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Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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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

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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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Thursday, August 11, 2005

About “Us” Conservatives and “Our” Politics: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 06:48 PM

In a thread that’s almost become an institution, CR identifies the brand of conservatism ostensibly practiced by contributors to the Valve:

for “us” no politics = bad politics

Shortly thereafter, he elaborates:

I’d love to hear [Sean’s] proposal for a mode of literary criticism true to the establishment of socialism in our time.

I take this to be the strong version of the more general argument that literary criticism ought to further the cause of social justice. 

This veers dangerously close to the old goals of liberal humanism (although contemporary theorists rightly feel they sidestep the race/gender/class/sexuality hyprocrisy of the older generation of liberal humanists).  But more to the point, it’s a political stance without recourse to political stakes.  When I overhear such sentiments, I always want to ask “Precisely how will exposure to multiple race/gender/class/sexuality perspectives and/or methodologies enhance or enrich the critical faculties of your students?” Although this question never implicitly entails a defense of the extant canon, it is always assumed to, so the conversation always veers in the direction of dull academic posturing.  That posturing forecloses the possibility of my question being answered because it constitutes an acceptable non-answer in itself.  The follow-up question I’m never able to ask is “When compared to other available modes of literary and/or cultural criticism, an you explain to me precisely why your politicized mode better enhances or enriches the critical faculties of your students?” No conversation’s ever progressed that far, however.  In real life, the conversation stops with the binary--and yes, almost everyone with whom I’ve had this conversation otherwise knows the perniciousness of binaries--best expressed:

not “our” politics = no/bad politics

That “our” is rarely stated but always implied.  Of course, by writing this I’m hurting “the cause.” These thoughts are liable to be appropriated by people who don’t share “our” politics, who write for the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.  Sometimes that happens.  Why should that suppress internal criticism of theoretical within or across academic disciplines?  Those who would so appropriate these arguments would have found grounds for criticism elsewhere because they actively seek them out.  As I tell my students: If you go fishing in a novel you can almost always find the claims that you need to support the argument you were determined to make.  The difference between a fisher and a scholar is that a scholar takes seriously what the novel takes seriously and analyses in accordance with its logic.  (The extreme example I employ comes from a fictitious student essay about race in Native Son: “Richard Wright’s Native Son is a racist novel in which the very appearance of the word ‘nigger’ dehumanizes and demeans African-Americans.” Then I introduce James Baldwin and watch their heads spin.  You see my point.)

But I’ve digressed: How this particular not-our-politics-equals-no-politics binary has earned its staying power?  How has it continued to thrive in a political environs vastly different from the one in which it first evolved?  From the perspective of those who would think Theory a bulwark against political conservativism, how are we to account to the vast rightward drift of the country when many of them would’ve taken their required English and/or Composition courses with instructors radicalized during the culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s?  From another perspective, is Theory nothing more an intellectual Maginot Line?  That is, has it failed to address the very threat it once claimed to be the only defense against?


Comments

This promises to be a very interesting discussion. There’s one simple rule which must be followed, however. Each commenter must take the name of one of the Celestials. Arishem the Judge is reserved for John Holbo.

Try not to repeat more than necessary.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/11/05 at 08:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You can’t analyse a novel by taking seriously what it takes seriously; its logic needs analysis. You can only describe a novel with this posture.  Your fictional student is not reading Native Son, but instead is reading Herzog’s Kameraden. What are you going to do now?

By on 08/11/05 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you calling me a troll?  Because I can’t very well troll my own post, can I?  Anyhow, you can call me Oneg the Prober.  After the discussion, feel free to join me for cake, cookies and challah in the lounge.

EDIT: Also, I focused so much on the Oneg that I missed the Prober.  There will be no probing, I repeat, no probing.  Only Oneg, by which I mean “some M&Ms.”

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AvW, you certainly can analyze a novel by taking seriously what it takes seriously.  For example, any serious reading of Native Son will have to account for the role of race in the logic of the novel.  A reading like the hypothetical one I’ve given doesn’t take Wright’s discussion of race seriously, imposing instead its own contemporary idea of debates about race (and dismissing Wright’s arguments altogether).  Jonathan Arac’s book on Huck Finn discusses admirably (though not entirely satisfactorily) this very problem.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What would be your method for Kameraden?  I’m not trolling. I am curious whether you think another posture is ever required and to try to find out what characteristics in a novel would call for it.

By on 08/11/05 at 08:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not a difficult rule, people. You want the Earth to be weighed in the balance and found wanting because of your failure to follow instructions?

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/11/05 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ian Watt: a famously great reader of the canon, in many ways more observant and perceptive even to my biased eyes than say Raymond Williams. But would he be a great reader of Romance novels? Could he even begin to account for them? What explains the obvious problem here? Your students are not going to be consuming only canonical literature.

By on 08/11/05 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AvW, I wasn’t accusing you of trolling, only wondering whether Jonathan accused me.  To answer your question, I don’t know the novel of which you speak, so perhaps another example?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gone With The Wind?

By on 08/11/05 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You mean like Scott or bodice-rippers? Answer’s “yes,” either way.

By Jonathan on 08/11/05 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I don’t feel like endlessly logging in and logging out, so you’ll just have to pretend I’m Oneg. 

AvW, I only mean to say that I value immanent readings of the text over extrinsic criticisms, sincen the latter often practice a scatter-shot presentism that’s both obvious and dull.  Consider Walter Benn Michaels’ readings of American fiction in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: he demonstrates through his analysis of Dreiser’s novels that they aren’t as concerned with the progressive politics as they appear to be on their face; that, in fact, they assume viable the very structures they criticize, thereby potentially undermining, by means of the reading experience, the intended effect of the polemic.  That’s an entirely different mode of analysis than a criticism of Dreiser for being, say, a soft socialist.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Argues” for “demonstrates” there. My sphere is precision.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/11/05 at 08:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, excessive levity as the comments open sets a bad example for the children: they need not know how or when I choose to rip my bodice in order to participate in this conversation.  Or are you determined to undermine this conversation before it has a chance to develop?

AvW, Gone With the Wind participates in a cultural and racial discourse particular to its historical moment--as are all novels--and can therefore be examined for what it says or doesn’t say about racial politics.  While it’s always tempting to remark about the features absent from a text--say, what’s currently considered the cutting edge in academic racial politics--as a reading practice that sort of presentism, while self-satisfying in the extreme, provides no information about what Margaret Mitchell considered (or assumed) about the racial politics of her time.  And those are the only politics that can possibly be embedded in the novel itself; all else is external to it.  That’s all I mean when I say I privilege immanent readings over the evolving litany of criticisms of those who know better than Mitchell what the “real” racial politics in the novel were.  (Note: I’m not saying that we have to rely on authorial intention, as these discourses’ll be embedded in the novel whether the author intends them there or not.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please refrain from, um, rearranging my syntax. You know damn well there are a thousand miles between:

for “us” no politics = bad politics

and

not “our” politics = no/bad politics

The claim to be beyond or before or outside of ideology is what I’m talking about. And I think most of us can agree about this, right? That the worst sort of politics often masquerades as absense of politics…

by the way, is there a reason that my gmail addy is banned from commenting? If you’d like me to go away, I’m gone licketysplit and never back again…

By CR on 08/11/05 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, I deliberately rearranged your syntax because your claim implies your politics (hence the socialist elaboration which shortly followed).  For example, if I did a Rumsfeldian reading of a literary text--"Does this book support the terrorists?  Yes.  Should we only read books that articulate a clear moral vision of the Global Struggle Against Extremism?  Yes."--that would be a political reading, but surely that would be one you wouldn’t include on the “no politics” side of the equation.

Also, it doesn’t appear to banned (as it shows up in the Expression Engine “comments” section).  I’ll email Chris and see what the problem is.  Because there’s no way I’d invite you to a conversation I knew you couldn’t participate in.  (I’m not like some people, after all.)

