About Sean McCann
Sean McCann is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University.
Email Address: email@example.com
Posts by Sean McCann
Thursday, July 14, 2005
Theory’s Empire--It’s the Institution Stupid
A consensus appears to be developing among at least some of us talking about TE that the major issues are institutional and sociological. The problem (to the extent we agree there is one) is not any ideas particular to Theory, in other words, but the academic celebrity system, the tenure review process, and/or the guild process of professional training.
If that is an emerging consensus, it’s one I find both encouraging and disheartening.Continue reading "Theory’s Empire--It’s the Institution Stupid"
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Theory’s Empire--Wrestling the Fog Bank
If you’re even slightly simpatico, you’ve got to feel bad for the editors of Theory’s Empire. There’s no more basic feature of “theory” in the literary academy than its committed antiformalism and its hostility to definition of any kind. Despite John McGowan’s suggestions to the contrary, there seems to be pretty universal agreement—among defenders as well as opponents—that for some decades now there has indeed been an identifiable fashion (marked by rhetorical style, ethos, and commonly invoked authorities, however eclectic) that all agree to call Theory. But good luck getting its defenders to articulate core principles, methods, or topics. As Thomas Nagel says, arguing against Theory is like wrestling a fog bank. So putting together a critical anthology that would be both comprehensive and structurally coherent must have been quite a task for Daphne Patai and Will Corral.Continue reading "Theory’s Empire--Wrestling the Fog Bank"
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
A Golden Age of Literary Journalism
Could ours be one? That unlikely thought was prompted for me by the recent arrival of two magazines (print, bigod!) in the mailbox: the July/August Atlantic and the annual fiction issue of The New Yorker.Continue reading "A Golden Age of Literary Journalism"
Thursday, June 09, 2005
Ferocious Goat, or the Decline of Political Invective
Ayjay worries about the declining quality of web calumny and asks us to study the masters. Just came across this passage today, Eugene Debs on Teddy Roosevelt, January 1918:
This political pet of the plutocrats, this bogus reformer, this shreiking charlatan, this raving mountebank, this crazy-horse of Oyster Bay ranch, this blood and thunder prophet, this opera bouffe ghostdancer, this blatant quack hero, this freak of froth and foam and buncombe, this nauseating moralizer, this dysenteric scold, this chattering midwife and meddler and all-around nuisance has buncoed the people long enough and they at last know him for what he is, at least those of them who have mentality above a shell-fish, and who can tell a jibbering fraud after he has exhibited himself to them daily for a score of years.
I particularly liked crazy-horse of Oyster Bay ranch. O, for a Debs now.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Like Explorers Who Have Returned From Some Distant Land
Lots and lots of doubtful claims and many a quick and dirty generalization in this piece. But the big idea is right on. It’s been sometime since contemporary American lit spoke forcefully about class.
To a considerable extent novels these days take place in a kind of all-purpose middle-class America, in neighborhoods that could be almost anyplace, and where the burdens are more psychic than economic, with people too busy tending to their faltering relationships to pay much attention to keeping up with the neighbors. . . . Nowadays when a writer like Richard Russo, Russell Banks or Richard Price comes along, with an old-fashioned, almost Dickensian vision of life among the poor and working classes, it’s a little startling; they seem like explorers who have returned from some distant land.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
John’s recent essay on chess and poetry, with its holbonic foray through Nabokovian territory, reminded me of a curious post I encountered over at Long Sunday --a zizekian rival to the Valve and a home of frequent commenter cult rev. The subject of the post is the classic association between cruelty and aestheticism, and its gist is to disavow a “naïve” critique of either. Cruelty, John Pistelli claims, is at least sometimes an expression of curiosity. Like scientists and political renegades, aesthetes and torturers view their worlds from a position of moral estrangement, and they want to find things out. “I vividly remember,” Pistelli says, “when I was about four, stepping on another child’s hand simply to see what the result would be.” The implication follows: if we value curiosity (or presumably beauty), we can’t easily shield ourselves from a susceptibility to being cruel.
