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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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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

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Writer in Chief, a bleg

Posted by Sean McCann on 04/29/05 at 11:07 AM

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at the home of the prodigious Matthew Yglesias about presidential government, American style--its plusses and more obvious minuses.  Yglesias’s point is that most emerging democracies don’t seem to be interested in adopting an American constitutional system (bicameral legislature, separation of powers) and prefer parliamentary to presidential democracy--as the U.S. also seems to do when it takes a hand in drafting constitutions for conquered powers (Germany, Japan, etc.).  The great exception to the world pattern, the region where presidential government modeled on the U.S. system has flourished, is Latin America.  And there the results haven’t been encouraging.

I mention this because, as it happens, I’m writing a book about American literature and presidential government.  (Gods grant that it be completed soon.) Of course, it is profound and complex, but the basic topic is the way twentieth century writers have often taken the presidency as a model and rival for the work of literature.  The theory is that stories explicitly about the presidency or (the more frequent case) adhering to a logic similar to that seen in theories of presidential government are attractive to writers for a number of reasons, but mainly because they provide literary figures the same opportunity that they do political thinkers--a means to try to think past some of the inveterate problems of liberal society and government.  The story begins for me around the turn of the last century--when political figures like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt began making a strong case for the concentration of power in the executive office. The method of the book is to read major literary works in tandem with contemporaneous political theories and to compare their methods of framing problems.

I hope to be posting about all this on the Valve as the book (may it please the mysterious powers of the keyboard) heads toward completion.  In the meantime, a bleg.  If this calls anything interesting to mind, please let me know.  What do you think the great lit. of the presidency is?  And what allusions to the office do you remember? 

I’m thinking of things like Alan Ginsberg saying in “America”: “My ambition is to be president.” It’s a trivial example, of course but I think an illuminating one.  Ginsberg really does think of himself as a kind of president.  And its far from rare.  Do you know of other such examples where the mission of the writer is compared and contrasted to the president’s?  And am I wrong to believe this is a pretty distinctively American attitude?  Is it the case that other national literatures feature writers thinking of the work of literature as modeled by parliament or the prime minister?


Ralph Ellison has several essays in which he compares the role of the president to that of the writer - especially “Tell it Like it is, Baby” and, even better, “The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner,” which is about President Johnson.  I assume you know about these already.  An entertaining novel about the myth of U.S. presidency is Robert Coover’s _The Public Burning_, much of which is narrated by Nixon. 

In terms of literatures of other cultures, there is a rich tradition of Latin American novels about presidents/dictators.  I.e., Miguel Angel Asturias - “El Senor Presidente”, Alejo Carpentier - “Reasons of State”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez - “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” Augusto Roa Bastos - “I, the Supreme.” The last novel, in particular, features a president who is also an author (the novel is ostensibly his diary, written by his ghost after his death).

By on 04/29/05 at 04:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have a soft spot for Philip Roth’s Our Gang.

By Miriam Jones on 04/29/05 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How broad a category is “lit. of the presidency”?  Does it include Norman Mailer and Richard Condon, or am I being too literal-minded?  Philip Roth has more than one novel containing “allusions to the office.”

Coover’s classic Nixonlit, as is Donald Freed’s Secret Honor; but the great Nixon story is Eileen Gunn’s 1991 “Fellow Americans,” in her recent collection Stable Strategies and Others.

By on 04/29/05 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have reservations about this topic, which track my overall <aa href="http://mthollywood.blogspot.com">reservations</a> about The Valve.  Note the level of recondite reference in the comments to second and third-rank (if that) recent novels, with nobody citing, say, Hawthorne’s remarks on being a Democrat in his Custom House essay, or Melville’s invocation in Moby Dick with its adulatory remarks about Andrew Jackson ("who didst thunder him upon a war-horse").  No mention of Mencken’s railing against Coolidge, either.  Is this because the “experts” here don’t know about the other, or they think Coover is more important?  Either way, I worry. I’m wondering if what’s going to happen in this book-in-progress is that an English professor is going to explain to the rest of us why the US should be more like the Europeans by whacking away at every text he can find with a tenderizing hammer until it’s overread sufficiently to yield up the view he needs.

