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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 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.

Email Address: greend1@charter.net
Website: http://noggs.typepad.com

 

Posts by Daniel Green

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Parodic Repetitions

Posted by Daniel Green on 10/12/05 at 02:38 PM

From a speech by the Estonian poet and critic Märt Väljataga, reprinted in Eurozine:

. . .I share Terry Eagleton’s nostalgic utopia of a public sphere or “republic of letters”, where the literary criticism could operate. Instead of indulging in jargon and terminological games, literary criticism would regard not only academic colleagues but a wider public as its potential audience.

The first prerequisite for this is good writing. Perhaps it would help if a literary critic conceived of [him]self as a travel writer. Before a layman goes on a trip, he may want to read more about the history, the people, the landscapes, and the present political and cultural situation of the place he is visiting. Sometimes, he may wish to read about them afterwards, when the trip is over. Analogously, a reader may be interested in reading good books of criticism and biographies of authors. Works of literary criticism could be seen as travel books of the written world or the republic of letters – as guides, reportage, travelogues, or impressions. There are respected canonical authors whom even a specialist finds difficult to visit without a guide. Some authors are made boring by school teaching; some have ossified into monuments. The critic should keep alive interest in literature, and if it is beneficial for the author’s reputation, so much the better. Even if a dose of iconoclasm is needed, it’s still better than respectful oblivion.

I am aware that the study of literature is not exhausted by the kind of writing I have envisaged. The historical and philological scholarship that produces grist for the critic’s mill is at least as important. This kind of research needs a better protected environment than criticism or theory, and I am afraid that they can survive only in the academy. Of course, a good critic can be a good scholar. But even if the scholar’s writings are extremely dull, even if they possess only the virtues of meticulousness, pedantry, and industriousness, she still deserves the highest respect.

And then there is a third kind of writing about literature, namely theory. Unfortunately, this term has acquired two very different meanings. One could be identified with general poetics, the study of the conditions and regularities of literature. This is the continuation of the Aristotelian project to which the “moderate structuralists” (Genette, Todorov, Lotman) have made an invaluable contribution. It has helped to clarify the conceptual framework in which we discuss the properties of literature. If it is treated in a pragmatic or instrumental manner, it can escape the parodic repetition of all those epistemological and ontological paradoxes into which philosophy has run.

The second understanding of “Theory” associates it with features of postmodernism, as described above. Instead of being a quest for most general regularities of literature, it has become an undisciplined eclecticism, which justifies itself through some vague utopianism or delusions of political relevance.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Propelling Society Forward

Posted by Daniel Green on 10/05/05 at 04:33 PM

George Katsiaficas’s “Aesthetic and Political Avant-Gardes“ attempts to recoup the original sense of the term “avant-garde” as delineating “attempts to forge new dimensions to our aesthetic and political definitions of reality.” “At the intersection of art and politics is where the term originated,” writes Katsiafacas, “and it is there that its most explosive interpretations can be found.”

Sadly (for Katsiaficas), this intersection is badly in need of repair these days:

Generally speaking, what is called “avant-garde art” today is completely depoliticized, a facet of its nature considered by many to be a hallmark of “modernism.” According to this view, the modernist tradition’s emphasis is on the “aesthetic” rather than on morality, human suffering or politics. Thus understood, modernists have replaced the spiritual and religious structuring of emotional experience with a secular equivalent: the “aesthetic.”. . .

I’ll put aside the now hackneyed accusation that an interest in the aesthetic amounts to some kind of substitute for religion. It’s just a convenient way to dismiss the views and the practices of those who don’t turn first to politics or “morality” in thinking about the role of art without having to seriously consider them. I’ll also grant Katsiaficas’s further point that “when first used in relation to artistic movements, i.e. before the ‘modern’ period, ‘avant-garde’ movements were thought to be forces that would propel society forward, not simply to uphold aesthetic values.” The idea that radical art might be transformed into radical political action may be mistaken, as I believe it is, but that many of those responsible for advancing the idea of the avant-garde in the first place believed it is more or less undeniable.

