About Daniel Green
Daniel Green was an English professor for 15 years, but left academe for the good of all concerned. He still monitors developments in academic criticism and writes the occasional scholarly essay, but has mostly concentrated lately on general interest essays, reviews, and criticism, to be found in a variety of publications, both print and online. He also writes fiction and maintains a literary weblog called The Reading Experience.
Posts by Daniel Green
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Caleb Crain wonders whether “novels spread human rights and discourage torture.” Quoting Lynn Hunt’s claim in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History that “novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings,” Crain glosses Hunt’s claim by adding: “As it became easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people, it became harder to justify treating them with cruelty or systematic inequity.”
This is a cogent enough observation (although it remains after-the-fact speculation), as long as a caveat is added: Novels, or at least certain kinds of novels, can make make it “easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people,” but this is a secondary effect of the novel as a form, not its reason for being. It exists to allow writers the opportunity to create aesthetically credible works of literary art in prose, not to champion human solidarity and facilitate good will toward men.Continue reading "Interiors"
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Tom Lutz asserts that Harold Bloom (along with Francine Prose) believes the current generation of politicized literary scholars (what Bloom terms the “school of resentment") “are all looking at something besides the text itself, by which they mean a book that is read without theory, without reference to other values, and without mediation of any kind.”
Lutz associates this view that we should return to “the text” with New Criticism, but nowhere in his essay does he reveal (if he knows) that Bloom was actually hostile to New Criticism. He considered its approach so limiting and so dismissive (in the practice of most of the New Critics, at least) of the Romantic poets, whose work Bloom so loves, that he deliberately designed his own theory of poetic influence as a corrective, if not an outright rejection, of New Critical biases. Lutz goes on to associate both Bloom and New Criticism with such disparate figures as Mortimer Adler, E.D. Hirsch, and John Sutherland, simply because they appear to endorse the idea that learning to appreciate the “text itself” is an important part of literary education.Continue reading "Mediation"
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
. . .We consider it unacceptable to sell sex, babies, body organs, legal rights, and votes. The idea that something should never be commodified is generally known as inalienability or unalienability—a concept most famously expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .” A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.
For “merchandising,” I would also substitute “theorizing,” historicizing,” and “politicizing.” All three are ways of “selling” art in the academic marketplace, depriving it of its status as gift and ignoring “the person it’s directed at.”
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Oceans of Nuance
I just can’t resist. From an exchange between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris:
. . .I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken “extremists” to be representative of these “great” faiths, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, “simplistic,” “dogmatic,” or even “fundamentalist.” As a frequent target of such profundities, I can attest that they generally come moistened to a sickening pablum by great sighs of condescension. . . .
Thursday, January 18, 2007
To continue this argument:
I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.
Where I think Dawkins goes wrong is that, like Henry V after Agincourt, he does not seem to realize the extent to which his side has won. Setting aside the rise of Islam in Europe, the decline of serious Christian belief among Europeans is so widely advertised that Dawkins turns to the United States for most of his examples of unregenerate religious belief. He attributes the greater regard for religion in the US to the fact that Americans have never had an established Church, an idea he may have picked up from Tocqueville. But although most Americans may be sure of the value of religion, as far as I can tell they are not very certain about the truth of what their own religion teaches. . .
Even though American atheists might have trouble winning elections, Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. This might be taken as evidence that they don’t really mind if I spend eternity in Hell, but I prefer to think (and Baptists and Presbyterians have admitted it to me) that they are not all that certain about Hell and Heaven. I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain “not important what one believes” to Luther or Calvin or St Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude. . . .
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
A Certain Image Regime
At The New Criterion, Michael J. Lewis quotes from The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, by art historian T. J. Clark:
My art history has always been reactive. Its enemies have been the various ways in which visual imagining of the world has been robbed of its true humanity, and conceived of as something less than human, non-human, brilliantly (or dully) mechanical. In the beginning that meant that the argument was with certain modes of formalism, and the main effort in my writing went into making the painting fully part of a world of transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs, “politics.” But who now thinks it is not? The enemy now is not the old picture of visual imaging as pursued in a state of trance-like removal from human concerns, but the parody notion we have come to live with of its belonging to the world, its incorporation into it, its being “fully part” of a certain image regime. “Being fully part” means, it turns out in practice, being at any tawdry ideology’s service.
“But who now thinks it is not?” A better question: Who ever thought it was not? What formalist ever believed a work of art or literature was literally “brilliantly (or dully) mechanical,” or, at least, that a proper response to art was one that regarded it as “something less than human, non-human”? Has anyone ever really confronted a work of art “in a state of trance-like removal from human concerns”? The very fact the a human being experiences a work created by another human being, both of whom presumably draw on very human attributes--creativity, attentiveness, for that matter even the ability to self-induce a “trance-like” state--would seem to make the transformation of the puerile metaphor of the “mechanical” response to art into something real, something to be contrasted with “human,” manifestly preposterous. Yet this association of formalist criticism of all kinds with merely “mechanical” aesthetic appreciation and “engaged” political criticism with the fully “human” world of “transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs” has been an operational assumption of academic criticism for almost three decades now, producing such an endless stream of ideologically sodden “scholarship” that apparently even Clark has had enough.
It’s good that T. J. Clark wants now to challenge the pseudo-analyses of “belonging to the world” and “image regimes,” but maybe he should have realized that his own interpretation of formalism was itself a “parody notion,” that he was exchanging one “mechanical” approach for what was inevitably to become its equally distorted mirror image. It now seems a fixed law of academic criticism that one generation will dismiss the previous generation’s preferred critical method based on its least representative, most exaggerated characteristics, while going on to practice a new method that seems designed to provoke a similar reaction from the next (or in this case, from one of its own.)
I am loath to quote The New Criterion approvingly, but I agree with Lewis (although I’d change his “immeasurably” to “somewhat"):
. . .The tendency of Clark’s career, then, has been to dislodge the aesthetic object from its pedestal to set it back into the social, cultural, and political currents that brought it forth. Such an approach, wielded judiciously, can immeasurably enrich the understanding of an object. But, used indiscriminately, it can also impoverish that understanding, rendering the object into a mere historical document—like a bill of lading or a deed of transfer. And a mediocre work of art always speaks far more eloquently about the society that made it than a great one. In the end, an insight that aspired to widen the scope and relevance of art history demoted it to a subspecies of social history. And Clark, whatever one may think of his politics, is too good an art historian not to realize that this is a loss for everyone.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy"--Part IV (and Last)
By 1980 “contemporary literature” had indeed been established as a subject of academic inquiry and criticism—in many ways it was increasingly identified with the avant-garde in academic scholarship, and would continue to be associated with the subsequent rise to prominence of critical theory—perhaps more quickly and readily than Ihab Hassan or Marcus Klein (or Jerome Klinkowitz) would have been able to anticipate. In turn, the study of contemporary literature as a regular part of the curriculum was firmly established in most universities and would soon enough be so pervasive in all colleges and universities as to seem thoroughly unexceptional. Many such courses would develop into ordinary survey courses in which efforts to “cover” as representative a sample of postwar fiction would be made, but the published scholarly and critical coverage of contemporary fiction at least in 1980 and for many of the years following was focused intensely if not exclusively on the postmodern. (In retrospect, very little academic criticism of “minimalism” and neorealism was published until much later—and, comparatively, really very little at all—even though these challenges to postmodern practice began appearing as early as the mid 1970s.) Although this will likely turn out to have been the most significant movement in American fiction of the second half of the century, its central place in the newly respectable academic study of the subject ultimately worked to in effect push aside the criticism of contemporary writing as such in favor of a more concentrated consideration of the effects of the postmodern approach, at least as this was understood by individual critics operating under their own particular assumptions.Continue reading "A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy"--Part IV (and Last)"
Monday, November 13, 2006
Negation of Thought
AC Grayling provides Richard Dawkins with reinforcements:
“Atheism" is a word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies. Presumably (as I can never tire of pointing out) believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views “a-fairyists”, hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time.
People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a “faith” in “the non-existence of X” (where X is “fairies” or “goblins” or “gods"); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. “Faith” - specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief - is a far different thing, which is why the phrase “religious thinktank” has a certain comic quality to it: for faith at its quickly-reached limit is the negation of thought.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
In a World Like Ours
In Chapter 1 of Art as Experience, John Dewey writes:
Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder--in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves. In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it.
For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.