[EDIT: Per Jonathan’s astute obversation that I’d linked to the wrong post, an edit.]

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, I didn’t explain that very well: what I’m saying is that the rhetorical move to postulate an “us” who believes that “no politics equals bad politics” creates a false consensus, dissent from which puts one on the “no politics” side of the equation.  That’s why I’ve made “no politics” and “not our politics” equivalent terms.  If you disagree with that claim--the Rumsfeld example’s there for a reason--then I’m interested to hear the basis for your disagreement.  (I always intend my posts to foster debate; never do I intend them to browbeat.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 09:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another literary blog-spat in effect predicated on basic philosophy issues; in this case, that ol’ anglo-german chestnut, obligation.  But to ask writers to justify or even discuss obligation--to derive an “ought from an is"-- is to risk not only being branded troll but boor.

It’s not unreasonable to ask that bloggers be obligated to promote whatever is ethically valid, including writing such as Dreiser’s which calls attention to political issues: That would perhaps imply that marxist bloggers also include body counts of humans killed by stalinists and maoists; it might imply that literary ethics and the political relevance of literature itself be debated. But if you think literature is primarily directed to ethical or political reform you’re probably in the wrong bidness, social work or the priesthood a far better career choice for the do-gooder belle-lettrist.

By H. Bilious Greyface the 9th on 08/11/05 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That was Walter Scott I was referring to there (different types of “Romance,” etc.) Nezarr the Calculator advises you to consider the vastness of the cosmos.

The conversation you linked to, well…

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/11/05 at 09:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Any sufficiently advanced political science is indistinguishable from Theology?

By on 08/11/05 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I’m not sure I buy into a hard and fast line between intrinsic and extrinsic critical practices.  I share your frustration with a certain form of presentism (i.e., that which projects into the past present-day concerns), while I wish to preserve certain other kinds of presentism (i.e., books do not carry their contexts around with them like luggage, and so given a popular reading audience, what does a certain 19th century novel mean for US today, how does it resonante with today’s concerns, what can it teach us about where we are now, and so on).

But back to the intr/extr binary.  Sure, a novel shouldn’t be made to answer to concerns outside its time and place.  Still, a novel can be fruitfully rubbed up against other discourses “in the social air” of its time.  Which is to say, I think you’re right that we should read *Native Son* or *Gone W/T Wind* for what the novels’ structural and thematic concerns are.  But, given those concerns, I think Bakhtin’s right on this point: words are sent out like beams of light, and the critic needs to act as a spectrum to separate the seemingly unified beam (i.e., Wright on race) into its many different colors (how Wright’s ideas about race are part of a field of discourses about race at that time).

So in such an instance, I think extrinsic discourses can and should be brought to bear on a text.  The question there is—and the question for all Foucauldians—where does a text’s “time and place” stop?  How far back can we go?  How do we know what ideas are in the air tonight (O Lord!)?  Where does synchrony stop and diachrony take over?  At what point are we immersing a text into a history of ideas?  (As Foucault said late in his life, “Maybe I’ve been doing the history of ideas all this time without knowing it.") But the notion of “essentially contested ideas” is important here in any case.

By on 08/11/05 at 09:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott - you’re still not explaining yourself very well…

“what I’m saying is that the rhetorical move to postulate an “us” who believes that “no politics equals bad politics” creates a false consensus, dissent from which puts one on the “no politics” side of the equation”

this is unclear. Or it’s unclear what you’re trying to say… I’d be willing to guess that most of the folks on LS (my “us") believe that no politics = bad politics. How is this a “false consensus”? 

Right - you’re on the no politics, that is bad politcs side of the equation. No argument from me on that point either…

I think you’re Rumsfeldian reading is just fine - why don’t you ask Scaife or Bradley for some seed money to found an institute of Rumsfeldian Studies… God knows the Valve on yr CV will work wonders…

(and I’m using a different email address - is blocked from commenting...)

By CR on 08/11/05 at 10:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"From the perspective of those who would think Theory a bulwark against political conservativism, how are we to account to the vast rightward drift of the country when many of them would’ve taken their required English and/or Composition courses with instructors radicalized during the culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s?”

Scott: This seems to me precisely the right question, and I do wish your (and Sean’s) detractors would address it directly.

By Dan Green on 08/11/05 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB, I think that line, while not necessary in any theoretical sense, does predictably appear in the work of scholars who hie to one side of it.  As someone who’s self-identified as a weak Foucauldian on a couple recent occasions, I take your criticism to heart, but as I have no ready answer, I can only say: Let me think about that one and get back to you.

CR, you keep doing exactly what you claim not to be doing: you throw me on the “no politics” side not because I have “no politics” but because my politics differ from yours.  Hence my assertion that “no politics” is rhetorically convenient but inaccurate: it really means “an imagined consensus to which you don’t belong.” The claim that there’s no political dimension to my work utterly mystifies what’s meant by “politics,” transforms it into something closer to “advocacy.” (By your definition, for example, there’d be no political dimension to the work of the New York Intellectuals.) The real distinction then, your assertions to the contrary, would be “no advocacy = bad politics,” but as that’s unsuitable for the broadsides so-called political criticism make, “advocacy” becomes “politics” and “politics” the practice of a certain few rhetorically savvy (or unintentionally rhetorically savvy) scholars.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"no information about what Margaret Mitchell considered (or assumed) about the racial politics of her time.  And those are the only politics that can possibly be embedded in the novel itself; all else is external to it”

It would seem that even the admission that there exists a formal constraint of a degree of versimilitude would contradict this instantly. Moreover it would present huge problems for your analysis of genre novels written collaboratively or by assembly line. But let’s say there never was such a constraint, and collaborative work doesn’t exist, and every novelist invents the techniques of her genre from scratch:

“Consider Walter Benn Michaels’ readings of American fiction in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: he demonstrates through his analysis of Dreiser’s novels that they aren’t as concerned with the progressive politics as they appear to be on their face; that, in fact, they assume viable the very structures they criticize, thereby potentially undermining, by means of the reading experience, the intended effect of the polemic”

So the ultimate purpose of, the thing that you produce in, your readings is a biographical sketch of the authors of novels. You discover that Mitchell thought X, that Drieser personally was really a supporter of what he pretended to attack, and meanwhile you describe how these authors seamlessly expressed these personal views in their novels, through a highly efficient instrumentalization of genre, form and prose technique?

So you are interested in authors’ personal views and talents? In finding them out? Or in admiring the facility with which they translate them into prose narrative?

And presumably producing this product is an end in itself?

Okay. But, what do you do with a student who doesn’t care about trivia like Margaret Mitchell or what she thought? What would this student derive from your class?

“While it’s always tempting to remark about the features absent from a text--say, what’s currently considered the cutting edge in academic racial politics--as a reading practice that sort of presentism”

I take this to be your reference to Macherey. The dismissal, which is that this does not inform us regarding MM’s personality, doesn’t persuade me. Your mlethod doesn’t inform either - its guesswork. In any case the goal that is presented as justifying itself - finding out what MM thought - is a)impossible to attain with certainty and b) of no interest to most readers of literature.

I realize you have not presented all your reasons for rejecting Macherey’s propositions, and Eagleton’s elaboration. But that you chose the fact that this theory will not produce a guestimation of the author’s conscious personal views suggests that perhaps the reasons you haven’t bothered to give are even less convincing.

