. . . Francis the Talking Mule

. . .

Back to School Special

Cholly in the classroom
Sometime during my recent exile, I encountered a repentant "postmodernist" who argued that the much vilified New Criticism started with good intentions, and that his own tribe has by now been responsible for at least as much blindness and suffering, and that a revived historicism will become ossified in its turn.

I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but it's not that impressive a moral achievement to renounce one's party during the latter part of its decline, and aside from a blanket pessimism, he left the problem undiagnosed.

Primary sources trump secondary sources. That's not in question.

The question is: Why is that truism so often (and so immediately) forgotten? Even a non-U Nonconformist can occasionally enjoy watching T. S. Eliot assume a peculiarly Possum-ish position, and I've admitted to finding Derrida both harmless and amusing. So how does an insight devolve into a method and a school and a curriculum and a catechism?

Perhaps those terms hold a clue?

Myself, I'm inclined to put the blame on the penitent's institutional allegiance rather than on literary analysis itself: in the politics of tenure and publication, the weapons of grades and evaluations....

One can gain knowledge about competitive sports, or pleasure from competitive sports; one can even meet lovers while engaged in competitive sports. But knowledge and pleasure and love are not themselves competitive sports, and any institution that treats them as such is corrupt at the root.

. . .

Francis Joins a Feral Herd

Does it seem to you that there's been a distinct lowering of tone round here lately?

Well, it's not going to get any better for a sentence or two, as one of my favorite readers, Lawrence La Riviere White, encounters one of my favorite writers, Henry Adams:

I have been reading Education for about a year now as my bathroom book (a format that certainly effects one's interpretation). One quick thought on the foibles of academic literary criticism. I am now in the chapter on the Dynamic Theory of History & finding it the least interesting part of the whole thing. I agree w/your assessment of the main lesson of the book, something like the life-long development of a comportment toward one's ignorance. I think it relates to what Adorno and/or Benjamin might have (it's a memory fragment I have yet to patch) called "hopeful pessimism": despite the truth snapping you in the face (or worse, in the case of Benjamin) at every turn, keep trying. Adam's point seems to have occurred as well to Emerson: "The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness."

But as I read the dynamic theory chapter, I think of the thousands of students preparing for PhD exams who made a precis of that chapter's argument their main notes for the book. Because it's the one thing he spelled out. & professional academic lit-crit has to go w/what's spelled out. When you have so many books to account for, you have to fall back on shorthands.

It's true: Adams's weakest point was misunderstanding science as requiring some "rule" or "law" of history. I can forgive it because it sets up the heartbreaking conclusion of The Education and because an intelligent person's foibles can be instructive in themselves.

It's harder to forgive the later writers (also often a little wobbly on science) who build on such weak points. The weight of the work is in passing insight and self-limiting aphorism while what gets cited is the grandly gassy theory, with Adams as with Nietzsche -- and, come to think of it, as with many poets and novelists foolish enough to wax pundit once or twice in their lives. (One word for Joyceans: "epiphany." He didn't even publish that one himself.)

Similar inclinations are shown by anthropologists of my own (that is, popular) culture. How many more university-funded volumes will be devoted to The Matrix than to Pirates of the Caribbean just because The Matrix speaks in familiar soundbites? Madonna strapping herself into a whalebone corset has less to do with either sexuality or transgression than with Madonna's none-too-revolutionary preconception of what her public thinks of sexuality and transgression, and in that, she's thesis-friendly. As I've demonstrated here many times, it's easier to launch a discourse on preconceptions than on the needle-pointed hæcceities of object, person, and experience.

I've sometimes expressed surprise at so much attention being devoted to that which needs neither elucidation nor perpetuation. But it makes evolutionary sense that monkeys should prefer low-hanging fruit and that we don't feel compelled to scrape our evolutionarily-valuable groins up the tree to the hard-to-reach stuff.

To switch totem species, having been trained by stick and low-hanging carrot-fruit to publicly confirm, as quickly and directly as possible, the learning of a lesson, why should the student turn against that training and insist on a slow, indirect, and uncertain route?

Some mules are just born bad, I reckon.

. . .

Francis Goes to Pasture

Lawrence La Riviere White follows up:

How much of "actual scholarship" turns out as (to use Kierkegaard's word) chatter?