According to Dewey, our response to the “order” produced by art is rooted in our response to living in a world that is inherently disorderly but that is occasionally punctuated with an “integration with environment and recovery of union.” It is this same “integration” that is produced by works of art--they reaffirm our hope that order can be achieved and produce a “harmonious feeling,” in this case a feeling that human labor and imagination can momentarily impose order on chaos.Continue reading "In a World Like Ours"
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy--Part III
Together Radical Innocence and After Alienation did help to establish for American fiction of mid-century an identity separate from the “modern” fiction of the era following on World War I and clearly placed in the context of post-World War II American culture. One could even argue that although the concepts of “radical innocence” and “accommodation” seem to be at some variance as critical terms for apprehending this identity, they are actually two sides of the same critical coin, a retreat from “alienation” that, given the conditions of the immediate postwar period, assuredly requires the most radical kind of innocence. But by 1971, when Tony Tanner’s City of Words was published, the stability of that identity delineated by Hassan and Klein is plainly in question, and the critical effort needed to keep track of the direction in which fiction is heading has greatly expanded.Continue reading "A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy--Part III"
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
I agree with Jerry Saltz that it is a mistake to think “that art is about understanding, when, like almost everything else in the everyday world, art is about experience; it’s ‘I experience, therefore I am.’” Unfortunately, Saltz only muddles this valuable insight when he goes on to observe that:
Continue reading "Belittling Art"
Art is often political when it doesn’t seem political and not political when that’s all it seems to be. Neither Andy Warhol nor Donald Judd made overtly political art. Yet both changed the way the world looks and the way we look at the world. That’s because art creates new thought structures. Imagine all the thought structures that either would have never existed or gone undiscovered had all of Shakespeare been lost. Art does far more than only meet the eye. It is part of the biota of the world. It exists within a holistic system.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
A World Apart: Contemporary Literature and the Academy--Part II
Note: Part I of this post can be found here.
. . .Considering that if there was a reigning critical orthodoxy at the time [Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence and Marcus Klein’s After Alienation] were written it was New Critical formalism, one might expect them to show the influence of this method, but their origin in academic discourse and assumptions is to be seen in other ways. Both books are interested not in the close reading of text, nor even really in describing the specifically aesthetic qualities of the fiction they survey at all, but in classifying and categorizing, in isolating the thematic and structural features of these works that help Hassan and Klein compose a broader treatise on American literature as a whole, on modern intellectual history, on postwar American culture. Both are thesis-driven books—in each case, the thesis encapsulated in the book’s title—that seek to capture their cultural moment or identify a “certain tendency” in current practice, in effect to stay ahead of the literary curve, able to take the comprehensive view unavailable even to the writers whose practices are at issue. In so doing, these books proved to be the scholarly model for many academic studies of contemporary fiction to follow, which together could be taken as a kind of serial attempt to find the highest ground from which to scan the literary horizon. Indeed, this sort of well-positioned survey of current fiction would become arguably the most ambitious kind of scholarly book produced by the academic critics duly charged with the professional scrutiny of contemporary literature.
In Hassan’s case, the abstracted conceptual marker is that of radical innocence, a characteristic of the “new hero” of postwar fiction, who “brings the brilliant extremities of the American conscience and imagination to bear on the equable tenor of our present culture” (6). Using this encompassing idea, Hassan makes his way through selected postwar novels, showing how in all of them “the disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation” (7). That Hassan has much bigger game than present-day novels and novelists in his sights is further evidenced just in the titles of some of his chapters: “The Modern Self in Recoil”; “The Dialectic of Initiation in America.” Although Hassan’s readings (generally brief) of particular novels and stories can certainly be insightful, and in some cases remain useful critical references for readers interested in writers Hassan discusses (the reading of Salinger, for example, which benefits in an unforeseen way from the truncated nature of his career), as a whole the book is necessarily constrained by the author’s need to fit notable postwar fiction inside the critical framework he has erected. The notion that the protagonists of the various fictions he surveys are to one degree or another marked by a “radical innocence” remains a cogent enough formulation, applicable to a significant number of American novels—not only postwar novels—but it seems unlikely that Hassan was persuaded by its cogency only after a disinterested sampling of all of the diverse kinds of fiction produced by American writers after World War II. Such a sampling would be less dramatic in its pronouncements than Radical Innocence, to be sure, and would perhaps at best result in a rambling style of discussion such as that to be found in Frederick Karl’s encyclopedic American Fictions 1940-1980. The more learned analysis of Radical Innocence certainly allows for the kind of elevated commentary that might be thought appropriate for the critic who is also a professional academic.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy--Part I
Note: This is the first in what will probably be a 3-5 part post.
