BLUFF
pseudopodium
. . .

Correspondent Matt Wall sends us disturbing news from the Monterey County Herald :

Panicked by word of Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement, Pacific Grove has been plunged into Wild West vigilante justice!

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Tunnel

I haven't read Theory's Empire, and I don't intend to at least until after I've read the Harry Potter novels. (I'm glad that Scott Eric Kaufman did, though.)

"Theory" isn't an empire. It has no army or navy. It's a loose and squabbling graph of autocratic-or-anarchistic city-states joined by a common dialect. In a society where more voters want creationism than evolution taught to their children and where publicly funded education has been abandoned after serial arson, "Theory" is a major problem only insofar as it becomes a major distraction.

Laughing at nonsense, mourning dullness, protesting insularity, mocking arrogant sycophants, and resisting a bullying mob all remain worthwhile exercises. But the extent to which such pleasures are initiated by the Franco-American brand as opposed to pseudo-free-market one-party-system-backed economics, religious orthodoxies, identity allegiances which reinforce the injustices that shaped them, the Great Books gated community, pop evolutionary psychology, or tin Stalins, for example seems strictly a local matter. As proven by some publications of our beloved ALSC, "Theory" is not a necessary condition for worthless blather. And, as proven by some "Theorists", humans sometimes find it possible to take ethical action even against group pressure.

For that matter closest at hand, most of the Theory-happy Long Sunday kids provide full as much entertainment value as the Valve or Crooked Timber teams. (I'll forebear pointing out the snoozier exceptions, 'cause you never know how kids might grow up, but I gotta say Lacan is the crappiest thing to hit ethical intellectuals since things happened that were worse.)

For that matter closest to my heart, some of my favorite books of the 1970s and 1980s came from writers later to be classified as canonical Theorists. And if their books' quality declined inversely to number of disciples and citations, well, couldn't as little be said of Goethe? And if the ones who didn't decline simply disappeared (Alice Jardine, where art thou?), hasn't that happened to other dedicated academics?

Although this supposedly imperializing "Theory" seems to me too amorphous to be defined any way but situationally, Holbo seems as a civilian, I'm sure I oversimplify to define it as a self-contradictory mutually-supporting set of incoherent arguments from indefensible premises. Now, dumb arguments come from all over, and Holbo's battle isn't so much against the specific absurdities of Freud, Lacan, or Baudrillard as against "Theory", so let me focus on the eclecticism.

Hopsy Pike puts on a brave face
"And now let us smile, and be as we were."

Argument is essential to human discourse, and argument which follows the rules of logic and evidence has often proven valuable in the long run, if less often profitable in the short term. Anyway, I'm a tight-ass and so that's the kind of argument I prefer.

However, the multiply dimensional world of human experience supports more logically consistent systems than one. The contemporary sciences have not been (and will not be) collapsed into subparticle physics; even contemporary mathematics is not a family of clones. One can skeptically agree there's more in heaven and earth than's covered by a single philosophy while remaining skeptical of professional mediums. The strong-stomached scholar may well find traces of argument-by-pun even in the work of such buttoned-down types as Holbo and myself.

If art could be completely subsumed by any system, it would no longer be recognizable as art. Being experience, art can become evidence or counter-evidence for arguments, but never become exactly equivalent to an argument. Therefore it's entirely to be expected and welcomed that multiple ambitious ornate abstract argumentative structures will be brought to bear on artifacts, and even that some aesthetic structure-bearers might carry more than one. But I agree with Holbo that insofar as these arguments are meant to be useful for anything but careers, it seems fair to insist that each must work on its own provisional terms. After all, a bad novel can't be redeemed by a preface in which the author says he really would have preferred to write a hit song, or Ebony White by Will Eisner's historicist explanation.

Which, by the way, I still find valuable when contemplating Ebony White.

* * *

Actually. You know? Fuck it. That's not all going on, and that's not all why I wouldn't review this.

I've had to think again today about a couple of people who fell for the shuck and suffered for that, and had to think again today about a couple of people who didn't fall for it and suffered for that. The fact of the shuck is that you need family money behind you in this great culture of ours if you're going to devote yourself to Great Culture and survive. That's the main thing teachers should be teaching any unfortunates who still manage, despite the increasing number and height of the obstacles, to make it through to high art. Why the fuck is that not the fucking point of this book? And of the books it attacks?

And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them. Yeah, I know it was different in the Thirties. In the Thirties we had the New Deal, too, and the communists hated it.

And I'm glad, I really honest to god am, that the people I admire who have that family support going for them do have that much. But, as wise singers have sung, it's a thin line between love and fuck. And if y'all really care about the little people, how about just marrying one or something?

In conclusion, I'm sure Theory's Empire is a very good book and I think people who inherit empires will enjoy it.