The reasons this is all appropriate fodder for the Valve is that Pistelli’s prime exhibit is, of course, Nabokov. Pistelli is particularly concerned to challenge the view famously advanced by Rorty and more recently developed by Michael Wood that the carefully burnished image of Nabokov as a literary equivalent to the Bond villain is wrong—that really the center of Nabokov’s imagination was not a chilly fascination with beautiful puzzles but a horror at brutality. Nabokov himself predicted the reading in Strong Opinions: “one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel—and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.” Neither Rorty nor Wood, brilliant critics both, are clumsy enough to fall for this overexaggerated portrait, but both suggest there’s more than a grain of salt to the hint of a hidden moralist. Through all Nabokov’s major American novels, they suggest, but particularly in Lolita, a subtle conflict seethes between the writer’s own most cherished values (as they are listed in L’s afterward): “curiosity, tenderness, [and] kindness,” on the one hand; “ecstasy,” on the other.
Pistelli is drawn to this view himself, and to the investment in empathy it reflects, but he also believes that it’s “naïve” and shares too much with a “neoliberal strain in literary criticism” he wishes to repudiate. (Naivete and neoliberalism appear to be closely linked vices in the view of Long Sundayans, and equally reprehensible.)
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
The Temptation of Content
I so rarely agree with Stanley Fish that when I do I wonder how it happened. Fortunately, Fish’s op-ed in today’s NY Times occasions no concern. On first reflection, it seems a classic Fishism--provocative, counterintuitive, and on consideration . . . still totally unconvincing.
Fish’s case today is that writing is taught badly in college because of an unfortunate preoccupation with content. Really, we should be pure formalists, he says. As an example of an appropriate pedagogy for a freshman composition course, he offers a semester-long assignment to construct an artificial language. (Am I missing the obvious here? Is he pulling my leg? Except for being counterintuitive, the very notion seems unFishlike.) By the end of the semester, if the class is able to avoid “the temptation of content,” students will arrive at a basic understanding of “how language works.”
Sounds like a great assignment. But Fish manages to end his essay without addressing the major issue: does the assignment in fact make students better writers? It sounds like a more fun way to learn what used to be studied by diagramming sentences. I did a lot of that in seventh grade, and just ask John Bruce, it did nothing for my style.
As I mentioned awhile ago. The whole approach seems backward to me. The problem with teaching writing is not that it’s too content driven, but rather that it’s already overformalized. Students can’t learn to express a thought well or argue an idea forcefully by mastering, or building, a model. They need to have an interest in clear or forceful expression. Alas, having a thought or an argument is really the hardest part about writing. The problem with most writing pedagogy--Fish’s included--is that, pushing content aside, it teaches students that their ideas and convictions are of secondary importance. No surprise if they don’t learn how to write well in that context.
Monday, May 30, 2005
Existentialism without Authenticity (and vice versa)?
One crucial aspect of making a life involves shaping one’s own individuality. Appiah suggests that we have inherited two rival visions of what this task involves. The ﬁrst, which we have inherited from romanticism, stresses the importance of authenticity. According to an ethic of authenticity, a meaningful life involves getting in touch with our inner depths and being true to what we ﬁnd there. The second vision, which we have inherited from existentialism, stresses the importance of self-creation. On this account, individuality is important because the only valuable life is one that we have made up for ourselves.
According to Appiah, both of these accounts are wrong. The ﬁrst is wrong because it ignores the importance of creativity in making a life. The second is wrong because it ignores the materials that are needed for creation.
It’s hard to imagine that Appiah builds his argument on such an unlikely contrast, or that he believes the opposition to be exhastive--or that he would suggest existentialism and authenticity belong to rival visions. Are there any versions of romanticism that do not construe getting in touch with our inner depths and being true to what we ﬁnd there as in fact ways in which we make lives for ourselves (against the constraints imposed by convention or moral obligation)? In fact, wouldn’t that be one of the criteria of romanticism: if the goal feels like alienation it isn’t romantic?