By John Bruce on 04/30/05 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Unless I’m mistaken, it’s a project on twentieth century literature of the presidency.  Hence the references to twentieth century writers.

By on 04/30/05 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey John Bruce, thanks for the generosity of spirit.  Who says charity is dead on the internet. 

Thanks to everyone else for the good tips.

By on 04/30/05 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

p.s., Stephen, thanks in particular for the references to Asturas, Carpentier, and Bastos.  The others are indeed already in my hopper, but I know embarrassingly little about Latin American lit.  It’s fitting that there would be a presidential tradition to it.

By on 04/30/05 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, per Stephen’s comment, I needed to read the original post closely to see, in the middle of a lower paragraph, that it’s about how twentieth century writers do blah blah blah.  And this is an English prof. I’m not sure how generosity of spirit works into this—what I’m looking at is an English prof sorta kinda waltzing into poli sci or whatever to discuss how “political figures like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt began making a strong case for the concentration of power in the executive office.” This is, I would say, the usual, an English prof deciding he’s an expert on everything else (but often not all that good at written expression).

By John Bruce on 04/30/05 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I confess, John, I am an English professor.  So I guess that means you don’t owe me the minimal courtesy of not assuming what I’ll say before I say it, or just how lame my form of expression will be. 

The principle of charity, by the way, is a basic of reasonable discourse.  It means making an effort to take your opponents’ claims seriously before searching out trivial grounds to dismiss them.  Even some English professors are capable of appreciating it.  You might consider it sometime yourself. 

(p.s., your style?  It needs some work.)

By on 04/30/05 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that, on the lecture circuit, whenever he encountered a questioner who prefaced a basically trivial question with much hemming and hrumphing, references to this that and the other before getting down to whatever he really wanted to say, he could be 99 percent sure that it was an English professor.  Some behavior is in fact predictive, Prof. McCann.  You entitled your post a “bleg”, but beat around the bush for a long paragraph and a half before saying what you were blegging about.  My style may need work—whose doesn’t?  But I’m not pulling down a salary under the pretense that mine is adequate.

By John Bruce on 04/30/05 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But was that the good Christopher Hitchens?

By Jonathan on 04/30/05 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wooooooeeeeeeeeee. John The Bruce!

Prime Minister novelists: Disraeli.

Chateubriand, author of the weird fiction “Atala and Rene”, was a major French statesman for decades.

Hawthorne wrote a biography of Franklin Pierce.

By John Emerson on 04/30/05 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, John Emerson. Those are good examples.  My primary interest, though, is not so much in writers who were politicians as in writers who see literature as an analogue and rival to the service provided by a particular political office--in my case the presidency.  That’s the attitude Ginsberg strikes in the admittedly trivial example I mentioned above.  It’s also the postion takenby Ginsberg’s hero Whitman--explicitly in “Democratic Vistas,” implicitly in a poem like “Lilacs.” (I’m surprised that John Bruce did not call on this example in his initial rebuke of ignorant English professors like myself.  It’s a better example than Mencken on Coolidge.)

Thank you, John Emerson. Those are good examples.  My primary interest, though, is not so much in writers who were politicians as in writers who see literature as an analogue and rival to the service provided by a particular political office--in my case the presidency.  That’s the attitude Ginsberg strikes in the admittedly trivial example I mentioned above.  It’s also the postion takenby Ginsberg’s hero Whitman--explicitly in “Democratic Vistas,” implicitly in a poem like “Lilacs.” (I’m surprised that John Bruce did not call on this example in his initial rebuke of ignorant English professors like myself.  It’s a better example than Mencken on Coolidge.)