Responses

Ray Davis appends:
Having absented myself, I shouldn't be so shocked that this event is calling forth the best string of entries and links of the Valve's young life. I was skeptical and I was wrong.

Besides proving that no one should listen to me, this may say something about the value of outreach. Now if we can only get that many people to write something about Jack Spicer!

As usual, IMproPRieTies conveys more and pithier than I could.

Jane Dark writes:

"And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them."

Well you should meet me then. Solidly middle-class via the American magic where a tautological 60% qualify, I was raised by a single grad student, and paid my own way through college, as well as every rent check since I was sixteen, etc. Not the displaced or disempowered, by a long shot. But not a penny of family money, and none coming. But the funny thing is, I work with lots of folks, communists, anarchists, half-breeds, who're from poor families. Maybe yr hanging out with a bad crowd?

The trouble is that I never found better ones. But it's certainly possible that I gave up too quickly I can't pretend to have made it a life's goal. I thank you for the correction.

2005-08-02: Afterthoughts

In the least coherent and most controversial paragraph above, I now see that I cut off a critical intervention path with "before you even say it." How was I supposed to be brought past mere lack of personal experience if I refused to hear evidence?

I also confused matters by using the word "survive" when I more meant "survive with reasonable dignity and security."

What set off my tantrum, as I all-too-vaguely indicated, were several reminders of well-heeled "Theorists", "Buddhists", "feminists", "scholars", "artists", or, yes, "socialists" and "Marxists" treating their more skilled and harder working but less financed colleagues like scum, and several reminders of teachers, scholars, and artists still scrambling for bare subsistence after years of service. And please note that I'm not referring to differences in labeling I see no shortage of career opportunities for sexists, bigots, free marketeers, and thumpers of more traditional bibles, and if I did, I wouldn't call that a crisis.

What's that got to do with "Theory"?

Exactly!

Or, as I've been trying to write a bit more temperately in this fiery Valve thread, the "Theory" debates seem unresolvable because the terms in which they're coached ignore what motivates them: abuses of institutional power.

And of those mostly repressed issues, the one most thoroughly repressed (in the academic humanities as in the art worlds) is the economic class one starts from. A student from a wealthy family will have a far softer career in the humanities than a student from the genteel academic middle class, who in turn will have a far softer career than a student from any other class. The only person I've recently seen bring up this aspect of education and research is the ever-fresh Little Professor, and she's stayed out of the "Theory" brawls entirely.

In this very essay I replicated the mistake I deplore by restricting my attempt at rational analysis to non-economic issues, and then dissolving into Donald Duck diction under the fold.


While I wrote the above, Josh Lukin was preparing a scathing response, mostly to that one goddamn paragraph. Some excerpts:

I didn't find the claim about the personal experience terribly credible --more on that anon. But it set me off because it is such a dishonest way to frame an assertion that it tends to be a tool used by all kinds of bad actors [...] So I was brooding on that, and yes, I thought, even if the personal experience thing is true, why doesn't Ray think of the people he knows of from others, including two of the Buffalo folks above, whom I've described to him, and then I thought, my God, contact via electronic media counts as meeting. Where's the HCDavis family swag, Ray?

The previous paragraph: I don't get "devote yourself" and "make it through to high art." You don't, in the context you're using, seem to mean *produce* "high art" but rather to appreciate and consume it, and make it central to your life. There are, of course, many walks of life in which you can do that. Teaching college is not the best of them; a friend recently said to me, "Trollope had it right: civil service." Producing it, or being credentialed to publicly analyze it in an institutionalized milieu, is another thing.

"And if y'all really care about the little people . . . " Oy, this will, if unchecked, grow into James Morrow's "I consider myself unequivocally a man of the left, but I join Robert Hughes in wondering why the postmodern academy directed its energies toward unmasking gender politics in Little Dorrit while Communism fell in Eastern Europe." You're slamming the political efficacy of college teachers when it was only last year that you discovered there was such a discipline as rhet/comp and have very probably not read enough to determine what its ambitions are? Okay. There are people (mostly in the UC system) who make shamefully exaggerated claims about the political efficacy of what they do as academicians. There are a few people who do what Horowitz accuses everybody of, raising consciousness in the classroom, running courses out of which Libertarians come having decided to be civil rights attorneys or environmental activists or what have you. There are people who feel that their theoretical pursuits are worthwhile and devote some energy to defending themselves against Maoist prudes who think that their work is meaningless unless accompanied by praxis. And there are . . . back in my Youngstown days, I heard a fine English professor say, "I'm very proud of our Professional Writing and Editing program. It teaches skills that will enable our students to work in strata of society that would otherwise be closed to them." This was also where a sensation-seeking journalist asked an African American student if she minded learning African history from an Irish-American scholar--the reporter was disappointed to hear, "I don't need to be taught how to be black: I just want to take advantage of the knowledge [the professor's] expertise lets her teach me." Recalling such remarks as these in my first years as a teaching assistant, I entered the composition classroom determined to respect the wishes of students who come to the composition classroom to learn concrete principles of writing that will enable them to function in areas where such skills are regarded as standards. That's not "care about the little people"?