For example, during the last Cornel West debacle, UC's John McWhorter weighed in against Professor West. Professor McWhorter cited his own current project, some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics (& from my small experience w/that field, those folks really can pare down an issue to the thinnest shavings). At this point I say to myself, "Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I'm sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?" Given my own experience trolling through journal after journal, I'm not going to bet my mortgage on it. & I'm not alone in this belief. Professor Wai Chee Dimock, a one-time guest of honor at our school's graduate American Studies conference, advised us to remember that the shelf life for our writing is about ten years. In other words, no one reads this stuff anyway.

What's to be done? Professor Dimock seemed to be arguing for lower standards. Don't get too hung up on anything you're doing just now, because you're going to be on to something else soon enough. If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes & it'll change. This smacks of rank professionalism to me. Don't worry about the point of the game, just play it. I am too much of a romantic, but also too much over-invested in artifacts, to keep that down. If it's pointless why don't we just skip it? More silence, please. & when we do speak, perhaps a formal recognition of the insubstantiality of our discourse. Essays instead of books. Feuillitons (why I feel that word should be translated as "firecracker"?) instead of essays. If we can't prove anything, why not have fun? Put a bit of sparkle in it!

With specific regard to our earlier attempt at understanding, he goes on to suggest that it's
not that graduate students & professors are dim, but they're not bright enough. As in, these problems are really difficult, & only the best & the brightest throughout our glorious history have made substantial progress on them. Though a recurrence of my chronic nostalgia is undoubtedly muddling me here, I think our current historicism has exacerbated this issue. Back when the problems were timeless, one could (not that many availed themselves of this option) have a certain humility before them. Who am I to claim a solution to the mind-body distinction? But now that it's all ad hoc (today's solutions for today's problems!), what's to stop me from knowing it all?

Okeh I'm getting way too muddled here, but I hope you know what I'm trying to say. Let me say this much: perhaps more explicating what has already been said but not yet understood (how about an exchange of the "always already" (a phrase from Heidegger, which explains the stink of "I know the secret!" about it) for the "never yet") & less theory-making. Or as I'd say to the kids, let's clean up the mess we've already made before we start making a new one.

Yeah, "always already" really gets my goat. Isn't that what "is" is? But for bulk search-and-replace of the phrase, Juliet Clark's suggested improvement seems more practical: "now inasmuch as ever".

I should have made it plainer that I didn't mean any offense to real scholarship. As a blustering blowhard, I'm its dependent. (And as a blustering blowhard, I'm in no position to cast stones at philosophical hubris.) What motivated me was my continuing wonder at finding the grazing land of academic journals so lightly vegetated in comparison with fanzines or little magazines or genre fiction magazines or weblogs.

After, at White's instigation, considering more closely my use of the term "real scholarship" -- in the humanities, that would include transcription and translation and correction, letters and interviews, attention directed to the previously overlooked, re-publication of the currently out-of-print -- that contrast seems slightly less wonderful. Clearly my notion of "real scholarship" is as one with my notion of good fannishness. Again, I think of the amateurish era of Joyce studies, when the bulk of a journal could be taken up by "Notes" -- aperçus, speculations, elucidations, emendations, and jokes -- and its later aridity, talking long and saying little.

Grad school can't alone be responsible for thinning that fannish energy. As proven by the tender verdancy of academic weblogs, the joy of shared discovery continues ready to burst out, given half an opportunity. There's something herbicidal about professional academic publishing itself.

... continued ...

. . .

Francis in the Army Corps of Engineers

Our too-infrequent correspondent Jessie Ferguson:

> it always seemed to me that agreement on the existence of some sort of
> outside world that had to be referred to was basically healthy. At least
> I've known some pretty sane science majors.

