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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
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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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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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Middlemarch in the 21st Century?

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 04/02/08 at 08:37 PM

(cross-posted to Novel Readings)

I’ve been going through a book of essays called Middlemarch in the 21st Century.  It’s an interesting enough collection, with contributions by a lot of the big names in current George Eliot scholarship.  It is also at least as much about criticism in the 21st century as about Middlemarch.  Of course, it is self-consciously so (in these metacritical days, how could it not be?); the editor is intelligently expressive on the intevitable interplay between text and (our) context:

The essays in this volume attach Middlemarch to the twenty-first century by way of their aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns, but each reading also dwells within the confines of the pages of the novel and its communities. We move constantly between the early and later nineteenth century and to the start of the twenty-first century, respecting the differences without allowing them to become obstacles in our way. (4)

That’s all fine, and so are the essays I’ve read, though to be sure I find some of them more engaging than others. What I’ve been thinking as I read, though, is that none of them really presents a version of Middlemarch for the 21st century: that is, none of them addresses ways Middlemarch (or, for that matter, any other past literary work) might have special relevance in the 21st century beyond those interpretive contexts selected by the contributors--none of which contexts, in turn, seems pointedly or necessarily fixed in the 21st century (except by accident of critical history, e.g. “this year, we’re doing materiality,” or “Lacanian readings are so 1990s”).  I think it’s accurate to say that typically we take our “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” to our texts and see how they answer back.  Is there a way to “attach” them to our century starting, as it were, from the other direction?  How might Middlemarch, for instance, “read” the 21st century? What “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” might it bring to us?  What would such a criticism look like?  What (or who) would it be for?

I tried my hand at something of the sort for a panel called (coincidentally) “George Eliot in the 21st Century” at ACCUTE a couple of years ago.  My presentation was called “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century”; its major contention (stripped of nuance) was that her secularized morality offers a philosophical perspective of great potential benefit to our times, and that its presentation in compelling fictional form could help her stand as “the friendly face of unbelief.” Now, on the one hand, I realize there is something reductive about such an approach.  At the same time, we know that George Eliot herself conceived of her work as fundamentally ethical, which means (as I argued in my paper) that she offered it as (in part) an answer to the basic question of moral philosophy, namely “how ought I to live?” Many (though certainly not all) of the academic approaches now in vogue have little in common with this project--or if they do, the relationship is somewhat oblique.  At this moment, (well, not at this moment, as clearly I am procrastinating by writing this instead) I am working on a proposal for a conference paper about Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun; Soueif has been called “Egypt’s George Eliot,” and In the Eye of the Sun takes the “squirrel’s heartbeat” passage as its epigraph (and refers to Middlemarch at many other points as well).  Although I am still in the early stages of thinking through the relationship between the two novels, my feeling is that part of what Soueif does is bring the ethos of Middlemarch forward into a very different historical and cultural context, almost as if to ask, “Can Middlemarch help us with this?” (The other part of what she does, I think, works in the other direction, testing that ethos against these new contexts; that Soueif uses a radically different form of novel suggests that, in some respects, “it won’t do, you known, it won’t do.”)

Thoughts?  Do I exaggerate the difference between taking our concerns to the text and bringing the text’s concerns to us?  Do I underestimate the risks or wrongs of the approach I took in my earlier paper?  Or, in the spirit of the “public academic workbench,” if you’ve read In the Eye of the Sun, any ideas about the direction I’m taking in the new one?  (Or about whether working on an Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory?  Just wondering...)


Comments

Not commenting on your larger project—but the paragraph from the editor that you quote above has to be one of the worst examples of business-speak translated into academese that I’ve seen.  It’s not about metacriticism, it’s about a denial that any sorts of limits or insuperable difficulties exist.  The essays attach, but they *also* dwell within confines.  They move constantly (?) through centuries, but they respect differences.  Without letting them become obstacles.  The editor might as well have written that they are thinking outside the box to transformatively redesign all processes for customer satisfaction while maximizing profitability.

By on 04/03/08 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read the novel in question, though I’d like to. For what its worth, my concern with this kind of project (in which an older text is presumed to speak to the present) is the danger that one focuses so much on qualities deemed to be intrinsic to the text (the “ethos” of Middlemarch) as to lose sight of all the external factors that make it possible and likely for a novelist to be deemed “Egypt’s George Eliot.” In other words, it’s very important not to lose sight of why a certain kind of cultural capital (like that of “English Literature” represented by Eliot) has the kind of power it does in the third world, nor to assume that whatever is represented by “Middlemarch” in that context has survived the transition intact. Isabel Hofmeyr’s fabulous book Portable Bunyon, for example, has some wonderful examples of how a text like Pilgrim’s Progress gets transported all over the world but radically changed in the process, raising the question of whether Bunyon has really travelled, or whether it’s simply that his name (and the cultural capital of that name) has travelled while getting filled up with locally appropriate content.

