here later). I’d like to make one quick point about the more extreme response and then draw some attention to an article from 1991 which I recently read and find both topical and valuable for the debate Bérubé has started.

One of the issues that the responses to Bérubé raise is the question of genealogy, as Bérubé’s argument relies on the fairly standard (though contested) narrative of U.S. cultural studies being a product of the importation and adaptation of work done by Stuart Hall and the Birmingham (U.K.) Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) from the late ‘60s through the 80s and the earlier work done by theorists like Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and Richard Hoggart. Bérubé makes the case that this importation and adaptation process missed the point of the CCCS work, or at least made a good attempt at misplacing it as often as possible.

The first response on Bully Bloggers to his article essentially took issue with what the author, Ira Livingston, argues is Bérubé’s barely covered patriarchal gender-political (and racial) agenda:

He complains that Hall’s work on “race, ethnicity and diaspora is routinely and reverently cited” while his work on Thatcherism– in other words, his “real” political work (presumably as opposed to merely cultural politics)– “is thoroughly ignored.” He regrets the common equation of cultural studies with scholarship on popular culture, that typically feminized realm of the shallow and sensational (at least since the 18th century, when male poets and others started railing about the success of female novelists).  And he laments that cultural studies has had more impact in English departments– the realm of the warm-and-fuzzy– and less in sociology, one of the “harder” disciplines.  Alas, a once swaggering and virile field is forced to come to terms with its own relative impotence.

I honestly don’t see this reading, and Bérubé points out in a comment where some of Livingston’s readings go a little awry, but more importantly I’d just like to offer the fact that the strength of CCCS was precisely in its ability to mobilize in a new way the categories of race and gender for leftist political action. Implying that its politics were “swaggering and virile” seriously distorts what actually was going on there, and makes invisible the fact that work like Women Take Issue or The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain (much less the later work by folks like Paul Gilroy and Hazel Carby) was perhaps only realizable in the unique environment of that Centre. Livingston’s attempt to tie CCCS like a giant white-male stone around Bérubé’s ankle is just a non-starter. 

Much more significantly, though, I think it’s worth pointing out that Bérubé’s argument follows fairly closely one made in 1991 by Joel Pfister ("The Americanization of Cultural Studies,” Yale Journal of Criticism 4:2 {Spring 1991}), appropriately enough written as a response to a conference Bérubé mentions as the high-water mark of the triumphalist predictions of cultural studies (the 1990 “Cultural Studies Now and in the Future"). Pfister actually took a very different view of that conference, assessing the conflict between the U.S. scholars and Stuart Hall (who spoke at the conference and pronounced U.S. cultural studiess to be in a “moment of danger") as indicative of the path U.S. scholars had taken toward a “post-political” engagement with popular culture, toward cultural studies as “interpretive performance” rather than critique,” toward an abandonment of history and a reconstitution of “power solely as a problem of ‘textuality.’” Pfister moderates these claims somewhat, suggesting that a harsh reading of certain trends within cultural studies is merely the easiest reading, but allows that these critiques have some serious force.

The bulk of the article analyzes the differences in contexts (both immediate and longer-term) between the formation of the CCCS in the UK and the the coalescing of a number of discourses in the U.S. which came to assume the same title of “cultural studies,” and attempts to trace the consequences of these differences in the U.S. case. As with Bérubé, the most important influence on U.S. cultural studies was (and is) the British version, but Pfister’s argument is a good deal more complex than Bérubé’s thumbnail sketch which does, I feel, in the end reduce to “we didn’t do it right, they did.” I hope to show how Pfister’s argument improves on that and still, almost two decades later, has a solid case to make about what didn’t happen in the development of U.S. cultural studies.

Continue reading "The Hardest Road to Renewal or, Cultural Studies Now!"

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

“Toward a History of the ‘Big, Ambitious Novel,‘“ by Mark Greif

Posted by Andrew Seal on 08/05/09 at 08:52 AM

The latest issue of boundary 2 is really packed with good stuff, at least for an Americanist: there is an amusing interview with Jonathan Franzen, and I’m working my way through Lee Konstantinou’s article on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. (I’m finding Konstantinou’s article more fun than the book, actually.) And I’m very eager to get to the McClure/McCann and Szalay dialogue.

