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
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Since the publication of The Western Canon, Harold Bloom has become something of a caricature, derided on the one hand for the vehemence of his displeasure with the direction literary study has taken over the past quarter century, his opposition to the politicized, anti-aesthetic criticism he identifies collectively as the “school of resentment,” while on the other he is frequently invoked as a kind of cultural mandarin dismissive of the pleasures ordinary people take in the products of popular culture and contemptuous of all books that can’t be assigned to the canon of high literature. (Although James Wood accuses him of abandoning the role of critic for that of “populist appreciator,” his populism surely extends no farther than to those who might conceivably be convinced of the greatness of what Bloom calls “strong poets,” whose work certainly cannot be dumbed down in order to reach the masses.)Continue reading "Harold Bloom"
Monday, April 10, 2006
Although I otherwise have great respect for Jurgen Habermas, these remarks strike me as utterly asinine:
Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.
That “the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media” may be true, or may come to be true, but, given the “achievements” of the traditional media, at least in the United States, this is not a difficult task. The “traditional media” has performed wretchedly indeed during and since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the blogosphere has proved to be useful simply as a forum in which such a thing can be said and reach an audience. Pointing out that the “traditional media” is seemingly full of ill-informed, smug, and opportunistic people is not in itself a startling or revolutionary act.
Heaven forbid that the “anonymous and dispersed public” be allowed to seek out “select topics and information”! Or that it might happen upon a “decentralized access to unedited stories.” What will we think of next? Undistorted communication?
Of course, that last sentence in the passage quoted above is really the heart of the matter. Self-appointed “intellectuals” might no longer be able to “create a focus.” (Habermas is a genuine intellectual, and I’m always happy to consider the “focus” he brings to all kinds of issues, but he could spare me the special pleading on behalf of intellectuals as a class.) Again perhaps it is my experience of the contributions of American intellectuals to so-called public discourse over the past few years that makes me laugh at the notion that we poor benighted readers will suffer from a lack of focus once the intellectuals have been deposed, or perhaps themselves repaired to the blogosphere. No doubt thinkers like Habermas have a higher public profile in the European press, while in the U.S. we have to settle for Richard Perle and Paul Berman. As far as I can tell, American intellectuals create a “focus” by toadying up to the politicians and speaking power to truth.
Friday, March 24, 2006
Like Lawrence , I was initially drawn to How Novels Think by its title. I hoped to find an argument on behalf of the notion that novels do think (even if only by analogy to how people think), an analysis of fiction that would provide us with an alternate way of approaching novels beyond the traditional conceptions of fiction as either aesthetic object or a form of subjective discourse (an expression of the author’s sensibility or “ideas"). Some middle ground between the view that literary art is autonomous and the view that literary texts can be reduced to propositions or assertions. I expected to reject this alternative view, but I was nevertheless curious to see it explained.Continue reading "Natural Excess"
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Readers interested in the implications for aesthetics of Darwinian biology/evolutionary psychology might want to look at this essay of mine at The Quarterly Conversation. The essay had been scheduled to appear in the new issue of the journal Context, but at the last minute the publisher decided not to run it because of “space limitations.”
Sunday, March 05, 2006
Vis-a-vis the previous post, readers might want to check out this site.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
The Standards of Responsible Scholarship
John D. Caputo on Jacques Derrida:
. . .What everyone has more or less picked up about deconstruction, even if they have never read a word of it, is its destabilizing effect on our favorite texts and institutions. Derrida exposes a certain coefficient of uncertainty in all of them, which causes all of us, right and left, religious and non-religious, male and female, considerable discomfort. That was the side of deconstruction that grabbed all the headlines and made it in the 1970s a kind of academic succès de scandale. Without reading very closely, it all looked like a joyous nihilism. But what his critics missed (and here not reading him makes a difference!), and what never made it into the headlines, is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic skepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the “undeconstructible.” The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation—"viens, oui, oui” (come, yes, yes)—something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving. The undeconstructible is the stuff of a desire beyond desire, of a desire to affirm that goes beyond a desire to possess, the desire of something for which we can live without reserve. His critics had never heard of this because it was not reported in Time, but they did not hesitate to denounce what they had not read, like the famous signatories of the letter to Cambridge University, who disgracefully declared Derrida’s unworthy of an honorary degree because he undermined the standards of responsible scholarship—the most elemental tenet of which would surely have been first to read what you criticize in public (a close second being, if you do read it, try to understand it). . . .