In that sense, I would find the question “Does working on an Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory” to be better put something like: how to determine to what extent the meaning of Eliot in Egypt is determined not merely by Eliot herself, but by the meaning of “English literature” in Egypt (or the variety of English literature she represents, part of which would be the question of what it means to be a female author, in both contexts).

By on 04/03/08 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do I exaggerate the difference between taking our concerns to the text and bringing the text’s concerns to us?

Hmmmm . . . Well, it seems to me that if you were operating under the rubric of a traditional humanistic universalism, the issue wouldn’t exist. You’d treat Middlemarch (which I’ve not read, blush) as a repository of universal ideas and values which, thereby, are accessible by and applicable to all. Historicism at the very least brackets universalism. Hence there seems to be a problem, but what sort of problem?

Is there anything wrong with taking an ethical stance Eliot developed in one historical situation and arguing that it would be useful in our somewhat different situation? Why not dip into the past for ideas and values that would help us negotiate the present?

By Bill Benzon on 04/03/08 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:  You know, you’re right--I think I’ve just gotten so used to the rhetoric of “this but also that” that I don’t even question it anymore.

Aaron:  Thank you!  That’s a very helpful reformulation of my last question.  As you might guess, I’m not well-versed (or even versed) in postcolonial theory, so I’m approaching this project with both curiosity and some trepidation.  In Soueif’s case, the questions you raise require all kinds of further qualifications, as she is perhaps better labeled an Anglo-Egyptian writer, trained in English literature, living in London, writing her novels in English, while writing about Egypt and England (the protagonist of the heavily autobiographical In the Eye of the Sun moves to England, as Soueif did, to complete her doctorate in English literature).  As you’d expect, Soueif is very aware of the duality of her perspective (perhaps after a bit more reading I’ll know if I should call it ‘hybridity’).

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/03/08 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, a book I found useful for thinking about globalisation and the internal relations of different national literatures is Pascale Casanova’s _The World Republic of Letters_.  The section called World Literary Space develops concepts like dominated and dominant literary spaces, nationalist and polyglot writers, consecrated texts and neoimperial literary relations which exist and flourish somewhat independently of the geopolitical situation.  She has next to nothing to say about temporal or chronological literary relations, which is probably interesting in itself.

By Laura on 04/03/08 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Martha Nussbaum has approached literature from this angle.

I think the key is that first, to understand the work at hand, we must historicize.  But then I do agree that critics might fruitfully consider what works of the past bring to the table—aesthetically, philosophically, ethically, etc.—today.

At the same time, let’s remember that much of the politicized criticism of the past few decades has been roundly denigrated for just such an approach.  The difference is that these critics dared suggest that maybe Shakespeare’s view of, say, the Plebeians in *The Tragedy of Julius Caesar* is condescending and too often overlooked by high school and college teachers who taught Shakespeare as a repository of timeless, positive values. 

Kenneth Burke’s work on literature as expansions of received, common wisdom (basically, of “sayings") would be interesting to consider here.

By on 04/03/08 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another excellent example of such an approach is Charles Olson’s criticism on Melville and his brilliant essay on quantity in late Shakespeare.  Olson was always attentive to the context of the text as well as to how a proper understand of past literature could transform contemporary aesthetics and politics.

Another excellent example would be CLR James’s work on Melville, written while “in the belly of the whale” of the US immigration bureaucracy. 

Finally, Wilson Harris’s consistently breathtaking readings of literature give us a window into how we might dialectically weight the present in view of the past and the past in view of the present.  Such a dialectic offers a way of dealing with Michel de Certeau’s problematic of historicism: the historian’s tendency of eliding the way the very past we’re historicizing has informed the present perspective from which we’re doing the historicizingt.

By on 04/03/08 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have some problems with Casanova, exactly because (as Laura put it) she seems to want to talk about how literature is globalized in space, but with very little sense of the history that produces those literary spaces. To put it another way, you can get the idea from her that “relationality” is the most important (maybe the only important) factor determining how literature gets produced and how it gets received and marketed. But the main thrust of most strands of postcolonial theory (or at least the ones I like) is a renewed investment in temporal histories, an emphasis on how the varieties of colonial experience produce the conditions of possibility for “postcolonial writing.” You’d therefore get significantly different readings of this text, I’d imagine: for Casanova, the most important thing is how a peripheral text like hers (or a text which is *about* being peripheral) relates to centers of literary culture, in this case more likely to be London than Paris. But a postcolonial analysis, it seems to me, would be focused on the kinds of histories that produce this kind of hybridity: what it means in either London or Cairo to be an anglo-Egyptian writer would be a function not of the relationship *now* between those two cities, but in the historical linkages by which those two cities have been mutually constituted *by* each other.