Continue reading "Propelling Society Forward"

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Erasing Society

Posted by Daniel Green on 09/13/05 at 01:35 PM

In an essay about the “feud” between the critic Irving Howe and the novelist Ralph Ellison about the role of “protest” in fiction, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington observes:

. . .Whereas Ellison saw a danger in collective generalizations, Howe was attuned to the perils of erasing society. In his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, Howe asks, “Since language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience, can the meaning or value of a work be apprehended without some resort—be it as subtle and indirect as you wish—to social and moral categories?” The quote is taken from a passage on Howe’s student days, studying the tenets of the New Critics and their aspiration to substitute close analysis of a text for the study of background historical forces. Typically for projects this high-minded, the New Critics failed to see that “the evaluative terms offered by New Criticism—terms like coherence and complexity—were heavily freighted with associations drawn from history, psychology, morality. Is there any evaluative term not so freighted, and must not any attempt to find purely ‘intrinsic’ values wither into sterility?”

Howe’s contention that because “language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience” criticism must attend to “social and moral categories” is an argument that is very frequently made by those who believe that literature transcends mere “art.” It is these “unbreakable ties” between language and the reality it represents that make literature different than, say, painting or music. These forms are freer to “be themselves"--to create a closed-off space where aesthetic qualities are allowed a degree of autonomy--than literature because the latter occurs in language and language is the means by which we conduct our everday affairs and through which we make the world meaningful.

Continue reading "Erasing Society"

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Apostles for Art

Posted by Daniel Green on 08/10/05 at 03:35 PM

On the one hand, Camille Paglia thinks that “Mainstream America looks at art and the artist as a scam and they don’t want to support government funding of the arts. Who pays the price for this are working-class talented young people who don’t have access to arts programs. Across the country school budgets are shrinking, the arts programs are being dropped right and left. I’m saying to the art world and all these coteries in Cambridge, San Francisco, Manhattan, ‘You have not been good stewards of art. You need to get out of this. You need to be apostles for art.’”

On the other, she believes that creative writing programs are “producing a kind of antiseptic writing, a certain kind of polished professional writing” and that “to be a good writer you can’t just study writing. You have to live, OK? That’s the problem. The best writers have drawn from actual experience, have had some experience. What experiences do people have any more?”

Continue reading "Apostles for Art"

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Morally Sound

Posted by Daniel Green on 07/26/05 at 07:00 AM

In “Literary Aesthetics and the Aims of Criticism” (included in Theory’s Empire), Paisley Livingston comes to this eminently reasonable conclusion about aesthetic experience:

An aesthetic experience of literature, I suggest, is an intrinsically valued experience occasioned by the contemplation of the qualities of a literary work of art. Such contemplation is what is lacking in nonaesthetic modes of reading. In the latter, the work or its text is read in a purely and exclusively instrumental spirit, or the intrinsic value attached to the experience does not fine its basis in an attentive and apt attention to the features of the work.

Livingston then renders his own description incoherent by sneaking “moral content” through the aesthetic back door:

. . .the moral content of a literary work should be acknowledged as being directly relevant to an appreciation of that work qua literary work, my principal reason being that in some contexts moral featues directly influence the work’s aesthetic function and value. Attempts to define the specificity of the artistic responses to works of fiction along purely formalist lines have been notoriously problematic. . .If, on the contrary, moral and political ideas are an intrinsic part of many literary works of art, their assessment would seem directly relevant to an evaluation of the works’ overall merits. What is more, since it is reasonable to think that our emotional (or quasi-emotional) reactions to works of fiction are directly relevant to the aesthetic dimensions of these works, moral considerations should be recognized as of aesthetic relevance. . . .

Continue reading "Morally Sound"

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Hostilities

Posted by Daniel Green on 07/12/05 at 05:00 PM

As the author of Theory of Literature (long considered the primary theoretical pillar supporting the New Criticism), Rene Wellek surely exemplifies the imperative to separate theory from Theory that John Holbo has been discussing.  Wellek cleary believed in the efficacy of theory--which he defines as “concerned with the principles, categories, functions, and criteria of literature in general"--but as early as 1982 he feared that literary theory was undermining the very assumptions on which literary study had been based. Were his fears (at least about the kind of theory then being promulgated) well-founded? I think not.

