Sunday, March 26, 2006
The Sunday Snifter
Lorine Niedecker of Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin, sent this advice:
To my small
Swirl, spirits, swirl....
And from the peaty darkness, Laputan Logic offered a 12,000 kilometres close reading of Lord Bryon, The Mumpsimus bubbled Gardner vs. Gass and Pamela Zoline’s 1967 masterpiece, “The Heat Death of The Universe", and Josh Corey joined “A Tribute to Ronald Johnson" and called for a poet’s union.
Which uncharacteristically unpromising call nevertheless led to, among other worthwhile posts, Mark Scroggins’s:
As a weary and aging tenured faculty member, I find more and more attractive, and perhaps ultimately more honorable, the notion of staking out a place in the academy that takes advantage of its “residual feudalism” without directly tying one’s stake to poetic cultural capitalism....
The treatment of Muslim Spain in Western Civ books tends to consist solely of the Song of Roland and, centuries later, the defeat of Granada and subsequent expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. In between, a mighty civilization emerged, flourished, and ultimately declined—one that I am beginning to think contributed more to “Western culture” than the Romans ever did.
Also picking through the blasted groves, fiction writer and scholar pica begins an inquiry:
What I see here is simple: I see the overwhelming urge on the part of a critic to tell a story. But is criticism the place to tell stories?
Maybe because I’m an essayist by nature, I do understand criticism as a narrative (or more generally a discursive) structure rather than a scientific argument. The appearance of argument is sometimes a formal constraint (as it can be in lyric verse). But criticism establishes nothing, in the same ambivalently positive sense that poetry makes nothing happen. Its goal isn’t conclusion but continuation.
Since scholarship, on the other hand, does attempt to establish something. “literary scholarship,” ambiguously perched, suffers endless perplexities. Are we reading (or, worse, writing) bad scholarship, or bad speculation? Or bad both, in the discursive prose equivalent of rhyming “love” and “dove”? Or are we merely exercising team spirit. hoping to be rewarded for choosing and sticking to a side even though we’re not scoring any of the game’s supposed goals?
For myself, the most painful recent outgrowth of perplexity has been the unprofitable shillelagh war between certain usually not-so-dull writers at The Valve and certain usually not-so-dull writers at Long Sunday and Kotsko’s. Although I can’t say I welcomed the latter’s latest swing, it does, I think, at least strike closer to the heart of the matter, may a quick death follow.
The same ambiguity’s haunted The Valve’s last two “book events,” with Moretti meeting less and Armstrong more skepticism. As I mentioned in earlier comments, How Novels Think compares badly to another recent “how everything changed” chronicle of individuation, equally Anglocentric but less English-department-bound, The Secret History of Domesticity. Even if Michael McKeon’s connective prose is uninspiring, his textual and graphic citations make lovely argument-by-collage—for example, this from Onania, a book whose popularity and influence beat Moll Flanders hands down.
But in arguing against Uncleanness, especially this sort of it, which of all, as it is the most loathsome, the same Liberty is not to be taken, but a Man is extremely confin’d, and is oblig’d to express himself with the utmost Circumspection and Caution, for fear of intrenching upon Modesty; which as I promis’d I would not be Guilty of doing, I shall all along with the greatest strictness observe, as knowing that I shoul’d be oblig’d to name some Things that might betray my Readers into the remembrance of what it is much better that they should for ever forget, as they would not then be able to set such a watchful Guard upon their Thoughts and Fancies, but that some foul or filthy Desires would in Spight creep in; the least imagination only of which, would render them Odious in God’s sight, who seeth the Heart, and Delights in none but those who are pure and upright there; with which Apology, hoping it will be sufficient for what Omissions and Obscurity I have been guilty of, I conclude this Chapter.
Horni soit qui mal y pense.
Thanks, Ray. “The appearance of argument is sometimes a formal constraint (as it can be in lyric verse). But criticism establishes nothing, in the same ambivalently positive sense that poetry makes nothing happen. Its goal isn’t conclusion but continuation. Since scholarship, on the other hand, does attempt to establish something. “literary scholarship,” ambiguously perched, suffers endless perplexities.”
I think I’m trying to say that a lot of the time, but not encapsulating it so nicely. No doubt this is a function of some of my other bad habits, which you correctly diagnose.
That’s extremely gracious of you, John, and I feel honor-bound to acknowledge that I haven’t put forth the honest critical effort to completely unravel the difference—which seems (to me) so viscerally present—between those entertaining and insightful antagonistic pieces which I don’t wholly agree with but which I’m still grateful for, and those other entries. In lazily unexamined terms, the former (seem to me to) play to your unique strengths (and I think no one’s ever denied that a witty pop-culture-saturated Nietzschean liberal analytic philosopher Trilling fan has unique strengths) and the latter don’t so much. (But I have no idea if you feel any such distinction yourself.) Similarly, one of the sadder things about the Valve for me has been that Sean McCann has had so little opportunity to display his gift for historically empathic reading. It takes a special kind of talent to be at one’s very best at one’s very most aggressive, and, perhaps mercifully, I don’t think we have a talent to match Thomas Nashe or Joanna Russ.
Virtually all analytic philosophers are liberals. As are virtually all pop culture fans and ( if Leiter is any guide) Nietzscheans. So why do you find his liberalism suprising?
When I said pop culture fans I meant academic pop culture fans.
I’d like to see the numbers on pop culture fans and Nietzscheans, Timothy, but I’m willing to take your word on analytic philosophers. It’s the combination, I guess, which I find refreshingly problematic. But maybe that’s because I tend to associate most of that combination with Libertarians—and, to be fair to my prejudices (which is only natural; feel free on your part to be mean to them), I seem to remember Libertarian sympathies expressed occasionally on John & Belle, and, as a computer programmer, I’ve encountered many more loathsome Libertarians than loathsome Theorists or Neocons....
"For myself, the most painful recent outgrowth of perplexity has been the unprofitable shillelagh war between certain usually not-so-dull writers at The Valve and certain usually not-so-dull writers at Long Sunday and Kotsko’s. Although I can’t say I welcomed the latter’s latest swing, it does, I think, at least strike closer to the heart of the matter, may a quick death follow.”
I believe that you’ve posted before about not commenting on inter-blog spats. You’ve also written that politics should be avoided on the Valve because it’s a literary blog—but, again, you seem to be heading in that direction. Is this simply a matter that you can do so without the yells of Archbishop or Acolyte that otherwise would disturb these hallowed halls? If what you’re really concerned with is a heckler’s veto rather than what subjects are appropriate, I guess that’s fine.
I agree, Rich, my position in that paragraph is itself awfully precarious. (My thanks to John H. were genuine—I would have understood entirely if he’d reacted with hostility.) I was led there while writing what I thought was a pure links piece, and it surprised me. But, combined with pica’s questions, Kotsko’s joke seemed to me to pinpoint the literary aspect of the dispute rather than any (more or less supposed) political aspect. I may be wrong—noncombatants often are.
(And as I’ve written before, my position is only my position; I may sometimes feel compelled to describe it, but it’s certainly not comfortable enough for me to recommend. I carry no authority here, except to delete the troll’s comments from my own threads.)
Well, thanks in turn for reacting gracefully to my twitting you about it. I guess that my problem is that it’s always seemed like a literary or philosophical dispute—I’d have a difficult time identifying any political aspect to it, other than classic bloggy side-choosing. As such, aversion to it is hard to disentangle: it is aversion to subject, style, or repetition? Or mixtures of all three of course. I guess that what I’m getting at is that I think that you sometimes characterize the dispute as non-literary because of the manner in which it has appeared. Which I fully understand as a pragmatic argument, but disagree seriously with as a classificational one.
That’s fair, Rich. Sadly, your reward will be a long-winded reply. (Second Prize: TWO long-winded replies!)
You’re right that my aversion is tangled. It’s not a walk-away-quickly type. It’s a knotted-stomach type. It includes guilt feelings. When the Valve launched, those who wanted to attack some fashions in academic writing (or, in Dan’s case, the entire institution) walked into the room speaking in a loud clear voice; others mostly hung back. As a result, our hoped-for lively party looked more like an oddly-shaped Party organ. Having been one of the wallflowers, I’m in no position to blame the host for trying to spark conversation.
Or maybe even to blame the conversational topic. I’m no Lacanian, I’ve been appalled by some of the tales I’ve heard from younger and more academically inclined friends, and I thought John Holbo’s cod-Socratic dialog was more than funny enough to justify itself. Worthwhile satire can’t always be extended into a full-out military campaign, though. As the war’s continued, wit has sometimes flagged and certain flaws (or diplomatic opportunities?) have become apparent.
Problems such as purely gestural (almost cargo-cultish) “rationality” and references to contradictory scriptural authorities aren’t exclusively patented by any critical school. We can find them stretching back centuries. In fact, they’re disturbingly hard to eradicate, although most of us try a good-faith weeding. My pre-Theory-era college classes certainly didn’t lack for bullying and group-think. So why single out a single (large, varied) critical school for attack? Shouldn’t we treat each specimen, regardless of provenance, on its own merits? Wouldn’t we jab the eternal verities of Dana Gioia, Camille Paglia, Richard Dawkins, or Pat Robertson as gleefully as those of Fredric Jameson?
The answer would seem to depend on “practical considerations”—that is, on politics. (And I’m in agreement, I think, with you, Sean, Scott, and John H., that in this case we’re talking career politics more than what-gets-us-thrown-in-prison politics. Because let’s face it, Pat Robertson wins on that score.) We need academic balance in our sloppy thinking. Mr. President, we must not allow a nonsense gap!
But of course political strategizing raises its own bunch of issues, none of which I’m competent to address—except this one, since I’ve heard it brought up by friends: I explicitly hoped this space might allow for something better than competition in a zero-sum game. Consider the following short plays:
“As a good Christian, I would give all my money to the poor if it wasn’t for these damned progressive taxes.” [ENTER REDUCED RATES] “As good Christians, my children can’t give all my money to the poor until we get rid of these damned inheritance taxes.”
“Literary studies have been completely taken over by blather about philosophy and politics.” [ENTER THE VALVE] “Great! We now have a place where we can complain about philosophy and politics in literary studies!”
Because I have some sense of the players here, I don’t suspect bad faith. But I do suspect our (and my own) conflicted motives have become more manifest.
So there’s my aversion, as best I can untangle it.
Ray, have you read Archaeologies of the Future yet?
No, I wasn’t planning to, Jonathan, since I’ve never really enjoyed anything by Jameson, and the reviewers’ frequent mention of “utopia” seems to indicate I wouldn’t enjoy this one either. Do you think I should at least skim it?
You’ll love the theoretical reflections on utopia.
I’m far worse of a glommed-up wallflower than you, Ray. *shrugs helplessly*
Ray, I agree with many of your premises, disagree with your conclusion. As you say, the same kinds of flaws, and criticisms of them, could have appeared at any time over the last century. That makes this kind of argument just one of the things that literary people do. Nor am I surprised by the choice of targets: I don’t think that anyone really cares much about Camille Paglia, and as for Pat Robertson, I really can’t think of what interest there would be in reading him, much less jabbing at him. Zizek, on the other hand—you’d want to invent him if he didn’t exist.
I don’t remember the basic complaint at the beginning of the Valve as being “Literary studies have been completely taken over by blather about philosophy and politics.” Holbo is a philosopher, after all. Wait, I’ll look back at the first post. From the statement of purpose: “We mean to foster debate and circulation of ideas in literary studies and contiguous academic areas.” Let’s see: “I have dreams of making the Valve a platform for bold e-publishing ventures”, well, those dreams are still evergreen, and probably will still be a year or so from now. “Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed - should have it’s own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it.” OK. But maybe that is just Holbo? Well, second post is Amardeep on Eagleton. Fourth post, Lawrence on Wittgenstein. Then a couple by Sean on individual authors, one by Miriam on publishing, and then there’s Dan Green writing about blogs as source of intellectual debate. I’m just not seeing your characterization.
More to the point, perhaps, I can’t imagine most people being interested in literature without being interested in literary theory, at least part of the time, and literary theory at the present moment means philosophy. There’s no way to get around it: theory defines, to some extent, how people read literary works. It’s not important because of career politics, it’s important because bad theory can still have a hold on the high ground of interpretation.
So I think these debates are pretty much unavoidable. It was perhaps avoidable for certain people to decide that this was a fine opportunity for a bit of pugilism, yes, but that wasn’t the Valve’s doing, although it was the Valve’s problem.
Pat Robertson, yes. Where I came from even in the late 1970s there was probably as many went to Christian colleges as went to state universities. (You think Zizek doesn’t have future lecture revenues in mind?)
Outside that unseemly outburst, I’d just repeat myself, and there’s no point so long as we have literacy. Thanks for giving it a try, Rich. You stated your point of view well, and I appreciate it.
Sure. One last addition—I didn’t mean to imply that Pat Robertson had no influence on education. Just that having to jab at theocracy one more time is dull.
Some scattered afterthoughts on a scatterbrained post:
1) I’d originally intended to point to Adam Roberts’s annual review of the Arthur C. Clarke shortlist. His hook is weak, but the individual segments are strong, and there’s an absurd personal outburst to provide fannish cred. Like the Tiptree Jury, he likes Geoff Ryman’s Air: Or, Have Not Have. I assume the Booker Prize will be next?
2) From the outside, my and Rich’s narrations of Valve history must seem like Rashomon. On the inside, it feels more like Last Year at Marienbad.
3) Pica has posted a follow-up.
4) Only this morning, it struck me that the very first essay I wrote for publication concerned the choice/struggle of fiction vs. criticism. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear where my own deepest sympathies lay.
Weak hook, yes. I’ll see if I can get hold of some hook support, perhaps from Boots the Chemist. But I’m glad you like the individual segments; and I’m double glad that you were too gracious to haul me up for my egregriously sophomoric error (yes, it’s true, I do refer to Finnegan’s Wake. Sorry sorry, writing in too much of a hurry, promise not to do it again.)