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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
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Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
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Sean McCann
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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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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy"--Part IV (and Last)

Posted by Daniel Green on 11/22/06 at 04:27 PM

Parts I, II, and III.

By 1980 “contemporary literature” had indeed been established as a subject of academic inquiry and criticism—in many ways it was increasingly identified with the avant-garde in academic scholarship, and would continue to be associated with the subsequent rise to prominence of critical theory—perhaps more quickly and readily than Ihab Hassan or Marcus Klein (or Jerome Klinkowitz) would have been able to anticipate. In turn, the study of contemporary literature as a regular part of the curriculum was firmly established in most universities and would soon enough be so pervasive in all colleges and universities as to seem thoroughly unexceptional. Many such courses would develop into ordinary survey courses in which efforts to “cover” as representative a sample of postwar fiction would be made, but the published scholarly and critical coverage of contemporary fiction at least in 1980 and for many of the years following was focused intensely if not exclusively on the postmodern. (In retrospect, very little academic criticism of “minimalism” and neorealism was published until much later—and, comparatively, really very little at all—even though these challenges to postmodern practice began appearing as early as the mid 1970s.) Although this will likely turn out to have been the most significant movement in American fiction of the second half of the century, its central place in the newly respectable academic study of the subject ultimately worked to in effect push aside the criticism of contemporary writing as such in favor of a more concentrated consideration of the effects of the postmodern approach, at least as this was understood by individual critics operating under their own particular assumptions.

Thus academic books on contemporary fiction throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s come bearing titles such as The Metafictional Muse (McCaffery, 1982), Dissident Postmodernists (Maltby, 1991), Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (Barr, 1992), Postmodern Sublime (Tabbi, 1995), or simply Postmodernist Fiction (McHale, 1987). Other books, such The Art of Excess (LeClair, 1989) or Fiction in the Quantum Universe (Strehle, 1992), that filter their critiques through the lens of external sources of knowledge nevertheless still focus on the most eminent of the American postmodernists as the subjects of interest. Furthermore, by far those books dedicated to the explication of a single author’s work—Coover, Barth, Pynchon, Gass, Gaddis, etc.—feature predominantly the postmodernists as subjects. The extent to which the scholarly discussion during the period was dominated by the debate over postmodernism is even plain to see in a book such as Alan Wilde’s Middle Grounds (1987), which although it attempts to find that territory announced in the title—more room for conventional techniques, less insistence of the experimental—does so as much by interpreting the same postmodernists (Elkin, Barthelme, Pynchon) in less radical ways as by emphasizing new uses of realism.

Eventually the spread of critical theory, especially the feminist, neo-Marxist, and historicist varieties, would bring to the study of contemporary fiction an effort to refocus attention on alternatives to postmodernism. But the model of scholarship established in the previous two decades would continue to prevail, so that, for example, even studies designed to displace postmodernist fiction from the center of critical attention do so only to replace it with some practice, some identifiable movement or association of writers or texts, even more in consonance with literary theory, even more advanced in the techniques employed to critique postmodern American culture, even more representative of the direction in which a truly progressive or socially relevant or historically necessary American writing must be heading. In some cases the attempt seems to be to outflank or surpass postmodernism by appropriating those of its features that are perceived to be of continuing value—its iconoclasm, its inferred “subversive” qualities—and attributing them as well to the alternative practices or new groups of writers. Thus books like Jay Clayton’s Contemporary American Literature and Theory (1993) or Robert Rebein’s Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists (2001), both of which focus on the return to conventional techniques and the advent of “multicultural” writers but both of which also see this new fiction as having supplanted postmodern fiction (or at least the sort of postmodern fiction that rejected narrative in favor of “language games” and “self-reflexive experiments” (Clayton 91)) as the cutting edge, the authentically insurgent.

Each of these books as well typify the way in which notions about the insurgent, rebellious qualities of literature are now conceived by almost all academic criticism to be gestures of fundamentally political significance, literature’s indirect way of engaging in political discourse, which in turn has become the ultimate subject of interest to academic critics.  Although the politicizing of literary study in general, and the study of contemporary fiction in particular, has had an especially numbing, enervating effect on literary scholarship and criticism, the more or less uniform acceptance of this brand of analysis is even more consequential than its specific characteristics. Academic criticism might just as easily have converged around some other method or outlook; it has converged around this politicized approach with, unfortunately, criticism of contemporary fiction in many respects the first to arrive there. In the process, both contemporary literature and literary criticism have all but lost the authority to determine the way they are to be understood—the latter to determine the way in which it is to be practiced—to the scholarly fashions of academe.