I’m woefully underqualified to talk about this and am not sure why I’m bringing it up, except that Elliot’s way of framing things reminds me of what I think is a false opposition common in contemporary academic literary circles--the contrast, that is, between ascriptive identity and personal freedom or self realization.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Worlds Known and Unknowable
Recently read Edward P. Jones’s justly celebrated novel The Known World. The book, for which Jones received the Pulitzer last year, initially got a lot of attention because of its portrayal of free black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. But while much was made by the first reviewers of a fact that struck them as surprising, or little known, or bizarre, it would be easy to overemphasize the significance of black slave owning to the book’s design. The Known World offers a fairly dense portrait of an imaginary Virginia county in 1855 (while also extending its narrative briefly into the preceding years and far more extensively into subsequent decades), including in its rich canvas, slaves, slaveowners, free blacks, poor whites and other nonslaveholding Virginians. Jones’s black slaveowners are central figures in the narrative and something like the novel’s hook, but as you read beyond the opening chapters, their initially striking presence diminishes and they become unusual, but not outsize figures in a widely cast social and narrative panorama. To draw the obvious comparisons, Henry Townsend (the book’s most significant black slaveowner) is no Thomas Sutpen, or Sethe (of Morrison’s Beloved) or Nat Turner--not a monomaniac, or tragic hero, or figure of prophetic wrath. He dies within the first pages of the novel, and while you’re first inclined to think he’ll hang heavy in memory—the hovering dead father who embodies the heroic past or the burden of history--before you know it he fades from view.
It’s a lovely touch and, if I understand Jones’s aims correctly, it fits well with what drew him to the topic of black slaveowning in the first place. The point is not to stress—as much American writing has—the gothic horror of slavery, but a perhaps more awful thought: its ordinariness. In Jones’s depiction, the fact that Henry Townsend and some of his peers own slaves is testimony to the awful acceptability of chattel ownership. In the moral climate of the antebellum south as Jones envisions it slavery seems variously acceptable or troubling but rarely objectionable and almost never a sin or outrage. Even those who feel its injustice tend to accept it as a given fact of their world. The major concern of the book, in short, is to imagine what it would be like to swim in the sea of a local morality whose terrible limitations are fully patent in retrospect. Hence the book’s title, which refers to a 16th-century map owned by one of the novel’s characters and emphasizes the way he is beholden to a distorted and antiquated rendition of things. The whole point is that these people don’t know what we know.
The result is quite a different literary treatment of slavery than has been familiar, but also (now for the grand theorizing) a kind of historical novel that hasn’t been much in favor in recent years.
Monday, May 16, 2005
The Ozone Crackle of Bad Intentions
The blogosphere, let’s face it, is ruthless. And we must like it that way. Even around these genteel parts, there’s been more letting off steam than improving the sensibility. Some noble among us have taken a harder road and praised the good. (Ray, Daniel, Lawrence, Amardeep, my hat’s off to you.) But, others of us . . . Well, frankly, sometimes it’s just more fun to fold, spindle, and mutilate malefactors.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. As Conscientious Objector reminds us, criticism can, should serve the public good. And this is just a work of art. (“Break me a fucking give”—a sentence that deserves a permanent home in Bartlett’s.) But as Laura suggested some time back, there’s something a little dispiriting about a literary organ that doesn’t find it in its heart to say a positive word every now and then. (Of course, there are those who find the very idea of a literary organ dispiriting.)