As a bonus, Mark Greif’s piece on the “big, ambitious novel” is a great article—ambitious, inventive, and important. Greif begins:

Criticism works by criteria it is willing to name and others it disowns. The “big, ambitious novel” is one of those categories used by nearly everyone to sift and sort new work. Yet it is not respectable. It is more common to conversation than to professional discourse… It exists as almost an atmospheric effect, apparently a natural consequence of the way that novels are written and the taxonomy by which they must be ordered—a category without a history. This essay argues that the “big, ambitious novel” in the contemporary United States does possess a history. That history entered a distinct phase sixty years ago, at the moment another disreputable but resilient concept established its hold in criticism: that of the “death of the novel.” “Death of the novel” discourse existed in modernist discussion before World War II, but its hardening after 1945 changed critical expectations for the major American novel and, ultimately, the sorts of novels that were written and won success. The “big, ambitious novel” as it emerged in the postwar period first appeared in response to, then came to depend upon, the maintenance of a conceit of the “death of the novel.” This was true even or especially after that idea passed out of the possession of critics and into the hands of novelists.

The article mostly focuses on analyzing this post-war moment when the “death of the novel” was being discussed, as Lionel Trilling noted, “from all sides.” Greif draws a lot from Trilling’s essay “Art and Fortune” (published in Partisan Review in 1948, reprinted in The Liberal Imagination in 1950), making Trilling the spokesperson for this moment; his articulation of the “death of the novel” is clear and direct. The novel, Trilling argued, might be considered dead if its internal possibilities had all been tested, used up by modernist experimentation. It might be considered dead if the novel had a historical shelf-life: emerging from a particular social and cultural configuration of forces, if we have now moved into a significantly different configuration, the novel will no longer speak to our times. It might be considered dead if, although circumstances haven’t completely changed, “we either lack the power to use the form, or no longer find value in the answers that the novel provides, because the continuing circumstances have entered a phase of increased intensity.”

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Babel-17 and the Problems of Reading from Awards Shortlists

Posted by Andrew Seal on 07/24/09 at 02:01 PM

I read Babel-17 because a) I’ve been meaning to read a Delany novel; b) this one was at my local library; and c) it won a Nebula and was on the Hugo shortlist way back in, wow, 1966-7.

It was okay.

And its okayness was kind of disappointing, again for a number of reasons. One was, I have to confess, the beard. Samuel Delany’s beard is too awesome for me not to like his books a lot.

But the more important reason was that I feel like I don’t have a great handle on science fiction, and I was hoping Delany would be awesome enough to launch me into a much broader exploration of its back-issues, as it were. I was hoping that I’d gather enough enthusiasm from reading this that I’d be encouraged to read a lot more SF, that by dipping my toe in here, I’d catch a big undercurrent and get sucked under. I tried the same thing earlier this year with LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness and, while I liked it well enough that I’ll certainly read more LeGuin down the road, again just didn’t feel that undertow.

Despite being Nebula’d and Hugo’d, maybe this wasn’t even the right Delany. Again, this was the one in my library, and I’ve been finding it difficult to locate Delany in used bookstores, so this was the only one I could get hold of. But the problem is, I don’t really know any better, and I was kind of using the Nebula and Hugo awards as a guide.

Which is why Adam’s post on the 2009 Hugo award shortlist was a real revelation to me (and not because he uses a quote from my other blog to make part of his argument). I mean, I know that prizes rarely get things “right"—some are better than others, but tepidity is generally the name of the game. But Adam expressed this general truth in a way that had real bite and force with specific regard to the SF community (I know Scott already posted on Adam’s post, but it’s worth re-linking/re-excerpting):

Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.

This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?

I guess I’d consider myself one of those “people who don’t know any better,” and I feel like my experience with Babel-17 is a full-strength justification of Adam’s argument, even if the terms have to be adjusted a bit for the fact that Babel-17 is more than 40 years old and maybe was truly new, wondrous, mindblowing and strange in 1966. But you know, Babel-17 shared the 1966 Nebula Award with Flowers for Algernon, so I would guess that this problem of elevating mediocre and really rather juvenile books is not a new one.