My theory about writers like Ginsberg and Whitman is that they’re attracted to the presidency for reasons much like those of other admirers of Lincoln--Woodrow Wilson or TR, say.  As (at least potentially) the only position elected by a national consituencey, the presidency appeared to its champions as an embodiment of national sovereignty.  This proved especially attractive to those concerned about the separation of powers or the social fragmentation that seemed to prevail in a country that gave wide berth to individual liberties.  The president seemed to have the potential to soar above trivial political conflicts to express the unarticulated will of a unified people.  In the words of Wilson, “his position takes the imagination of the country.”

I think it’s pretty obvious why ambitious writers might be attracted to that vision.  And I think it’s interesting the variety of ways different authors have worked out the metaphor and used it as a license and spur for their particular creative endeavors.  John Bruce nothwithstanding, I think this is a particularly 20th century story (though I’m open to, and interested in, being corrected on this point). Whitman and Melville are indeed interesting antecedents, as Jackson and Lincoln are important precursors to the twentieth century presidency. But Hawthorne is a bad example, I think.  His concern in the Custom House is with party competition.  The whole appeal of the idea of presidential government is that it promises to trump party and faction.

John Bruce, in the future I will attempt to post in single sentences so as not to frustrate your comprehension.  At your invitation, I’ve visited your own blog, where I note it takes you twenty or so paragraphs to come to the conclusion that the people who post at the Valve are “literary jock-sniffers.” By your own terms it would seem, your style could use a little work. 

But let me be more concise.  You, sir, are a troll.

By on 04/30/05 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

p.s. Sorry for the repeat paragraph.  Don’t know how that happened.

By on 04/30/05 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If it is not on your list already, I highly recommend Delillo’s Capricorn, which is about the Kennedy assassination.  I prefer it to anything else Delillo has written.  Kennedy is largely off-stage in the book, but he is nonetheless a central presence.

Ravelstein and The Dean’s December are not my favorite Bellow novels, but they both have characters who hang out with presidents and have an influence on policy.

William Burroughs has written about Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court--in his version, Roosevelt appoints baboons.

Among attempts to emulate Whitman’s possessive relationship to the presidency, I would add James Wright’s.  And to descend to the bathetic, are you planning on talking about Jimmy Carter’s poetry?

By on 04/30/05 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, is that some kind of joke? Capricorn?

By Jonathan on 04/30/05 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops!  A parapraxis.  I meant Libra, not Capricorn.

By on 04/30/05 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Have you considered Gertrude Stein’s Four in America, a collection of four essays on Henry James, Wilbur Wright, George Washington, and Ulysses Grant?

By on 05/01/05 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Prof. McCann, you speak of interest in “writers who were politicians as in writers who see literature as an analogue and rival to the service provided by a particular political office” and go on to discuss those who are influenced by a Presidential vision.  Conrad’s Kurtz in fiction, or Mussolini in real life, seem closest, Ezra Pound in his shall we say more imaginative phase also comes to mind.  But last I checked, the President can issue executive orders that can change society in major, immediate ways.  He can order the armed forces abroad.  He can sign or veto legislation.  He can nominate cabinet and supreme court members.  And so forth.  How on earth does a fiction writer, other than by running for elective office and gaining the political power designated, correspond to this?

By John Bruce on 05/01/05 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt and Blah, thanks for the excellent suggestions.  DeLillo and Stein are indeed both part of my cast of characters.  As you suggest, Matt, Libra is a good example.  In the JFK assasination, DeLillo imagines something like a latterday version of what Whitman saw in Lincoln--a sacrificial victim whose death exerts a spiritually unifying power and surpasses the powers and expectations of the factions (in this case, both the conspiracy and the CIA) that jockey around him.  Needless to say, all the details and expectations are importantly different, but the history that gets us from Whitman to DeLillo seems an interesting one to me.

John Bruce, I appreciate your question, to the extent it’s a sincere one.  Mussolini is indeed a particularly interesting figure, especially for the close connections between the Italian avant-garde and fascism and for the way Mussolini was much admired by American intellectuals during the twenties.  But in my view he’s an interesting comparison figure.  From the thirties on, most American intellectuals thought of the presidency as a republican near alternative to dictatorship--like it in some ways, but also different in crucial respects.  I think that attitude also shows up in the literary imagination.  There really are very few American Marinettis.