By alphonsevanworden on 08/11/05 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As do I, Dan, as do I.  Maybe if I edit it bold people’ll notice and address it?  After all, it speaks to the measurable efficacy of the positions they propound; to ignore it is to take the stance that “Sure, I like to feel like I’m doing something, even if it has no measurable effects.” It’s easy to say you’re playing politics; it’s far more difficult to prove you’re doing so, and more difficult still to prove you’re doing so effectively.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I’m sorry.  You’ve written a thoughtful and I’m sure correct post.  But the underlying issue--CR’s question--isn’t worth your time.  It’s a bad question.  One way to see this is to note the sheer vagueness of the word “true” in that sentence.  Another is to consider the sorry history to which questions of this sort have given rise in the past. (The 30s?) It’s a philistine question and one that suggests a vastly inflated sense of the importance of what are, after all, mainly academic issues.  Like it or not, there’s no significant connection between literary criticism and socialism in our time.  The reason to do, e.g., Marxist criticism is because you believe it gives you the best understanding of your subject.  If you want to be politically efficacious there are more serious ways to go about it.  Sometimes, as it happens, bad politics doesn’t pretend to be no politics, but wears its sense of conviction on its sleeve.

By on 08/11/05 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cultural warriors of all factions would do well to realize that any college professor’s ability to indoctrinate, radicalize, what have you, a student is pretty much nil. A lot of high dudgeon on the right and absurd pretentiousness on the anti-right (there is no sinistral in Kulturkampf) could be avoided that way.

This remains true even allowing for the noise of certain charismatic exceptions and certain susceptible personalities, of course, u.s.w.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/11/05 at 10:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Romance,” yes I gotcha. I haven’t been in school for a few years. In my univ days, we called Scott ‘Historical Romance’ and Romance tout court referred to a certain kind of prose fiction predating DQ and also via Frye to a narrative type, and ‘Romance novel’ exclusively to books of one hand.

Forgive me for not being up on the revisions.

By alphonsevanworden on 08/11/05 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So you are interested in authors’ personal views and talents? In finding them out? Or in admiring the facility with which they translate them into prose narrative?

Hold on, hold on: there’s a reason I qualified the role of authorial intent in this scheme.  It doesn’t matter whether Dreiser intends to embed counter-themes which appraise capitalism in a manner contrary to the ones he crafts polemically: they’re there and available to the reader even if the author didn’t intend them to be there.  A student in my class wouldn’t leave a discussion on Dreiser with knowledge of what Dreiser thought but with an understanding of how Dreiser’s thought interacted with the social, cultural and political context in which he thought his thoughts.  I don’t need to guess at what he thinks because it will be present, in some form, in the text itself.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Help me reconcile these statements:

“It doesn’t matter whether Dreiser intends to embed counter-themes which appraise capitalism in a manner contrary to the ones he crafts polemically: they’re there and available to the reader even if the author didn’t intend them to be there”

“no information about what Margaret Mitchell considered (or assumed) about the racial politics of her time.  And those are the only politics that can possibly be embedded in the novel itself; all else is external to it”

I’m not trolling. They seem absolutely contradictory to me.

By on 08/11/05 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, you’re no doubt correct, but since it’s one of the hallmarks of the Theory/Anti-Theory debate, I thought I’d take a crack at an examination of the rhetoric, especially consdiering the hypocrisy to which I point (and Dan re-points) to: How can such arguments be sustained in light of such overwhelming evidence that they’re invalid, unsound, and factually incorrect? 

Re: The ‘30s.  Didn’t Mike Gold single-handedly author the New Deal?  Point to Scott!

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course I am familiar with the gold standard and I didn’t mean to characterize B-M’s work at all, only to address your description of your method and assumptions.

By on 08/11/05 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AvW, what I’m saying about Dreiser is that it doesn’t matter if he intends to represent the pro-capitalist assumptions on which he bases his polemics: they’re there and they contradict the polemical thrust of his intent to criticize the nature of capitalism.  That’s what Michaels argues (yes, yes Jonathan the Precise), and I think he’s correct.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 11:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to sayjust from reading your blog I am sure your actual readings of literature deliver far more than what your description of them here suggests. But the description , the consciousness of the method you employ, the assumptions you make, what is properly called your theory of literary production, are what is in question and the heart of this debate.

By on 08/11/05 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all - boy, you really got us there. Theory caused - or at least didn’t stop - the Reagan Revolution, the rise of megachurch evangelism, and the Bush debacle… All our fault…

So if they had had good old fashioned kneeling appreciation, we’d have had Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry, is that it?

That’s a dumb hand to play.

How, exactly would I go about assessing the political efficacy of the work that I’ve done and that I’m yet to do? Poll my former students and readers?

Scott - I thought you were putting yourself on the no politics side. I’m not, unfortunately, familiar with your work… Sorry, I thought I was just following your lead…

Nebby - I don’t indoctinate. Sorry… One’s work can be driven by political ideals without the practice falling into indoctrination…

Sean - Protest too much, much? Geez - just shut up and let people talk. It sounds more than a little desperate to chime in with the “Guys, it’s not worth it! He’s not asking valid questions or fighting fair!” I thought we were the one’s who didn’t take you seriously!

AvW - sounds contradictory to me as well…

By CR on 08/11/05 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I understood very well what you say about BM on Dreiser and indeed it goes without saying; you and I read the same book and probably understood it about as well as one another. But it is incommensurate with how you would approach Mitchell - everything but how she felt about race is external to the text - and the anecdote in your post, and I am wondering if you can actually describe the method employed in the Dreier reading in a way which would absolve it of or situate it in a theory of literary production. And also show that it ‘takes seriously what the novel takes seriously’ and interprets the novel according to the logic dictated by the novel itself.

By on 08/11/05 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AvW, I’ll elaborate later, as I seem to be doing a poor job of it now.

CR, I only have a moment to reply, but I have a quick question: How you would judge the efficacy of advocacy criticism if not by the effectiveness of the advocacy?  Awareness of cross-wind velocity as we descend in our hand-baskets? 

I’m sorry I can’t discuss this more now, but I’ll be back come morning.  (Like Matt, sometimes I too must boil pasta.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Sorry if that second question sounded unreasonably sarcastic, CR.  I’m rushed, aimed for light-hearted and sounded like an ass.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 11:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You couldn’t indoctrinate, radicalize, whatever, if you wanted to, is the point. You can assess this very easily by simple observation and induction. Beware the false positives of protective mimickry. Those who overestimate the potential political effects of what they do in the classroom--as opposed to organizing, protesting, being one of the regrettably few people in North American to give an evident shit about East Timor, etc.--may wish to compensate for their laziness on more relevant fronts and also may betray contempt for the intellectual independence of their students.

I see no reason to doubt that there’s a conscious political motivation, mostly rightward in orientation, to the traditionalist/appreciationist project of “depoliticizing” the study of literature. It’s just as easy for students to see.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/11/05 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"First of all - boy, you really got us there. Theory caused - or at least didn’t stop - the Reagan Revolution, the rise of megachurch evangelism, and the Bush debacle… All our fault…”

Then whose fault is it? Since presumably you thought you were trying to stop these things, at least you could acknowledge that you failed? And that just continuing to do the same thing isn’t going to work either?

By Dan Green on 08/11/05 at 11:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nezarr,

I hate to go down this path, and mostly I’m just doing it to mess with you, but I think that you could just as easily learn “by simple observation and induction” that nowadays organization and protest do jack shit to change the state of affairs in the US. There were some awfully big antiwar marches, after all… Am I right or wrong?

Dan,

Come on. That’s just silly. I think you know that you’re arguing in bad faith. And once we acknowledge that we failed to stop the Reagan Revolution the next step, once we had gotten done with our self-criticism, was self-abolition, correct?