His essay,"Destroying Literary Studies,” reprinted in Theory’s Empire, contends that Theory (primarily deconstruction and reader-response theory, but also extending as far back as Northrop Frye) was threatening “the whole edifice of literary study” in an “attempt to destroy literary studies from the inside.” In retrospect, this seems an absurd charge to have leveled against the likes of Derrida, Frye, Stanley Fish, and (!) Harold Bloom, and seems to vindicate the counter-charge that New Criticism was an especially narrow and insular movement. If even Frye and Bloom couldn’t be countenanced as serious-minded rivals, wasn’t it New Criticism that was doomed to destroy itself “from the inside”?

Probably so. Wellek is the only scholar associated with first-generation New Criticism to be represented in Theory’s Empire, so perhaps it would be unfair to take his remarks as representative of the attitude to Theory of the New Critics as a whole. (The editors of TE seem to present it as such, however. There are only two references to Cleanth Brooks in the whole book, a few scattered references to W.K. Wimsatt--mostly summarizing “The Intentional Fallacy"--none at all to John Crowe Ransom.) And it is indeed disconcerting (to me) to come across such pronouncements as these from someone famous for having made the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intinsic” approaches to literary criticism: that Theory “refuses to acknowledge that the relation of mind and world is more basic than language”; that Theorists “refuse to understand that words designate things and not only other words, as they argue”; that Theory represents “the rejection of the whole ancient enterprise of interpretation as a search for the true meaning of a text.”

Continue reading "Hostilities"

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Funeral Rites

Posted by Daniel Green on 07/03/05 at 07:00 AM

Judith Halberstam thinks the Department of English needs to go:

I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism. While we may all continue doing what we do — reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies — once we call it something other than “English,” (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.) it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general, or within administrative plans for down-sizing; it will also, I propose, be better equipped to meet the inevitable demands (which already began to surface after the last election) for an end to liberal bias on college campuses and so on.

I heartily endorse this idea. By all means, let Halberstam and her confreres establish a new Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations. This would allow them to do what they most dearly wish to do--distance themselves from the study of mere literature--and would further allow whatever renegade elements there are within the exisiting English deparment who still find themselves interested in the “merely literary” either to reclaim “English” as the name for what they study or perhaps to join in on the makeover fun and establish a Department of Literary Study, in which what actually goes on is the study of literature. The latter could perhaps be done by incorporating extant creative writing programs, and such a department would probably continue to offer traditional composition and linguistics courses. (Surely administrators would not want to entrust such courses to a department that otherwise focuses on “the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies.” This very phrasing suggests that professors in the new department would not be the logical choice to teach courses the goal of which is to teach students to write.)

Continue reading "Funeral Rites"

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Poetry Machines

Posted by Daniel Green on 06/28/05 at 02:11 PM

David Orr, in the June 26 issue of the New York Times Book Review:

. . .Auden may have claimed that “poetry makes nothing happen,’’ but dedicated consumers that we are, we’re not buying anything so pointless. Instead, we prefer to believe that poems are like machines—you pay your money, you press the right buttons, and they work their magic. If you aim them at a bad guy, they’re almost as good as a can of Mace.

It’s an unrealistic perception, of course, but it’s a hard one to avoid in a culture that equates worth with utility. And it causes even longtime poetry readers to find themselves justifying the art in terms of other, more practical disciplines—politics, for instance. Often, the claimed connection is one of cause and effect, as when a critic argues that a poem in an obscure journal has “subverted a dominant discourse’’ or “undermined a social construct’’ (presumably for the benefit of the author’s girlfriend, his mom and four readers who probably already agreed with him). Other times, poetry is leveraged in more subtle ways. In “The Government of the Tongue,’’ for example, Seamus Heaney tells an anecdote about deciding not to record a tape of poems on a day in which several bombs exploded in Belfast; as he puts it, he had “a feeling that song constituted a betrayal of suffering.’’ Heaney’s dismay is so eloquently expressed that it’s easy to forget that his reaction is based on a fallacy—after all, if Heaney had been planning to do something equally unrelated to exploding bombs (like, say, mowing the lawn), would he have written a long, anxious essay about it? Why should poetry be weighed against political life, instead of alongside it? At least in part, this preoccupation with politics seems driven by a barely controlled fear that poetry isn’t quite sturdy enough on its own, and could therefore do with a little propping up. . . .

