About Sean McCann
Sean McCann is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University.
Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posts by Sean McCann
Friday, April 22, 2005
Attention Must Be Paid
I love Amardeep’s long quotation from Johnson. It makes me want to abuse the privileges of the blogger and repose a question I asked in the long thread that followed on John’s Barbarians post. Somehow, I got passed over. Technical glitch, I suppose.
The question I want to ask people like Daniel and Ray—or really anyone who wants to defend literary purism or disinterested aesthetic experience or who fears that literature will be swamped by extraneous concerns—is this: would it do any violence to your view of the difference between good and bad reading to say that what you really want is for readers to pay attention?
That is what Johnson’s talking about, isn’t it? Most readers are distracted and, in fact, reading for distraction, which in his worldly manner he’ll assume isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but not the worst either. But what you really want is a reader who will be devoted and scrupulous—who will be in the Jamesian formula one on whom nothing is lost.
And really, when complaints are made about overdetermined readers who bring inappropriate agendas or inadequate tools to books, isn’t the complaint that they’re being distracted by trivial or misleading concerns from noticing what’s truly germane? (The fact that what counts as germane will vary from case to case, and that it will be subject to constant reevaluation, wouldn’t change the fundamental goal in this view.) The reason this matters, of course, is because there’s a price to be paid for not paying attention. Something’s lost when you don’t have your eyes open, or your ears on, or what have you.
The virtue to putting things this way is that it avoids the contortions that arise when you attempt to rule some concerns categorically in or out of the bounds of acceptability. After all, no one would say that knowing something about theology wasn’t important to appreciating the full meaning or experience of Renaissance painting, while in fact you might well want to say that viewers who were aggressively formalist in that case (“notice the large central mass in the Raphael”) were not paying sufficient attention. Something important would be lost on them.
To my mind it’s all Kant’s fault that we get tied up in these knots. Without him, would we even be considering the contrast with which Amardeep frames the Johnson quotation—pure utility vs pure aesthetic appreciation? I think Amardeep’s right to suggest that Johnson would believe this a fatuous distinction. It seems one to me. The problem with bad reading isn’t that it seeks utility. It’s that, by being insufficiently attentive, it wastes the value it might find.
Friday, April 15, 2005
Look Ma, No Theories (or, No Taste)
I’ll bet I’m not the only to have an ambivalent reaction to the kind of thread that developed from Daniel’s Disinterest Hats post--not the post itself, but the extended discussion that followed. (Confirmation. No sooner did I write that sentence than I flipped over to the Valve main page and saw that Miriam said almost exactly the same.) And I do mean ambivalent in the full sense of the word. What is it with conversations of the sort? They’re like wrecks on the highway or late night televisions shows featuring teams of crime solving supermodels. Or maybe the Sunday morning talk shows are a better analogy. You can’t take your eyes away, but when it’s over you feel icky and like you’ve just squandered some of the precious time you’ve been allotted in this brief transit. Nothing happens, the debate never advances, no minds get changed, and precious little in the way of new information or perspective comes to the fore. So, why, for gaia’s sake, are they so damnably and weirdly compelling?
Well, for precisely those reasons is my guess. Nothing’s so gratifying as an irresolvable debate of starkly opposed positions. And what’s attractive about them is that, since so little development occurs, they can function as a kind of moral theater. A place, in other words, where you can display, to choose a random example, your inability to suffer the pomposity of academic jargon. Or, vice versa, your impatience with the old fartiness of the cultivated sensibility. And, then, in turn where you can be further gratified by the outrageous postures of your hapless foes. This isn’t reasoned discourse, in other words. It’s professional wrestling.Continue reading "Look Ma, No Theories (or, No Taste)"
Sunday, April 10, 2005
You Have to Trust Someone
Is there any doubt that historians will some day consider the 10 years or so flanking the recent turn of the century and regard it as an astonishing acme in the art of TV? What will they call it, the age of HBO? I’ve only just seen the first handful of episdoes of the first season of Deadwood, and it’s everythign it’s cracked up to be. Speaking as someone who grew up believing that quality TV meant the Lou Grant show, I’m just amazed--and all the more so that Deadwood follows The Sopranos and the truly awesome The Wire. I hear 6 Feet Under is pretty good too. Incredible.
I’m sure people who understand the industry can explain why this fine turn of events is happening. But it’s also interesting to speculate from a position of sheer ignorance about some of the big themes the three dramas I’ve mentioned share. They’re all obviously about complex, extralegal commercial activities--conspiracy, in other words. Which is a gret and classic subject of drama, of course. But one wonders wehter it reflects something about the nature of the current TV racket. (Is making a TV series anything like running a mafia crew, by any chance?) And, more grandly, whether this isn’t the perfect expression of the new age of economic insecurity. In his innovative study New Deal Modernism Michael Szalay shows the way that, formally as well as thematically, much of the major lit of the ‘30s in the U.S. was concerned to imagine reliable forms of security--particularly as informal social networks had proven inadequate to the task. (In his view, in the U.S. the ‘30s weren’t a literary red decade at all. Writers were more interested in reliability, predicatability, and compensation than in revolution.) The HBO drama, by contrast, looks like an art form for the dog days of deregulation, unpredicatable income swings, and the assault on Social Security.