I’ve been feeling bad about that and meaning to talk up some good books for awhile. If the Valve is to fulfill the mission envisioned by its impresario, yeah, it’s gotta harpoon some blowhards. But it should also be propagandizing for the unjustly neglected. (Yes, I suppose Empson and Trilling count, but they’re not exactly unknowns.) So while I’ve got a moment between great tidal currents of exams and papers, let me recommend a truly wonderful book of essays you might have missed. Ever since a throwaway post on the impossibility of teaching writing I tossed up a while ago, I’ve been thinking about Carlo Rotella’s Cut Time: An Education at the Fights. It’s a marvelous set of ruminations on the manly art of fisticuffs that, while profoundly illuminating about boxing is also concerned with some other important subjects: as its title says, education, but also work, craft, luck, class, and, of course, sheer dominance. It’s done more to shake up my ideas about teaching than any number of essays on radical pedagogy I once struggled through and have now consigned to the dustbin of memory.
Before you pass on, let me just say that I don’t know doodly about boxing, and I don’t much like it either. (I still shudder in memory of an obligatory extracurricular session from my Catholic elementary school days.) But Rotella is not a fetishist or even primarily a fan. Nor is he one of the literary glorifiers dropping in for some breathless attitudinizing. He is one of those rare and extraordinary people who can show you the meaning in something you might be inclined to dismiss and who can do it because, like the boxers he does admire, he’s a beautiful craftsman.
Since each essay is a little marvel of footwork, no quote will do justice to the beauty of any one of the book’s pieces.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
New Accomplishments in Reproductive Technology
The charge has been made that the Valve doesn’t know what it wants to be. Not being able to decide among literary organ (yeccch!, my wife says) or blog, or something else, it flounders around like Barnum’s fiji mermaid. Fair enough. I like that kind of jambalaya myself, but I can see that it has drawbacks.
In that light, a warning. Utterly trivial post
straight ahead removed on the advice of readers more conscientious than myself.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
File Under Unsurprising
So, the new essay component of the SAT looks not quite what it was promised to be. This is not exactly a shock. I spent some time teaching composition in a large public university system that made heavy use of mass administered entrace exams. I wouldn’t say they served no purpose, but their relation to the teaching of good writing was at best tangential, or maybe prefatory. That at least one SAT critic has mastered the ability “to guess the correct grade by . . . [the] bulk and shape” of an essay brought a little Proustian thrill of remembrance to me. When I was learning how to teach composition, we used to call this “holistic grading.” Not quite throwing the papers down a set of stairs to see where they land. But not far enough off either.
Being very lucky indeed, I now teach at the kind of place populated by nth degree black belts of the SAT. So I have the good fortune of worrying about the unintended consequences of the new exam. My students are brilliant, but with precious few exceptions I wouldn’t say they arrive with finely honed writing skills. I shudder to think about a new generation of kids who have spent hours mastering the ability to write long, empty essays full of big words and mistaken “facts.” (Don’t say it, John Bruce! If you’re out there, I know a witty reply is bubbling on your lips. Spare me, please.)
Even with these fabulous students, I find teaching writing immensely difficult--like teaching someone to dance. The boxstep is more or less easy. But after that there’s so many, myriad components of craft and talent involved that it seems impossible to systematize. Every case is different, and the only method is to pay attention and do it over and over again. The terrible thing is that for students who love to write and want to be good at it, this is all hugely rewarding. For others, though, I sometimes suspect it’s like being initiated into a weird fraternity whose rules are completely arbitary. There are those great moments when things click, but more often there’s slogging.
In darker moments I think, you can’t really teach writing; you can only aspire to be its Zen master. Am I wrong? I’m curious to know.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
An Undisciplined Discipline?
A few days ago in a thread that followed one of my posts, Jonathan and the admirable A. Cephalous got into an interesting debate about disciplinary distinctions. (See their posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Though the issues got a full and frank airing, I think they’re too significant to let them just fade away amid a pretty much unrelated discussion. So this is my bid to resusciate the disagreement and open it to other players. (Sorry guys. I don’t mean to be poking a stick in a hornet’s nest or anything. I thought it was an interesting conversation.)