Plus, every Marxist professor I can think of (and I have some knowledge of the field) is an activist. [...]

We were brought up to understand that activites we took for granted here were political acts in the Soviet Union . . . you see where I'm going with this. Things that it woulda been ridiculous to frame as "acts of resistance" thirty years ago . . .

Your rant there would be an important dose of reality if it were true. Since it's not, its serves as an exorcism. A futilitarian performative. Writing "SURRENDER DOROTHY" across the sky (okay, it's a small sky. But it's a public medium, so I'll stick to my metaphor).

You cut me off in conversation once when I was trying to talk about Michaels' power and the damage he was doing, but I think it's serious, and now that he's making an intervention into jurisprudential discourse, even more disturbing. Holstun advised me once that "It's more important, I think, to figure out how we can help stop the killing and exploitation than to engage in slapping contests with the likes of Berube," but Senator Clinton was influenced by _The Nation_ to oppose Estrada, so it's worth paying attention to what has the potential to give tools to or affect opinions among the powerful (look at how the discourse of the Red Scare years operated). As Michaels demonstrates in his books, one can use the _Against Theory_ sophisms ("If, as you say," I asked Chip, "Theory gives one persmission to be as smart as possible about certain things, what does _Against Theory_ give one permission to do?") to pull the rug out from under claims concerning social justice, and to discredit the developments that Chip praises in his "Velocities of Change" essay. Let me reiterate that what gets taught to college students, as Horowitz understands, has real-world consequences.

I'm probably taking that argument too far. Maybe my sense that the stakes are serious here, and my frustration with much of the _Theory's Empire_-type discussions, just means that I feel it would be very nice to regard certain issues as settled and certain points as self-evident and go on from there (there's a *lot* to be gone on to), ignoring how much gets "forgotten" or ignored [...] Maybe I'm just unsettled by the parallels to what's happening on the political landscape, where to our dismay we discovered a couple of years ago that ancient, conservative Robert Byrd was the only Senator who believed that Congress should have the powers granted it by the Constitution and who disagreed with Gonzales and Yoo on the President's powers. When someone says that Searle decisively k.o.'d Derrida, I hear "Reagan defeated a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and brought down the Soviet Union." I think Berube's dismissive remarks on Michaels are probably the most appropriate level of seriousness with which to take Michaels' claims, but, as I say, one can't possibly take Dershowitz's arguments vis-a-vis human rights, history, etc. seriously, yet there they are, getting on tv and influencing people and everything.

I cut off at the '30s because I think a) that was the last time the fantasy of violent class revolt in the USA had any possible grounding (and as I've said before, I'm glad the New Deal averted a revolution: revolutions have a poor track record), and b) Stalin got to be sort of a problem for the legitimacy of Communist Parties all round.

Josh is right to note the incoherence of "high art"'s place. Am I talking about study, production, or both? My resentment comes from both, but its expression is impossibly vague: poisonous smoke protecting the sanctity of a poisonous flame.

In "care about the little people", I wasn't addressing Josh or anyone else ever likely to read the message. It was one of those awful "This poem is for Lyndon Baines Johnson, you bastard" moments.

If it sounds like I'm trying to "bait Reds" or "bash profs", I'm part of the problem, because these received concepts of what battles we're fighting only serve the interests of those who have most of the power, want all of the power, and would love our pelts hung on the wall to keep out the damp. Obviously I agree that otherwise politically inept intellectuals can (sometimes) be (slightly) useful or damaging by providing argumentative tools. But even that can't happen if you've gated yourself into a separatist community. Clinton wouldn't read The Nation if it was a Theoretical-Leninist journal.

Anyway, none of that has anything to do with what I'd set out to express, and botched.

After my attempt at clearer thinking, Josh sent me a link with the (only slightly less scathing) note:

Oh, wait, the authors and targets of Theory's Empire didn't have to write it, it's been done already.

The link goes to Jerry Herron's review of Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy, edited by Peter C. Herman. Herron finishes his review by quoting Michael Bérubé and summarizing:

And that's the trick, isn't it? Thinking of all of us who work here, as somehow being embarked on a common mission, as being citizens of the same work, which is teaching.

That's how everybody else sees us as teachers first, often teachers who seem not very interested in their jobs, or else not particularly well prepared to do them, the jobs that our fellow citizens think they are hiring us to do when they pay our salaries. If we could give ourselves a gift, that would surely be it, "to see oursels as others see us": professors, stars, grad students, part-timers, all of us. Citizens. Teachers. And once we see ourselves that way, then we ought to act as if we believed what we saw. Because it is true. Because it is the only thing, the right thing to do. And that is why this collection in many ways incomplete, short-sighted, and unsatisfactory is nevertheless a valuable book. We all ought to read it. Together. Not because it solves our problems, but because it makes clear both intentionally and not why solutions are so much of the time unthinkable.

