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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 Scott Eric Kaufman

Scott Eric Kaufman is an English graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He earned his B.A. from Louisiana State University and hopes to earn his Ph.D. sometime before his funding evaporates. He had one fancy title: Senior Instructor of Literary Journalism. He is currently working tirelessly on his dissertation. His scholarly interests include everything—and he means everything—pertaining to American literature and appropriations of evolutionary theory c. 1890-1910. His blather can also be read on The Valve.

Email Address: scotterickaufman@gmail.com
Website: http://acephalous.typepad.com

 

Posts by Scott Eric Kaufman

Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace Dead

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/13/08 at 07:55 PM

(This isn’t how I imagined returning to the fold.  I’ll hold the official stuff until Monday.)

Of an apparent suicide, according to Ed ChampionLos Angeles Times confirms

CR’s reaction nails mine.  Wallace was a brilliant, unpredictable author whose next book always could’ve been---what I mean to say, if Philip Roth dies, I’ll be upset, but it wouldn’t tie my stomach in knots.  Roth’s entered the late-James stage of his career---his works refine and distill and what readers expect from them.  With Wallace, there was still potential---his next book could’ve been another Infinite Jest, his next story could’ve been utterly unlike Oblivion, his next article could’ve done to McCain what Wallace’d done to lobsters.  In short, his unwritten work could’ve been differently brilliant.

Thoughts on suicide from a man who’s already committed it, in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon”:

I simply said, without going into anything like the level of detail I’ve given you (because my purpose in the letter was of course very different), that I was killing myself because I was an essentially fraudulent person who seemed to lack either the character or the firepower to find a way to stop even after I’d realized my fraudulence and the terrible toll it exacted . . . I also inserted that there was also a good possibility that, when all was said and done, I was nothing but another fact-track yuppie who couldn’t love, and that I found the banality of this unendurable, largely because I was evidently so hollow and insecure that I had a pathological need to see myself as somehow exceptional or outstanding at all times. Without going into much explanation or argument, I also told Fern that if her initial reaction to these reasons for my killing myself was to think I was being much, much too hard on myself, then she should know that I was already aware that that was the most likely reaction my note would produce in her, and had probably deliberately constructed the note to at least in part prompt just that reaction, just the way my whole life I’d often said and done things designed to prompt certain people to believe that I was a genuinely outstanding person whose personal standards were so high that he was far too hard on himself, which in turn made me appear attractively modest and unsmug, and was a big reason for my popularity with so many people in all different avenues of my life . . .” (173)

Of this story, Dan Green wrote:

At its core, “Good Old Neon” is indeed a story about a story, although we don’t know that until its conclusion. We do then discover, however, that “Good Old Neon” has been an impersonation by “David Wallace” of one of the latter’s high school classmates who died in a “fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991,” an attempt by the fictionalized author of Oblivion to “imagine what all must have happened to lead up to” that crash, why someone “David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male” would drive into a bridge abutment.

It is a wholly convincing impersonation, and emotionally charged in a way we perhaps don’t expect from David Foster Wallace. And it is precisely in the act of “baring the device”—the story self-reflexively disclosing that it is indeed a story—that “Good Old Neon” produces its greatest emotional effect. For in addition to the genuine human feeling for the distress of its imagined protagonist the story encourages in us, even more compelling is the revelation that it was some such feeling on its author’s part that led “David Wallace” to write the story in the first place.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Upcoming Book Event: Lionel Trilling’s The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/02/08 at 12:51 PM

On Wednesday, The Valve will begin hosting a book event on Lionel Trilling’s The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel.  Stephen Schryer (previously discussed) will moderate.  Stephen is the author of “Mary Mccarthy’s Field Guide to Us Intellectuals: Tradition and Modernization Theory in Birds of America” (Modern Fiction Studies 53.4) and “Fantasies of the New Class: The New Criticism, Harvard Sociology, and the Idea of the University” (PMLA 122.2). 

Contributors will include Miriam Burstein, Eugene Goodheart, John Holbo, Michael Kimmage, Joseph Kugelmass, Sean McCann, Mark Shechner, Michael Szalay, and Harvey Teres.