I am, of course, aware that writers do not actually possess the powers of the president.  But that hasn’t prevented them from imagining that they somehow might.  (I’ve never suggested that writers actually were analogous to presidents, only that they fantasized that they could be.) More importantly, one of the characteristics of presidential government in the U.S. has been an emphasis on the symbolic and rhetorical powers of the office (i.e., the bully pulpit) and on the personalization of the political that it allows.  Those are qualities that for more or less obvious reasons writers understand quite well.

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

OK, but Ginsberg’s fantasy of being President is not really a living option.  And I suspect that most writers wouldn’t want to be President, and I don’t see a whole lot of evidence of this fantasy.  As far as I can tell from Edmund Wilson’s American Crackup essays, he wanted at one point to see some type of leftist dictatorship established, but that’s a long way from nominating himself, or even fantasizing himself, as the person.  It seems to me that if you give people credit for understanding their capabilities and their particular callings, you have to allow writers to be writers and not, as I said earlier in this threat, use a tenderizer mallet to overread them into something they’re not. 

Also, what do you do with Presidents and others who actually write?  Theodore Roosevelt wrote books; Woodrow Wilson as well; I recently looked over his (I think 1902) essay “When a Man Comes to Himself” and found it interesting and good.  We may allow Presidents the talent to write their own books, as they often do—Nixon was prolific.  Might that be a way of saying that people with a writing instinct who really want to be President actually do so, rather than in this (apparently partly “mythic”—shudder) theory that a writer is somehow a frustrated President.  That way, I think, lies madness, which is the direction Pound headed in.  Pound, as far as I can see, decided he wanted to fix writing, and then, having done so, decided to fix the world.  So far, I don’t see that what you’re doing is any different from any of the other English profs who thinks they can get into any number of other fields in which they did not earn their degrees.

By John Bruce on 05/01/05 at 07:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Bruce,

I’m quick to attack literature professors whose scholarly work outstrips their scholarly credentials--read my response to Jonathan Goodwin in his post on Social Text--but I don’t see how Sean’s work, as he’s explained it here, qualifies.  As I understand it, Sean addresses the specific (and idiosyncratic) responses twentieth-century American authors have had to an evolving set of Presidential powers which, perhaps correctly, perhaps not, they feel kindred (or, better yet, “homologous") to the authority they would like to wield over their literary production, its reception and the popular culture that receives it.  (As with all I post here, remember there’s always the possibility, nay, likelihood that my assessment is 100% incorrect.)

When this topic’s approached from the direction I think he’s approaching it, Sean’s within his rights to speak authoritatively; he’s discussing the influence of an American political reality on American authors.  One need not be a politician to discuss the ways in which, to take the most obvious of examples, more than one of the novels in Gore Vidal’s American Chronicles series concerns itself with the status of the President in the popular American culture; nor need one a doctorate in political science to track how an evolving idea of what’s included in the package of Presidential powers is reflected in works of American literature. 

What amuses me about your post is I think you capture one of the points Sean wants to address in his book and unwittingly apply it to him: how writers connect the impulse to “fix writing” with a similar one to “fix the world.” I must admit: I’m baffled as to why you think an English professor tracing the history of that idea (as it’s embodied in the office of the President) in twentieth-century American literature is outside his ken.

By A. Cephalous on 05/01/05 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A point about this I haven’t understood is, if you think that literature professors (or whoever) should stick within what you define as their field of expertise, how can you judge where their lack of expertise has led them astray? By your own logic, you don’t know enough about the other field(s) to make a judgment one way or another.

The disciplines in the humanities and social sciences are only administrative conveniences.

By Jonathan on 05/01/05 at 08:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Cephalous.  That’s completely accurate and quite generous.

John Bruce, I don’t know what to say to you, since it seems pretty clear that there’s nothing I could say that would not convict me in your eyes.  I’m happy to discuss my thoughts with you, or argue for them.  But you’ve already decided that I am no different from the English profs you condemn in mass and look in each post for a reason to confirm the bias.  (Without much success, I might add.  Please note that the term “mythic” has never passed my keyboard in this exchange.) You seem determined to prove yourself a walking meat-tenderizing mallet.

By on 05/01/05 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I understand your point better than you think because my own work (on the impact of evolutionary theories on American literature circa 1890-1910) spans the period in which those formation of those administrative conveniences plays out on the editorial boards of the important journals.  (William James, for example, contributes Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Mind, The American Journal of Sociology, Nature, etc.) I pick no bones with that intellectual jambalaya because with James (or James Mark Baldwin, Silas Weir Mitchell, William Dean Howells, etc.) at the time it was possible to be a professional dilettante.  Those fields not only overlapped, they were mutually comprehensible and, often as not, shared basic assumptions about human behavior, history, physiology, etc.  Since the professionalization of the soft sciences in the 1950s--in particular, since Talcott Parsons and his followers made a concerted effort to distance the soft sciences from the humanities--it’s difficult, if not impossible, to acquire mastery of all you survey.  There’s a point at which you have to stop and accept that interesting as claim X, Y or Z may be, you lack the credentials to make it. 

Take the worst offenders, doctrinaire psychoanalytic critics.  These critics, most of whom read Freud in classes on literary theory; most of whom have no clinical experience; most of whom are befuddled by statistical analysis; these critics presume to analyze everyone from the fictional characters in the novels they read to the authors who created them to the critics who have commented on these novels before them.  They may be astute readers of Freud or Lacan, but even so, they’re not qualified to draw the sorts of conclusions they draw.

To return to your point in the other post: “Sure,” you replied, “but those conclusions, however illegitimate, spark the intellect.” And that’s what makes them suspect.  Oftentimes a critic will address X from a Marxist perspective; Y from a psychoanalytic perspective; Z from a feminist perspective; etc.  The mark an amateur is the inconsistent application of mutually contradictory analytics.  Granted, experts in any discipline will often contradict themselves in an article, but they won’t structure that article around a necessarily contradictory collection of analytical tools the way contributors to Social Text frequently do. 

Do I need to be an expert in each of those fields to recognize the contradictions inherent in the argument as it’s being made in a particular article?  I’m sure it would help, but it’s not necessary.  Also, a passing familiarity with the crutches of particular theoretical models will out the majority of critics who’re in over their heads.  If they make sweeping sociological claims but only quote Foucault; if they make sweeping claims about the inner working of the human mind but only quote Freudians; etc.  You see where I’m headed.

I suppose the brief answer to your question would’ve been: I’m familiar with the variety of bullshit favored by literary critics and know, both from personal experience and countless years of research, that few of even the most honored and respected critics can produce coherent responses to questions that veer an inch off the well-worn path of Theory.  A quick, dirty and by no means statistically relevant example: ask Spivak a question about behaviorist theories of human interaction and she’ll respond with a blank stare a curt dismissal of its importance.

By A. Cephalous on 05/01/05 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking of behavorism, Chomsky is fond of saying that when he’s given talks to people in fields which he considers to have actual intellectual content (math, etc.), people listen openly to his ideas. On the other hand, he says, political scientists are the first to question his credentials.

This type of credentialism is a by-product of the power structure of academia and is clearly irrational.

A few people have considered what a synthesis of Freud, Marx, and even feminism might entail, I seem to recall.

By Jon on 05/01/05 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[sniffing jock… checks out “O.K."]

I have been hesitant to post on this, but now that John Bruce seems to have gotten his kidney stone passed, I thought it worth asking: “Really, Sean?”

What I mean to say is, I wonder whether the Presidential strain has been that strong in American literature, as opposed to a higher aiming--a spiritual or prophetic aim that would seek to go beyond any mere office and instead seek a precondition for the whole enterprise? Walden is the founding text here, of course, with Leaves of Grass an essential companion… notably, on this line, there’s Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau:

Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.

This seems a mis-reading of Thoreau: he did not want to be our John Brown, but the prophet of our condition. Of course, it’s true that many writers have sought a kind of centralizing force that might be concommitant with the 20th c. strengthening of the presidency (which also, note, coincided with rapid growth of government, per se, in early decades through New Deal), but they seem to me to be the lesser writers: the Naturalists, the Beats, Mailer… a lot are content to be field epistemologists, extended journalists, and poets on prose holiday. The major writers, though, strike me as being in the prophetic rather than presidential strain.

Just a thought…

By on 05/01/05 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jon (nee Jonathan),

I understand that you’re baiting me, but I’m going to have to refuse to make irrational claims.  The reason that political scientists don’t take the political theories of the Magister Ludi of generative grammar seriously is quite obvious.  (And I’m saying this as a trained linguist who decided, God only knows why, to become an English graduate student.) So any connection you draw between Chomsky’s legitimate contributions to linguistics and his sometimes insightful, sometimes willfully and painfully blind political commentaries is liable to buzz me. 

I’m also familiar with the many attempts to synthesize Marx and Freud, as well as as the feminist scholarship that considers Deleuzian thought foundational.  I’m really not here to participate in a pissing contest; I believed, perhaps naively, that the attitude the Valve hoped to foster was one of healthy scepticism; one in which the unthinking pieties of the profession would, through honest conversation, be cast aside in favor of a General Granting of the Benefit of the Doubt to All. 

I’m not complaining so much as querying the attitude of your responses.  If you’re interested in converting readers to your perspective, your epigrammatic responses aren’t going to cut it.  I say this honestly, sans hostility, in the spirit of friendship and all that shit: if you can explain to me the validity of the positions you defend I’m more than willing to alter my own views.  (I.e. I’m no John Bruce.) But your sniping responses reminds me of the holistic dismissals that’re the reason I’ve lost faith in my profession.  I’d rather you demolish my position with an articulate nitro-glycerine (fuck the inert buffer matter) than snidely snipe as seems to be your want (at least here). 

I’m open to convincing because, above all else, I want to address the general public with a clear conscience.  If you present convincing arguments, and if those arguments reflect/register/construct (i.e. if they verb a testable claim upon the real world), I’ll concede the illegitimacy of my own beliefs.  This isn’t a rhetorical gambit on my part; it’s the desperate plea of a graduate student who strives for relevancy but fears he’s being tossed the to wolves.  I’d appreciate a straight answer; short of that, I’d appreciate you take my comments more seriously than you seem to be.  They may not be original or all that insightful, but they’re honest and from an English graduate student.  Decency demands an informative reply.  Shoot me down, I don’t mind; only tell me why I deserve to plummet…

By A. Cephalous on 05/02/05 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gracious me, I could tell you some stories about snide remarks.

But that wasn’t my intent here, and I apologize for not giving you a more detailed response. In fact, I’m not going to be very detailed here. I just don’t have the time or the energy at the moment. It’s not that I don’t think your comments are worthy.

The point about Chomsky is that some political scientists wanted to dismiss his ideas because they did not proceed from “received findings in their field,” or something similar. That’s pretty clearly irrational to me. Mathematicians would gladly listen to him talk about markov models and the like, despite him not having degree one in math. I believe that there are institutional reasons for these varying receptions. I also believe that, in the humanities and social sciences, these dulling pressures should be resisted. The boundaries of humanistic knowledge are permeable and fluid, and I don’t see this conflicting with an open-minded experise.

You suggested that Marxian and Freudian approaches were mutually exclusive. A lot of people don’t think this is necessarily so. The question has worried some fine minds. That was all.

Finally, people I’ve known in the field don’t seem to be as objectionable as those you describe. It could be the traffic. I don’t know.

By Jonathan on 05/02/05 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joel, thanks for the excellent question!  I just composed a long reply and lost the whole blasted thing.  $#^!*&^%!  Gotta run now, but will try and post again later.

By on 05/02/05 at 06:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Many apologies for responding after an afternoon spent wrestling with some of the most aggressively idiotic articles I’ve read in a long time.  My intellectual hovel was surrounded by snipers last night; I didn’t mean to number you among them.  (I also apologize for leaving out approx. half the words in the final paragraph there.  I’m not sure if I left them out or they were eaten, as I know for fact that when I previewed the comment I corrected that “want.")

That said, I think Chomsky’s a particularly inflammatory example of interdisciplinary work because its quality is so variable.  Some of his work, like The Fateful Triangle, is generally held in high regard; but some of it, like most of what he’s written since 9/11, substitutes intuition for fact in a manner bound to be frowned upon by political scientists.  I suppose the problem I have with your example (Chomsky, math, markov models) is that mathematicians will accept Chomsky’s work because he’s demonstrated his competence.  There’s no similar way to demonstrate competence in a field like sociology, psychology, political science, etc.  The majority of scholars in your field either find your work methodologically sound or they don’t; and that’s why I pointed to citations as a means of determining a scholar’s competence.

If that scholar cites one of the intellectual shortcuts I mentioned earlier, odds are that they’re not engaging work in another discipline so much as pilfering it for claims that suit the argument they’re already determined to make (a Foucauldian analysis of...).  On the one hand, that’s not intellectually honest; the theories brought to bear on another discipline will determine the facts, claims, etc. cited; the process of engaging the thought and methodologies which produced those facts, claims, etc. has been circumvented, so the assumptions behind them are obscured.  On the other hand, even when the assumptions behind work in another field are examined, they’re often examined from a position of “informed ignorance” such that, for example, a feminist might attack an evolutionary biologist’s study on the biological differences between men and women on ideological grounds in an attempt to bend fact-finding work to suit a theoretical perspective foreign to the discipline of evolutionary biology.  While it’s fine for critics to do so, I wonder whether academic feminists can differentiate between the implications of such work to them and the implications of such work to evolutionary biologists unconcerned with the project on which their critics founded their complaints.  In other words, there’s a real “So what?” quality to “interdisciplinary” work whose sole intent is to cast asperions on fields beyond the bounds of Theory.

Still, I take your point, generally speaking, as a good one.  I only wish more of the people I see engaged in “interdisciplinary” work were determined to produce genuine interdisciplinary work and not, shall we say, sniping other disciplines for their perceived ideological shortcomings.  (Then again, maybe it’s because at Irvine it seems “interdisciplinary” more often than not means citing Norbert Wiener and talking about one’s “cyborg body.” So it might just be the traffic after all.)

By A. Cephalous on 05/02/05 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment


if you’re still reading, a delayed response to your excellent question. 

(I’m reconstructing here the answer that I somehow lost yesterday.  Needless to say, the original was much more intelligent and better informed.)

I can see three serious challenges to my argument in your question: (1) The presidential angle isn’t really significant; what I’m really pointing to is a widely shared tendency for American writers to invoke a transpolitical, spiritual or prophetic authority.  (2) The writers who might fall under my rubric are second-rate.  (3) What I’m calling presidential government is really just the growth of the federal government.  Neither separation of powers, nor party competition, nor federalism has ever been trumped by the executive office.

I’m willing to give concede with qualifications to all.  As far as number 3 goes, yes, I think it’s certainly right that matters did not turn out at all as people who were invested in the idea of presidential government believed.  (I still think, though, that there have been significant changes in the balance of powers between the branches and in the party system that owe much to an empowered presidency.  All of this is, though, subject to dispute in poli sci., and I’m happy to agree with John Bruce that I can’t hope to resolve these disputes—even if I do think I’m capable of understanding the disagreements.) My big point on the political side of my argument is that there were strong believers in presidential government—in the progressive era, during the New Deal, during the late 50s and 60s—and that these people had significant effects in shaping the ideological environment.

It’s true too that I’m interested in the naturalists, in the Beats, and in someone like Mailer—who, as you guess, is an important figure for me.  I think these _are_ important writers.  More importantly, I think I can show that what I’m talking about appears across a surprising range of 20th century American lit. 

Number one is the most serious challenge, of course.  I wouldn’t disagree that many writers use the analogy to presidential government as a kind of jumping off point to invoke an authority that appears to surpass political concerns.  My point would be that in the 20th century--by contrast to the 19th, I believe—the presidency does become (both in political rhetoric and in the literary imagination) a central means of envisioning a this-worldy spirituality.  Needless to say (as that last phrase should suggest), there are long standing intellectual and cultural currents that inform this tendency.  But particularly to the extent that writers seek out a spiritual transcendence, grounded in national sovereignty, of the problems of politics or civil society, the president quite naturally becomes a central figure.  There are, of course, writers who feel no attraction to the appeal of sovereignty. (E.g., Nabokov perhaps).  But my sense is that these people are actually in the minority.

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


A few quick thoughts:

1) Relative importance of Presidency, of course, has waxed and waned throughout history: Washington a very strong presence, then weakening until Lincoln, then again until TR, then a steady rise throughout 20th C. (more or less) to the current monstrosity (in so many ways) of executive branch. TR is probably the inaugural figure and might be interestingly compared to Twain (after prelude on Whitman/Lincoln?). My only point on New Deal was that FDRs battles to get that through were coincident with his own (near tyrannous--court packing?) efforts to create a strong enough Executive branch to get his work done (something, btw, the now out-of-power Dems must rue): that is, I see these as coextensive, not contradictory.

2) Your rephrasing “minor” as “second-rate” strikes me as interesting semantic (heuristic?) shift, but that’s not the direction I was going: Frank Norris isn’t nothing, he’s just not, say, Twain or Wharton or James. Mailer’s reputation is going to fade fast, I think (but maybe he’ll last?). Of course, this doesn’t count against your project--it was just a thought towards the question: “Is this public, political, totalizing aim something that might count against the art?”

3) Prophetic vs Presidential. Well, you certainly have a point that the two can, on a view of each relative to one another, and of a writer and the presidency of their times, collapse to a small, shared sphere of intention--but I think it’s a distinction worth keeping. The most interesting thought to my mind in your post is that it reminds me that, to some extent, the presidency is the direct representative of the masses in our system, and to the degree to which serious writers seek to channel the energy of their age in their work (rather than challenge or ignore it, or, again w/r/t prophetic writers--create the source of and give direction to that energy), then it would be interesting to see what results obtain.

But these are just quick thoughts--hope they help you clarify yer goals (and spin a few good sentences in the work).

By on 05/03/05 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

1) Matt Greenfield mentions a scene from Burroughs re: FDR’s court-packing. FYI, Burroughs’ essay “Commissioner of Sewers” is his response to the hypothetical about wanting to become president. (It’s not clearly stated in the essay but I think he might have been responding to his friend Allen Ginsberg’s presidential fancies. Also, that title is taken by a documentary film on WSB, which seems to have more web references than the essay—if you search for it, don’t be confused.)

2) Matt misstates “Capricorn” for “Libra” which reminded me that I prefer Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Capricorn” to anything by Don DeLillo. I wouldn’t mention this here but for Sean’s comment “There really are very few American Marinettis." That’s interesting: Henry Miller might be the closest thing to an American Marinetti. Yet, Miller’s unhappy sex addiction damaged his life and marred his work (IMHO). Which suggests a cultural difference that might parallel the original question about “national tendencies”. Viz: Henry Miller’s anarchist tendencies were directed unhappily at sexual morality—perhaps because the American system leaves politics fluid enough that it did not seem to him like the primary oppressor. By contrast, in Marinetti’s tradition, or Europe broadly speaking, anarchist tendencies found expression instead against politics, since it was there that the shoe pinched, rather than against sexual morality as in America.

By pierre on 05/03/05 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, he’s Wharton alright.

That reminds me: let’s have some debates about who’s the better writer.

By Jonathan on 05/03/05 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Joel and Pierre for very helpful stuff indeed!

By on 05/03/05 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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