I don’t really mind reading a mediocre novel every once in awhile. I think it’s important to read widely enough that you know why truly excellent novels do stand out, why mediocre novels are only mediocre. At the same time, I’d much rather be reading SF novels that do have the undertow effect and, while Adam suggests some books in his post that I’m eager to follow up on (especially China Miéville), I am hoping that I can solicit some advice from the readers of this blog as to which authors might possess that intended effect, and which books of theirs in particular. I’m not asking for a canon or a best of—in fact, that’s rather the opposite of what I’m interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which books aren’t just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Anxieties of Affiliation: The Creative Writing Program and Transnationalism

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/19/09 at 12:32 AM

There are many intriguing conversations that could be started with almost any few pages of Mark McGurl’s brilliant (and tremendously interesting) The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, but the one that I want to try to start is about the way he brings his massive project around to take a look at transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, and diaspora studies. McGurl reminds the reader on many different occasions of the international scope and influence of U.S. creative writing programs, while also insisting on the exceptionalism of this cultural formation. While U.S. programs have long recruited talent from abroad (Iowa most aggressively) and are of late beginning to be imitated in parts of the globe (mostly Anglophone nations so far), McGurl draws up the Program Era as a phenomenon as exclusive to America as it is to the university, unthinkable outside of the nesting of those two institutions--the university in America, the American university.

In the chapter titled “Art and Alma Mater,” McGurl begins by noting what has been implicit for most of the book: the nature of the creative writing program can lead to an acute case of the anxiety of influence on the part of the writer/student, which McGurl rephrases as an “anxiety of affiliation” (taking the term from Gilbert/Gubar’s No Man’s Land). What is craved is artistic autonomy, disaffiliation ("filia" - daughter) from the Alma Mater. McGurl compares this craving to Pascale Casanova’s assertion (in The World Republic of Letters) that

the collective concern of literary artists across the centuries-long sweep of global modernity has been to “invent their literary freedom” by disengaging their work from the compromising contingencies of national politics and addressing themselves to the world. “Denying their difference” and “assimilating the values of one of the great literary centers,” modern writers have been rewarded for this sometimes painful process of national self-alienation with admittance to a notionally autonomous realm of notionally universal literary value. (McGurl 326)

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Breeding and Common Property

Posted by Andrew Seal on 05/31/09 at 09:44 PM

Following a trend, my post on Breeding is, abashedly, about me. There were a few moments where I felt, as a soon-to-be grad student, to be called on, as it were, by Professor Davidson, both because of my disciplinary interests and commitments and because of where I stand within academia.

For one thing, I found a comforting number of similarities to another book I’m reading right now, Matt Jacobson’s Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. (Comforting because, like Aaron, I feel a bit of a stranger to the eighteenth-century; while part of the real pleasure for me of Breeding was the feeling I had of being introduced in an almost personal way to the various authors Davidson lines up, still, feelings of familiarity, even when a little forced, are nice.) I saw or thought I saw a few significant parallels between the micronetworks that find their hub at the word “breeding” and those that cluster about the term “civilization”—it occurred to me on multiple occasions that “civilization” might be considered an heir to some of the ambiguous legacies of “breeding,” as it too contains that Möbius property of twisting into its opposite when taken far enough. Davidson’s pages on “improvement” and “degeneration” in particular spoke to the dynamic Jacobson traces in American culture which can be summed up in Teddy Roosevelt’s lines, “Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” While industry and not husbandry has become the dominant metaphor for the improvements and degenerations of “civilization,” I thought I detected a similar logic at work.

But what I’d really like to talk about is a passage near the very end of Breeding. In Davidsonian fashion, I will quote amply: 

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Continuing Trouble with Walter Benn Michaels

Posted by Andrew Seal on 04/27/09 at 11:54 PM

A Walter Benn Michaels essay from a couple of months ago has been receiving renewed attention of late because of an NYPL panel discussion that took that essay as its starting point.