. . .

Op-Edge: inanis et vacua

One can surely imagine the fall of the current kings of the shining city on the dunghill—indeed, one can predict their fall with some confidence—but the removal of one mad prince isn’t going to restore the Republic because democracy doesn’t go very well with a declining empire.
Posted by: James / 12:58 PM

An economy's exchange medium purportedly abstracts something other than the medium itself. Although we play the game of equivalency, rupture maybe a begrudging "Oh, yeah, I guess so" glance away from the stock report, maybe a crisis that drives us out of the game altogether remains a possibility.

How much of a possibility?

  1. Links were invented to go somewhere. A determined tracer of bloglife might conclude that its most desired ends were the most insipid products of commercial journalism: editorial page, movie reviews, gossip column, books section....

    And for the past two years, the best I've read in the classic editorial mode has come from inanis et vacua: an idealized Citizen We speaking softly, rationally, passionately in a tone of unassailable common sense. Sometimes I gain a new insight; sometimes I gain a new formula; usually I gain some assurance that we're not crazy, or at least that if we're crazy we don't have to be incoherent about it.

  2. In a link economy, the volunteer of unremunerative labor is, by definition, invisible.

    But for the past two years, inanis et vacua has avoided linking to anyone who might conceivably link back.

And so here we have a lovely chance to inspect a conflict between value and exchange medium.

Results: Not much possibility.

In common with most remedies, advice is not a panacea; but it isn’t a placebo either and even placebos work.
Posted by: James / 11:26 AM

Responses

Reasons for things aren't always phototropic.

Or photogenic.

Your new knocker's gazabe opened a door to Franklin P. Adams (tho I also appreciate the Information Technology myrmidon).

Good ol' FPA. I had a weird obsession with him for a year or so when I was a kid.

. . .

Op-Edge: Irving Howe, 1963

I recently read the first year of the New York Review of Books.

Less poetry nowadays. Otherwise, they haven't tinkered much with the original formula: not as interesting as the TLS, not as ghastly as the NYTBR, and earnestly committed to political strategizing by people without any influence whatsoever. After a while it's like hearing people talk about TV: "All I can say is they'd better not kill off Scully!" Or else...?

Unbeknownst to the strategizers, they were guest-starring in a very special episode of another type of show entirely. "This decade only: Washington Week in Review broadcasts live from the Titanic!" So while they gripe about how JFK hadn't been leftist enough to lose the last election and he's dragging his well-shod feet so much it's almost like he wants to win the next election but it is kind of neat how he's actually willing to talk to some of them even though he's such an arrogant S.O.B. he still doesn't parrot what they told him while that's happening, the viewers have their eyes fixed on the digital clock at the corner of the screen: September 1963, October 1963, November 14 1963, November 28 1963, December 12 1963? jesus, how long were lead times back then anyway?

Ah. December 26 1963.

Readers of that issue would've brought a special sense of exhaustion to the magazines and newspapers of mid-September 2001. All these public spokespeople feeling professionally obliged to say something weighty and appropriate to the occasion, come on, man, get with it, Norman Mailer's watching!, OK, um, "Things will never be the same...."

Nothing to say, no reason to say it except for vanity, which, I guess, has to stand in for the triumph of the human spirit.

Oh, and except for Irving Howe.

His contribution wasn't reprinted in Selected Writings, which is understandable given how much material there was to work with. It got into Steady Work, where the horrorstruck bystander can watch a democratic socialist survive McCarthyism only to then survive Berkeley radicals, without ever once killing anyone. I can picture some people in 1965 or 1966 giving him a hard time about a few of these prophecies.

The poor bastards.

(Naturally I'm not going to try quoting the whole piece you think the NYRB doesn't know any lawyers? but these two excerpts should convey the flavor.)

And then, the nightmare city. Its police chief explains why he had announced publicly the time the first suspect would be moved, thereby giving the second killer his opportunity: "We could have moved him earlier, but we told you fellows [reporters and TV men] 10 a.m. and we wanted to live up to it." Immortal words, filled with the spirit of our century! The law becomes an appendage of publicity, and experience the raw material for spectacle.

Yet the city survives. "Dallas," runs a headline in the November 26 New York World-Telegram, "Dallas Finds Solace in Wealth." And the story opens: "Talk to the people of Dallas about guilt and they tell you about their mansions, their oil wells and their riches. They pour money on their wounds."

Blessed are the rich in pocket, for they have inherited the earth.

. . .