In his memoir Keeping Literary Company, Jerome Klinkowitz, who became not long after the events described one of the best-known advocates of “contemporary” fiction, describes his graduate school experience:
At school [Marquette University] I was making my way dutifully through seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, with other courses on Victorian prose writers, modern British poets, and the like. Not until my last semester did I add a couple classes [sic] in American literature, and then turned back to British poetry. . .The twentieth-century novel course I took ended with Hemingway from the 1920s and works by Faulkner and Fitzgerald from the 1930s. (6)
Having at the same time acquired an enthusiasm for the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Klinkowitz further recalls
[that] I stayed with Vonnegut through all this showed both that I could read out of class and that novels like Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, which I bought as they came back into print, were a world apart from what Marquette taught us was the tradition” (6).
The year in which Klinkowitz is “at school” and engaged in such earnest study of the tradition is 1966, and although it is not exactly surprising to learn that the curriculum to which he was exposed at that time was still so very conservative, for those of us who now think of “contemporary literature” as a flourishing and more or less respectable field of academic study, to be reminded that even in the period most associated with cultural upheaval and literary innovation current writing could not be considered “literature” at all nevertheless might make us pause. At a time when cultural studies, an approach that welcomes not only contemporary literature but all forms of popular culture as well, has become the dominant mode of scholarly analysis in literary study, it might seem especially difficult to countenance a graduate program so hopelessly hidebound as to regard otherwise serious works of fiction or poetry beyond the pale because not sufficiently aged. But Klinkowitz’s account of his subsequent attempts as a professor himself to bring contemporary American fiction—or at least his favored contemporary writers—into the college classroom implicitly reveals how Klinkowitz’s efforts, like those of other “radical young Ph.Ds” who also sought to open up the literature curriculum in the 1960s and 1970s (13), was in its way as conservative a project as that undertaken by Klinkowitz’s professors in creating that curriculum in the first place.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Other Spaces, Other Things
To some extent, I agree with Adam Kotsko that “Meta-blogging is the greatest vice yet developed by humankind.” Blogging about blogging can become just another variation on navel-gazing, and the triumphalist celebration of blogs by some prominent political blogs can be especially obnoxious. But at this point in the development of the weblog as a forum for serious discourse (at least potentially), Adam is right to “wonder what exactly can be done in a blog post.” In some ways, seriously-intended blogs and blog posts can be an alternative to conventional print publications, both academic and general-interest, in others they are best seen as a complement to print, but it doesn’t seem likely, or even desirable, that they simply imitate the conventions of journalism or academic scholarship. Therefore, those of us who do see a place for blogging in intellectual/literary discussion ought to be making the attempt to clarify, for ourselves and our readers, the distinctive nature of its contribution, what indeed “can be done” using this medium to engage in substantive debate or commentary about literature, philosophy, or any of the other traditionally “academic” subjects.Continue reading "Other Spaces, Other Things"
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
From D.T. Max’s New Yorker article on Stephen Joyce, prickly and uncooperative grandson of James:
More than a dozen Joyce scholars told me that what was once an area of exploration and discovery now resembles an embattled outpost of copyright law. Robert Spoo, who used to edit the James Joyce Quarterly, which is published by the University of Tulsa, quit the job to become a copyright lawyer. “New biographies, digital representations of Joyce’s work, analyses of Joyce’s manuscripts, and, to a lesser extent, criticism—they hardly exist,” he said. “People either despaired of doing them . . . or the demands were so high that they just didn’t feel it was worth continuing the discussions.” Although more than fifteen hundred letters and dozens of manuscript drafts have been discovered since Stephen gained control of the estate, scholars told me that no new biographies of Joyce or his family are under way. The estate has not licensed online versions of “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” seminal works for hypertext theory. Anyone who plans to study Joyce today has to wonder whether it will be worth the strain. In 2003, Thomas Staley, the director of special collections at the University of Texas, in Austin, folded the Joyce Studies Annual after twelve years, in part to avoid dealing with Stephen. “He is an almost impossible person,” Staley told me. (Buck Mulligan to Dedalus: “O, an impossible person!”)
I have to say that, despite Stephen Joyce’s manifest philistinism, I finished this article feeling some sympathy for his position. When he’s refusing to allow “scholarly” intrusion into the private lives of the Joyce family for gossipy biographies, he’s doing everyone a favor. Unfortunately, however, he seems incapable of distinguishing between this kind of useless speculation and genuine criticism seeking to explicate Joyce’s work. When he declares that all commentators on Joyce’s fiction merely “want to brand this great work with their mark,” he’s just being dense.
(Although I also have to say that Stephen’s hostility toward the Irish government, which has embraced Joyce only after it became expedient to do so, seems to me entirely well-founded.)