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left lit crit

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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….

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 9, 2008 at 8:28 pm

8 Responses

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  1. hmm, what about teaching? Isn’t that another way of disseminating these leftist critiques? The main way, I guess I’d say?


    December 9, 2008 at 10:46 pm

  2. It’s only been about 2 months since I’ve been out of university, and I will admit that I often found myself in the situation you’re describing…having a question which seemed genuinely pertinent but out of some vague and, to be honest, uncharacteristic sense of propriety refraining to ask it in favor of a slightly less offensive one.
    In reflection I really can’t see what would have been lost…time is valuable, quantifiably valuable, there is certainly a quantifiable relationship between the resources which any academic institution has at its disposal and the way in which these resouces are put to use in course outlines, conferences, etc…Is there really some ethical imperative not to interrupt this? It seems to me increasingly clear that anything which drives the train off the rails so to speak is not just justifiable but precisely what msot needs to be done.
    Perhaps the reason you didn’t ask the question was not because you thought you’d really put a spoke in the wheels of an otherwise smoothly operating conference, but, worse, you’re question would be laughed off as some perverse indiscretion interfering with the proceeding of important business. In the first case you’d probably be something like Madame Bovary, in the second a comical fool out of Beckett…either way not so bad.


    December 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

  3. your question, and the dilemma is poses, is precisely the reason I am not an academic.

    the answer is to find some praxis – something outside of academia, outside of theory, outside of an audience that already believes what you’re telling them (or is willing to).

    my optimism on this possibility shifts constantly. but that almost doesn’t matter. when asked what he would do if he knew that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther apparently responded: “I would plant a tree.”


    December 10, 2008 at 1:25 am

  4. Historical Materialism has a far higher proportion of people involved in yer proper praxis (a fair few of them on the editorial board) than any other conference we’re likely to be invited to speak at, so it might not have been the appropriate place to ask the question – but it should still be asked, no doubt.


    December 10, 2008 at 3:26 am

  5. Is there any way we can find this literary review? Is it on JSTOR, for example?

    John A

    December 11, 2008 at 12:24 am

  6. @Micah

    Perhaps asking this question at this venue is as futile as the leftist criticism he’s questioning–these people are too entrenched in academia to make a significant change.


    December 11, 2008 at 3:05 am

  7. Sisyphus,

    Sure, teaching, though that’s complicated too in its very own way. (Pedagogical issues about how one would properly teach from the left etc…) In this post, I’m just worried about writing, which is something that we all end up doing, even if most of the hours go towards something else.


    I probably should have just asked it (and actually in some ways I actually did, if haltingly). But see the thing is that one way to be a real dick as a respondent at a conference is to redirect conversation in a direction vastly different from the papers you’ve just heard… Or to attempt a foundational take down of papers, which of course one can always do to anyone working in the humanities, but which isn’t, you know, nice. Sometimes “nice” is a problem, but here, at this conference full of people earnestly working towards social improvement, it’d be not just uncollegial but uncomradely.


    I am quite sure that the sessions with the lowest proportion of people “involved in proper praxis” were the ones that we were involved in. I had not interest in asking the question to the entire conference – just the collection of literary scholars in the room with me at that moment.

    John A,

    Ugh! Anonymity!


    No – that’s not it. See Owen’s response and my response to Owen. If anyone is capable of de-entrenchment it’s these people. There’d be no better place to ask the question than this….


    December 12, 2008 at 11:36 am

  8. Perhaps I’m reading too much of my own belief into your work 🙂

    I guess where I’m coming from here stems from a conversation with some visual artist friends about the now iconic banksy piece (“one nation under cctv”, etc etc), where the question was raised about how effective this message actually is, in terms of getting people thinking about the surveillance state, doing something about it, and whatnot. The interesting parallel to me between the two conversations is this concept that even if you’re not explicitly preaching to the converted, those who aren’t interested in your message, for whatever reason, simply are not hearing it.

    So when I suggest it might be futile to ask this question at this conference, it’s not a question of whether these conference attendees will weigh and consider what you have to say, it’s an issue of whether the larger message/method of thinking will ever reach those not already invested in that type of criticism. Asking that question feels to me like another act of practice in a way, instead of seeking answers by experimentation in some (more public?) form outside of the bubble that is academia.


    December 13, 2008 at 7:00 pm

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