What has been shaping up in American society is a fundamental struggle as to its future direction, and the sad fact is that the most aggressive and determined political pressures have been coming from the right. Not merely or even primarily from the Birchers or Southern racists or conservative ideologies: in themselves these people are not too important: they matter as an advance guard, or noisy symptom, or extreme manifestation, of a deepgoing fundamentalist reaction, a slowmoving and incipient counter-revolution, that has been gathering among the middle classes.

This is a rebellion against history. It is a wish to be done with those burdens that mar the enjoyment of new-found wealth and status. It is a desperately nostalgic impulse to shake off the complexities which, in the absence of a coherent liberal leadership, have a way of emerging as the confusions of world politics. And as anyone can testify who has spent some time in the Far West, this reaction involves an unashamed class selfishness such as we have not seen openly expressed in this country for some time, a new kind of Social Darwinism which is laced with the snobberies of greed and racism, a frigid contempt for those millions who are said, somewhere in the invisible depths, still be to suffering poverty and joblessness.

I think we should take this phenomenon with great seriousness. Today it may appear as an attachment to Goldwater, but in social range and depth it goes beyond the Goldwater movement. Signs of it could already be found in the Eisenhower following, and it will survive the possible collapse of the Goldwater boom. For a few months this socio-political impulse may be silenced, but it speaks too authentically for the sentiments of millions of Americans to be long suppressed.

Every issue in American polities from civil rights to joblessness, from automation to support for colleges, from medicare to city planning now elicits a fundamental divergence in outlook. It cannot be helped: not all the speeches of President Johnson, nor all the columns of James Reston, can prevent it. The issue is not, as the rightist doctrinaire claim, between capitalism and socialism, but between a firm decision to pull away from modernity and social responsibility, and the inclination to move (more often, stumble) toward an enlarged welfare state.

This, I would contend, is the central issue in American political life, and the struggle in regard to it cannot be stilled or long postponed. It seems to me a little shocking when one hears intelligent people reduced to an American equivalent of Kremlinology and engaged in gossipy speculations as to whether "Lyndon" will shift his political stress for tactical reasons, and what "Arthur" said or didn't say. Instead, we had better do some hard thinking and make some genuine commitments. For, without indulging in the usual sort of scares about a resurgence of McCarthyism or the terrors of the Birchites (what matters now is a social impulse deeper, more native, more authentic than its extreme manifestations; it is a blend, so to say, of Ike and Barry) I think we should recognize how the contending forces are disposed and how serious and prolonged the coming struggles are likely to be.

From a liberal-left perspective there is reason for disquiet. The labor movement, facing major perils, dozes away in a state of intellectual torpor: it appeals to no segments of the unorganized, it gains no loyalties among the young, it barely makes itself heard in the discussions of national policy. The liberal movement, as a movement, has become slack, uncombative. And even the one tremendously encouraging development of the last few years, the rise of the Negroes, is for the moment balked, uncertain in perspective, a little exhausted, trapped in the dilemma that its all-too-reasonable immediate demands involve the deepest issues and problems of the American economy.

And the intellectuals? Those who are supposed to move in advance, not content with the complacence of the status quo? My own subjective impression is not a happy one. In New York, as I now see it again, there is much brilliance, but little direction; a great deal of talent, but not much purpose. A large fraction of the writing in the advanced journals strikes me as middleaged narcissism, a bit Alexandrian, in which the stress is upon intellectual display rather than intellectual conviction and influence. At the very time when there are larger audiences, few American intellectuals seem to be strongly concerned with the idea of a coherent political and cultural public. Things, as the sociologists say, have become "privatized."

Intellectuals ought to be able to look beyond the moment, which means to look beyond the pieties of "national reconciliation" and toward the difficulties ahead. No one is going to be adored for saying this, but that does not make it any the less true.

. . .

Head On

I too dislike Acep's shows of humility. (I don't believe it's insincere. It's just that showing it is sometimes a distraction. I can't possibly tally the number of times I've been told to stop apologizing and get to the point. Oh yes, the point:)

But this is a well told story, and it's an eminently ethical act to remind us that that, although ethics is a matter of choosing what to do, the options we choose from are only contingently a reward for ethical behavior.

. . .

The Liebestod of the Author

(Started as a response to John Holbo at The Valve before it merged into another piece & became ridiculously long, but the original, its sequel, & their comments are at least as worth reading as this)
"And it does no good knowing certain biographical and historical facts about Wagner, or facts about his sources and influences, or even about his own before or after the fact and outside the score comments."
- sounds & fury
"Our acts, you might say, are always improper in the sense that they are never our property."
- Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition

Truffaut said the auteur theory stopped making sense to him once he started making movies. And many critical homilies became doubtful to me as I became better acquainted with the process of fiction writing.

The solid ground of intentionality, for example, grows fuzzy and falls apart when we sincerely try to follow through and find that intention.

Most writers aren't particularly obsessive readers of their own books: indifference or disgust are more conducive to production of new material. When we turn to biography, we usually find it less effective as interpretation than as dismissal: "Well, she was drunk when she wrote it." (Or, in Jamesonian mode, "What do you expect from a bourgeois sexist imperialist?")