In brief, Michaels’s essay argued that there is little point in writing novels about the Holocaust, slavery or other historical tragedies when “the only relevant past here is the very recent one;” older pasts recede to irrelevance in the face of the magnitude of the disaster with which “burgeoning capitalism” has saddled the world. Memoirs are even worse, and should be comprehensively discontinued. No literature which doesn’t make visible (to him) the economic conditions which produced this crisis is worth composing, much less printing and reading.

The NYPL discussion featured both Michaels and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the show which Michaels praised as a model for the kind of novel he believed was lacking from and needed in contemporary American letters. A video of the event is available from the NYPL’s event page (click on “Download an mp4 video file") or in their iTunes store (free)—introductory remarks and Michaels’s reading of his essay (yeah, they actually asked him to read the thing instead of summarize it) take up the first 22 and a half minutes, so feel free to skip to this point, if not further. Michaels is exceedingly provocative, as per usual, and David Simon seems to be trying to make sense of what Michaels thinks his show is, but has some nice remarks of his own. Dale Peck is there to be annoying and to awkwardly avoid looking at Susan Straight even as she talks directly to him, and Susan Straight is there, I think, for reasons appropriate to her surname—the calm foil for three effusive performers.

I found the original essay to be problematic in a number of ways, but rather than address the problems with the essay itself, there were a number of sides to Michaels’s general argument that came out a little more overtly in the panel discussion, and I’d like to highlight some of those.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Parks and Recreation

Posted by Andrew Seal on 04/11/09 at 10:31 AM

When I heard that Indiana would be the location for an “Office"-like show about small town government, I began to wonder which of my home state’s fine municipalities would get the Scranton treatment, turned unexpectedly into a byword for the foibles and quaint blandness of middle America.

Pawnee, Indiana, where Parks and Recreation is set, is not a real town, and the show doesn’t even seem to be filmed in the Midwest, much less in Indiana (I’m a little insulted the NBC folks think Pasadena can pass for the Hoosier State).  Continue reading "Parks and Recreation"

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Of a Postcolonial Persuasion

Posted by Andrew Seal on 04/02/09 at 08:42 PM

[I was really pleased to find some confluence between the comments on Rohan’s great post about postcolonial criticism and some things I was already thinking about while reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I was heading in what I thought was a slightly different direction, so I decided to approach the book somewhat separately, but there were inevitable and valuable correlations, which I hope are evident here.]

It’s curious to read Persuasion in the light of the (in)famous Said reading of Mansfield Park in his Culture and Imperialism. Said pointed out the Bertram family’s Antigua plantation was a sort of enabling fiction, sustaining the family’s fortunes and thus making the action of the novel possible in a very real way. Said focused in particular on a casual exchange between Fanny Price and Sir Thomas about the plantation, drawing some fairly broad conclusions. A number of critics (and likely a number of readers) have taken issue with Said’s rough handling of Austen and with the implication that Austen was just one more lackey of the slave trade and British imperial oppression more generally.

Persuasion, it seems to me, would have been a better choice for postcolonial critique: even the most inveterately romantic of readers would accept that foregrounding the novel’s coziness to Empire would produce a valid reading. Austen effusively and earnestly sings the praises of the British navy in two prominent places, and the fortunes of a number of characters have been made by the imperial project (though not explicitly at the expense of enslaved peoples). Some may still object to Said’s act of “implication” and not-so-veiled judgment, but I seriously doubt anyone’s going to say that the issues of violent imperial expansion and Great-Power competition are of dubious importance to the novel.

Yet I think that Said’s choice was the correct one, although I realize that it is often this question of choice that seems to be most grating to those who resist Poco’s Empire: the idea that poco critics are picking books because they are intent on picking on them, and that the forgoing of other, more obviously valid choices is done primarily for political, polemical, or promotional reasons. Although this strategy (or the perception that it is used) has tended to discredit postcolonial criticism in some quarters or otherwise to give rise to the belief (sometimes founded in experience) that poco renders books through its blades and gears like just so much meat (per Rohan’s critique). But I think it is generally the selection process, and not the grinding, that its critics find so distasteful: not the sausage, but the choice of whom to call a pig. It is the initial selection that makes the result feel, as Rohan says, like a “gotcha!”