The gist of the debate comes down to the question of what weight to give disciplinary boundaries.Continue reading "An Undisciplined Discipline?"
Friday, April 29, 2005
Writer in Chief, a bleg
There’s an interesting discussion going on over at the home of the prodigious Matthew Yglesias about presidential government, American style--its plusses and more obvious minuses. Yglesias’s point is that most emerging democracies don’t seem to be interested in adopting an American constitutional system (bicameral legislature, separation of powers) and prefer parliamentary to presidential democracy--as the U.S. also seems to do when it takes a hand in drafting constitutions for conquered powers (Germany, Japan, etc.). The great exception to the world pattern, the region where presidential government modeled on the U.S. system has flourished, is Latin America. And there the results haven’t been encouraging.
I mention this because, as it happens, I’m writing a book about American literature and presidential government. (Gods grant that it be completed soon.) Of course, it is profound and complex, but the basic topic is the way twentieth century writers have often taken the presidency as a model and rival for the work of literature. The theory is that stories explicitly about the presidency or (the more frequent case) adhering to a logic similar to that seen in theories of presidential government are attractive to writers for a number of reasons, but mainly because they provide literary figures the same opportunity that they do political thinkers--a means to try to think past some of the inveterate problems of liberal society and government. The story begins for me around the turn of the last century--when political figures like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt began making a strong case for the concentration of power in the executive office. The method of the book is to read major literary works in tandem with contemporaneous political theories and to compare their methods of framing problems.
I hope to be posting about all this on the Valve as the book (may it please the mysterious powers of the keyboard) heads toward completion. In the meantime, a bleg. If this calls anything interesting to mind, please let me know. What do you think the great lit. of the presidency is? And what allusions to the office do you remember?
I’m thinking of things like Alan Ginsberg saying in “America”: “My ambition is to be president.” It’s a trivial example, of course but I think an illuminating one. Ginsberg really does think of himself as a kind of president. And its far from rare. Do you know of other such examples where the mission of the writer is compared and contrasted to the president’s? And am I wrong to believe this is a pretty distinctively American attitude? Is it the case that other national literatures feature writers thinking of the work of literature as modeled by parliament or the prime minister?
Monday, April 25, 2005
Critical Terms To Be Lined Up Against A Wall And Shot
There was a tv commercial a few years back in which a sidewalk vendor sold people chattering wind up dolls that repeated single inane phrases. The buyers then had the delicious opportunity to stomp the dolls to bits. ("we can still be friends, we can still be friends, we can still . . .” Smash!)
Wouldn’t it be great if there were dolls that spouted “probelmatize” or “subvert” or whatever? And wouldn’t it be even better if they had actual voodoo-doll like powers, so that when you pulverized them their inanities would be finally wiped from the earth forever? Ecrasez l’infame!
My current vote for most annoying bit of lit-crit jargon is the ugly and omnivorous use of “imaginary” as a noun--especially in the currently familiar phrase “national imaginary.” What is up with that? It’s never been clear to me how imaginary in this usage differs from imagination--except, well, that it’s newer and more, um, problematized. But more importantly, it’s not clear to me at all how the term “national imaginary” (meaning, so far as I can tell, something like a nation’s psychic template) avoids the problem of imputing collective consciousnesses that has long been a problem for literary study. If you say a nation has an “imaginary,” you’re pretty much of necessity saying that it has a collective mind in which that imaginary operates. Why exactly would you want to do that?
I have my suspicions. But for the moment I just want to grumble about the way the critics who use this terminology--critics, I think it’s safe to say, who regard themselves as scrupulously skeptical of received ideas and popular mystifications, particularly of the kind that ascribe false group identities--recussitate in this usage one of the hoariest and most pernicious legacies of literary romanticism. It’s dumb. Nations don’t have imaginaries. There I said it. Now I wish I could just find that doll and shoot it.