For those unfamiliar with Trilling’s work or know him only as a critic, the first 140 pages of his other novel, The Middle of the Journey is available online. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lindon Barrett, RIP

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/16/08 at 01:12 AM

Earlier today, I learned a man I rarely agreed with had been murdered.  Seven years ago, Lindon Barrett had the gall to inform me—a grad student at the institution in which he held tenure—that I was full of shit.  I dealt in "useless abstraction," to quote from his comments on my seminar paper, and I hated him for writing that. 

He was, of course, absolutely correct. 

The man loved to argue, but he gave you room and time enough to state your case.  But the combativeness of the seminar room relented in office hours, as when I went to speak to him about my paper on "Rip Van Winkle" and the legacy of American slavery.  (To reiterate: I was full of shit.)  His voice barely above a whisper—he had lectured earlier, he said, and lost it reading Frederick Douglas too enthusiastically—he helped bring order to my swirling mess of thought.

I’ve been reading the comments posted elsewhere tonight, so I don’t want this to sound like a criticism, but I can’t help but remember how Barrett responded to a short paper I turned in on Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States: "Sentiment is a ruse." 

And I’d fallen for it. 

I was the white guy who read anti-slavery tracts and felt damn fine about himself for bravely opposing slavery a hundred years after the fact.  Barrett told me I should’ve turned my attention to the racist logic underlying the self-congratulatory victory laps I was running, but I was young and possessed an abiding faith in the epicness of my egalitarianism. 

He was, of course, absolutely correct.

I still think he was wrong about a host of other things, but tonight I dispose any particular disagreements we may have had, to say plainly, with thunder, I wish we’d had the opportunity to have them.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fantasies of the New Class

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/21/07 at 07:46 PM

I know how John feels about PMLA, but as David Bergeron wrote in Shakespeare Quarterly some years back, it is “the most prestigious unread journal in our profession.” Being published in it is cause for celebration.  So put your hands together for my friend Stephen Schryer, whose “Fantasies of the New Class: The New Criticism, Harvard Sociology, and the Idea of the University” [.pdf] appears in the latest issue.  (In what is quickly becoming a refrain, I can’t recommend the acknowledgments highly enough.) If you fancy the abstract, read the article and, if so inclined, comment on it below.  Stephen will be around to answer any questions you might have. 

This essay examines the professionalization of United States literary studies and sociology between the 1930s and 1950s under the aegis of John Crowe Ransom’s New Criticism and Talcott Parsons’s structural functionalism. These paradigms pulled the disciplines to opposite poles of the professional class: Ransom argued for a less sociological literary criticism, while Parsons distanced sociology from the literary tendencies of the Chicago school. However, both implemented similar professional ideologies that synthesized their disciplines’ technical and moral claims, and both paradigms involved fantasies that specialized, disciplinary work within the academy can have a broader, moral significance. These ideas remained fantasies, which contradicted the actual effects of the New Criticism and structural functionalism; professionalism became reflexively oriented toward disciplinary self-perpetuation, isolating literature and sociology from the public they were supposed to reform. Ransom and Parsons thus exemplify the disintegration of publicly responsible professionalism—an event with broad implications for the “new class” of postwar knowledge workers.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rosenbaum and ACTA on Shakespeare; also, an Announcement

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/14/07 at 01:01 PM

I composed this a couple of weeks back, but never posted it because it seemed too nit-picky.  Mark’s follow-up makes me think otherwise.  As Mark notes, the tone of Free Exchange on Campus’s response to the ACTA report leaves much to be desired.  However, I think there’s something valuable about being an “insider” on this particular issue.

On a personal note, this is the probably the last substantive post you’ll see from me here until sometime in 2008.  I’ve explained why over here, but I’m sure it’s no mystery why someone in the final push to finish his dissertation doesn’t have time to write formal posts.  I’ll still be blogging research notes and ESPN-inspired parodies of academic life over at Acephalous, however, so I hope you’ll stop by.  If not, I’ll see you when Battlestar Galactica returns.

Ron Rosenbaum has spent the past month battering English departments for the continued existence of what he calls “The Relic,” i.e. a professor still influenced by literary theory.  His particular complaint is that theory has driven out the teaching of Shakespeare:

In the post I lamented the disappearance of the study of Shakespeare from the teaching of literature in American universities (due largely, I believe, to the repellant force of the addled, jargon-ridden rhetoric of antiquated postmodernists of The Relic’s ilk).

The aforequoted post—which Mark Bauerlein brought to my attention—reprinted a comment by a physicist lamenting the disappearance of Einstein from the curriculum.  Upon learning why general relatively is no longer a requirement, Mark updated his post—I hope Ron will follow suit.

But I want to address the notion that “the repellant force of the addled, jargon-ridden rhetoric of antiquated postmodernists” is responsible for Shakespeare’s “disappearance,” which I scare-quote because Miriam skillfully dismantled that particular claim.  (Did I neglect to mention that ACTA is responsible for all this chatter about “vanishing Shakespeare“?  Would you have continued reading if I hadn’t?) As Miriam demonstrates, Shakespeare is as integral a part of the standard English curriculum as ever; but if he were evanescing, would Rosenbaum’s “Relic” be responsible? 

The answer, as anyone in the humanities knows, is absolutely not.  A quick search for UCI’s resident Shakespearean, Julia Lupton, reveals this site.  Scroll down and you find a picture of this chap.  That he would be “thinking with Shakespeare” is typical of Shakespeare’s status among self-identifying theorists—although “thinking through Shakespeare” might more accurately describe the situation.  In his rush to condemn the literary critical establishment, Rosenbaum not only misses the attention theorists have and continue to pay to Shakespeare, he also attacks his “Relic” for having repudiated close-reading in the name of ... in the name of ... in the name of Paul de Man

Say what you will about his checkered past—Rosenbaum does—but the claim that someone who identifies him- or herself as an acolyte of de Man has renounced close-reading is absurd.  The standard complaint against de Manians is that they are uncomfortably close-readers who cannot see the forest for an acorn which had been pissed on some years back by a rough terrier of the hills.  Yet Rosenbaum writes:

It is my Theory of Theory which I adumbrate in The Shakespeare Wars: that the so called New Critical revolution in reading, “close reading”, attentiveness to Empsonian ambiguity, had brought those who embraced its attentiveness to poetry such as Shakespeare’s to an almost dangerously disturbing closeness to the generative power of the language, to the virtually radioactive beauty of the words.

And had caused an abreaction in certain of those exposed to it: the terror of pleasure. A terror that had led them to flee to, to fabricate, elaborate scaffoldings of French literary theory to shield themselves from having to stare into the abyss of pleasure close reading opened up, to give themselves an illusion of control over, indeed superiority to the literature.

Because, you know, de Man had no interest whatsoever in ambiguity.  None at all. 

But that’s neither here nor there.  If forced to press the point, I’d say Shakespeare’s study more now than ever before.  New historicism may have been many things, but for long stretches it seemed like little more than a cottage industry devoted to all things Shakespearean.  (Didn’t this little number nearly win a Pulitzer?)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ok and Un, Early Champions of Literalism

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/24/07 at 05:38 PM

Adam Roberts thinks he can find better evidence of Jack London’s mastery of the art of dialogue than yours truly, a trained Jack London scholar.  He is so very, very wrong.  I now present an excerpt from London’s play The First Poet, collected in The Turtles of Tasman.  The scene:

The hill nearest to the plain terminates in a cliff, in the face of which, nearly at the level of the ground, are four caves, with low, narrow entrances. Before the caves, and distant from them less than one hundred feet, is a broad, flat rock, on which are laid several sharp slivers of flint, which, like the rock, are blood-stained. Between the rock and the cave-entrances, on a low pile of stones, is squatted a man, stout and hairy. Across his knees is a thick club, and behind him crouches a woman. At his right and left are two men somewhat resembling him, and like him, bearing wooden clubs ... It is late afternoon. The name of him on the pile of stones is Uk, the name of his mate, Ala; and of those at his right and left, Ok and Un.

Uk: Be still! (turning to the woman behind him) Thou seest that they become still. None save me can make his kind be still, except perhaps the chief of the apes, when in the night he deems he hears a serpent.... At whom dost thou stare so long? At Oan? Oan, come to me!