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

Posted by Andrew Seal on 03/25/09 at 11:54 PM

[Adam has done a really fantastic job presenting some really rich ideas, issues and problems that the novel raised and we’re hoping to present some more dialogic analysis of the book yet to come; this is, I guess, a fairly idiosyncratic reading, but I’m hopeful that it will also bring at least one or two things to the surface of this incredible novel. And rather than being disgruntled by all the negative reviews and dismissals it has accumulated, I think this context provides an excellent foundation on which to construct a response to the novel. Here’s hoping, anyway. Also, this is fairly long. As for spoilers, I don’t believe I’ve revealed anything that hasn’t been mentioned in the NYRB or NYT reviews.]

In his post on The Kindly Ones, Stephen Mitchelmore zeros in on the exact passage that I consider to be the fulcrum of the book, but he stops quoting just before the specific sentence that I take to be the passage’s precise point of contact with what actually happens in these 992 pages:

This was what I couldn’t manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradition between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying. For us, it was another dirty day’s work; for them, the end of everything. (82-83, my emphasis)

The opposition of work and death is the single most crucial element of this novel. Merely at the level of structure, the novel cleaves cleanly into two halves: the first taken up with the question of death as work, the second with work as death.

The embarrassing facility of this chiasmus makes me pause: can it be this easy? But there is nothing easy about it.

To be more precise, in the first half of the book Aue and the SS generally are consumed with the problems—logistical, strategic, even ontological (what is a Jew?)—of the labor required to murder—how best does one mobilize a workforce that will murder efficiently? In the second half, Aue becomes wrapped up in the effort to turn the death camps into productive units, but he finds that this work has already been done for him—the only problem is that the product of these camps is death, and it is manufactured relentlessly. There is even a proper German name that Littell gives us: “Vernichtung durch Arbeit, annihilation through work” (645).

Yet in both sections it should be said that death is much more than the absence of life: death is a capacious category, a state that bleeds far into biological processes: the discourses of Agamben’s “bare life” and Bauman’s “social death” shadow each page (unsurprisingly, but nonetheless powerfully—few novels, I think, have made those categories more conceptually potent). Hunger and starvation, in particular, expand death’s domain well into life. I have written elsewhere (sorry, it’s at the end) about how shocked I am to find that no one is talking about Littell’s work with the NGO Action against Hunger, which immediately preceded his years of researching for this novel. The incessant presence of hunger, starvation, and malnutrition in The Kindly Ones was, I thought, unmissable. Intense hunger is a more prevalent trope than even death, and the worst of the atrocities that the novel depicts are crimes of malnutrition and starvation.

I believe that by counting work and this enlarged sense of death as the two most salient and inclusive themes of the novel, most of the problems critics have had trying to conceive the novel as a unity dissipate, and the outrage and objections hurled against it can be understood anew. I will try to proceed by taking a number of passages from the novel which seem to play right into the commonest assessments of Littell’s intentions or supposed missteps, then reading them through the dialectic of work and death (hopefully) to generate a more valuable insight about what this novel means to do, and what it has done.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Prefixated on Postmodernity

Posted by Andrew Seal on 03/22/09 at 07:52 PM

Perry Anderson’s short study, The Origins of Postmodernity, is brilliant on a number of fronts and in a large number of ways, but I want to address a specific issue I have with the way Anderson (along with nearly everyone else who addresses “postmodernism") makes use of prefixes to simplify more complex analytical work by deploying a combination of spatial or temporal metaphors, figured as prefixes ("post-", “pre-”, “citra-”, “ultra-"). This simplification has the added bonus of a masked illocutionary force that often directs an affective response predicated on the spatial and/or temporal relationship established in the prefix. The prefix moves the reader to a new spatial or temporal position in relation to the term prefixed, using this reconfiguration to gesture toward an appropriate attitude or (more literally) stance.

This strategy is not just Anderson’s, nor did he invent it, but it is particularly noticeable in a critic who is otherwise so rigorous. The relative weakness of other critics makes this particular weakness disappear; in Anderson, it obtrudes.

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