About Sean McCann
Sean McCann is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University.
Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posts by Sean McCann
Thursday, March 15, 2007
The Assault of History; or, more questions about Faulkner
Did I ever say I understood Light in August? I must have been drinking. On a latest read the novel seems to me more extraordinary, profound, and deeply confusing than ever.Continue reading "The Assault of History; or, more questions about Faulkner"
Thursday, March 08, 2007
Life Under Late Capitalism
The assignment my six-year-old got in his first grade classroom:
Complete the story of the duckling and the alligator.
The alligator ate the duckling and the alligator lived happily ever after.
The grade his teacher gave him:
Check plus. And a smiley face.
Friday, March 02, 2007
A distinctive kind of spiritual exercise
So, you were perhaps wondering what the “moment of theory” was? In the most recent issue of Critical Inquiry the unusual Ian Hunter proposes an unconventional answer. It can all be summed up quite easily Hunter claims.
What was at stake was a cultural-political battle in the humanities academy in which the short-lived resurgence of neo-Kantian structuralism would be overcome by its neo-Husserlian rival.
Got that?Continue reading "A distinctive kind of spiritual exercise"
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Does Anse Bundren Love His Wife?
I have the good fortune of teaching Faulkner this semester, which means I get to re-read a lot of wonderful and puzzling books. To my mind, As I Lay Dying has always been the most mysterious of the lot. The Sound and the Fury may be the more evidently virtuoso performance, Absalom, Absalom! may possess more grandeur. Sanctuary is flat out creepy weird. But I feel like I’ve got more or less of a handle on what’s basically at issue in those books and in the other major works. AILD, on the other hand, has always seemed to me pretty enigmatic. Judging by the critical record, moreover, I’m not alone. Unless my impression is mistaken, the Bundren saga has produced less in the way of consensus, and in fact less devoted attention overall, than any other work from Faulkner’s great period.
On this last read, I was particularly struck by a passage on which strangely I don’t think I’ve previously lingered.Continue reading "Does Anse Bundren Love His Wife?"
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Does Walter Benn Michaels’s Trouble With Diversity offer, as Brad says, a neo-functionalist account of the relation between affirmative action and economic inequality? Though I have to admit that it sometimes sounds that way, I don’t think so.Continue reading "Neo-functional?"
Monday, October 02, 2006
Especially for America
Walter Benn Michaels makes some harsh comments about “liberalism” and says still worse about “neoliberalism.” But he doesn’t belabor a definition of terms. More significantly, he doesn’t go to great lengths to clarify the connection that everyone rightly recognizes as his central contention—and the one most open to challenge: that there’s a fundamental trade-off between an interest in diversity and an interest in economic justice. What’s the connection? Does Michaels think there’s a necessary and fundamental conflict here? Is it merely an unhappy coincidence of recent or even longer term history? Or is there an inevitable tension between the good of tolerance and the good of equality that has been exacerbated in recent years by a number of causes—including bad actors, well intentioned bloviators, and structural changes in the economy.Continue reading "Especially for America"
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The recognition that . . . [x] theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy began with an experience of déjà vu. As I plowed through my shelfload of bad . . . [x] books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is . . .Continue reading "Déjà Vu All Over Again"
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Heartless, Heartless, Heartless
I finally got a chance to read an essay plugged by Ray some time back, Debbie Nelson’s “The Virtues of Heartlessness: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and the Anesthetics of Empathy". It’s an excellent essay—eloquent and persuasive and refreshingly free of academese. (Disclaimer: I’m a friend and long-time admirer of Debbie.) The essay’s main contention is that Mary McCarthy’s famously stern persona was not solely a matter of temperament, but part of an Arendtian commitment to public virtue. Debbie suggests, without hammering too heavily, that critics have been slow to recognize the point because of the patronizing to which women writers are often subject—maybe especially writers like McCarthy who make no allowance for conventional expectations of femininity. Basically, it’s been too easy for everyone to call McCarthy a shrew, or worse.
As Debbie sees it, though, McCarthy was motivated by political and aesthetic conviction. She shared with Arendt not just a biting critical sensibility, but a preference for a solidarity rooted in public deliberation over the satisfactions of emotional bonding and identity politics. (As Ray emphasizes, there’s an aesthetic angle to the argument stressing the necessity of paying attention to, without sentimentalizing suffering.) Again without overstressing the point, Debbie clearly wants to defend their aversion to sentimentality. The essay is part of a work in progress called “tough broads.”