In a reminiscing mood, the writer may tell us they began a work with intentions that were overturned along the way. Characters speak for themselves. The form has a mind of its own. Something happened on the walk to the grocery store; it seemed to fit. Simple boredom incites revolt. And yet what we're given to interpret is a whole and entire object rather than the process of making.

Then there's "style", best defined as that characteristic stink we're unable to cover up or scrub away. Our experiences and reactions aren't products of a sovereign will. At seismically active bedrock, the structures and accidents of our language are a given.

Tellingly, the writers most notoriously insistent on conscious agency also notoriously refuse help to critics: "But Mr. Hicraft, what does lie behind this passage if not subconscious compulsion?" "The page speaks for itself." "But Ms. Locraft, why that particular phrase?" "Because I have to make a living." These remarks aren't useful except insofar as they keep us from prattling nonsense, and at that they don't seem to have been very successful.

Even given access to the ideal a perfectly conscious close writer who's also a perfectly articulate close reader what do we hear when we press for the meaning of a passage? "As far as I can remember, I intended this effect on the reader, and this effect, and a nuance of that, and an echo of this previous effect, and a set-up for this later one and this even later one. [Pause. Politely:] Did it work?"

The problem, of course, is that a writer is not trilling sweet song direct from uncluttered soul to unpolluted air. The writer is trying to write. And so as we apply ourselves to realizing the author's intent, we move away from reading and towards the writing workshop. At Clarion '93, when Kate Wilhelm executed a one-on-one paragraph-by-paragraph line-by-line analysis of my most recent story, the experience was unforgettable, but it was the unforgettable experience of an expert mentalist act: "At this word you started trying to do this, but you gave up because you couldn't see a way out of the bind there, and so you tried to fake it with...."

Literature is art in language, and language is a medium in which we try to deliver messages. But literature is art, and only visible as art insofar as we perceive something other than message. (To take a simpler case, when we say "Programming is an art," the only people who'll understand us are its practitioners, because only practitioners of programming see anything but the results it delivers.)

I'm not saying "anything goes" in scholarly criticism. (Anything certainly does go in pleasure reading or utilitarian reading.) Although the literary experience can't be reduced to message, messages (intended or not) build the layers of tissue that make these bones live. We want to know the game we're in, a frame for the artifact. Some people seem satisfied to know its current context ("commercial junk" or "canonized profundity"); for others, alternative contexts add welcome nuance.

Dan Green, for example, can't find a position in his game for Middlemarch, which seems sad to me. I can easily find a position in my game for Lost in the Funhouse, but it's a far less rewarding position than in Dan's, which probably seems a little sad to him. Our difference may at least partly derive from the extents to which our preferred interpretive games include the deployment of multiple game schemes.

Found poetry, cut-up poetry, generated poetry, or mocking quotes in the New Yorker or Harper's aren't examples of non-intentional art, but they do help clarify the aestheticizing process. When we read appropriations, we usually don't feel fully satisfied until we're able both to guess at the original context and to guess at the point of the displacement: "Oh, I get it it's a nonsense parody of Wordsworth!" But satisfaction rarely requires us to verify our guesses. Much.

We attempt some comprehension of authorial intention, and, if possible, put it to use. But that attempt comes from the same analytical toolbox as historicism or genre studies: a collection of opportunities to widen the constraints of close or sentimental readings.

* * *

On the other side of the critic-creator divide, I've encountered offended authors who believe that Roland Barthes's most cited title was calling a fatwa. At ninth- or tenth-hand, they'd gotten the impression that the Critic had been hoisted onto the pedestal from which the Author'd been dragged.

Well, Barthes was a French intellectual, and they do seem inclined to present even their most benign insights in a "Grr! Grr! I'm a paper tiger!" tone. Maybe it's part of showing up on TV more often or something. But as I understand Barthes (and what's he gonna do, say I'm misinterpreting, hyuck-hyuck?), he merely meant that authors have better people to talk to than critics, and merely asks (in a grating nasal voice) that critics not obscure a text with rude presumptions about the text's writer. In critical terms, such presumptions are "The Author," and that's why "The Author" should be buried and replaced (when necessary) by the dessicated-but-dignified "Scriptor", who I picture as looking like William S. Burroughs.

As for the juicy bundles of meat who write or read texts, they're still entitled to all the imagination and experience they can manage to collect. I don't wish my friends harm when I declare that their writings will survive them. What higher goal do authors profess? What Barthes adds is that the work becomes posthumous even while the author's living. He may sound unduly cheerful about that, but very few ambitious writers would gladly argue that their success depends on a cult of personality. Our own (apparent) disappearance from the causal chain is what we labor at.

Having read too many biographies and critical works which insult the constructors of extremely skilled and subtle narratives by shanghaiing them into outrageously obtuse and trite narratives, I'm only sorry that Barthes's typical post-millennial tone was, as usual, unfounded. As long as Juliet Barker remains at large, The Author is alive and miserable and being force fed through a tube.

Responses

Aye, 'tis a dang'rous craft, it is that.

Brian R. Hischier writes:

It is a topic much on my mind lately, one which I felt was worthwhile to consider, while at the same time being at the height of worthlessness---my intention as of this moment is merely to write well (and what of the authors whose intentions are to write in a mediocre vein?). Barthes' text always seemed much too proud of its title, blinding its author to the real problem---that in the modern days the author will not die. He is either sunning himself on the beach or comatose, and neither state is good for the next text. I think too often our texts become our muses and after they've shunned us, we batter them with wishes and gifts until they finally give in, wrecked.

Bharat Tandon has reminded me of two favorite examples of ambivalent authorial death wish, both from John Keats:

our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-material'd seven years ago it was not this hand that clench'd itself against Hammond. We are like the relict garments of a Saint: the same and not the same: for the careful Monks patch it and patch it: till there's not a thread of the original garment left, and still they show it for St Anthony's shirt. [...] 'Tis an uneasy thought that in seven years the same hands cannot greet each other again.

And:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of eanest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine heat own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd see here it is
I hold it towards you

. . . Interlude

While I work on a "real" entry, I thought I'd point readers to some second thoughts and pass along this recent Brenda Starr strip:

Blogging, cheri, is a state of mind.
(Slash Burns is a Bill O'Reilly type who was using Brenda as his favorite liberal punching bag until he was arrested for the murder of his neo-con mistress who it turns out was actually writing a tell-all exposé. Gabby is the Flash's gossip columnist and has been running her Gawkeresque blog for a while. I think the word first showed up during the Rat Sludge [of The Sludge Report] storyline.)

. . .

Warlock by Oakley Hall, 1958

(Also at The Valve)
The judge nodded. "Just a process," he said. "That's all you are. What are men to me?" He rubbed his hand over his face as though he were trying to scrape his features off.

Warlock's prose is solid, sturdy, heavy less lively than Elmore Leonard's; less introverted than Charles O. Locke's and sculpts its characters into familiar forms: noble lawman, autocratic rancher, Byronic gambler, open-hearted cowboy, drunken judge, liberal doctor, the good angel, the wicked lady, the vacillating chorus of shopkeepers, the comic counterpoint of the dime-novel mythologist....

Familiar enough to disappoint if you've heard the book puffed as revisionist. Hall didn't aim to be the Western's Suetonius but its Thucydides.

Warlock remains very much a Western. It would have to be.

Hall isn't interested in refuting the appeal of courage and virtue. Instead, he wants to show the uses and limitations of that appeal. Yes, we see people fail (sometimes fatally) to make an immediate difference. But (unlike, say, a Pynchon novel) Warlock particularly attends successful intervention towards some newly configured sense of justice.

"It is war, not a silly game with rules."

"There are rules, Morg," Clay said.

"Why?"

"Because of the others I mean the people not in it. [...] Because he will have to pretend there are rules whether he thinks there are or not, just like he had to today. And if he has to pretend, it means he is worrying about the others pretty hard."

These newly shared ends, though, are always provisional in their turn, and the potential target of new champions. The true antagonists of Warlock are value systems. And any meeting between them is tense.

It occurred to him all at once that Blasedell was trying to make contact with him in some way, and immediately what he had hoped was going to be an easy conversation for him grew taut with strain.

* * *

From Leatherstocking on up, American value clashes found a home in the Western.

With few exceptions, Warlock's are familiar: the overlapping claims of elected, appointed, or volunteer sheriffs, marshals, deputies, posses, vigilantes, and federal troops; the ambiguous jurisdictions of nation, territory, county, town, property, and home; the competing interests of ranchers, cowboys, miners, entertainers, gamblers, outlaws, merchants, and corporations.

(Exceptionally, an early labor struggle is included. Thematically, that back-and-forth between middle class charity, organized worker action, and management crackdown resembles other Western fights for the moral high ground. Historically, one can draw a not-too-indirect line from hired peace officers to Pinkerton's strike-busters. But it's never become a standard genre element, given the inconvenient questions which might rise: "Order" as determined by who? "Public safety" for who? A decent place to raise whose family? Traditionally, the genre describes an incoming ethical system's victory over a decrepit ethical system. But here we have several new communities emerging at once.

There are, for instance, the miners, the bulk of the town's population. Are they intelligent and responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote? They are not, we feel, perhaps a little guiltily. Then there are the brothel, gambling, and saloon interests.... Our projected state was thus gradually whittled down, to become a kind of club restricted to the decent people, the right-thinking people, the better class of citizens....

If anything, Hall stacks the deck in favor of sustainable democracy by adroitly maneuvering Warlock's thin strip of middle class into alliance with the workers.)

(Exceptionally excluded are the Indians. Warlock's native population appears only as the memory of a once common enemy, deployed when a gesture toward unity might profit some otherwise losing party.)

* * *

But most of the Westerns I've read declare a winner and then stop.

Warlock lays value clashes out in sequence, taking advantage of the compressed lifespans of American frontier settlements like Warlock, built around a set of mines or like my own home town, built around a railroad track (which closed) or, potentially, like the thousands of suburbs dangling precariously from highways, piped water, and power lines.

The book's uniqueness is structural. We begin with "The Fight in the Acme Corral". The disguise is thin; the fight's centrality is assumed; it's finished in about 140 pages. With 330 pages to go.

But Hector is dead, and what is there left for Achilles to do?

Warlock's people fight and kill over matters of principle. However, Warlock's people build, burn down, and re-build "matters of principle" even faster than bars or cathouses. No alliance is maintainable, because individuals themselves are divided. No settlement is final. Warlock's crops are staggered so that some conflict is always near harvest, until the soil's completely played out.

* * *

The novel includes extensive excerpts from the observations and analysis of a fair-minded intelligent contemporary eyewitness, who (in the novel) is always ludicrously mistaken as to character, motives, and outcomes.

These ironic expositions reinforce a generic convention: The straightest shooters hold the strongest principles and the clearest insights.

"I guess you will understand me. It is a close thing out there, you and the other. But I mean it is like two parts of something are fighting it out inside before there is ever a Colt's pulled. Inside you. And you have to know that you are the part that has to win. I mean know it."

As I said, it's conventional. But it conventionalizes a feeling we recognize. The people we've known and worked with and admired most did combine those things; they were more productive, and more certain of their plans and their goals and of others' positions and goals. We can sometimes almost feel them combine in ourselves: a broadly engaged clarity, and a barely-after-the-deed conviction that we knew the right way to play it.

To what extent this combination of literal and figurative grasp, this energizing overlay of rightness and righteousness, is illusory is difficult to say. Certainty in itself can exert influence, principles can be swayed by example, and the playing field adjusted to match the diagram.

"Real" or not, though, it can be lost. Rectitude can be muddied and clarity confused. Or simply trampled by those who refuse to listen: Moral deafness is learnable. It may even be a duty. What's sociopathy except loyalty to a value system which precludes parley? The Indian fighter bereft of Indians; the blood-feuding patriarch faced with rule of law; the CEO valuing stock price over customer or worker; the born-again valuing catchphrase over deed....

He began to check it through, calculating it as though it were a poker hand whose contents he knew, but which was held by an opponent who did not play by the same rules he did, or even the same game.

And so the investor pulls out, the team is laid off, the state stops funding, the cops start busting heads, the troops open fire, the amendment passes almost unnoticed....

And then it's gone. The godhead lifts. The champions fall.

I will confess that for a time I subscribed to a higher opinion of our Deputy than I had previously held. That was yesterday. Today the mercury of my esteem has sunk quite out of sight....

What's left to defend but some contested graves? When pressed, we remember with a mix of pride and embarrassment our own sincerity, and with confused bitterness the sincerity of others who lost more.

And horribly, there's no choice but to start again. We change our subscriptions, re-enlist in a different army, but the pattern stays the same. We again pledge allegiance to these manufactures a job, a family, a project, a movement, a church, a party, a town and, forever lacking control, we dedicate or squander our lives to mere hope for influence.

Again the abstraction seems miraculously held aloft, transfixed by the combined intensities of our good wills and again crashes down.

Was there a jostle? a lapse of attention? We walk or we're carried away from the gambling table we took for altar.

Better luck next time?

When he looked up to meet the eyes that watched him from the glass behind the bar, no longer friendly, he saw that what had been bound to pass had already quickly passed.

* * *

The Western takes as an interesting given that peculiar American expectation: a mobility neither exile nor nomadic, making a (discardable) home within communities nesting out from self, to family, to neighbors, to fellow laborers, and on to Mr. Smith in Washington, all able to simultaneously satisfy some rudimentary sense of justice, offer some hope of personal advancement, and satiate the wealthy.

The Western yokes action with negotiation, idealized characters with real history.

Warlock isn't a great novel "in spite of" its genre. Its atypical power is thoroughly drawn from the generic.

To quote Hall's frequently quoted "Prefatory Note":

... by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.

"What might have happened" doesn't encompass "what could not have". "Should have" allows the heroic. "Did" requires the tragic.

"I have thought," the judge said bitterly, "that things were so bad they couldn't get any worse. But they have got worse today like I wouldn't believe if I didn't hear it going on. And maybe there is no bottom to it."

"Bottom to everything," the sheriff said, holding up the bottle and shaking it.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .