Friday, March 12, 2010
“what-have-you intriguing subject”
Brian Reed divines the profession’s future by reading the tea leaves of his university’s grad program applicant pool:
“Movies and TV seem to trump what we teach in the classroom when it comes to influencing future faculty. We have a sea of applicants wanting to study vampires, zombies, Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien, Narnia, and Jane Austen--singly or in combination. Some of these files are absolutely first rate. Most aren’t. Moreover, you read letter after letter of recommendation praising this or that student’s marvelous facility with 17th century prosody, 18th century travel writing, contemporary Zulu praise poetry, or what-have-you intriguing subject, and then you flip to the writing sample and discover yet another Dracula-and-Twilight essay or Beowulf-and-Frodo MA thesis.”
“You hear a great deal about Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, Homi Bhabha, Walter Benjamin, Gloria Anzaldua, and other thinkers who were already staples of “Introductions to Literary Theory” courses back in the mid-1990s. Otherwise, the name dropping has become quite field specific…There also appears to be a truly remarkable degree of agreement concerning the Great Books of the present day: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Blood Meridian, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thomas Pynchon, too, is cited over and over as the harbinger and presiding genius of the New Period. I’ve read these books (including all of Pynchon’s novels), but I never expected the emergence of such a matter-of-fact way of narrating the present moment in US literature, and I certainly would never have selected such a narrow, narrow cast of characters to represent the 21st century.”
Despite the nods to Butler and Anzaldua, does anyone else find it deeply troubling that this cast of characters - including the two additional authors Reed suggests in the article - is 100% white and male?
On your second quote, sometime in the last two or three years I read some Worthy Mandarin assert, in one of those “oh woe are we” pieces that Judith Butler was that last of the Star Theorists. I thought Menand is the one who said this, but was unable to find it in the two or three Menand pieces I had on hand. In any event, someone said it, and now we’ve got another data point.
But: So what? On the one hand, as I’ve said too many times before (and will no doubt continue to say time and again), I turned to the newer psychologies over thirty years ago and have no intellectual regrets (though I’m not happy that that move is no doubt part of the reason I’ve had no career). It’s clear to me that necessary work has been done in questioning the canon, getting a bit more serious about pop culture, feminism, and so forth, not to mention historicism, but I think those veins have produced all they’re going to in the way of new ideas and approaches. There’s no more there there. That’s why there are no more Stars; the sky’s finally not so much fallen as dissipated and there’s no place for would-be Stars to shine.
That’s a good thing. Literary studies doesn’t need more disciples applying Star Ideas to texts. We need something else. I’ve got a lot to say on that, and have said more than a little here and there on the web, but I think it would be a good idea to get used to doing some painstaking analytic and descriptive work with texts that’s not the Humanistic Answer to Rocket Science (e.g. Star Turns), that doesn’t pretend to take on Western Imperialism in a Single Bound, etc.
no new name has emerged that has [theory] rock star-like charisma or widely-worshipped intellectual oomph
I’m speaking as a first year American Studies student, not an English grad, but I’d say that not only is this accurate (sorry Agamben, Badiou supporters), but I think it could even be extended to say that the idea of the theorist-as-rock-star has become a little bizarre or unlikely. But I don’t think this means that theory is dead or exhausted, just that it has passed the charismatic stage of leadership and has moved, I guess you could say, into the iron cage of bureaucracy. So unlike Bill, I do think there is more there there, and I’d prefer to think that what’s “there” isn’t just the more remote and less rich veins of the mine, but that the organization of theoretical production itself has changed.
What I’d question more is this “truly remarkable degree of agreement concerning the Great Books of the present day” that Reed sees. I mean, he’s looking at the data, not me, but having written them recently, the personal statement and writing sample are surprisingly incomplete assessments of the variety of students’ interests and perceptions of the field. It could simply be that there is so narrow a consensus because grad student applicants want to appear both trendy and serious, and the interest in Twilight/Tolkien/Potter fills the first category while the Important White Male Novelists fill the second--the Important-White-Maleness is simply the code for “I’m a serious student of literature,” which is why Toni Morrison (or Junot Díaz) isn’t mentioned (though it doesn’t explain why Underworld isn’t). This may suggest that the canon wars haven’t been won (enough), but I think it also doesn’t necessarily mean that students truly think these books are representative of them or of their time.
The JSF book is a perfect case in point--it’s assigned in classes, it’s about a Big Topic, it’s kind of experimental-ish, but I’ve never met anyone who actually thinks it’s a “Great Book of the present day,” or even a really good book. And can we really say that Blood Meridian, a novel published (just) before many of the applicants were born (1985), is still a novel of the “present day” to these students? I’m just not sure that these books are the ones students talk about among themselves when discussing the contemporary novel but are rather the ones they think they should bring up to their professors. Which is definitely a problem, but a different problem.
As a side note, thanks for alerting me to the Arcade site and blogs--which seem like good candidates for the blogroll here at The Valve. Actually, the blogroll could use a whole lot of updating...anyone with editorial privileges listening?
i>...anyone with editorial privileges...</i>
Deus otiosus or deus absconditus?
@Bill: Ha. Maybe the thing to do is start a thread and get some suggestions for new blogs to include and other recommended updates. We’d need an editor to actually do them, but it might be a good conversation to have.
An interesting take on Theory, also from ARCADE, more or less. But not directly from the blogs. This is from the blog of Dan Edelstein, editor of Republics of Letters, a journal you can access from ARCADE’s homepage (righthand column). He says:
The great theorists of the ‘60s and ‘70s produced works of dizzying interdisciplinarity. They could play fast and loose with their references, but at least they were looking over the fence. Once these other disciplines (chiefly, linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and Marxist political theory) entered into the Theory discourse, however, the old disciplinary walls went back up. Theorists in the ‘90s were still reading Saussure, much to the surprise of their colleagues in linguistics. ... Healthy interdisciplinarity requires regular check ups.
Must Althusser or Agamben have the last word on political thought? There is an entire discipline of political theory waiting to be tapped and queried (as Josiah Ober points out in his piece in our inaugural issue). Symbolic thought is a fascinating topic, but wouldn’t it be worth considering, say, Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics instead of just Saussure’s?
Peirce, really, at this late date?