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
On the Origin of Interdisciplinarity--a cost/benefit model
Just came across a passage I thought might make for a good follow-up to Scott’s Darwinian origins of jargon post. Actually, I don’t really have a particularly good reason for mentioning the passage. Just thought it offered a memorable analogy, packaged in the pleasantly astringent prose style that used to characterize the best mid-century social science. (Or maybe that’s just my impression.) The text is the preface to The Calculus of Consent (1962), James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s seminal work in the theory of public choice.Continue reading "On the Origin of Interdisciplinarity--a cost/benefit model"
Monday, April 17, 2006
Here’s an interesting article by for fans of Language (once L = A = N = G = U =A = G = E) poetry--Oren Izenberg in Critical Inquiry on “Language Poetry and Collective Life.” Caveat: I’m not a fan myself, nor am I especially educated about the material. I don’t really have any informed opinions, more like a complacent lack of interest. But when I stumbled over this essay by chance, I thought that what it had to say sounded ingenious, more or less right, and clarifying. I’m curious to know whether people who know and love the stuff feel the same.Continue reading "Radically Universal?"
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Time, or Too Late, to Kill the Ph.D Octopus?
Over at POTUS, a fine group blog by some top level American political historians and political scientists, eminent historian Alonzo Hamby has two informative posts (scroll down for the first) about how graduate education in history has changed. The capsule summary: it’s gotten longer and a lot more uncertain. Hamby has illuminating thoughts about the various ways that a grad student’s life differs from the experience he had back in the early ‘60s. But, ruminating about why it is that average (or maybe median, he doesn’t specify) time to the history Ph.D. is now 11 years past B.A. and 8 years past admission, he touches pretty lightly on what seems to me obviously the central factor—a glutted employment market. This is only to point out the obvious. But there’s no incentive to rush through a dissertation if there are no jobs waiting for you, and all kinds of reverse and perverse incentives to prolong the agony.
All this has been pointed out ad nauseum. But as far as I’m concerned it can’t be said too often, and both the consequences and the best response still merit consideration.
Monday, March 27, 2006
How German Is It?
A question for film noir buffs. What do you make of frame narrative in The Killers? Frame is not quite the right term, but I hope you know what I’m talking about—that part of the movie dedicated to the effort of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) and detective Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) to unravel the central mystery behind the killing of the Swede (Burt Lancaster, in the role that made him a star). I suppose until recently I thought this part of the film’s design was clever, but relatively straightforward. Recently, however, I’ve been reading some of the criticism on noir and Robert Siodmak, and I came across two arguments that made me wonder. The fact that they make almost completely contradictory claims has only deepened my perplexity. Next thing I know I’ll be inhabiting the noir universe. Is anything straightforward?! Can anyone be trusted?! Can I please have a cigarette?!Continue reading "How German Is It?"
Friday, March 17, 2006
Who Speaks for the Monolith? (Cue, Zarathustra)
Let me follow Ray’s sublime post with a ridiculous one and offer the second in a series of trivial terminological gripes. (I assume you’ll be grateful that the complaints show up Brigadoon-like but once a year).Continue reading "Who Speaks for the Monolith? (Cue, Zarathustra)"
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
I recently had an interesting experience with an all but forgotten work of scholarship. The text was Leon Katz’s legendary 1963 doctoral dissertation on Gertrude Stein--The First Making of The Making of Americans. Katz is the cat who, following the discovery of Stein’s notebooks for The Making of Americans (found tossed in among the ms for the novel in her papers at the Beinecke), somehow charmed Alice B. Toklas into spending months reviewing the barely legible pages with him. The pair worked together eight hour a day, four days a week from November 1952 to February 1953. When it was over, the aged Toklas, who was writing her cookbook at the same time, had “a particularly bilious form of yellow jaundice.” Katz had an incredible lode of information.Continue reading "Passionate Indifference"
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Human, Not So Human: A Few Quibbles About Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees
I love Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Who couldn’t? If you’re not dazzled by the erudition and the data set, how could you fail to find instruction and delight in the nimbleness of Moretti’s mind and the brio of his prose? But, love it thought I do, like Matt, Ray, and Jenny Davidson, I’m not so sure that GMT can really “delineate a transformation in the study of literature” as Moretti suggests (NLR 67).* I applaud Moretti’s remarkable commitment to research. I admire his interest in “explanation” as against “interpretation” (even if I’m not sure the distinction finally holds up). I’m attracted to his emphasis on “devices and genres; not texts.” And I welcome his enthusiasm for analogies and examples drawn from all sorts of disciplines arguably related to literary scholarship. I’m still more taken by his intellectual seriousness and his evident appreciation for the artfulness of literary creativity. But looking at the essays in combination and considering some of the many different sources of insight I think they combine, I don’t see a new methodology for literary study so much as a sterling example of comparative literary scholarship at its most inspired—a la Auerbach, Spitzer, Bakhtin. Here’s an unscientific prediction. There will be no school of Moretti, because only Moretti will prove able to do what’s on display here.
A few minor thoughts about why that might be so.Continue reading "Human, Not So Human: A Few Quibbles About Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees"