Archive for the ‘criticism’ Category
This weekend, the NYT Books Section ran a six-essay feature on “Criticism,” complete with an introductory note about the canonical works in the genre that they had in mind when they came up with the idea:
The inspiration for the six essays anchoring the Book Review this week was Alfred Kazin’s polemic “The Function of Criticism Today,” written in 1960 (and published in Commentary). But Kazin belongs to a long tradition of critics who have cast a keen eye over their vocation. In fact, Kazin’s essay echoes T. S. Eliot’s “Function of Criticism,” published in 1923, which itself echoed Matthew Arnold’s celebrated “Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” written in 1864.
The sadly hilarious thing about the feature, however, is how far short the commentators – as well as the weekly reviews that show up in the NYTBR – fall from the ideals established in the cited examples. There’s something interestingly symptomatic about just how this happens as well. While Kazin’s essay aims in the direction of futurity, activeness rather than passivity, and the engaged spread of writing about art into writing about “the age,” the showcased critics in the Times are caught in one posture or other of chastened retreat. Here are a few snips from Kazin (whose essay is partially viewable for free here):
[T]he most obvious thing about criticism in America today is that it is not consciously related to any literary movement. It does not consciously work toward a future. Look at much of the criticism that concentrates on Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, Stevens. Are these essays written so as to suggest new possibilities for art, to welcome new writers, or are they written to explain a point in Ulysses that no one else has mentioned?
The trouble with all of us who teach and explain so much of modern literature is that we are too far from the kind of historical confidence, the élan, the historical swagger, that made it possible.
We must practice criticism on the older writers lest they harden into the only acceptable writers. We must learn to practice criticism on the newer writers in order to bind them more truly to our own experience. We must practice criticism on our age while it is still here to show us its possibilities.
So what do we get now, today, in the Times? We get, for instance, Stephen Burn urging a sort of strategic retreat in the face of Amazon reader reviews:
The culture is what it is — messy and multi-valent, open to a certain range of entertainments and cultural expressions — and the critic’s yearning to dominate a larger audience is an index of the extent to which he or she finds the critical task insufficient in itself. Stepping aside from the culture of opinion, delving deeper into open-minded analysis, critics might fulfill their most important function: locating major works that are not always visible in mainstream networks.
Or we get Katie Roiphe, queen of the attention-garnering and offensive polemic, raising the extremely controversial point that literary criticism should be written well.
If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies — with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone — that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.
OK. Well. The assembled critics oscillate, as they would, between seeing the iPad and iPod, Facebook and Twitter, as threats to the business or spurs to its salvation, as they would in true NYT featurese argot. Perish the thought that one could write a culturally focused piece in this paper at this time that didn’t thread everything through an advertisement or anti-advertisement for ereaders. If they were to look back at the Kazin essay, and the others mentioned in the introductory piece, they’d find that while many of the canonical critics register in passing the same anxieties about the future of literature as an enterprise, the real issue at hand – and what they to a one duck – is the issue of engagement, the appropriate ends of criticism.
Whatever its cultural centrality – and there’s more for me to say about how I think we should simultaneously keep the issue of cultural centrality, well, central and ignore it altogether at the same time – literary criticism and the forms of criticism that can branch out from and be informed by it are ripe for renewal. We are in a period of flux – political culture, and in particular the left, is in a state of potentially highly productive disarray. Because literature and art more generally is notoriously (or, at least it should be notorious) resistant to dogmatic analysis, it can provide both a school for thinking through problem and solution sets that flicker dimly on the horizon, somewhere on the other side of the river of conventional wisdom, however refined. If only the better papers would see that this could be the case; if only those who could or even would would find the courage – and not all that much is needed – to take up Kazin’s “historical confidence, the élan, the historical swagger.”
I’ll try to say more about how I think this might be possible in the near term….
As you might guess if you’ve been reading awhile, I’m a wee bit critical, skeptical of things, generally not happy with much that I read and less that I hear in conversation. Erm. It’s a family trait, and I suppose in some ways I should be thankful for it as, ultimately, it’s likely responsible (first) for my father’s escape from a household in which his mother was wearing his handmedowns and (next) my transcendence of a situation in which I lived in a house with no reading material other than Jonathan Livingston Seagull, whatever that is or was other than an appropriate if cheap wedding present at a certain time and place.
The critical annihilation of peers is a particularly dark and perhaps extremely efficient form of self-motivation, one that provides mountains to climb and rivers to cross where, to the eye of the ordinary guy on the street, elevation and depth there are none.
We’d, my family, sit at the kitchen table for dinner and talk shit about our friends and neighbors. Sometimes the relatives. Unspoken was the critique of ourselves, which nonetheless was constant and total, of course. A hellish start – can’t really imagine what something like charity would be like, save when I’m paid to perform it as a teacher, and in that case perform it I certainly do.
But, no, I don’t like much that I read and less that I hear. Visceral and undeniable, this feeling of disappointment and (ugh) antipathy. Especially when it comes to people who do the same sort of thing as me, in any sense whether real or prospective.
(Confessional, this blog is. Jesus. You should hear the things that I don’t tell you though… What franticness it is to be me…)
Still and despite all this, I really, really like Ange Mlinko’s stuff for The Nation. (Ha!) It has the undeniable sniff of real intelligence. A bit overwhelming when you happen upon it, the sniff of that. You should go read some – stuff like this is rare in a day and age like ours, or really anytime and anywhere.
Via the Valve, an article in the NYT about what the paper is calling (correct me if I’m wrong – the paper’s been calling) “the next big thing” in literary studies – basically the application of evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive science to literature.
I try not to be cranky about this sort of thing – both the NYT’s reportage and this new mode of study itself. And it’s not that I don’t think there are insights potentially to be gleaned from such an approach. Rather, my problem with it is that much of the output that I’ve seen steers heavily in the direction of the massive-research-grant-funded restatement of the obvious and deep tautology. Let me show you a few examples from the article in question. (Obviously, this isn’t entirely fair, as I’m looking at newspaper re-descriptions of research rather than the research itself… But certain patterns familiar from the work in this line that I’ve actually looked at manifest themselves quite clearly in what follows, so I’ll go on…) Here’s a example:
At the other end of the country Blakey Vermeule, an associate professor of English at Stanford, is examining theory of mind from a different perspective. She starts from the assumption that evolution had a hand in our love of fiction, and then goes on to examine the narrative technique known as “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrator’s. Indirect style enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time.
This style, which became the hallmark of the novel beginning in the 19th century with Jane Austen, evolved because it satisfies our “intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations,” Ms. Vermeule said.
Now, I am going to look into Vermeule’s work when I’m next in the office and have a minute as “free indirect style” has basically been the issue at the center of my own teaching and research for the past decade or so (that is to say, since I started work on my dissertation, or really since I started seriously reading Flaubert and Joyce as an undergraduate…), but can you see the problem here? Here are the claims in order:
1. “evolution had a hand in our love of fiction”
2. free indirect style “enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time”
3. free indirect style evolved because it “satisfies our ‘intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations’”
Well and good. But to my mind, even though its nothing new, only claim 2 holds any interest. How free indirect style manages the delicate play of multiple “mind-sets” is an interesting and ever-renewable issue, as it allows us to negotiate with some of the basic dynamics of fiction and their modern (considered broadly) manifestations. Point 1, on the other hand, is uninteresting because the basic assumption behind this approach (and, sure, an assumption that I share) is that evolution had a hand in everything that we have done, has a hand in everything that we do. Is there a human activity X, in other words, to which the statement evolution had a hand in our love for X? A statement like this simply doesn’t bear any, um, value-added. (More on this in a minute). Point 3 likewise merely dresses in evo-psych garb something that all of us have always already known about both free indirect style and, well, fiction in general. Was it ever a great mystery that a large part of the appeal of fiction is that it ostensibly allows us access to the elusive interiorities of other people? I suppose there’s something more to say about why this is the case, but not all that much more – it doesn’t seem all that confusing that whether one is looking for a mate or competing with the next hairy homo sapiens over a hunting ground, that thinking into the thoughts of others serves as a valuable skill in the work of gene preservation / distribution.
So just to sum up – I can see running room in the specifically literary claim that Vermeule’s making, but the “scientific” add-ons seem just that – add-ons, supplements from the realm of blinding common sense draped in the discourse of trendy science. (Please note and don’t get me wrong: theoretically inflected work very often performs and performed the same sort of dance…) But an argument that goes Behavior X seems irrational until we realize that it grants an adaptive advantage. We know that it grants an adaptive advantage because all actual behavior does… simply doesn’t seem to shed light on much of anything at all.
So critical and theoretical trends come and go. I’m a youngish academic, but I even I map my progress according to the rise and fall of Dominant Theoretical Paradigms (I entered the PhD at the peak of the Post-Colonial Bubble, got my first job as Deconstruction self-deconstructed but near the top of the Textual Materialist bubble, my second in the Age of Transatlanticism, and now, according to the paper of record, am doing my persistently untimely work in the Age of EvoPsych…) But I think there’s something special – specially symptomatic – about this trend that merits some attention. Here’s another snippet:
Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.
“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.
The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.
Ah, that sounds like the stuff of the properly-science oriented research grant. My department has been complaining very justly lately that the university-distributed research grants available for us to apply for – actually, which we’re reprimanded on a termly basis for not applying often enough for – are arranged in such a way that makes them literally pointless for us to aspire to. Why? For one thing, the arrangement chez nous is that these grants can only be used to pay for research expense but in no case can be used to buy us out of teaching, that is to say buy us the time out of the classroom that we need to do our research projects. I’d write more if I had time, but I can’t think of a single research-related expense that I need money for, beyond I suppose a couple of books and the like. (This is the back story, by the way, behind the ubiquitous grant-funded fancy-ass home laptop that grantees in the humanities buy “for research purposes.” It seems cagey to do, but there’s literally nothing else to spend the money on, so you head to the Apple Store…)
But I have a sense that part of the appeal of this new “scientifically” organized work is the fact that it is compatible with the science-oriented funding that we humanities types are increasingly expected to attract, but which rarely for most of us fits the bill in any way that makes writing the grant application worthwhile. In a way, the quote above from Michael Holquist discretely says all that needs to be said about what’s driving this sort of work: “We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts.“ Again, is the fact that people read Proust a bit differently from the New York Post a finding that requires ample funded-research? You need an MRI-machine to determine that? And since when is a commercial term like value-added appropriate for use in describing the sort of work that we do? (Oh, well, yes during the age of impact and its American equivalents…)
I’m definitely not against scientific and especially quantitative approaches to literature – see Franco Moretti’s relatively recent work for a fascinating example of what can happen when you run words through a machine. But I’m still waiting to see an example of EvoPsych / Cognitive Science-based literary work that doesn’t dress ordinary or even banal arguments about literature in trendily mystifying language that ultimately turns out to be 200 proof conventional wisdom. But the funny thing to remember, though, is that theory itself – which seems to be in the crosshairs of many who’ve taken up evo or cognitive approaches – itself emerged in large part in attempt to assert disciplinary rationality in an increasingly science-minded age. Structuralism, narratology, semiology and the like were all attempts to make what we do into a science rather than a endemically-skeptical art…
Trying to unwind as my term’s now over – the busiest term I’ve ever had by a mile – I’ve been reading the papers this weekend. Lots of stuff to point out to you:
1. Terrific long piece in the NYT today by Nicolai Ouroussoff featuring ideas for urban investment in America. Concrete (mmm) ideas here about both what sort of projects might be taken up, and even better a suggestion toward the end about how the funding might work:
I am also a fan of a National Infrastructure Bank, an idea that was first proposed by the financiers Felix Rohatyn and Everett Ehrlich.
The bank would function something like a domestic World Bank, financing large-scale undertakings like subways, airports and harbor improvements. Presumably it would be able to funnel money into the more sustainable, forward-looking projects. It could also establish a review process similar to the one created by the government’s General Services Administration in the mid-1990s, which attracted some of the country’s best talents to design federal courthouses and office buildings. Lavishing similar attention on bridges, pump stations, trains, public housing and schools would not only be a significant step in rebuilding a sense of civic pride; it would also prove that our society values the public infrastructure that binds us together as much as it values, say, sheltering the rich.
2. A little snippet appeared in the Saturday Guardian’s “This Week in Books” column that, had I missed it, might well have seriously messed up some writing I will do in the near future.
These days, the Parisian intellectual is commonly seen on both sides of the Channel as a species on the fast track to extinction. But there are still enough of these old dinosaurs roaming the Left Bank to cause a noisy literary scandal. This is what happened after the recent publication of two journals by Roland Barthes, the philosopher and critic who died in 1980. The publishers of Carnets du Voyage en Chine (“Notebooks of a Journey to China”) and Journal de Deuil (“Diary of Mourning”) have been attacked because these unfinished texts were never meant for publication and allegedly reveal intimate secrets about Barthes’s private life. His admirers are arguing loudly that these secrets undermine his authority as a thinker.
It’s true that the China book places Barthes closer to Russell Brand than his more high-minded peers. The diary of a “fact-finding” trip to China that Barthes made in the company of like-minded Mao fans in 1974, it begins with the author moaning Pooterishly about the airline food and a stain on his new trousers. The tour is a dreary round of ping-pong matches and choir-singing. Not surprisingly, on a trip to see Buddhist statues in Henan province, the author’s attention wanders. Contemplating his imminent return to Paris, he laments: “I won’t have seen the ‘kiki’ of a single Chinese man.”
The novelist Philippe Sollers – a fellow traveller on the expedition in every sense – has been quick to defend Barthes’s point of view here as “heroically political”, a comment on sexual repression in Mao’s China. Others have been less kind, pointing out that the word “kiki” is rarely used by anyone of either sex over the age of 11. The veteran wit Raphaël Sorin has likened the text to an unworthy parody. Angriest of all is Barthes’s former editor François Wahl, who has launched a fierce attack on the publishers and talked of a betrayal of the real Barthes.
Barthes’s 1974 trip to China is going to be a pivotal moment in the monograph I’m going to write after I finally finish my dissertation book. Luckily, the above doesn’t at all contradict the thing that I’m going to say about it. No, rather, it’s, um, material confirmation of just what I was thinking. Good…
3. Also in the Guardian‘s Saturday review was a fine piece by Brian Dillon on Chris Marker’s La Jetée of 1962 and Marker’s career as a whole. Here’s La Jetée, in case you’ve never seen it….
4. Lots of reviews of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, including this one. Just ordered it after a valiant attempt to purchase said volume the honorable way at my local (and largely useless) bookseller. So that makes the grand total for the weekend (ugh this is bad): the Dyer novel, the new Paul Muldoon, the Barthes bit on China, Marker’s Immemory DVD, Harold Pinter’s Plays (Vol. 2), Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, Xiaolu Guo’s 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (I like Chinese fiction, like stories about “making it in China,” especially like reading them now that the entire machine is running in reverse.) I was also given The Watchmen, Chekhov’s Plays, and an edition of Longinus (I think I was given the last two – Pollian left them on the desk in the guestroom when he departed…) Jesus. I always do this at the start of the summer. I don’t, per se, read during the school year, so there’s this spike of ambition that happens and I buy a shitload of books.
5. Where did the Guardian’s Saturday “Writers’ Room” feature go? I can’t imagine that they’re discontinuing it. Here’s the one for Dyer, while we’re on the subject, from a little ways back. (As a Canadian national – CANUSA dual citizen – I was seriously thrown by the “Don Cherry” thing in that article… Is he once of us, I thought? But it must be another Don Cherry, right… Just to keep things clear, I’m going to put a photo of the real DC over my desk at the university the next time I’m there…) Anyway, maybe they’re just taking the week off with the feature – or they’ve run out of writers to call up and annoy. I think I’m especially fascinated by these rooms lately because (as I’ve grumbled about many times) I don’t have a writers’ room of my own. I’ve included an image of my, erm, workspace before, and here’s one of my current home library:
6. IT’s not a newspaper, but she has posted a very good paper by Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano on The Wire. More to say on this when I have time….
In the weeks before the M.T.A. vote, the artist Jason Logan and I spent a lot of time on the buses and subways that, unless the state steps in with a last-minute rescue package, will soon be gone or severely cut back. We met people whose jobs or health depended on their routes; we met some who simply didn’t want to walk far in the cold. Many — and it seemed often those most dependent — were unaware that their means of transportation could disappear.
Both Jason and I have always been drawn to this phenomenon of people, behaving for the most part civilly, getting from here to there, side by side. And we wanted to find some way to convey the less tangible costs of service cuts and fare hikes. Here (pdf), large X’s are adults; small x’s are children.
8. An interesting piece in the Observer today by Tristram Hunt on the long history of attacking banks here in London. I doubt I’ll make it out to any of the fun, wish I could, wish I could….
Was at this conference a few weekends ago, not as much as I would have liked, but a bit. Saw Owen Hatherley’s paper – excellent stuff as usual. I want to be a little unspecific about what I was doing there, to protect all involved. But I was in a position to ask people questions about literature and politics, and I sort of duffed it a bit. My questions were fine, but I didn’t really ask the question that I wanted to ask, at least in the way that I wanted to ask it. There are reasons why I didn’t, the leading one being that it’s the sort of question that has a tendency to drive situations (seminars, conference panels) off the rails, away from the work under discussion. But still I’m a little disappointed I didn’t ask it. Here it is, roughly, though way more self-referentially than I would have made it there:
I’ve written one thing in my life that I’m relatively proud of. It’s a piece of academic literary criticism, one that I think says something fairly new and profound about a very canonical work of literature. It was accepted for publication at a fairly prestigious journal as I was applying for jobs the first time around, and it served as my writing sample when I applied for the job I now have. In short, it has served me very well.
Here’s the issue. It is, I think, a fairly good piece of leftist literary criticism. Marxist might not be quite the word, as there’s not tons of Marx referenced in the paper itself, but it is centered on questions of work and employment and what they have to do with the way that the work is written and what the work ultimately has to tell us about these things and its world in general.
That said, and here’s where the problem starts – a problem both extremely obvious yet something that none of us in the business of left literary academia seem to want to address – what is very very clear is that the readership of this piece will be comprised almost entirely of scholars and students of the author in question. They will use this piece in order to help compose their own works on the same topic by borrowing from or adding on to or arguing with my paper. It is impossible to think of a single possibility of the findings that I advance in this paper having any effect on anyone anywhere who is working on anything other than literature.
So… there is an utter disconnection between the tools that I put to use in this paper, what the tools were intended to do, and the context of usefulness that my paper itself fits into. The left technology that I brought to bear upon the text I brought to bear because I believe in its potential worldly usefulness, but when applied to literary texts, that usefulness becomes merely literary, an acting-out or practice version of something that seems never to get beyond acting-out or practice versions.
It feels a bit like training very dilligently to become, what, a pediatric neurosurgeon, honing those delicate finger movements, only to spend most of your time tying bows on birthday presents because that’s all your really allowed (or capable, somehow) of working on – bows. Or maybe it’s like getting really pissed off at someone to the point of deciding you’ll head to the gun shop and buy a really nice submachine gun, and then coming home and using the submachine gun to open your cans of beer the quick and dirty way.
There are probably a lot of other ways I could put this, an infinite numbers of ways. It is frustrating. You see my point, yes? I understand that it’s an incredibly obvious problem, but on the other hand it’s also obvious that we all just keep going along producing left-inflected literary criticism without quite solving out the fundamental issue. And even if we can’t solve out the fundamental issue, we’re still left in a very weird spot: if we simply aren’t able (for professional reasons or because of our aptitudes and training) to do anything other than produce literary criticism and history, it would feel irresponsible or worse to abandon the leftist forms of the enterprise, but those forms nonetheless make nothing happen, so we probably might as well let them go.
Theory, the period of high theory in literature departments, allowed us to ignore the problem at hand more easily, even if it still was very much at hand. There was a collective hallucination in place that allowed us to believe that our work mattered in a way that it never did. But now that the hallucination is over, we’re left in a tough spot.
Maybe I’ll write about the ways that I’m thinking about getting out of the bind in another post. But this is a start. Wish I had asked something like this during my turn at the conference, and if the venue was ever going to be right, it was here. But you can see, perhaps, why I didn’t….
Ha! Somebody made a blog called contra james wood! How very specific. No, I understand though… It’s good to find a niche!
If James Wood didn’t exist, the publishing industry would have to invent him.
Can you imagine? Smoke filled room etc etc.
I wish someone would invent me. Warholian update about how in the future, we’ll each and all have at least 5 blogs specifically contra us.
I actually met JW briefly last year, won’t say where won’t say when, but it was near a swimming pool. He seemed, you know, nice. I didn’t argue. SK once did tho.
Ok seriously. I’m closing the browser now for good.
In his Principles of Literary Criticism of 1924, I.A. Richards is invested, among other things, in describing “a morality which will change its values as circumstances alter, a morality free of occultism, absolutes and arbitrariness, a morality which will explain, as no morality has yet explained, the place and value of the arts in human affairs” (52). And in putting the project this way, we find evidence of a problem that is at once understandable, familiar, and frustrating. In short, what is the last clause – the bit about the arts – doing in the sentence? The establishment of a morality attuned to the modern situation is a noble task, no doubt, but why must it also be one that can explain the value of the arts? What if one was to come up with a morality that fulfilled all the other conditions, but simply didn’t have room for the arts?
The answer, in part, has to be that the shape of Richards’s project is determined by his line of work. It is an English professor’s sort of morality – and perhaps, moral social organization – that he is working towards.
For those of us who work via the humanities, particularly the artistic humanities, it is an uncannily familiar situation. The development of a politics from and in support of artistic production, along with all of the other great things that we’d like included – it’s a very strange task. It explains why we tend to love those political thinkers who made space for art, or who kept art at the center of their politics. William Morris, the Constructivists, the various auto-poeisis types like the late-Foucault and Deleuze. For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for us to deal with a vision of society that didn’t make room for the production of good novels and poems, good pictures and films. But of course, backed against the wall, we’d also admit that these things really aren’t of central importance to the project of social amelioration. They are tools or supplements, garnishes or indirect manifestations of social health. For the fact of the matter is that it may well be that a more perfect society could be an unfavorable location for the production of the sort of art we are used to esteeming as great or even worthwhile.
But on the other hand, we are all familiar with the specter of the rationalized society in which there is no room for art, artistic pleasure, or perhaps even pleasure itself. Art can serve as a metonym for the color of life; where there is no art, we imagine, there is only faceless gray, the utterly minimum dwelling. This vision of rational society, even if it is only a spectral scapegoat, is something that we are obliged to negotiate with, for it is a powerful counter advertisement to the ad without products that solicits buyers for the thing we are trying to sell.
Beyond all the ambiguities, the question that Richards’s statement forces upon us – a question about means and ends, and which are paramount to us – is a question that we must deal with if those who for through and for aesthetic production are to frame a politics more effective than symptomatic.
The blogosphere, I would argue, works in the opposite direction. There are arbiters aplenty — some of the smartest print writers are active on blogs as well — but the very nature of the blogosphere is proliferation and dispersal; it is centrifugal and represents a fundamental reversal of the norms of print culture.
…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.
But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.
This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.
Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.
More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s
fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.
…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?
And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?
Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”
Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…
Geoff Dyer in Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger:
The series Ways of Seeing was first broadcast in the Spring of 1972 on BBC2 late in the evening. The audience was small but since the ‘switch-off rate’ was extraordinarily low (i.e. once people began watching they continued till the end), the makers of the series were able to persuade the BBC to broadcast it again at prime time. The influence of the series and the book that Berger wrote after this hesitant start was enormous. Throughout the 1970s it was the key text in art colleges in Britain and in the USA; for many students and teachers alike it represented a turning point in their thinking about art. It opened up for general attention areas of cultural study that are now commonplace – decoding advertisements, for example – but which in 1972 were either virtually unknown or existed only in embryonic stage within the academy. (Many of the ideas of the series had already appeared in articles and essays by Berger: it is the transition to television and best-selling paperback that is important.) Taken together as Peter Fuller has said, the series and the book have had ‘a greater influence than any other art critical project of the last decade’, and probably, I would add of the post-war period.
The world, of course, has changed. And (in terms of my own personal interest in the idea) literature is much less photogenic than art. What are you could to fill the screen with, a Powerpoint presentation of lines of poetry? But still, Berger and his Ways of Seeing represent an instance of popularization without selling out, writing for the market. Can’t help but wonder if a similar sort of endeavor might be possible today, what it would take, what it would cost etc…
I’m too tired (softball, in this heat, can you imagine?) tonight to do the following justice – an excerpt from the end of T.J. Clark’s response to Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity and Jameson’s The Cultural Turn and in particular the distinction that they forge between modernism and postmodernism. Originally appeared in the New Left Review in 2000:
Once or twice in his recent essays Fredric Jameson has turned specifically to defining modernism, and not surprisingly he has gone back to Adorno for help—to Adorno and Hegel. ‘For us,’ he quotes Hegel’s great dictum, ‘art no longer counts as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself.’ The task of the critic, Jameson says, is to understand why the prediction about art practice that seemed to follow from the dictum—that art, as a significant form of life, would end, or decline into mere decorative accompaniment—did not prove to be true. Something called modernism happened instead. ‘What did not conform to Hegel’s prognosis was the supersession of art by philosophy itself: rather, a new and different kind of art appeared to take philosophy’s place after the end of the old one, and to usurp all of philosophy’s claims to the Absolute, to being “the highest mode in which truth manages to come into being”. This was the art we call modernism.’  Or again, in ‘Transformations of the Image’,
what distinguishes modernism in general is not the experimentation with inherited forms or the invention of new ones . . . Modernism constitutes, above all, the feeling that the aesthetic can only fully be realized and embodied where it is something more than the aesthetic . . . [It is] an art that in its very inner movement seeks to transcend itself as art (as Adorno thought, and without it being particularly important to determine the direction of that self-transcendence, whether religious or political). 
These are key episodes in Jameson’s text. Very often the moments at which he returns specifically to Adorno are those where the stakes of his whole analysis come clear. And these recent ones are clarifying. They allow me to state my basic disagreement with Jameson’s picture of modernism and whatever happened to it in the last thirty years—with Jameson’s picture, and, I think, Anderson’s. For the stress here on modernism as turning on a repeated claim, or effort, to transcend itself as art—its belief, to quote Jameson again, ‘that in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art’ —seems to me exactly half the story. It is, if you like, a stress out of Adorno’s dialectic, which leaves unspoken—and therefore in the end demotes—the other, equally essential moment to Adorno’s account. For surely transcendence in modernism can only be achieved—is not this central to our whole sense of the movement’s wager?—by way of absolute immanence and contingency, through a deep and ruthless materialism, by a secularization (a ‘realization’) of transcendence—an absorption in the logic of form. Jameson’s modernism, that is to say, seems to me posited as a movement of transcendence always awaiting another, a distinct, movement (indeed, moment) at which there will take place, punctually, ‘the dissolution of art’s vocation to reach the Absolute’.  And this great, ultra-Enlightenment imagining of disabusal, of the stars coming down to earth, is of course what gives Jameson’s vision its force. But supposing (as I think Adorno supposed) that modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense.
From this picture of modernism there would follow, I feel, a different appraisal of the last thirty years. I guess it would turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, the figures of dissolution and disabusal in art practice—the familiar figures I have just listed—became themselves a form of transcendence; and, as always within modernism, a transcendence doomed to collapse. Or rather, not so much ‘doomed to collapse’ as simply to be confronted again with the pathos lying at the heart of disabusal—disabusal (true secularization) as one more aesthetic mirage among others, always looming ahead of modernism in the commodity desert, as a form of lucidity it never quite reaches. Warhol, inevitably, is for me increasingly the figure of this. How handmade and petty-bourgeois his bright world of consumer durables now looks! How haunted still by a dream of freedom! So that his Campbell’s Soup Can appears, thirty years on, transparently an amalgam—an unresolved, but naively serious dialectical mapping—of De Stijl-type abstraction onto a founding, consoling, redemptive country-store solidity. How like a Stuart Davis or a Ralston Crawford it looks, or an entry from the Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues! ‘History has many cunning passages,’ to quote Gerontion, ‘contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions.’ Does Warhol come to seem more and more a modernist because it turns out that what he inaugurated was another of modernism’s cycles? Or because what happened next was truly an ending, an exit, from which we inevitably look back on the pioneers and see them as touching primitives, still half in love with the art they are putting to death? I suspect the former. It could be the latter. Neither conclusion is comforting. Thirty years is not enough time to tell.
Do yourself a favor and read the entire essay – it’s short, but full. What Clark ultimately means to say, particularly in the last paragraph, is a bit hard to parse out. And this is probably a good thing. What to make of this “disabusal (true secularization)”? Perhaps he’s there already, but I think it would be valuable to scroll back up my page and take a look at the epigraph that lies underneath my title. That’s where I am headed – or where I’m coming from – on this topic.
An article that gets written all the time, a sentiment that never stops circulating, sifted out of always-on archives of cliché and delivered over for your perusal here.
Digest version: becoming a professional Englisher alienates you from the things that brought you to the business in the first place.
Benton polls his undergrads, most grad school bound, on why they love the lit:
They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:
Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”
A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.
But of course, this won’t do. We live, apparently, under the Reign of Theory, which prohibits enjoyment, engagement, anything other than earnest critique in service of the revolution. Benton’s students will learn, the hard way, that life just ain’t all momma reading to you at bedtime, Kerouacian coffeehouse, a precocious Middlemarch devouring under the covers, flashlight.
It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that’s why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.
Here’s the thing. I’m not sure I understand the equation between theory and dour-faced analysis, politburo-distributed graph-paper writing. Seems to me, theory gets blamed on both ends – it produces irrational exuberant poesy-as-criticism and staid, bureaucratic boilerplate at the same time. As everyone already knows, but for some reason can’t bring themselves to say, is that if Benton’s students reach grad school and find themselves bored and frustrated and manufacturing work that fails to live up to their initial literary aspirations, it won’t be because of theory but rather the new archival / historicist turn in literary studies, that silent but mass counter-revolution that has settled on the accumulation of fact and the castration of purpose to produce inelegant works that sift through the dusty corners of the library, producing nothing new but lots and lots of old.
Whatever. My advice for Benton is the following. When your students bring up these feelings, why not help them to develop them into workable projects that move from idle announcement of interest toward self-aware analysis of it. No, no one wants to hear about your momma’s lap, but examinations of relation between the aesthetic and the commodified alienation of literary works would be valuable. Point them towards the question of the aesthetic, a question that partakes of all of the positions that they have here espoused, and suggest that work through the what and why and to what end of it.
Mooning on about how lovely was the novel they read when they were a kid, no, isn’t going to work. But working toward an understanding of how this strange magic trick – so out of step with an irrationally rational world, so out of touch with the normative economism that fills our lungs with every breath – of a bunch of words that creates a feeling (happiness, warmth, togetherness, isolation, discomfort, desire, disinterested interest, egotistic fire, full wallet of cult capital, whatever) works is something that not only needs to be undertaken, but will find acceptance if artfully done.
(A quick example: “A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas’ might yield something like this, and probably even better, were the student encouraged properly, rather than told at every turn that the question is an either/or, literary interest / abstract politicizing.)
For the field of literature, after theory and during the rise of this new empiricist reaction – a field which currently buys the solid ground but forever fails to build – could use some new blood, self-aware, and ready to take poems and novels as something other than an archive of social data, an archive they were forced to use, when so many other, better archives exist, because they made the mistake of getting into English.
As always, and like never before, we today face the question of the value of literature – and of the aesthetic more generally. We need to know why it is that we return to these textual objects, and what sort of energies might be borrowed from them, what sort of doors they have closed and which they might open. And, in particular, why we are so unwilling to do without them.