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Total Worldviews

Posted by Daniel Green on 06/22/05 at 02:03 PM

At Butterflies and Wheels, Thomas R. DeGregori points out that:

Scientists have to recognize that when they are countering a demonstrably false idea, they may well be entering a conflict with the total worldview of those who hold them. To the family in Kansas that rejects evolution, the biology teacher at the local school is doing far more than merely teaching science. The science teacher is in effect entering their home and family and undercutting beliefs upon which their family and sense of community is based. Is it any wonder that they feel like victims? To many activists, the plant bio-technologist is contaminating and polluting the planet as part of a corporate plot to dominate the global economy. Is it any wonder that they also feel like victims? To the absolutist mindset, breeching a principle is the same as abandoning it, and therefore any concession to differing views amounts to total surrender. This helps to explain why many disillusioned ex-communists became radical conservatives, why activists’ opposition to transgenic food crops is total, and why the scientific research use of embryonic stem cells is defined as taking a human life.

This seems to me a very astute analyis, but DeGregori essentially disregards it in his follow-up (and concluding) paragragh:

As the new millennium was approaching, there were many candidates for the greatest achievement of the past 1,000 years; one such candidate was the development of the scientific method. That candidate has my vote. If we work at it, one of the greatest achievements of this new millennium could be the continued refinement of the scientific method, its integration into the beliefs and practices of everyday life for the greater part of humankind, and the continuous improvement in the quality of life of earth’s inhabitants that could be realized as a result.

There’s nothing objectionable about these sentiments, except for the underlying assumption that continuing to point out the felicities of the scientific method will eventually overcome the resistance of the “absolutist mindset.” It’s precisely the pragmatism of the scientific method--settling for what works as an explanation until a better explanation comes along--that those possessing this mindset won’t accept. As Stanley Fish argues in The Trouble With Principle, such people are here to stay, and no amount of tolerance of their views will result in mutual tolerance on their part. Ideology and “worldviews” are indeed at stake, and the only way to fight those who are “undercutting beliefs” is to destroy the unbeliever.

This doesn’t mean DeGregori is wrong in advocating the “continued refinement of the scientific method” or that scientists should back down in the fact of know-nothing intimidation. But if he really believes that advocacy and argument will eventually result in science becoming more significantly integrated “into the beliefs and practices of everyday life for the greater part of humankind,” I think he’s dreaming.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Wrestling Over Melville

Posted by Daniel Green on 06/15/05 at 06:00 AM

This essay by Randy Boyagoda in the online journal The New Pantagruel demonstrates how truly catastrophic in its consequences has been the relentless politicization of literature over the past twenty-five years. Boyagoda wants to recoup Moby-Dick for the cause of American patriotism, arguing that Melville’s “primary ambition” was “to enable Americans to appreciate, in the fullest complexity, their muddy grandeur, and recognize, however vexingly, the imperfect splendor of their nation.”

Boyagoda traces Moby-Dick‘s rise to prominence in academic literary study, making the plausible point that Richard Chase’s Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949), for example, was part of an effort made by prominent post-war Americanists to identify “a native-born artist whose achievements could adequately complement the stature of a fledgling superpower.” That much of now canonical American literature was used by many such critics to celebrate America, to enlist works of literature in a cultural cold war rather than delineate their purely literary virtues, is undeniable. To this extent, the “neoliberal” ideology of much of early Americanist criticism surely did make literary study an implicitly political activity, in turn almost ensuring that later, more radical critics would attempt to discredit the ideology while continuing to regard the study of American literature as an excuse to engage in cultural politics.

Continue reading "Wrestling Over Melville"

Friday, June 03, 2005

Non-literary Realms

Posted by Daniel Green on 06/03/05 at 12:00 AM

In the summer issue of Bookforum, Mark M. Anderson reviews A New History of German Literature, published by Harvard University Press. According to Anderson, “Interdisciplinarity and methodological eclecticism are the rule. This is very much a ‘German studies’ account of German literature, reflecting the state of a discipline that has moved increasingly toward the study of literature and language as cultural forces in historical and social context.”