Deadwood in particular looks like executive producer David Milch had reading up on Richard Thaler, and I suppose Robert Putnam or Francis Fukuyama. The big theme--as always in the Western--is the relation between civilization and barbarism. But Milch’s innovation, if I appreciate it right, is to make this a story almost entirely about commerce. One of the interesting things about the program so far as Ive seen is that all of the major characters are merchants of some kind and that the prospectors who actually drove the growth of Deadwood are only background material--as if it were obvious that primitive accumulation doesn’t make for good drama. Similarly, the Sioux--"the heathen"--appear only as a kind of nagging bad conscience.
What really interests Milch, in other words, is not Regeneration Through Violence (or, if so, in a pretty subtle way), but the complicated interactions of markets, norms, and institutions.Continue reading "You Have to Trust Someone"
Thursday, April 07, 2005
While we’re talking high and low, Sanford Schwartz has a fine essay on the inimitable Manny Farber in the current New York Review of Books (subscription only, alas). Farber is the eccentric critical wonder famous for his early (’40s-’60s) defense of the “B” movie and for the legendary distinction he invented to support it: Termite (swarming pop culture) vs White Elephant (auteurist, pretentious, etc) art.
Farber was a fascinating guy for a number of reasons. For one, he always wanted to be, of all things, a critic. Thought it a noble calling apparently, and wrote furiously for The New Republic , Time, The Nation and others for decades. And like his somewhat likeminded contemporary Pauline Kael (with whom he shared a love not just of the accomplishments of the studio system, but an instinctive distaste for cant and a freewheeling rhetorical style), he was rewarded for his dedication with actual influence over an important generation of artists. (I’m sure I’ll mangle the details here, but I think I remember reading that the reason Scorsese got to direct Taxi Driver is that when he headed out to LA to track down Paul Schrader, Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola were off on a pilgrimage to San Diego to meet with guru Farber.)
I first heard of Farber when I was in grad school in English at the very height of the Theory days, and I remember a friend patiently explaining the significance of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of “minor literature” and the rhizome and thinking with relief, oh, that sounds like termite art. (I don’t know if I was right since I figured I didn’t have to read the D & G.) I never knew, though, that Farber was also a painter in his own right. Schwartz makes his paintings sound like his critical writing--charming, idiosyncratic, unplaceable. (Images here.) I’m sorry to have missed the recent touring show.
Without John Holbo it never would’ve occured to me, but Farber’s critical vision (and maybe his paintings too) look like straight, determinedly naive pastoral. The “B” movie and the studio system weren’t just good entertainment for him; they were a little outpost of a better world. In the long run he was no Kael. As Schwartz’s superb essay points out that might be because as a stylist he was too consistent with his own tastes--the suspicion of the monumental and the fascination for the minor, burrowing, aimlessness of the termite. Da Capo has a recently updated collection of his movie writing in press.
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Don’t get me wrong. Saul Bellow was a great writer. But the near obeisance he managed to generate among his admirers always rubbed me wrong and makes me now feel all snarky, in this most inappropriate of moments--when we can expect much high-minded grieving among the literary journalists who apotheosized him.
A few years ago, when James Atlas’s earnest biography and Bellow’s last novel Ravelstein came out, that reverence was all too obviously on display. Atlas got drubbed all out of proportion to the minor weaknesses of his book. And Ravelstein got touted beyond plausibility. (Only the merciless Michiko Kakutani, if I remember right, had the nerve to say that it wasn’t a very impressive book.) If ever literary journalism looked like an insular boys club, it was then.
The good thing about Ravelstein to my mind (apart from its sort of interesting depiction of Allan Bloom and apart from the way, as weak books will do, it showed Bllow’s shtick much more transparently than his better stuff). Was that it showed some of the places Atlas was probably right. The Bellow stand-in in that book is something of a poser, tormented by his sense of intellectual inadequacy and all too ready to worship at the feet of someone who looks smart. It was a reminder of how much of the bubbling great Bellow depended on characters who were desperate hustlers, fakes, show-offs, and greedily desirous, self-involved sons-of-bitches. That made for some great prose and some great stories. But reverence doesn’t suit it well.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
An Historical Chesnutt
Admittedly, it was aeons ago in time as the internets know it. But let me return for a moment to the embarrassing story broken recently by Holly Jackson in The Boston Globe. As readers of the excellent Scott McLemee may remember, Jackson reported that Emma Dunham Kelly-Hawkins, author of Megda and Four Girls at Cottage City, and one of the novelists included in Henry Louis Gates’s Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers, was, as it turns out, not Black at all. Which cleared up a small literary mystery. For reasons that remain lost to history, some years ago Kelly-Hawkins gained the reputation of being a forgotten Black woman novelist. The fact that her uninspired novels feature young white woman undergoing the trials of courtship and Christian belief thus became a provocative question, and in recent years the republication of her novels inspired a minor academic cottage industry devoted to probing the issue. McLemee delivers a concise and embarrassing summary: Kelly-Hawkins’s novels questioned the codes of whiteness; fantasized about a world beyond race; undermined the idea of race altogether. Now the industry is over. Kelly-Hawkins was white, Christian, genteel. Not so surprising that her characters were too.
It’s a painful tale, but, of course, also a delightful one for anyone (and who isn’t?) given to academic schadenfreude. If there’s anything better than seeing academics make fools of themselves, it’s seeing just how industrious they can be in the effort. Lots of good fun and high dudgeon ensued in the blogosphere and much discussion about whether Jackson’s revelations showed a literary academy that had bankrupted itself in the neglect of aesthetics and the pursuit of historical or political relevance.
In the round of charge and countercharge, though, some interesting points got lost.