By CR on 08/11/05 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah let’s just be honest, call a spade a spade as it were: that’s more of your overwrought UC theoretical crap, Scottiestein. Were Dreiser around and sober he’d probably shoot you or your critic pal for saying that....it’s amazing what the English lit. careerists will dream up if given suitable time: apart from the novels themselves (Id like to read some lit biotch arguing that Sister Carrie is a conservative novel) you have Dreiser’s journalism, anti-capitalist and anti-financial writings, and the biographical details showing that he was a dedicated leftist; he was also a bit of an eccentric and had some issues. He may not have been the chi chi, Foucaultian, airbag socialist like you, yr boyfriend and UC Dykely or Sapphic Cruz comrades would have caucasian males be, but that means he had some spine, unlike the hysterical, irrational vermin presently to be found scurrying about UC literature departments

By chicory on 08/11/05 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I could see why you wouldn’t want to go down that road. Materialist stylistics will get you where protest and organization won’t. Do you really believe this bullshit? You wouldn’t attach your real name to it, is one measure I suppose.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/12/05 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I’m saying Jonathan is that no one on the left has been having a great time of it in the US of A of late. To call this state of affairs, per Dan, theory’s fault is ridiculous.

By CR on 08/12/05 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Come on. That’s just silly. I think you know that you’re arguing in bad faith.” “To call this state of affairs, per Dan, theory’s fault is ridiculous.

I really wish you’d address the question Scott posed, rather than just foaming and fulminating.

By Dan Green on 08/12/05 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Better some Dreiser-like naturalism, at least once in a while, than the endless cafe decadence or the postmod cartoons ala Pynchon.  Lit. careerists don’t like Hemingway either--they tend to avoid thsoe writers who present big city life in violent harsh colors; non-sentimental realist writing generally is sort of poopooed by academia or referred to as vulgar marxism (especially by feminists). Or only those books written by someone viewed suitably PC are acceptable; Native Son for instance is cool (though Wright admired Mencken, one of Dreiser’s cronies/patrons); For Whom The Bell Tolls is not so cool.

Like an Ellington or maybe Paul Whiteman sax section, or Bogart movie, Dreisers’ Sister Carrie packs a punch.

By chicory on 08/12/05 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, why bother?  As CR wrote before:

“I don’t preach ever in the classroom but of course I hope that what I teach them makes them better people, that is to say leftier.

All in all, I feel utterly politically ineffective. Nearly utterly useless. Occassionally I get a tiny shiver of hope that I’m doing some reprogramming in the classroom, but who the hell knows, right? And, at my best, I feel as though some day I’m going to produce something in writing of some importance… But that might just be a pipe dream, idle idealism…”

No one in active political life ever says that they are nearly utterly useless.  It is hardly ever true, and even if it was, any active person realizes that a public show of weakness is counterproductive.  The idea that “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains” could be replaced by “I feel utterly politically ineffective” is so silly that there must clearly be something else going on here. 

I suggest that CR has chosen socialism not because he believes that it will build a better future for humanity, but in order to indulge himself in this feeling.  If we were actually building a socialist society, he would be a laissez-faire capitalist.  In an anarchy, he would be one of the last few monarchists.  Whatever would preserve both his pose and his excuses.  If political change actually occured, it would bring all sorts of bad things: responsibility, a need for coherence, a loss of outsider status.

Therefore this whole line of discussion can go nowhere.  CR has nothing to say about socialism, and no real political ideas.  You can’t even get to the point of saying that maybe the function of literary studies is not to promulgate socialism—because that’s not what CR is doing.

By on 08/12/05 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I love you too, Rich.

I’m just wondering exactly what sort of cognitive disability you have to have in order to write sentences like these:

“No one in active political life ever says that they are nearly utterly useless.  It is hardly ever true, and even if it was, any active person realizes that a public show of weakness is counterproductive.”

Really Rich? This sounds like a civics essay written by a slow-witted seventh grader…

Leave this fight to the big boys, OK Richy?

By CR on 08/12/05 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and Scott’s question:

No, I don’t do exit polling. All I can do is teach the best that I can teach. Write the best that I can write.

If we want to talk crosswinds, I’ll just send us thusward:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The wind, I fear, is always fully in my face.... Never behind, not even cross… But, like WB, I gingerly do what I can… We’ll see - jury’s still out…

By CR on 08/12/05 at 01:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Political writing is not taken seriously because most lit. teachers are too stupid, irrational or silly. And the students are generally sort of pop-nihilists far more interested in their Weezer CD and in the black thong crawling up around that chicks’ butterfly tat than in the history of the Chicago mercantile exchange.

CR himself--generally arrogant, patronizing, pompous--demonstrates that leftist lit. teacher mindset. The lit. leftists are so afraid of offending someone’s PC sensibilities that they’d be pleased to call the cops were some boor to have the nerve to ask for evidence or proof of some feminist’s drivel du jour.

Moreover the varsity boy leftist thinks he can argue for socialism without ever having to discuss the actual practice thereof over the last 100 years (yeah socialism, you mean like Stalin’s Five Year Plans? Yeah man, not bad once you clean the dead kulaks off the roads) . 

dreamy leftist “angry young men,” such as CR, full of starbucks angst and varsity boy derring-do--are nearly as appalling as old-school New Critic snobs or dixie protestants

By chicory on 08/12/05 at 01:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m just wondering exactly what sort of cognitive disability you have to have” “This sounds like a civics essay written by a slow-witted seventh grader…”

Do you practice any form of argument other than name-calling?

By Dan Green on 08/12/05 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Dan, but when my views and work are reduced to a psychopathology, yes, I get a little upset and resort to name calling…

By CR on 08/12/05 at 01:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A similar question, which will probably be similarly left unanswered and poorly addressed, is why did the pedagogy and general cultural climate of the 50s not prevent the radicalism of the 1960s?

By eb on 08/12/05 at 04:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: Richard Pulasky’s remarks.

I can’t stop laughing. Here at the Valve, even the psychologizing of the opponent as a manouevre for power in the face of argument recognized as superior, as described in Kalplan’s notes on rhetoric, is militantly free of any trace of the coherence and self-consciousness of method demonized as theory. RP’s attempt to control and dominate you, CR, does not even put you on the Freudian couch, but in the office of what appears to be a social worker just back from his tour of duty at Guantanamo Bay who has hung out a shingle.

By on 08/12/05 at 05:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now CR, do you expect us to believe you are not a nihilist terrorist? Would an innocence man ever despair at the very moment a messiah has arrived to eradicate Evil in the world? The true lovers of liberty never despair. I ask you, learned colleagues, was a decent human being ever dishearted by the march of liberty across the globe? Only a terrorist could feel useless in the hour of the glorious triumph of democracy, justice and peace. Let’s him on the box to see if therapeutic shock treatment can help.

By alphonsevanworden on 08/12/05 at 05:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hardly think that your views are a psychopathology, CR, I just think that you’re a poseur, and that you insult every socialist who has actually worked for a better future.

Let me ask you, CR, how are you working towards socialism?  Which group or groups do you belong to?  Surely you must have your own theories abot a “mode of literary criticism true to the establishment of socialism in our time.” Let’s hear them.  I would doubt that you actually know anything about socialism.

By on 08/12/05 at 06:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A few random thoughts.  First, folks who study political socialization (the process by which political identities are constituted) mark the onset of political identification and its emotional resonance with elementary school, and believe it to be sedimented with supplemental information provided during adolescense.  As far as I’m aware, no major studies ahve ever given school (especially secondary education) a significant role in political socialization, and indeed, schooling’s effect consistently lags behind (in order) family, media, peers, and party affiliation.  So to argue that theory failed to prevent the rise of conservatism is somewhat silly and a bit misleading, empirically speaking.  Incidentally, secondary education has less of an effect that elementary education, so the solution may very well be to teach something like theory much earlier, not dismiss it entirely as historically ineffective.