I’m predisposed to the latter kind of analysis, as you can maybe tell.

By on 04/03/08 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Martha Nussbaum has approached literature from this angle.

That’s true: I guess Poetic Justice is the clearest example--thought not, in my view, a very good example of literary analysis.

a postcolonial analysis, it seems to me, would be focused on the kinds of histories that produce this kind of hybridity...

But the thing is, I don’t want to write about the “histories” producing these texts, or about “what it means...to be an anglo-Egyptian writer” but about what the novels say about (roughly speaking) living in the world.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/04/08 at 06:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough. But for me (and it may just be my own hobby horse), the important question would be which world she’s writing about, and how to parse the distinctions between them. The principle of portability (that a text can speak in one context in the same way as it can speak in another) is one of the things that postcolonial theory--as well as other stars in that constellation--works to call into question, precisely by attending to how different histories constitute different worlds. Bunyon *means* one thing in one place and something else in another, and so forth; I would think the same would be true of Eliot.  In that vein, when Bill asks “Why not dip into the past for ideas and values that would help us negotiate the present?” I immediately wonder who that “us” is supposed to be, and how you would theorize it. After all, the difficulties that a novel premised on a hybrid “us” poses to being explicated in that manner would seem to be substantial.

I look forward to hearing how the project develops.

By on 04/04/08 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In that vein, when Bill asks “Why not dip into the past for ideas and values that would help us negotiate the present?” I immediately wonder who that “us” is supposed to be, and how you would theorize it.

In saying that, I was specifically thinking about Rohan’s argument that Eliot’s “secularized morality offers a philosophical perspective of great potential benefit to our times,” which is, I suppose, both more ambitious and less specific than the Eliot-Soueif project. I read her blog post on that project, in which Rohan discusses the current wavelet of briefs for atheism and suggests that Eliot offers a more usable secular morality. That is to say, she is attempting to facilitate a 21st century assimilation of the ethic implicit on Middlemarch.

Assume, for the moment, that some people take her up on this. What does it matter whether or not the ethic they absorb from Middlemarch is exactly the one that Eliot embodied in the novel? If they are attracted to the novel and work to be guided by it, is that not enough? As for just who that group is, why they would be a self-selected group who are attracted by the perceived implications of the novel. I suppose that’s a somewhat circular or tautological way of characterizing that group, but I don’t see any other way to do it. If we are talking about a real cultural process, well, it seems to me that that kind of cultural process is the work of self-selected groups. Such groups cannot be specified a prior and from the “outside.”

But for me (and it may just be my own hobby horse), the important question would be which world she’s writing about, and how to parse the distinctions between them.

But it’s not as though cultural worlds are mutually exclusive entities. Just what kind of entities they are . . . that’s not at all clear to me. There’s a great deal of talk about culture that seems to be based on some underlying notion of “a culture” as a homogeneous substance. It’s not clear how cultural crossing is even possible on such a model, though perhaps it’s like subtractive color mixing where, e.g. the mixing of yellow pigment with blue pigment yields green pigment. That seems pretty useless. But if a culture isn’t a homogenous substance, then what is it?

By Bill Benzon on 04/04/08 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Come to think of it, you might want to look at the concept of layered identity that Charlie Keil has developed in Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives & the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia. It’s about a social-cultural arrangement in which Romani musicians (aka Gypsies) provide live music for Greek celebrations of various types. The Romani are residentially segregated and occupationally segregated beyond their role as musicians. They work jobs that other Greeks do not want. I discuss the notion in the middle of a longish piece I wrote for the Michaels symposium.

By Bill Benzon on 04/04/08 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to say, on a personal note, reading these comments as they come along is not only extremely helpful--as I try to think about what I’m doing and what I’d like to do as a critic--but it is also renewing what had been a somewhat flagging commitment to blogging. Writing blog posts is in some ways intrinsically useful and rewarding, of course, but what I was really hoping for was exchange and dialogue, something that proved difficult to come by, to my occasional frustration (e.g. here).  I don’t know if my own experience is typical, but I have few opportunities for informal discussions of ‘work in progress’--never mind just general intellectual or critical questions--with my colleagues, what with the regular demands of teaching and administration and the isolating effects of specialization. (Those of you who are still graduate students should cherish your seminars, if you are still in them, and the attention of your supervisory committee!) Anyway, I really do appreciate having this chance to benefit from the wide-ranging expertise and varied perspectives of Valve readers.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/04/08 at 07:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