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Peter Berkowitz’s review of Theory’s Empire in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review is mostly the usual sort of argument made against Theory by conservatives (cultural and political): Theory is just a cover for various kinds of leftist political crusades, it represents an attack on the inherited principles of the Enlightenment, etc. If people like Berkowitz really do want to reform academic literary study to make it more literature-friendly, as he insists he does, they’re going to have to come up with a new set of arguments about what’s gone wrong beyond these overblown denunciations. I am myself sympathetic to the notion that literary study has become literature-unfriendly (as a number of my posts here have illustrated), but if I also find Berkowitz’s kind of analysis shrill and reductive, who, exactly, is he hoping to convince? Certainly not literary scholars who might be in a position to alter the discipline’s focus from the inside, who understand that blanket condemnation of Theory and the ritual invocation of Derrida as deconstructive demon aren’t very helpful since they can’t be taken seriously.Continue reading "Demanding Assent"
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
“I Don’t Want to Lose What I Called to Say”
The fiction of Stephen Dixon starkly illustrates the difference between realism as a literary effect and “story” as a structural device, a distinction that is often enough blurred in discussions of conventional storytelling. “Realism” is the attempt to convince readers that the characters and events depicted in a given work are “like life” as most of us experience it, but, as Dixon’s stories and novels demonstrate, story or plot conceived as the orderly--or even not so orderly--arrangement of incidents and events for explicitly dramatic purposes need not be present for such an attempt to succeed. Few readers are likely to finish his latest novel, Phone Rings (Melville House Publishing) thinking it does not provide a comprehensive and intensely realistic account of its characters and their circumstances, and of the family relationships the novel chronicles, but many if not most will have concluded that fidelity to the stages in Freytag’s Triangle has very little to do with its realism.
Which is not to day that Phone Rings has no story to impart, only that it is one that emerges in the narrative long run, through the accumulation of episodes and interchanges (in this case, as in Dixon’s previous novel, Old Friends, interchanges over the telephone), although the episodes themselves retain a kind of narrative autonomy separate from their placement as points on a narrative arc. Ultimately, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the relationship between the parts is lateral, not linear, the story an aftereffect of Dixon’s relentless layering of these episodic elements. (In some Dixon novels, such as, for example, Interstate or Gould, the repetitions, reversals, and transformations he effects through such layering become the story, or at least what makes the story memorable and gives these novels their aesthetically distinctive shape.) One could say that Dixon’s commitment to realism precludes imposing “story” when doing so would only be a way of distorting reality by imputing to it more order and more direction than it in fact has.Continue reading "“I Don’t Want to Lose What I Called to Say”"
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
The Big Picture
Chris Bachelder makes as good a case for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as I’ve read in a while:
The Jungle aims to provide an accurate report of the many ways that life in Packingtown crushes people, destroys their power of self-determination, even their humanness. Individual desire, typically the engine of fiction, is eradicated. If Sinclair’s characters seem to lack agency or a certain kind of Rooseveltian pluck, if they seem unresponsive or passionless, well, that’s the point. Readers may long for a tender conversation between Jurgis and Ona as they hold each other on a particularly cold night, but as Sinclair writes, “truly it was hard, in such a life, to keep any sentiment alive.”
Later in his career, Sinclair knew himself well enough as an artist to tell the critic Van Wyck Brooks that “some novelists I know collect their material with a microscope, and I collect mine with a telescope.” E.L. Doctorow once said that contemporary American writers are more technically proficient and far less socially or politically motivated than previous generations of writers (many of whom began as journalists). Readers of contemporary literary fiction have grown accustomed to the novel’s microscopic power to render, often beautifully, the small moments of a character’s life. Conversely, we’ve grown skeptical of the novel’s telescopic function to bring large, distant abstractions into focus. We’re wary of the big picture. And if the accurate depiction or explanation of the world outside our minds is not a part of our conception of Good Literature, we will fail to recognize the power of The Jungle.
The problem with this, however, is that an “accurate depiction” is not the same thing as an “explanation.” A realist writer (Flaubert or James, for example) may indeed render an accurate depiction, either of the world inside or outside our minds, without presuming to offer an explanation--an ideological or conceptual grid onto which we are to project the depicted world. More often than not, through the focus on the concrete rather than the abstract, such writers ultimately convey more of the complexity of human experience than its capacity to be reduced to simple explanations. In effect, the more we know, the less we know. (In this sense, the epistemic skepticism Bachelder speaks of in his essay is a consequence of the novel’s own “artful” techniques of exploring experience rather than the “sustained attacks on objectivity and truth” by contemporary philosophers.)
Sinclair pretty obviously did want to provide an “explanation.” He wanted not merely to portray “the many ways that life in Packingtown crushes people,” but to bring the reader, along with The Jungle‘s protagonist, to an appreciation of socialism as an alternative to the unrestrained capitalism the novel exposes. And, as Baldechar pouts out, Sinclair himself admitted he had failed at this goal: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Still, sickening readers through the power of description is not an insignificant accomplishment. It does show that whatever skills as a writer Sinclair did possess finally overshadowed his more dubious talents as a political theorist.
Although one can acknowledge the “power” of The Jungle and still wonder why it needed to be written as a novel at all (beyond the usual bromides about the way novels offer “identification” and “intimacy"). The accuracy of its depictions could have been achieved just as readily in nonfiction as fiction, their truthfulness perhaps becoming only more consequential as a result. Is “accuracy of depiction” even something that distinguishes fiction as a literary form in the first place?