Second, I don’t understand this internal/external split in reading.  Inventional processes being what they are, there’s no instance in which an internal logic of a text isn’t already saturated by external conditions, some of which may even be psychopathological, but that always govern the writing, just as a different set of externals necessarily media the process of reception.  Promoting the line between them seems to be incredibly taxing work, and a very (obviously) political one at that.  There’s certainly theory in there somewhere, right?  So how can we celebrate the internal/external distinction and then condemn theory (unless of course “theory” is delimited as something very limited and then functionally circumscribed by… by what exactly?)

Third, few english/lit curriculums are predicated on great levels of undergraduate theory classes.  Far more of them are stuffed with literature classes, full of reading and context and writing.  That the 80s and 90s saw a rise in the graduate student and professoriate theory folks does not mean that this rise subsequently determined and transformed the classroom setting across the board.  So regarding the big question as to why did X fail to stop a radical conservative agenda, know thyself and all that.

By Kenneth Rufo on 08/12/05 at 08:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I dibs Jemiah the Analyzer, though I’m beginning to think Exitar the Exterminator is more apropros.

CR, a basic question: is a literary criticism which does not consciously stay true to the establishment of socialism in our time, e.g., have this as its explicit aim, a criticism that has no politics or bad politics? (No politics being for you bad politics; but I suppose you may have a category of bad politics which is an explicit ideological commitment on the part of the practicioner, so not all bad politics is no politics, perhaps?)

Are you saying there are three states of literary criticism: true to socialism; no politics which is effectively bad politics; and programmatically bad politics? Just want to be clear here that I understand you correctly.

By Timothy Burke on 08/12/05 at 09:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Timothy, your question assumes that CR can identify a literary criticism which conciously stays true to the establishment of socialism in our time.  They do exist—but CR doesn’t support them.  Let’s see what he does support.

By on 08/12/05 at 09:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So to argue that theory failed to prevent the rise of conservatism is somewhat silly and a bit misleading, empirically speaking.

Right--but I think Daniel and Sean agree with you.  I.e., suppose there are some folks who think the only good literary research and teaching is research and teaching informed by a wholehearted commitment to advancing the cause set by the one true political philosophy (and we’re all supposed to know what that is).  Well, if such folks care about the goals, you’d think they’d also care about finding the best means.  And you’d think some form of empirical inquiry would be a nice way to find out whether the means they’ve selected are well-suited to bringing about their goals.  Yet the folks in question allegedly treat their means as obviously right, no matter what actually happens.

By the way, to defend the visiting Theory-socialists (or whatever they prefer to call themselves) a bit:

It is not clear that these folks are arguing from the (alleged) harmfulness of “de-politicized” literary research and teaching to a view about the (allegedly beneficial) effects of properly politicized literary research and teaching.

Rather, they might think that de-politicized literary research and teaching has bad political consequences, even if (properly) politicized literary research and teaching fails to bring about good political consequences.

But of course, as Daniel and others have already pointed out, it isn’t clear what empirical evidence is supposed to reveal the allegedly bad political consequences of de-politicized (or differently politicized) literary teaching and research.

By Zehou on 08/12/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Very limited time right now to play, but for what it’s worth:

First of all, the “socialism in our time” quote that Scott includes above is drawn from a very particular place in an argument that Sean McCann and I were having on another site. He critiqued Butler and Derrida for a liberal gradualism running underneath their radical stances:

Butler’s views, as of Derrida’s, is actually something like liberal gradualism—with a strong emphasis on individual choice, an almost complete indifference to class, and almost no room for any aspect of state power (of any kind, socialist or otherwise) to pursue benevolent outcomes.

And I took up this provocative claim in order to ask him what sort of literary criticism or theory might leave room for state power (I said socialism - but sure, there are other forms...)

Just so we’re not confused about how this whole “socialism in our time” meme arose…

That said, yes, I do very much consider myself to be - hope myself to be - someone who works toward the establishment of socialism. Am I on the barricades? No… for better or worse.

My work analyzes the relationship between temporal senibilities and economic/political developments… In particular an unease that arises whenever things get too stable, equilibriated…

Or at least that’s what I’ve been up to so far. I’m not yet 30 - I have lots and lots of work left to do. Who knows where it will head…

How does this help the cause of socialism? Well, I happen to believe that rigorous analysis (as well as training students to rigorously analyze) does help… I believe in intellectual work, as do all of us on here or else we wouldn’t be on here right now… No, of course my articles don’t flip the world over on its axis. I think that’s a little much to ask… Will they one day flip the world over? Almost exactly definitely not. Might they one day contribute in a small or large way to stoking a flame that grows into a bonfire of peaceful coexistence and economic equality? I can only hope and try my best....

And further, I think that I am addressing question that need to be answered in order socialism to establish itself… Not the only questions, no, but important ones about the psycho-political (ie ideological) effects of capitalism and a resulting stripe of anti-utopian reaction.

Seriously. You can call it a dumb idea all you like. But that’s all of it that I’m going to share with you for now…

Do I believe it’s the ultimate and only form of socialist practice? Of course not. Is it the form that desire and circumstance have collaborated together to make my own? Yes. Do I worry about the effectiveness of my work, about how to make my work as a writer and teacher most effective? Almost every second of the day…

You can attack me as a hypocrite, but come on now, we’re all hypocrites, aren’t we? If any of you are convinced that there’s suffering in the world, suffering you could potentially do something about, I’d say any and all of you have an ethical obligation to drop this art for art’s sake stuff and head out into the world to organize and protest…

(What, exactly, Jonathan, did you do about East Timor? Sorry - but why exactly is that only my job? To call yourself a socialist is to take responsibility for all the suffering in the world? I don’t understand… And not to be a socialist brings instant relief from reponsibility?  Fill us in about what you did about these problems that you throw on my plate...)

By CR on 08/12/05 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not making grandiose claims, which you’ve now sensibly refined out of existence, about the political effects of my scholarship and teaching.

But the East Timor reference is to an academic who has dabbled a bit in activism over the years but who has also argued that the overt politicization of the classroom is dangerous idiocy. I believe the issue’s discussed at length in the interview with Gary Olson you can find over at his archive.

So much turns on what is meant by “politicization.” If you wish to claim that teaching the basic tools of analysis in your discipline is proto-revolutionary, that’s fine. But you should realize that there are far more effective means of acting on strong political conviction, means available to you if you choose to exercise them.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/12/05 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nezarr, with the emphasis on empiricism that seems to be determining the laying out of this thread, I would take strong issue with the certainty that one “should realize that there are far more effective means of acting on strong political conviction, means available to you if you choose to exercise them.” Take, as a very easy example, the first global, preemptive war protests in history, designed to thwart or stall the Iraq War.  Millions upon millions of people, thousands of demonstrations, little to no measurable effect.  I have nothing against those protests, but if we’re really going to play the game of comparison shopping for efficacy (a ridiculous enterprise), I’m not sure that the means to which you refer and the methods CR prefers are really so different, except for maybe at the level of branding.

Which is, it’s almost unnecessary to say, a purely rhetorical and political level.

By Kenneth Rufo on 08/12/05 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, CR, that comment came in the context of a shouting match in which you promised to “keep attacking you [meaning me and my Valve colleages] as the carriers of a malignant political strain"--a comment that put especially well a stance also taken by some of your colleagues.

The point of my comment which you quote above was like Scott’s, Rich’s, Daniel’s, and Zehou’s--that what is assumed to be politically radical is quite possibly not radical at all.  But that doesn’t mean that, even if it were radical, it would be politically significant. I think that, to the extent people take Derrida or Butler as guides for action, their politics are likely to be strongly individualist and deeply suspicious of government of any sort.  But, fortunately, relatively few people take what’s taught in college literature classes as guides for action. Even if they did, that wouldn’t be a reason to teach it.  If you have any confidence in your political vision, you should believe that the pursuit of the truth will serve it.  In the context of academia, everything else is attitude mongering.

By on 08/12/05 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So much turns on what is meant by ‘politicization.”