The same could be said of English as an academic discipline, as well as most of the other departments that have historically taken literature as their subject.  Thus Anderson’s further comments quite readily apply to the current state of “literary study” in general.

“To be sure,” writes Anderson, “every literary history has to make choices, and writers’ reputations rise and fall over time.”

But the real issue is the “German studies” approach behind so many of the articles, which tend to put aside formal literary questions (genre, prosody, figural language, stylistics, etc.) in order to probe connections with non-literary realms. The editorial mandate to choose a specific date almost automatically pushes the contributors away from a text’s formal literary features in favor of a historical event in which its ideological or extraliterary significance can be understood to crystallize. . .

Continue reading "Non-literary Realms"

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Infinite Obscure

Posted by Daniel Green on 05/30/05 at 04:56 PM

Ron Silliman (whose poetry blog is the best around--everyone should read it for its intelligence and its proprietor’s impressive knowledge of poetry’s history, if not because you’ll always agree with it) on Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare:

Opacity, the infinite obscure, Greenblatt demonstrates, is the line that connects Hamlet, Lear, Othello & Macbeth, the first three primarily through the eradication of motive, the last through devices of plot. It is the same line that [Charles] Olson draws directly from Shakespeare to Melville – and by implication, to a Maximus not then yet conceived.

Not everybody is comfortable with the “untidy, damaged, and unresolved” as Billy Collins reminded us just awhile back. Indeed, Nahum Tate’s rewrite of King Lear, supplying a happy ending in which Cordelia lives to marry Edgar, was the version habitually performed from the 1680s until the 1830s. This same will to neatness & clarity, and aversion to indeterminacy, opacity & difficulty is at play today in the School of Quietude. But what a great trick that Mr. Gioia’s agency is playing upon Gioia & his friends in underwriting production after production of the infinite obscure!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Keenly Observed

Posted by Daniel Green on 05/27/05 at 02:56 PM

According to Morris Dickstein,

To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise.

Dreiser, Crane, Wharton, and Cather are “long-neglected”? As far as I can tell, the latter two especially have become increasingly popular, both among academics and ordinary readers, over the past two decades. This must be just another anti-modernist rhetorical gesture--surprisingly, from someone who has in the past written insightfully about both modernism and postmodernism. (See his Gates of Eden, actually one of the very best books about American fiction in the 1960s.)

Continue reading "Keenly Observed"

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Discipline

Posted by Daniel Green on 05/19/05 at 01:25 PM

According to Timothy Burke, by referring in a previous comments thread to the notion of the “test of time,” I was putting forward “the proposition that the canon consists of works which achieve sufficient universality and depth of meaning that they continue to have value long after the historical moment in which they were initially published.” George Williams similarly claims that I used the phrase “to describe how the modern literary canon came to be.”

But I did no such thing.

Here is what I actually said:

No one who cares about these [literary] works believes that the facts of their printing have anything to do with why they have passed the test of time: They continue to be compelling reading, no matter how the words are presented.

Continue reading "Discipline"

Monday, May 16, 2005

Hard-Wired

Posted by Daniel Green on 05/16/05 at 07:00 AM

According to Denis Dutton, “The basic situations of fiction are a product of fundamental, hard-wired interests human beings have in love, death, adventure, family, justice and adversity.” This notion--that literature, as the “storytelling” art form, arises from biological imperatives that are “hard-wired"--has become an article of faith, the official dogma, of a certain hardline Darwinian approach to art and culture, epitomized perhaps by Steven Pinker, but ultimately derived from what is called “evolutionary psychology.” As Dutton further explains:

These values counted as much in the Pleistocene era as today, which is why evolutionary psychologists study them intensively. Our fictions are populated with character-types relevant to these themes: beautiful young women, handsome strong men, courageous leaders, children needing protection, wise old people. Add to this threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of love and fortune, including both bad luck and villains, and you have the makings of literature. Story plots are not unconscious archetypes, but follow, as Aristotle realized, from human interests and the logic of what is possible.

Continue reading "Hard-Wired"
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