Monday, December 26, 2005
This post is an addendum of sorts to Mirian Burstein‘s excellent critique of Lindsay Waters’ essay “Literary Aesthetics: The Very Idea.” Miriam has insightfully pointed out the essay’s conceptual flaws, and I would just like to amplify her suggestion that these flaws ultimately undermine what otherwise might be a valuable argument on behalf of aesthetic analysis in literary study.Continue reading "Dizzy"
Saturday, November 26, 2005
The Good Reader
Nikolai Duffy, in his essay “In Other Words: Writing Maurice Blanchot Writing”:
For Blanchot, the good reader would not be what he terms the critical reader but the literary reader. Rather than interrogating “the work in order to know how it was fashioned” (SL 203), which is to say, rather than subordinating the openness of reading to an active means of elucidating the value and meaning of the work (and, by proxy, the value of reading itself), all of which Blanchot identifies with critical reading, the literary reader or what Blanchot refers to as “the true reader” (SL 203) passively collapses before the work, giving “the work back to itself: back to its anonymous presence, to the impersonal affirmation that it is” (SL 193). The work says nothing and of the work, therefore, there is nothing to say. If the work is to remain communicable at all, this is what it is necessary to say, always again, always badly, and always for the first time. As such, the task of the good reader is not to say the work but rather to procure a space in which the work can continue not to say itself. . . .
Monday, November 14, 2005
J. Peder Zane thoughtfully considers the “knowledge deficit” among today’s college students. Citing a dinner conversation with some University of North Carolina professors, Zane observes:
Continue reading "Not-Knowing"
All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new—students have always possessed far less knowledge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know."
Monday, November 07, 2005
Sticking to the Words
According to Ellis Sharp:
. . .[Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” is] a campaigning song, set in the real world. If you say that it doesn’t matter what the song is about, or whether it’s true or not, and that it’s just great music, then I think you’ve missed a lot of the point of the song. You aestheticise it. You turn it into an artefact detached from real life. That impulse reminds me very much of the American ‘New Criticism’ of the 1950s. The New Critics wanted to remove literature from life and history and regard writing as exclusively a formal structure – a well-wrought urn, an organic artefact, where all you discussed was language. The New Critics rubbished biography. The writer’s life, the writer’s intentions, were an irrelevance. Out with society and history, just stick to the words! But theory is never innocent, and the New Criticism slotted in nicely with the quietism of the age. If you don’t want to talk about history or society, you threaten nothing.
Heaven forbid that we “aestheticize” an ostensible work of art! Sharp’s admonitions here are like saying that the stories in today’s newspaper are too much like journalism or that the trouble with physics is that it contains too many darn equations. Reattach them to life! But just as physics no longer exists without the equations, art must be “aesthetic” in order to be itself in the first place. It’s the attempt to politicize works of art, to make them illuminate history or act as the servants of biography, that distorts them, not regarding them as artifact--which of course they are, first and foremost. If we don’t “aestheticize” art--that is, apprehend it on its own terms as art--we’ve failed to recognize it at all.Continue reading "Sticking to the Words"
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
In his essay “Love and Hatred of ‘French Theory’ in America,” Rolando Perez provides this very incisive account of the reception of Theory in the 1980s:
Continue reading "Standing Still"
Those of us who were either in the U.S. academy as professors or as graduate students in the early 1980s were weaned on the milk of post-existentialist, French thought. For reasons that had little or nothing to with the individual thinkers behind the different theories, two camps formed all on their own. Or perhaps more accurately, according to the academic interests of the people involved. Those whose interests were primarily literary were attracted to, studied, and wrote on Barthes, Derrida, Jabes, de Man, etc. Much of what we think of as being “French theory” today is the result of the kind of literary criticism that was carried out in prestigious universities like Yale during the 1980s. Academicians and graduate students who were interested in Continental political philosophy found in Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, and Baudrillard, the necessary keys they needed to critique contemporary, American capitalist society. Some of us attempted to bring these two strains of French thought together, either from the literary or from the political end. And there were good reasons for such attempts, even if at times the actual results were less than satisfactory.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Jonathan Mayhew, at his weblog Bemsha Swing:
In conversation with my Latin Americanist colleagues an issue came up. They worry that literature itself is a conservative thing. That is, they view the object of study itself as somehow suspect, infused with conservative baggage that it is their task to be suspicious of. . .
. . .There are plenty of political issues surrounding literature and poetry that are interesting to discuss, and I have all sorts of political opinions that are not far removed from those of my colleagues, but I cannot view political concerns as an acid test of the value of literature or poetry. Even a “conservative” body of work will end up having a certain value that is not confined by its ideology. If someone proved to me the Euripides was “conservative” in the context of his time, that he was on the wrong side politically, I would still stick with Euripides. I would say that that is very interesting, but that that is not the way Euripides is to be judged in the first place. By the same token, I would not admire him more if it were proven that he was “progressive” for his time. In short, I lose no sleep worrying whether teaching literature is a conservative thing to do. Creating poetic texts is something people do, have always done. It’s like asking whether breathing is conservative.