Absolutely. I don’t brainwash. “reprogramming’ above was an infelicitous choice of a word. Not what I do.

We, my students and I, talk about the relationship between literary form and historico-political dynamics. Mostly the first, but with a sharp pinch of the later. And in fact just the type of question that we’re dealing with here comes up all the time. For instance, recently, what is the relationship between white (or black for that matter) writing about apartheid and political resistence to apartheid. How do Gordimer, Coetzee, Brink, and earlier Paton negotiate the difficult inside/outside issue at hand in their works? Do they inadvertently repeat the logic of apartheid itself… This sort of question…

(There’s one thing that I do, as a socialist teacher. It’s not my speciality, but I’ve gone out of my way to teach euro lit/imperialism in africa. A course of my own design… Because it’s something they need to know… )

And further, we can bring theory back into the game, as well as the questions from the top of the comments abotu extrinsic vs. intrinsic reading: Is there are more reasonable reading of Heart of Darkness than the completely extrinsic (but so intimately intrinsically extrinsic) one advance by Said in Culture and Imperialism:

Conrad’s self-consciously circular narrative forms draw attention to themselves as artificial constructions, encouraging us to sense the potential of a reality that seemed inaccessible to imperialism, just beyond its control, and that only well after Conrad’s death in 1924 acquired substantial presence.

Said understood what Ian Watt never could, and what is at the necessarily absent heart of the text…

By CR on 08/12/05 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kenneth, it’s not a good idea to use of “empiricism” as a generalized term of abuse. Reserve it for the complicated epistemological argument.

If you don’t think there’s been progress and you don’t think that the protests against the war have had an effect, it’s worth remembering that in the early 60s, almost no one in the entire country was protesting the Vietnam war. Chomsky has described having to be protected by police on the Boston Common for speaking out against the war--from students.

Protests didn’t prevent the Iraq war, but they certainly had an effect upon it and continue to do so.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/12/05 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kenneth Rufo, one data point doesn’t make an argument.  The failure of protests to stop the Iraq war tells us that those protests failed to stop the war and not much else about what other effects they had (e.g., the fact that Europe mainly could not be bullied into the “coalition of the willing") or about any other political action.

By on 08/12/05 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, your answer is devoid of anything recognizeable as socialism.  The question is not the individualist one of whether you are a hypocrite (who cares?) or of whether your individual actions are capable of flipping the world on its axis—not a demand that any socialist would think of making!  Nor is it a question of sufficient radicalism, as if one can only be a socialist on the barricades.  The question is: are you participating in group action in pursuit of the goals of socialism?  The answer appears to be no.

Nor do you appear to be motivated by any particularly socialist ideology.  Perhaps if you were, you would proudly teach your students socialist methods, instead of hedging that “I get a tiny shiver of hope that I’m doing some reprogramming in the classroom, but who the hell knows”.

There have been a number of answers, at different historical moments, to the question of how to do literary criticism that conciously stays true to the establishment of socialism.  Here is one of them:

“Socialist realism is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.”

Needless to say, I don’t think that your own works bears any relationship to this.  But perhaps you don’t like anything associated with the Soviets?  Fine.  Try Chomsky and Sokal—both good socialists!  Or even Eagleton, perhaps, who I would warrant has passed out a good many more pamphlets than you have, and who denounces many elements of your apparent critical practice.

Get involved in actual political work, clarify your thinking, and then perhaps you will be able to argue in a way that does not betray the very socialism that you inadvertantly mock.

By on 08/12/05 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I begin here because it helps answer AvW’s question about my methodology:

Second, I don’t understand this internal/external split in reading.  Inventional processes being what they are, there’s no instance in which an internal logic of a text isn’t already saturated by external conditions, some of which may even be psychopathological, but that always govern the writing, just as a different set of externals necessarily media the process of reception.  Promoting the line between them seems to be incredibly taxing work, and a very (obviously) political one at that.  There’s certainly theory in there somewhere, right?  So how can we celebrate the internal/external distinction and then condemn theory (unless of course “theory” is delimited as something very limited and then functionally circumscribed by… by what exactly?)

Kenneth, you’re certainly correct that the internal logic of a text is already saturated by the external conditions--that’s a better articulation of what I was trying to say earlier about Dreiser’s embedding pro-capitalist sentiment into his explicitly anti-capitalist novels.  What I’m pointing to here is a methodological difference: either you can demonstrate the existence of these, let’s call them “counter-narratives,” by paying close attention to the language, structure, &c. of the text or you can import them from outside because you “know they’re in there.” I find the former method more satisfying, convincing and--he says, stretching his neck out--correct interpretations.  The latter smacks of random application.  On to other matters:

I don’t do exit polling. All I can do is teach the best that I can teach. Write the best that I can write.

At some level, however, given the liberatory rhetoric you’ve advanced, don’t you have to be concerned about the effectiveness of your methodology?  Yes, teach and write the best you can...but may there not be a better way to accomplish what you want your teaching and writing to accomplish?  And if so, isn’t this retrenchment behind the detrital rhetoric of the ‘80s and ‘90s counter-productive?  I’m not trolling here, I swear.  I ask these questions honestly, and in part because I’ve been thinking, as eb has, about the relation of literary studies to political consciousness.

For example, Robert Penn Warren, noted New Critic and Agrarian, spent the late ‘50s and early ‘60s actively participating in the Civil Rights Movement, and encouraging his students to do likewise.  The student activists of the ‘60s were educated in a manner contrary to the one taught in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s and yet look at their strong “showing.” (I’m an Old Left sort myself, and don’t think too highly of the efficacy of the New Left, but you catch my drift.) An entirely different situation holds here, and even though I don’t want to posit direct causality, I’m interested in how and/or whether these events are indirectly related.  Maybe they aren’t.  I honestly don’t know.  (Though as Kenneth and Sean attest, some people definitely believe these trends entirely unrelated.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/12/05 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The socialist aspirations of CR and of most literary types are part of their academic “careerism”; those few rebels in lit. or philsophy who do challenge the postmodernists and multiculturalist marxists are in effect blacklisting themselves. That’s not to suggest catholicism, or vaguely aristocratic alternatives ala Nietzsche or whoever are preferable. One could for instance uphold inductive methods, “green” sort of politics (perhaps some chat about the oil market/reserves on the Valve in the near future?), and various economic/biological concerns without joining the more marxist types of materialists.  These simple dichotomies--if you do not support the likes of Zikek you are neo-con; if skeptical about Derrida you are another analytical fascist--are part of the bad thinking of the left. That’s part of the problem with politics via “ideology” or identity: academics, and academic factions of both left and right have already assigned values to various political or social groups, rather than to specific political strategies or decisions.

By on 08/12/05 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, for the record, I number Said’s account of Heart of Darkness among the most wildly successful immanent readings I’ve ever encountered.  Also, to answer you question about my work, it’s difficult to write a dissertation on the intersection of evolutionary theory and progressive thought in popular American culture circa 1900 without it having some political dimension.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/12/05 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"(What, exactly, Jonathan, did you do about East Timor? Sorry - but why exactly is that only my job? To call yourself a socialist is to take responsibility for all the suffering in the world? I don’t understand… And not to be a socialist brings instant relief from reponsibility?  Fill us in about what you did about these problems that you throw on my plate...) “

Obviously he did the important work of professional intellectual:, identified the culprit - you, your ineffectuality and laziness and hypocrisy - and naturalized the crime against humanity itself as a form of weather. And there is a necessarily absent heart of his text too.

By alphonsevanworden on 08/12/05 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aw yes the Joseph Conrad corpse-dismembering business; isn’t that a major at UC Irvine Inc.? 

Conrad ranked lit. types and academic scribes (such as you Scottstein) a bit lower than the average galley slave

By Wyzlak the Bellicose on 08/12/05 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s one way to look at it. Another, perhaps more charitable, is to realize that I was referring to Chomsky--the most visible scholar who’s also an activist.

By Nezarr the Calculator on 08/12/05 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Vladicus/Wyzlak, you do in fact have the amazing ability to code-switch between contributor and troll at speeds that boggle the mind.  So I’ll ask you this only once: contribute as Vladicus and all will be kosher.  Snipe like Wyzlak or be otherwise unproductive and it won’t be.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/12/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan Green quotes Scott:

“From the perspective of those who would think Theory a bulwark against political conservativism, how are we to account for the vast rightward drift of the country when many of them would’ve taken their required English and/or Composition courses with instructors radicalized during the culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s?”

Scott: This seems to me precisely the right question, and I do wish your (and Sean’s) detractors would address it directly.

Now, I’m not sure what is meant by “your (and Sean’s) detractors” in this context, but this seems to me a very poorly worded question, chock full of highly questionable assumptions (two being, just for instance, that the role of “theory” should be properly seen as a sort of reactionary bulwark merely, and that “theory” is a strange sort of hopelessly failed but nevertheless lingering empire in institutionaland). 

However, being a little familiar with Dan Green’s thoughts, I suspect on some level he recognizes in this question something that goes beyond its reductive charge, something that I, and I think also Scott, agree is worth exploring.  But first or all, surely any answer to “how are we to account” must go beyond pointing fingers, demands for proof of membership in socialist groups (or in the hilarious case of Stephen Schwartz, detailed flight plans) and other schoolyard-style taunts.  As far as I am aware, the “those” addressed in Scott’s quote have never denied that something like “theory” can and has been put to use in ways that are also reactionary.  Indeed, this has been something of a constant theme on my blog, though I’m not sure if Dan Green reads it.  As for the “literature for literature’s sake” or the “merely literary,” and as I’m sure Dan is well aware, the writings of Steve at “This Space:  The Fire’s Blog” has been a model of thoughtful, respectful and patient engagement with such questions, which is probably what I should be seeking to emulate instead of commenting here right now. 

In short, the question Scott raises, if able to recognize and leave behind some of it’s more polemical or “gotcha” freight, is indeed important, though no answers will likely ever be satisfying enough.  Unless, that is, all one wishes to do is engage in the immediately satisfying but often-enough ultimately hollow exercise of assigning blame in broad, sweeping strokes. 

As a final note, it strikes me as noteworthy how one “side” of this debate is more than ready to be honest about qualifying it’s position, admitting that broad strokes are sometimes inaccurate and even dangerous (i.e. the notion that “theory” is inherently progressive), but I have yet to hear any such admission from the “anti-Theory” side, that sweeping for instance Jacques Derrida into the same pile of dirt as every horrendous practitioner of “theory” in America is at all unjust.  I’d be grateful to have this impression corrected, if by chance I’ve somewhere missed such an admission whilst cooking pasta.  Thanks!

By Matt on 08/12/05 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt: one “side” of this debate is more than ready to be honest about qualifying it’s position”

CR: we’ll keep attacking you as the carriers of a malignant political strain

By on 08/12/05 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt:  I read your blog almost every day. I followed the whole thread there that immediately preceded Scott’s post.

I don’t wish to engage in “assigning blame” for anything. I would be silly indeed if I thought Theorists were responsible for GW Bush. But I do wonder why there’s not more reflection on means-ends questions among the more highly politicized Theorists, or much attempt to gauge the efficacy of the whole endeavor in practical/concrete terms. If indeed political transformation is the ultimate goal of this mode of Theory.

I’m not even particularly anti-Theory myself, if we’re talking about the post-structuralist branch. You may know that at my own blog I’ve often written admiringly about Derrida in particular.

By Dan Green on 08/12/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, without praxis and the concomitant need to consult theory, CR is in the ridiculous position of claiming to work towards socialism without being a socialist or even knowing much about it.  This thread started with CR’s claim that ‘for “us” no politics = bad politics’.  Well, CR effectively has no politics.  That means that this conversation can not go anywhere, and that it was a mistake for Scott to start it.  A serious conversation between socialists and others with regard to literary theory would be instructive, but this thread can be nothing but flames.

By on 08/12/05 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean and Rich,

CR does not speak for me, needless to say, though I can certainly appreciate his perspective, and believe his argument to be a bit more subtle than all that.  For instance, just what constitutes “a politics” is not in itself a simple question.  In what sense does Derrida’s _Politics of Friendship_ constitute a politics, just for instance?  Rich, you seem to think that you’ve definitely demonstrated that “CR has no politics.” Well, I agree, with a conversation like that there is probably little hope for anything constructive.  Keep breathing flames, if that is what you wish to do.

Dan,

Thanks for the kind response, and yes of course I am aware of your admiration for Derrida (he gets everything from Blanchot, you know).  I think you’ll find these issues are being taken up pretty seriously at Long Sunday, drawing on past comment threads at my own blog and elsewhere.  They are not easy questions, and I agree they are worth exploring (otherwise, you know, I wouldn’t be doing it).

By Matt on 08/12/05 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The point of my question a little ways back is precisely to suggest that if Sean (or anyone else) can argue that Derrida or Butler suggest as much a liberal gradualism as anything else, that this ought to be an interpretation which we read and think about and say, “Hm, maybe so.” The problem is that when (or if, as perhaps I am misunderstanding) someone like CR says that the politics of interpretation only has three settings: socialist, bad non-political, and actively reactionary or bad political, then it essentially prestructures every possible future act of criticism or interpretation. This is a position that tells us that the work of reading criticism is only about sorting what people say into one of those three bins and thus that the work of doing criticism is the same, about sorting literary and cultural work into those three bins. The only debates that are then going to occur about questionable acts of sorting: someone that one critic sorts into the bad no-politics bin, or the bad reactionary bin might be salvaged by another critic who comes along and finds a hidden or underappreciated socialism. If someone comes along and sort my own work into the non-socialist bin, given that the badness of the other two is asserted as an axiomatic fact, something that need never be argued for in terms of concrete consequences, I’m going to protest that sorting if the people doing the sorting appear to have any degree of authoritative standing in humanistic discourse. Because the other two bins are trash bins; the only legitimacy is in the one that’s predefined (with no meaningful, worked-out, committed argument) as the good one.

What this sort of schema does is turn critical work into a giant game of “Have you stopped beating your wife lately?” You read someone, you disagree with them, so you say, “Ah, you are in one of the bad bins.” That person then only has two options if they want to talk to you: “No! No! I am in the good bin! I am also a progressive/radical/socialist!” or “Yes, I am in the bad bin.” If the criminal in the docket says, “Fuck your bins, I don’t accept the divisions”, then they are in bad bin #2, the non-political bad political. If they say, “What’s all this about my politics?”, bin #2. If they say, “Why should I be a socialist, anyhoo?”, bin #3. All replies are neatly predigested, prearranged, precategorized.

Unless, and only unless, the dial has more settings on it than “good socialist”, “non-political bad politics” and “actively and explicitly bad politics”. Or if the notion that the work of criticism consists primarily of making these kinds of typological distinctions about the politics of literature, culture and criticism is thrown out from the outset.

By Timothy Burke on 08/12/05 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Someone just placed a tin hat firmly on my head and whispered in my ear, “Fuck your bins, I don’t accept your Theory/Anti-Theory divisions.” Obviously, this person has yet to understand fully Holbo’s argument.  Maybe she can still be convinced, who knows.

By Matt on 08/12/05 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Couldn’t agree more, TB.  As usual, you nail it down. 

Just for clarification, there’s obviously going to some areas of fuzziness.  I’m not particularly interested myself in deriding either Butler or Derrida as politically malignant, as some of their strongly marxist (e.g., Barbara Foley) or strongly liberal (Lilla, Nussbaum) do or might do.  But, since I dislike what I take to be their particular combination of apocalypticism and individualism (a combination that I think is widely prevalent in contemporary academic discourse), I’m inevitably going to be critical about them.  That obviously means there’s a judgment call to be made.  The question will be whether, in criticizing them, I’ve made a good effort to understand them and treat them fairly or whether I’m just determined to sort them in bins according to my preference.  Whether I’ve read them, of course, would be one threshhold criterion.

By on 08/12/05 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m having superciliate trauma at the “strongly liberal” Lilla there. Did I miss something?

By Jonathan on 08/12/05 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I miss the source of trauma, Jonathan.  Do you mean that, by contrast to Nussbaum, he’s actually conservative? Fair enough.  I was thinking of liberalism in the classic sense--autonomous individual as the axiomatic assumption et al.--which, despite other political differences, I assume Nussbaum and Lilla share.  Am I wrong?

By on 08/12/05 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not interested in sorting Derrida or Butler at all, except to note that in some cases the proclaimation of their radicalism by some of their devotees, or even their own declarations of such, don’t seem to match much of what I would see as the “political” implications of their arguments. Just as I don’t entirely always grasp why Foucault’s theoretical claims seem wedded to a kind of forceful radical energy, when the claims seem to me to move in some opposite direction.

The point is that I think this is something interesting to note, no more, that it is not about trying to decide whether they’re really radical or not-radical, about bin-sorting. I could care less; the only thing that exercises me is the constant rummaging through the body of critical theory for people useful to a radical or socialist “politics” and the constant discarding or rubbishing of people who can be dismissed as not-such. So what if Butler can be read as a liberal gradualist? This is not a charge from which she must be defended or an accusation.

I’m finding Edmund Burke very interesting to read, for example, and in some ways, also useful for formulating some of my own thinking. I don’t want to be bothered for even a second to have to do some kind of exotic theoretical kung fu where I pronounce that the guy is a secret radical, or can be appropriated by radicals if they take care to defuse the hidden landmines of reactionary badness lying within the text. The entire critical enterprise is made hopelessly banal and reductive when this becomes the kind of demand we make of it, when the impulse in the face of disagreement about the work of interpretation is to hiss “You’re not a progressive/radical/socialist!” as if that’s some kind of actual argument with an understood meaning.

As far as I understand it, this makes me a person with “non-politics” and therefore sorted into a bad bin, though maybe also my explicit and growing interest in 19th Century liberalism now makes me a resident of bin #3. Even protesting against this actually ends up confirming it, because it makes me look like I long to be let back into the circle of the righteous. So in a way the only intelligible response left is to say, “Fuck that”. Which, inasmuch as I see some of the Valvesters being “non-political”, that’s what I hear them saying. Not the famously Olympian kind of detached positivist objectivity that was in vogue in the 50s and early 60s, but that the game of sorting people by their degrees of true radicalness is a loser’s game from the outset, rigged and counterproductive, that it degrades and pollutes interpretation, reading, literature, and yes, even theory. That the argument between theorists and anti-theorists shouldn’t be some predigested, always-already pap about “politics”, but about the substance of actual interpretations.

By Timothy Burke on 08/12/05 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another amazing feature of LitLand: it is assumed literary works, essentially aesthetic in design and intent, have political implications which can be clearly defined, and that some sort of aesthetic causation may be formulated or specified: this book x has this effect (necessary?) on this reader x.  It is debatable whether reading even the most primitive social realism--say Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Sinclair’s “The Jungle"--produces some sort of necessary effect on a reader; yet the leftist lit. critic assumes that such effects can be produced and assessed, and that a novel’s effects are equal to say history writing. In that manner the leftist multiculturalist can blither and blather about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and colonialism; in effect taking the novel as some statement of ideology (a faux-liberal and imperialist ideology) an approach which rarely addresses the writing itself, the syntax, the metaphors, the characters. Literature is not social science, though many of the postmodernists seem to view it as such, and many of these soi disant marxist aesthetes would have done much better in econ. or history--APA rather than MLA--where their agenda is not made difficult by the aesthetic and language issues of lit.; in other words literary interpretation and aesthetics itself are not exactly at the top of socialist concerns: economic justice, health, attacking the absurdities of capitalism are, and literature and criticism are not the most efficient methods of addressing those issues.  The socialist aesthete is often a contradiction in terms, or perhaps afflicted with the sartrean “mauvaise foi.”

By grodi on 08/12/05 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Grodi said. If nothing else, the insane hubris of the attempt to read works for their “politics”, with its accompanying certainty about what it is that literature, art, culture does in this world, what circulations texts travel, how audiences act, drives me nuts.

By Timothy Burke on 08/12/05 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"certainty”??? “necessary effect”???

I don’t understand what you guys are talking about… This is where the political reading aims at, not where it begins… toward “what it is that literature.... does in the world, what circulations texts travel, how audiences act”... That’s not where we begin but where we try to end… We don’t take that for granted?

Furthermore, how many tactical shifts are you going to put yourselves through here?

First it’s the CR IS A HYPOCRITE! A REAL SOCIALIST WOULD BE ON THE STREETS!

Then it was: BUSH WAS ELECTED IN 2000 AND 2004. WHY DOESN’T THEORY HANG ITSELF? (what kind of America are you guys hallucinating, by the way, where the average red state republican voter is doing theory in college? where exactly do you guys live??? “If we had just done a little more scansion and a little yes Althusserian interpellation back there at State U, maybe then I’d vote Kerry...")

And when that fell a bit flat, you turned to: CR PUT US IN A BOX! HE WON’T TAKE US SERIOUSLY!

And I have a distinct sense that I’m being thrown into a bin marked “bin thrower”... What about your two bins, marked “theory” and “not.”

This is total bullshit, what’’s going on here. I made a local claim about my own relationship to socialism, and you’ve generalized it out to claim that I’ve now diismissed the possibile validity of any lit-crit that’s not pure red socialist.

Yes - I find the claim to be somehow beyond ideology to be its an ideological claim, generally of a pernicious stripe. “No ideology here...” = bad news…

I hardly think this the radical, unthinkably provocative point you’re making it out to be. When Bush Co. attacks his enemies as “playing partisan politics,” he’s offering the same pernicious rhetoric of transparency that lit critics who want politics out of the field do…

How bout we adjust the bins a bit: yes, I’ll generally throw those who completely deny that there is an ideological component to their work and who deny that literature itself partakes of (but perhaps is not limited to) ideological frames and structures into one bin marked OF LIMITED SCOPE. Sometimes useful formal explications, sometimes useless blather…

The other box, where I put those that work in contact with the ideological vectors of their own writing and the texts that they examine, is marked BETTER… ROUNDER… This too can be garbage, but is far more likely to contain something of interest to me…

I never said that everyone’s criticism needs to be socialist to be valid. I said I’d like my own to be. Do I need to give equal time to, say, Rumsfeldian readings. No, of course not. My time is my own… But I’ve already admitted that I view Butler and Derrida in part as liberal gradualists.... But I still listen to them. They’re not binned…

Stop running around screaming “see! see! we’ve been marginalized by CR! he won’t listen to us! he put us in a fucking box!” What children you are… I’m here, for Christsakes, engaging with you (though that should probably come to an end nowish...) We’re all putting each other in fucking boxes! That’s what this is all about! Where did you guys learn your argumentative judo, at the knee of Karl Rove?

Every time I make an argument about what I believe contra you, you claim that I’m excluding you from the argument, not taking you seriously. For fucks sake, I’m right here, talking to you, taking you as seriously as I can!!! What does not “binning” you consist of, conceding your point, abandoning theory, shooting myself in the forehead???

Very stupid, this has become… All argument about argument about argument. Like it does everytime on here…

By CR on 08/12/05 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Agree with CR! Great comment.

By Bill on 02/08/08 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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