Oan: I am thy cub.

Uk: Oan, thou art a fool!

Ok and Un: Ho! ho! Oan is a fool!

All the Tribe: Ho! ho! Oan is a fool!

Oan: Why am I a fool?

Uk: Dost thou not chant strange words? Last night I heard thee chant strange words at the mouth of thy cave.

Oan: Ay! They are marvellous words; they were born within me in the dark.

Uk: Art thou a woman, that thou shouldst bring forth? Why dost thou not sleep when it is dark?

Oan: I did half sleep; perhaps I dreamed.

Don’t leave!  The cavemen haven’t even discussed the danger of non-literal speech yet:

Continue reading "Ok and Un, Early Champions of Literalism"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/19/07 at 06:28 PM

Like everyone else this week, I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech.  I fret over the university context one minute, the comparative one the next—two hundred people died senselesly in Iraq yesterday—but more than anything else, it is the professional context that dogs my mind.  Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them.  His plays are compelling evidence that Plato was onto something in Book X of The Republic: literature originates in the base, irrational place to which it appeals; and the production and consumption of it succours the worst in us.  Put mildly, Cho’s work was not cathartic.  He fell prey to the vicious cycle of unreason Socrates described. 

As a senior English major at Virginia Tech, he could have taken courses that appeal to the most hardened culture warrior—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Augustan Literature, Romantic Literature, Renaissance Literature, &c.—or those the cultural studies side considers morally edifying—Ethnic Children’s Literature, Introduction to Women’s Literature, Introduction to African-American Literature, Literature and Ecology, Postcolonial Cultural Studies, Contemporary Horror, Women in Sport, &c.  My intention is not to declare a pox on both houses, but to point to how thin this justification of our work is.  One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist.  On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read. 

Which is what we say we do, careful as we are to pepper our conversations with “critical thinking” whenever we interact with the outside world.  All of which dovetails with a long, unsatisfactory post I’ve written on The Novel of Purpose.  In her discussion of Mark Twain, Claybaugh addresses Huck Finn‘s belated purposiveness via Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target.  I have written previously of my admiration for Arac, but Idol and Target has always bothered me.  Arac is right to say that the book has always been an exercise in self-congratulation—it is an abolitionist novel published in 1885—but as someone who has taught the novel three times now, I think his critical distance shows here.  Students latch onto Huck’s declaration of war against Southern custom: “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck says after recognizing his shared humanity with the captured Jim.  It is a powerful epiphanic moment, even if it leads to the odd fact, as Claybaugh writes, “[g]enerations of readers have identified with Huck and have in the process congratulated themselves as if they were alone in recognizing that slavery was wrong, that African Americans are human beings” (175). 

Continue reading "Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose"

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Novel of Purpose, By Way of Introduction

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/13/07 at 04:30 PM

No one here needs me to tell them that disciplines are odd beasts, but I will anyway.  Jobs are apportioned on the basis of small slices of time and big swaths of land.  For example, I’m an Americanist.  Practically speaking, this means I can only apply for Americanist jobs.  I’m also a 19th century Americanist, further limiting my possibilities.  These disciplinary demands shape my dissertation—whatever I write, I need to know it can be published in American Literature or American Literary History.  (English Literary History claims to publish works on “major works in English and American literature,” but when I opened my latest copy, I was not shocked to find five essays on George O’Brien Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, and one on Nathaniel Hawthorne.) For a project like mine, such professional imperatives chafe like an angry sea.  How do I write a proper Americanist dissertation about the reception of Anglo- and Continental evolutionary theory?  Do I give the source material—Darwin, Lamarck, Spencer, &c.—short shrift, and focus instead on the aesthetic and moral theories American authors built on it?  But what if those theories are themselves indebted to Anglo- and Continental thought?  (As was the case with Silas Weir Mitchell, whose thought owes more to Keats and Ruskin than Emerson and Howells.)

To the lay reader, addressing Anglo-American literary and intellectual culture through a nationalist paradigm must seem the height of academic parochialism.  On my side of the pond, the legacy of American exceptionalism and the culture of specialization disfigured national and literary history, slicing away until the face in the mirror resembled a disciplinary ideal more than the historical record.  Over the past decade, the situation has improved.  Most scholars date the change to the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), but I suspect the real impetus was a collective awakening, a recognition that the effort it took not to admit Dickens into a study of American literature was expenditure wasted.  Whatever the cause, the last ten years has been a boom-time for studies of transnational literary cultures (broadly defined).  Still, the title of Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner’s important anthology, The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800 (1996) points to one blind spot of post-national critical discourse: the 19th century.  (It looms, but for reasons I will discuss during the event, rarely does it enter the frame.) So it goes without saying that Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose is a welcome addition to an already lively conversation. 

Over the next few days, I’ll address Amanda’s argument in more detail.  For now, I only wanted to explain why I think the book important enough to be subjected to an event.  Wait, did I say “subjected to”?  I meant “the subject of.” I can’t imagine anyone would find the experience unpleasant.  (He says, crossing his fingers.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/12/07 at 01:01 AM

Our collective guilty pleasure passed away late Wednesday night.  He was 84.

More later, as I have a couple of great stories I’d tell were it not for, well, sadness.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Better Than Ezra?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/10/07 at 05:06 PM

No, you won’t find—especially when he’s reading his own work.  Be warned, however, as he does do the police in different voices.  His reading of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley in 1939 sounds like his answer to Joyce’s reading of Finnegans Wake, right down to the exaggerated (and, in Pound’s case, affected) Irish accent.  Listen to how Joyce reads the line “a man and his bride embraced between them” and tell me he doesn’t ham it up.  (You can try.  I won’t listen.) The Joyce reading is from the ALP section of the Wake, and the text he reads is transcribed here.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Statistical Analysis?  Don’t Want It.  We Prefer “Real Facts.”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/09/07 at 08:40 PM

I’ve seen this article by Mary Eberstadt roll across Phi Beta Cons twice this past week, so I can only conclude they really, really want people to read it.  Why?  To debunk it, obviously.  Who am I not to oblige?

Continue reading "Statistical Analysis?  Don’t Want It.  We Prefer “Real Facts.”"

Thursday, April 05, 2007

With Apologies, a Little More Foucault

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/05/07 at 09:57 PM

A few more brief notes about the discussion of Foucault are in order.  Far from being tired, as Alex suggests, I think we should have more such conversations, and more frequently.  As serious scholars, we should not concede the floor to sad spectacles of transparent cronyism, nor should we brook the claim that a frequently cited work—one whose title often appears to the immediate right of words like “seminal” and “magesterial”—is near-juvenalia.  Critics of Madness and Civilization are not members of a committee maliciously conspiring to torpedo the career of a promising graduate student, but members of a scholarly community which (ideally) can discuss the relative merits of a work considered important. 

Where Madness and Civilization fits into the Foucauldian corpus is, for the moment, irrelevant.  Point of fact, the desire to defend Foucault from his own work—cutting his nose to spite his face—suggests an irrational investment in its inviolability.  (This investment is made all the more irrational by the scapegoating by which its illusion is sustained.) If we ignore the historiographical problems with Madness and Civilization, Foucault remains for his acolytes what they desperately need him to be.  But what if we mention, as I did, the problems Simon Goldhill identifies in The History of Sexuality?  Will it be jettisoned too?  I only ask because this reverential model leads to some supremely unintellectual waters, a frightful bilge we would do best to avoid.  This is not, however, a post about the inbred thought of oblivious sycophants. 

Following Foucault Blog‘s lead, this is a post about what I should have foregrounded in my initial one; namely, that I juxtaposed the Scull alongside “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” because I value the standards espoused in the latter, not to hoist Foucault by his own petard.  To claim that only an unserious, derivative hack—like those fools who populate English departments—could express a preference for one Foucauldian period over another is profoundly myopic.  Those who chose not to weld the blinders on can see where I’m headed here: Scull may not be able to differentiate methodology from the conclusions drawn through it, but we can; moreover, his review should compel us to question this issue as it relates both to Foucault’s work and our own.  Methodological reflection should be part and parcel of academic study; declaring it anathema will neither preserve another’s reputation nor allow us to do the quality work required to build our own.

UPDATE: So if it isn’t clear, and it might not be, I found the previous comment thread helpful and illuminating, and I wouldn’t mind some rule about sticking to its critical-yet-productively-so tone being proposed and enforced.  Wait a minute, I can do that ...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Warden Will See You Now, Mr. Foucault

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/03/07 at 10:25 PM

Andrew Scull’s review of the new translation of Madness and Civilization is on more than a few people’s minds, and why not?  Its relentless criticism of Foucault’s shoddy historiography is meant to provoke:

[History], consequently, requires patience and a knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material.  Its “cyclopean monuments” are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of “large and well-meaning errors.” In short, [history] demands relentless erudition.

Sorry, wrong window—that there is Foucault extolling the virtues of a rigorous genealogy, not Scull criticizing him for his “isolation from the world of facts and scholarship.” I quote it now to dispel the notion that minor historical inaccuracies in Foucault’s work are of little consequence.  Put bluntly, they matter; a little more argumentatively, they matter more than their counterparts in conventional histories, because the “effective history” Foucault champions in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” approaches “events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations.”

Foucauldian genealogy sweats the small stuff, as it’s in the minutiae that metahistory reveals the limits of its teleology.  To say—as some have and others surely will—that the questionable citations and historical inaccuracies in Madness and Civilization in no way challenge the larger theory built upon them is powerfully stupid.  Of course they do. Anyone who employs the Foucauldian theory of madness (however defined) must now seriously reconsider whether their work remains structurally sound.  Perhaps the evidence they cited meets evidentiary standards; they are not only safe, their work helps validate the utility of the Foucauldian account.  Even there, the problem of whether researchers found what they were looking for persists, i.e. had Foucault not coined his theory, they wouldn’t have found what they weren’t looking for.

Still, the most dire of Scull’s critiques is that

much of [Foucault’s] account of the internal workings and logic of the institutions of confinement, an account on which he lavishes attention, is drawn from their printed rules and regulations. But it would be deeply naive to assume that such documents bear close relationship to the realities of life in these places, or provide a reliable guide to their quotidian logic.

As anyone who’s read a blurb of Discipline & Punish knows, the difference between formal, institutional strictures and lived experience is of central importance to his thought.  As he writes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,”

Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose.

Exactly right, Michel, which is why basing your first book on an idealization instead of the who and how of its enforcement is so problematic.  You know how a warden wanted his asylum run—or, perhaps more importantly, how he wanted other people to believe he wanted his asylum run—but that in no way reflects how it actually was.  This situation is similar to the one Simon Goldhill anatomizes in Foucault’s Virginity; namely, that for all his debasing of teleology, Foucault often runs roughshod over archival material in order to prove his world-historical point.  (Goldhill accuses him of being of an unsophisticated reader, perhaps unattuned to the subtleties of classical prosody, perhaps unwilling to listen, too eager is he to draw a “purposeful trajectory from Plato to the Church.")

I understand this is a cheap shot, uncleverly performed, but the lady-doth-protest-too-much feel of Foucault’s anti-teleology complaints seems ever more important.  Moreover, a shot across the bow is a terrible way to close a post, yet here I am ...

Monday, March 26, 2007

Oscar Wilde and the Quirks of the Academic Review

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/26/07 at 09:08 PM

I’m reading literary biographer extraordinaire Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde and, as I always do with scholarly material, I hopped onto JSTOR to read reviews.  (Were this another sort of post, I’d write something about why I feel the need to read reviews of every scholarly monograph I read.  Were this another sort of post, I’d write about how frustrating it is to not be able to find any reviews of scholarly monographs until five years after they’ve been published.  Were this another sort of post, I’d announce that our solution to this problem is host yet another book event, this time on Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World.  But this is not another sort of post.) As I was saying, I was sifting reviews of Oscar Wilde when I stumbled upon a review of Melissa Knox’s Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide.  Its reputation seems to hinge on how the reviewer feels about vulgar Freudianism—recent concessions about literary Freudianism aside, I think my position on psychoanalysis sufficiently established—still, I’m baffled by the final sentence of John Stokes’ review:

A book as profoundly wrong-headed as this can never produce the right answer for the very reason that psychic processes are of their very nature over-determined, which is also why the debate about Wilde and syphilis will fester for a long while yet.

I understand that this is one of those rare cases in which literary interpretation can yield a correct answer—Oscar Wilde either (1) did or (2) did not contract syphilis—so the nod to “the right answer” is not throwing me here.  Nor is it the pun on syphilitic discourse—although I wonder whether the question of Wilde carried what the English called morbus gallicus ("the French disease") and the French called la maladie anglaise ("the English disease") will fester in quite the same way its trademark pox will.  What confuses me is that Stokes seems to identify as “profoundly wrong-headed” the very methodology he employed in judging it “profoundly wrong-headed.”

This oddity can be attributed to a problem with conventional academic reviews.  Unlike the popular arbiter-of-taste—who, if not a known quantity, borrows some cultural capital from the venue in which the review is published—no one assumes any academic reviewer is without methodological bias.  There is no singular conception of quality to which an academic reviewer can pretend to measure a work against.  Despite this, most academic reviews are written as if there were, the result being strange compressions like the one quoted above. 

Obviously, this isn’t the only problem with academic reviews, and my annoyance is such that I may even start a series in which I complain and complain and complain ...

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Library of America Presents…

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/19/07 at 09:29 PM

...some “Xtre-heeemely Cheezy Sci-Fi Ga-haaarbage.” (Credit CR and Dr. Percival Cox for the words and music there.) The popular canonization of pulp writers—The Library of America doesn’t reflect academic sensibilities as much as one might think—will directly influence the way future generations of scholars view the latter half of the twentieth century, but how accurate will the resulting picture be?  I ask more as an historicist than a cultural anthropologist, and largely because Daniel Green’s recent post about the relation of literary language to the world represented through it has me thinking about turn-of-the-last-century debates on the verisimilitude of “realist” and “naturalist” works. 

To bandy in some gross overgeneralizations, the naturalist perspective is often shorthanded—via Tennyson—“nature, red in tooth and claw.” Jack London and Frank Norris did not represent the world as it is, but as it would have been were it not for the patina of civilization.  Their work may not reflect or represent society, but it does register the fact that something shook the cultural landscape, and that this something related to the crumbling of anthropocentric conceit.  Daniel invokes another metaphor, that of fiction as a window through which one peers into the past, but my three models—reflection, representation and registering—seem a more useful way to consider the relationship of literature to history.  M.H. Abrams already covered reflection and representation, so I’ll focus on registering here.  To pick a random example:

I consider myself a literary seismologist, scouring the written record for subtle signs of a larger catastrophe.  I sometimes dream of stumbling into the literary equivalent of “a gaping open wound in the earth’s skin,” but mostly I content myself with reading rock face for signs of deformities evolutionary in origin.  The rocks will reveal their secrets, but only if one speaks the language. 

To choose another entirely random example, one cannot identify Silas Weir Mitchell’s influences without being familiar with the conventions of the historical romance; the development of the Darwinian and Lamarckian branches of evolutionary science; American politics, foreign and domestic, &c.  Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker: Sometime Brevet Lt. Col. of His Excellency General Washington is less a window through which you can spy the nineteenth century prancing around in its unmentionables, and more an Ozarks—deceptively flat, its plateaus are all that remain of a mountain thrust high back when Bermuda waltzed into the Atlantic.  Just as it takes a trained eye to look at flatland and see a mountain island surrounded by vast coral complexes, so too does it take a trained historicist to read a novel about the Revolutionary War and witness competing theories of physical and social evolution attempting to account for McKinley-era American imperialism.

To return to the top now: thinking about the present in historicist terms affords me perspective I would otherwise lack, what with the contemporary moment being so contemporary and momentous.  So, presuming the eyes who scan our outcrops are trained, what will they make of the twentieth century as represented in its pulpier moments.  What evidence of epochal violence will they find?  Will the paranoia of Dick remain superlative, or will it be presumed endemic, his work egregiously symptomatic of a common malaise? 

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