bill, you definitely won’t catch me arguing that culture is homogenous. My point was that it seems imperative for this kind of project to distinguish between the meaning of secularism in London (where it is, despite the Anglican church, basically a given and politically neutral) and secularism in Egypt, where it’s a very explosive kind of politics. If “culture” isn’t the right word for that difference, that’s fine; the important thing is to find a way to usefully talk about that difference (and account for its existence). Talal Asad has a lot of good work on the concept (and all of it may not be everyone’s cup of tea) but what I’ve taken from him that seems to me to be iron clad is that one cannot think of secularism as simply an *absence* of religion, but rather as a particular kind of political and cultural project in its own right. And as political project, context is incredibly important (nowhere is this more clear than in Egypt, where the meaning of secularism has everything to do with local political conflicts). This is an issue that could extend far beyond the bounds of Rohan’s original formulation, of course, but I think it’s relevent to point out that a concept like “secular morality” looks much less stable the less we closely interrogate the assumed “we” that underpins so much of the critical paradigme (not that Rohan was doing this, but to me, it’s a good expression of what postcolonial theory has to offer, which was the substance of her original question).

Anyway, from what I’ve seen of Soueif’s “we” (at her website and elsewhere), it seems to be a very specifically Egyptian one (occasionally very clearly distinct from “the West"), such that it seems relevent to open up the “we’s” one might use in this case to analysis.

(and Rohan, I’m enjoying this too; again, look forward to hearing how things develop further on down the road)

By on 04/05/08 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My point was that it seems imperative for this kind of project to distinguish between the meaning of secularism in London (where it is, despite the Anglican church, basically a given and politically neutral) and secularism in Egypt, where it’s a very explosive kind of politics.

Yes.

By Bill Benzon on 04/05/08 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My point was that it seems imperative for this kind of project to distinguish between the meaning of secularism in London (where it is, despite the Anglican church, basically a given and politically neutral) and secularism in Egypt, where it’s a very explosive kind of politics.

Well, kind of.  Isn’t “meaning” serving as a bit of a fudge word here?  As long as we’re using modern English (which both Eliot and Soueif are), the meaning of ‘secular morality’ is pretty clear.  The implications of advocating or adopting a secular morality will vary depending on context, sure, but how does that make the “concept of ‘secular morality’” any less stable?  Similarly, the meaning of secularism does not vary according to context--again, unless what you mean is that advocating it can have widely varying significance.  Otherwise, of course, “we” (whoever “we” are) can’t talk to each other, since we’ll never mean the same thing by any word we use....

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/05/08 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not as confident in the clarity of the term, actually. We’re all familiar with battles over how signification works, of course, and I don’t want to re-hash the last three decades (or three centuries) worth of literary theory, but I do take for granted (especially in this case) that what a word means can’t be detached from the context in which it is used. And it seems to me that for a term like “secularism,” this is especially the case. Since the idea of “secularism” requires some concept of religion for the term to have even a minimal level of coherance (God can’t die unless there is a God first, and so forth), the definition of religion that underpins it is going to be a part of what any kind of secularism *means*. Thus secularism as a not-Islamic practice (in Egypt, say) is simply different than secularism as a not-Anglican practice (in England). But in both cases, it seems to me necessary to think of secularism as itself a culturally specific practice, a culturally located *project* even.

I suppose this conception of secularism is probably the gospel according to Talal Asad (and not, for example, Edward Said), but one of the limitations of his work, I think, is his tendency not to address the things about his own project that are culturally specific. Not that it’s a bad thing to be culturally specific in some undefinable sense (who isn’t?) but I’m personally convinced by the side of the debate that denies a word can have a meaning independent of its day to day practice.

As for whether “we” can talk to each other, I think what books like Isabel Hofmeyr’s illustrate is that we *do* talk to each other, but each interlocutor’s sense of what the other is saying is not always the same as what the speaker thinks they said. Conversation still happens though; differences are subtle and profound, but interactions still occur. I have a friend doing a bilingual study of how swahili and English speakers understand words like “development” and “empowerment” in the context of non-profits doing education work in Africa, and what emerges from that is a real sense for the contingency of meaning in such words (the differences are profound, and even explaining the differences to people is a prohibitively difficult process; people actively resist understanding what their opposites “mean,” or at least resist being told what they mean by a third party). Of course, you don’t have to go to Tanzania to find people talking and not understanding each other.

By on 04/06/08 at 12:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Aaron: lots to think and learn about.  I won’t be able to say you didn’t warn me!

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/07/08 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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