No one book or critic can, of course, be held to account for this state of affairs (all of the books I have discussed have played their part). But in concluding this survey of its antecedent developments I would like to focus on a final academic study that does, in my view, exemplify the unfortunate consequences for the critical reception of contemporary literature of subjecting it to the kind of analysis that has become the currently favored style of academic literary criticism—which, because academic criticism is now the only source of serious and sustained attention to literary works of all kinds, are the likely consequences for the future of literature as a whole. Steven Weisenburger’s Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel 1930-1980 (1995) is one of the later academic books to take as it subject what might be called “classic” postmodernism, although it could also be said to belong to the initial stages of the consideration of postmodern American fiction as a historical phenomenon. Clearly intended as a favorable treatment of this fiction (Weisenburger is also the author of the very valuable A “Gravity’s Rainbow” Companion), Fables of Subversion nevertheless ultimately has the effect of diminishing, if not trivializing, the works that Weisenburger ostensibly is trying to celebrate.

The book’s title reveals much about Weisenburger’s assumptions. It might even be said to sum up the essential critical concepts developed by the central line of commentary on postmodern fiction: that this fiction rejects narrative realism in favor of the creative distortions of the fabular; that the challenges posed by the various forms of this rejection are profoundly “subversive”; that the impulse behind much if not most postmodern fiction is, in one way or another, comic and satirical. However, Weisenburger’s notion of postmodern satire as “degenerative” satire—“Loosely in concord with deconstructionist thought, it functions to subvert hierarchies of value and to reflect suspiciously on all ways of making meaning, including its own” (3)—seems to be an attempt to identify a unique feature of postmodern fiction that separates it from conventional (“normative”) satire, making it both more than merely “humorous” and less than straightforwardly moral and narrowly political in the traditional mode. Further, Weisenburger seems to regard this new mode of satire as largely an aesthetic achievement, taking the literary works that employ it beyond simple engagement with transitory political conditions. In this way one could say that the books makes a case for the “fable of subversion” as a form of literary art.

Yet, Weisenburger finally can’t rest satisfied with an image of postmodern texts simply as works of literature. He is still concerned to defend it against the imputation by other academic critics, such as Fredric Jameson, of reactionary political implications and to decry the depredations of American political conservatives, settling ultimately for a version of “cultural work” as the external source of validation for the exertions of postmodern satire. Although “the demand for recuperated or even new norms of polity and community has never been a modal convention for satire of the subversive, degenerative kind,” it nonetheless “[does its] best work in shouting ‘Fire’ or in otherwise firebombing the cultural theater where meanings are made” (261). However much Weisenburger has invested in the coinage of this “degenerative” satire as a hedge against the “recuperation” of postmodern fiction into “norms of polity and community,” the very idea of the subversive has been so thoroughly transformed by critical theory and cultural studies into one of purely political significance that his insistent use of it can only in the end recuperate this fiction into the norms of politicized academic scholarship—at best into those of a tepid and conventional anarchism.

Thus even a critic professing admiration for the literary accomplishments of the fiction he examines seems compelled even so to give even closer attention to the concerns of his well-regarded fellow academics and to the overriding importance of ruling academic suppositions. It betrays a scholarly establishment every bit as stagnant and buttoned-down in its assumptions as that against which Jerome Klinkowitz recoiled but then proceeded to join. In the meantime, contemporary literature becomes less an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of imaginative writing to be studied and judged on its own terms than an addition to the docket of cases for academic interrogation. Less an extension and revision of a literary history to which current writers unavoidably belong than an instrument for the institutional aggrandizement of the academy in the most egregiously ahistorical of ways. And less a collection of disparate texts and writers of divergent inclinations than an accumulation of specimens selected to reinforce a predetermined doctrine. As a result of all this, contemporary writers are left with a literary culture in which serious regard for their work is left to the few popular book-reviewing venues that survive, while in turn critics who might wish to give such work more sustained and serious attention have little if any opportunity to do so. In an era witnessing the visual and cyber media intensifying their claims on those who would be needed to preserve an audience for works of literature, the current inflexible approach dominating academic criticism of contemporary literature might very well prove fatal.


Comments

Good post, cheers. I wonder if part of the work that has to be done by critics to recover the actual subversiveness of the postmodern, is a representation of the postmodern as (to borrow Heidegger’s construction) “average everydayness.” I find that my own work on postmodernity, as well as that of many of the political critics to whom you refer, tends to portray the postmodern as a site of starving, hysterical, naked consciousness.

In fact, writers like Don DeLillo and Donald Barthelme (as well as Kurt Vonnegut, in a poppier vein) are quite capable of portraying the moments of contentment and even beauty that depend upon defamiliarization. In places their prose recedes into the familiar: the “norms of polity and community,” as Weisenburger has called them, that are as crucial to the postmodern as the crises of identity and meaning that seem at once to expose and to found such norms.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/25/06 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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