this is very true -- to the point of cliche? hm. i was reminded of it recently at a coffeehouse where some professor was holding office hours at a nearby table, going on and on about poststructuralist social theory. i don't hold theoretical discussions against people -- theory certainly has its place -- but i was particularly struck thinking later about the lack of real-world applications of the theories by their proponents. part of the trouble is that there is not a push for consensus among theorists or researchers in the social sciences, whereas there is in the natural sciences. there is no sense that it's "just fine" that people would do entire lifetimes of work on the same problems, taking completely divergent approaches and making incommensurable assumptions, in the sciences, because one of those sets of assumptions & approaches must be better than the other -- or else, by definition, you're looking at two different sorts of problem. so it's highly inefficient because people can waste so much time staking out their theoretical territory rather than working towards a shared body of knowledge. this is fine, i think, in fields which concern, say, pure aesthetics rather than praxis -- there doesn't have to be a Grand Unified Theory Of Jane Austen -- but it would be *helpful* if there were some very general consensus about how people are conditioned by social norms, for instance. if you didn't have completely different assumptions about human behavior being made by marxian sociologists and classical economists, both doing current work, both contributing & producing research papers, winning awards, being allowed to train other sociologists and economists or influence policy or what have you. in terms of any sort of reality, can these two (hypothetical) accounts really *both* be accurate?

to put it another way: if you ask me about the research i'm doing in biology and i say, well, i'm examining the ability of receptor x to respond to events y and z and i'm about to present the work at a conference, it would be pretty strange if i added that no matter what i said, five out of ten people were going to disagree with me -- but so what. or even something like having a paper in spectroscopy read by a particle physicist who would then declare that it was right from a chemistry perspective but wrong from a physics perspective. these things don't really happen. yet i think the "you have your story, i have mine" reply is fairly common in the social sciences and the socially-conscious humanities...

this is probably why people who do work in the humanities and actually care about the work they do get into trouble emotionally -- the only ones i've seen having a good time with it are the ones who are completely mercenary and basically see graduate school or the professoriate as a means to maintaining class privilege without the burden of a corporate job/lifestyle. by that i don't mean any disrespect. not much, anyway. to be honest, i wouldn't weep if some of those sinecures dried up -- i have a hard time believing anyone has a right to a life of the mind when it's so often a thinly disguised right to be economically supported at barely-sustainable levels at the expense of people who are no less talented or perceptive.

which... sigh... makes me sound like a socialist again. but i think it is hard fucking work enlightening people and there isn't any point in getting credit for doing it halfway... i think there is a benefit to social and cultural theory, but that in the current state of academia very few people benefit from it -- compared to the countless many who are directly affected by the Cato Institute and the World Bank and other organizations of interest to theory-loving goons. and i don't see that i have much power to change that.

so no, i don't know that i'm turning my back on the humanities themselves. i'm not writing any more papers on how milan kundera is a bastard, though.

It's true that the humanities don't support the law of noncontradiction. And I'm down with that; I'm an aesthete, not a logical positivist.

Still, it seems only fair that when we resign the duty of logical coherence, we should also give up our right to the rhetoric of indefinitely extendable "proof."

The little mystery we've been considering here is is just how empty most stuff published as humanities scholarship is. Not necessarily how foolish, or misguided, or self-conflicted it is, but how much nothin' fills the journals, and how much one nothin' tastes like another no matter what the trademark promises. Goofy Grape or Choo Choo Cherry, who can tell?

Ferguson's comparison helps clear that up for me. We can plod along in the sciences, filling crannies, verifying results or their lack, and so on, and still be producing something even if it's not discipline-shattering. But there are no negative results in the humanities: I can't construct an experiment that will convincingly prove that Lacanian analysis has nothing useful to tell us about the novels of William Dean Howells. Which leaves plodding-along humanities scholars able and prodded to demonstrate nothing-to-say one individual case at a time.

I'm afraid that Ferguson's probably also right to call this hard-won insight a cliché. Francis Bacon anticipated it, for one:

But the Idols of the Theatre are not innate, nor do they steal into the understanding secretly, but are plainly impressed and received into the mind from the play-books of philosophical systems and the perverted rules of demonstration. To attempt refutations in this case would be merely inconsistent with what I have already said: for since we agree neither upon principles nor upon demonstrations there is no place for argument. And this is so far well, inasmuch as it leaves the honour of the ancients untouched.

And in the plays of this philosophical theatre you may observe the same thing which is found in the theatre of the poets, that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as one would wish them to be, than true stories out of history.

In "the academic Left," we see the dispiriting spectacle of a holy crusade conducted against the Idols of the Marketplace for the Idols of the Theater.

It's not much of a match.

. . .

Francis at the Mitchell Brothers Theater

Lawrence L. White extends the popular series:

Jessie Ferguson is okeh with lack of consensus in "pure aesthetics," but how are you going to keep it pure? & I'm not talking about keeping the non-aesthetic out of aesthetics: how do you keep the aesthetic out of sociology, history, etc?

I have this idea (one that I can't explain or justify to any acceptable degree) that it's all about poesis, that is, "making" in a general sense, "creation," as in things made by humans. Things such as society. That the poem and the economy are variants (mostly incommensurate) of the same drive. That "I'm going to put some stuff together" drive. To go kill me that deer. To clothe my child. To flatter the chief. To exchange for some stuff that guy in the other tribe put together.

Does this insight have any practical application? Not that I relish exposing my reactionary tendencies (yet again), but among those practicing sociological versions of aesthetics, the cultural studies crowd, I'd like less of the scientistic model let me tell you how things are!— and more of the belletristic model here's something I wrote! I would like to practice good making in criticism. (& as an inveterate modernist, I'm willing to call obscure frolics good making.)

But what of socio-economics? Is that supposed to be more like a poem, too? Perhaps there are other models. If I can throw out another murky notion to cushion my fall, Wittgenstein seems to say as much when he speaks of "grammar." I always took that term to contain potential pluralities, as if every discipline had a somewhat distinct way of talking, of presenting evidence, making inferences, etc. Which is not to say everything goes. He also spoke of needing to orient our inquiries around the "fixed point of our real need." Not that there's much consensus on that. But let me offer a suggestion: the inability of the English Department to come to a "consensus" severely debilitates its ability to ask for funding. Because the folks with the purse do want to know what exactly it is that you do.

Let me try it from another angle, through another confusion, this time not even so much a notion as a suggestion. Allen Grossman, the Bardic Professor, once reminded us that "theater" and "theory" have the same root. He, too, seems not to have said something Bacon didn't know. Grossman, though, as a reader of Yeats & Blake, wouldn't take it where our Francis wants to go. Perhaps the Baron Verulam's heart might be softened by this plea: isn't the point of the socially inflected sciences to make things as we "would wish them to be"? For example, don't the "true stories out of histories" serve to help us order our current situation, despite Santayana's overstatement of the case? (John Searle once told us in lecture that the drive behind philosophy was nothing more radical than simple curiosity. I found the answer to be unsatisfying philosophically and reprehensible politically.)

I like those questions.

To add a trivial one, though: Hasn't the English Department's problem always-already been self-justification? Poetry and fiction weren't very long ago exclusively extracurricular activities, and it takes a while to explain why it should be otherwise. Isn't jouissance its own reward? Or do students pay to be titillated and spurred forward by the instructors' on-stage examples? (No wonder consensus isn't a goal.)

. . .

Francis on the Verge of the Shadow of the Oversexed Women

David Auerbach writes:

... as far as LL White's words go, I do find it interesting (in purely non-judgmental fashion!) exactly how mind-independent the grammars of humanities academics have become. I.e., to see a "grammar" of study where interpretation of what the words actually mean is so pluralistic as to have no significance to the work itself, and thus most purely embody Wittgenstein's concept of a language not being able to contain a meaning /intended/ by the speaker, you would go straight to technical academic work. I don't just mean the cultural Marxist stuff spouted by Jameson, but someone like Marjorie Perloff, for whom the placement of certain key terms ("private language" comes to mind) in seemingly arbitrary fashion acts as legislation of the use of those terms in future theses, dissertations, and books--again, without having any logical derivation from the past or to the future! (Logic and rationality being the writer's intention, not an intrinsic property of the writing.) I don't see "consensus" as being on the menu any more than "argument" is (both being elements of rational discourse); there is only the grammar.

I don't mean this as an exaggeration or a caricature: spend some time in the more happening fields of the humanities and there's a noticeable lack of good arguments.

What scares me is how little self-justification seems to exist these days, not how much. Those able to promulgate the grammar in productive (vs. non-productive) ways are accepted into the fold and the game continues, with very little heed paid to what material sustenance is required to keep the game going. Reality should intervene in the next decade or two and remove many of the participants, and our assistance isn't required there.

But I don't feel especially happy after talking about this stuff, so onto "In the Shadow of the Oversexed Women"!

(See also.)

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule

Some weeks ago, prompted by our defense of poor W. B. Yeats, Lawrence L. White sent a mixed message that I nevertheless easily understood. I regret not having previously forwarded it to your attention, especially since it in some respects anticipated later postings here.

Some time afterward, he provided a gracefully tentative response to the gracefully cautious David Auerbach; again, I've been tardy in passing it along.

But it's a mean sin that blows no sinner good, and my lethargy netted me a quote (filched from John Holbo's pocket) which I think will let us tie a pretty red ribbon around both those discussions and "Isn't It Grand, Form, To Be Bloody Well Dead?" besides.

First, White:

[...] Winters always ends up sideways. Yeah, Yeats is a dope. You know what? Poetry is dopey. Getting up in front of everyone (even if behind the screen of the printed page) & singing w/out music is at the least an unusual gesture. I'd go as far as call it preposterous. Certainly one should never risk the resulting social censure w/out the excuse of drunkenness or misanthropy.

I read Winters as an undergraduate. He was my teacher's teacher, & I thought it'd help me figure out what was going on. I learned a lot, but I always stumbled over the "poetry is the highest thought" thing. Man, like, I was reading Kant at the time! I think Fulke Greville is an awesome poet, but a thinker? (What is thinking? asked the man in the funny lederhosen (funny not because they were lederhosen, funny because he'd designed his own costume of what he thought peasants should wear). Let's say it's ideas unable to call on help from song or story.) Kant is 1,000 times more exacting, more exquisite, more voluptuous a thinker than any poet. For proof, compare his reasoning ability to the reasoning of Winters (the latter being the rational synopsis of the poetry). Not that Winters is by any means a fool, but he'd have a hard time getting a PhD in philosophy from the work he's submitted so far.

The metaphysics I rely on day-to-day owes much more to Kant than to Yeats. On the other hand, I re-read Yeats much more often than Kant. Luckily, my metaphysics is capable of explaining that difference.

For some reason this makes me think of the sign of the "We Three" inn -- do you know it? the painting of two jackasses?

Yes, poetry seems ridiculous even to those of us who love it, even to those who engage in it. But the classical prototype of all such comic butts is the philosopher: a role defined by its distance from quotidian value.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, cont.

Lawrence La Riviere White again:

Regarding Auerbach's response to my response, I will cop to the charge. I have made my project (if something pursued so diffidently could be called a "project") exactly that, mind-independent poetry and language. Or rather, the limits of mind-independence in poetry and language, just how far can that hypothesis, that the poem comes from "Outside," that writing creates rather than communicates meaning, go. But before sentencing, I would like to make two comments in my defense:

1) I believe I come by my declaration of mind-independence honestly. My attempts to think about writing anteceded my attempts to write. & I began as a very mind-dependent, or to be more explicit, ego-dependent poet. Suffice it to say that my poetry hero was Robert Hass. I know what you think about that. But somewhere a switch took place. At the start I had come to poetry wanting something from it (I wanted to become through poetry a voice of wisdom, someone who sounded deep & therefore attractive (it was California!)), but then poetry started wanting things from me. One of the first things was wanting me to write better poems. (Other poems showed me how bad my poems were.) Which would require more understanding of what poetry is. (I needed to focus more on my instrument and less on the feelings I wanted to express.) There's the Yeats line about "the supreme theme of art and song" which flickers between the genitive and the substantive, between the great romances that poetry writes about (e.g. Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls") and the great romance that is poetry itself. I know I have a weakness for romantic claptrap (that Yeats-peherian rag, so transcendent, so grandiloquent), but it felt as if poetry told me its concerns, its needs, were greater than mine. Ask not what poetry can do for you, ask what you can do for poetry.

2) Given Auerbach's evidence against me, I would gladly roll over on the ring-leader, Marjorie Perloff, but as I always say (& I do repeat myself more & more), you can't fight dumb with dumb. & generalities are dumb, much dumber than (most) of the people who use them. I don't believe, & neither do many (not all, perhaps not even most) true Wittgenstein scholars (that is, people who really know, unlike me), that he had a "concept of a language not being able to contain a meaning intended by the speaker." I think what he did have was an aversion to hypotheses such as "the meaning of language equals the intention of the speaker." Which seems to be what Auerbach is saying (although I could very well be wrong here) when he says, "logic and rationality being the writer's intention, not an intrinsic property of the writing." Analytic philosophy (which is one sector of the humanities that has fiercely quarantined itself from the rest) is a graveyard of such hypotheses.

& to bring a little focus to my oh-so-vague notion of "grammar," I would never consider any useful grammar to be purely self-referential. Useful grammars glom on to problems, that is, resistance points. Things that have eluded all previous formulations, that constantly call for new formulations (grammars being generative). Now I'll admit that tenure is a problem, but such a tedious one! Not nearly romantic enough for my taste.

Yes, there are few good arguments in the humanities. But perhaps we could find a virtue in this (can I get any fuzzier? As I have said from the start, I am guilty!), or at least we could become virtuous enough to stop pretending we're arguing, stop claiming the kind of conclusiveness, the kind of judgmental righteousness, that is the just reward of a good argument. Am I just applying more fuzz-tone & vaseline on the lens? Consider this: my introduction to the humanities was through analytic philosophy. Now those people are sticklers for argument. & what does it get them? Remember the joke from Annie Hall, how his mom couldn't think about suicide because she was too busy putting the chicken through the deflavorizing machine? That's analysis for you. One big deflavorizing machine. For all their rigor, they don't end up, at the close of the year's accounts, having contributed any greater number of interesting or useful essays than the cultural critics.

When I said I'm guilty, I meant (my intention!) I agreed w/most of what he said. I let the criminal trial conceit carry me away a bit, or rather I let the conceit reveal more of my defensiveness, resentment, & meanness than I care to show. After all, I write to create a better (smarter, more graceful & considerate) persona than I communicate in the day to day.

As for our agreement, when he says, "I don't feel especially happy about talking about this stuff," I take it for a different version of "dumb can't beat dumb." Not that he's calling himself dumb, but his unhappiness in the engagement reminds me of my own, & my unhappiness comes from not being able to figure out the right answer, to figure out the new way of thinking about the problem, the answer that will solve our troubles (& "our" includes those inside & outside the academy). As if it were all janitorial work & you couldn't ever get the grease off your hands.

In closing, let me say the single phrase "In the Shadow of the Oversexed Women" is better than everything I've ever written you. That's the kind of joke I admire. I have been thinking ever since, but not productively, about how translation is ripe for such jokes. (The tag that keeps ringing in my head is Eliot's "hot gates" for Thermopylae, the low for high substitution.) The Proust-work feels like it's on to something profound. (There's a type of deflavorizor, the guy who always wants to explain the importance of the joke.)

Here's all I've come up w/so far: translation is an example par excellence of applying a grammar to a problem & how that problem has the resources to ceaselessly resist the grammar. The deconstructive lesson (what gets taught as deconstruction) is all about vertiginous glee (nobody knows nothing), but that blankets over certain palpable sharpnesses i.e. the words "strapping, buxom, oversexed" all have nice edges to them. The joke is on us & not the French, but it took Proust to bring it out.

& hints of a vision of a pluralist utopia form on the screen. Starring the Marx Brothers making their translation from borscht to blue-bloods.

It sounds as if White's post-adolescent poetic tastes changed in a way somewhat like my own. Not uncommon, I think, and resembling the common move from "readerly" fiction to "writerly" fiction. In both cases, we exchange some of the mixed pleasures of heroic identification for the mixed pleasures of ethical socialization (or, if you prefer, of obtuse alienation -- or, if you prefer, of an even more pathetic form of heroic identification). I maintain John Berryman and James Wright as more-than-usually mixed pleasures from the bad old days, but Yeats plays well enough in both camps.

+ + +

Regarding yesterday's entry, here's bhikku:
...which reminds me of the joke about the two Irishmen passing the forest and seeing the sign saying Tree Fellers Wanted. "Isn't it a shame", says Pat, "that there's only the two of us."

... to be continued ...

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, concluded

In a work-in-progress, John Holbo applies to contemporary theorists a quote from William Empson, describing John Donne's appeal:

"'Argufying' is perhaps a tiresomely playful word, but it makes my thesis more moderate; I do not deny that thoroughly conscientious uses of logic could become a distraction from poetry. Argufying is the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way.... This has always been one of the things people enjoy in poems; and it can be found in every period of English literature."
Holbo, Auerbach, White: What all three of these readers dislike in contemporary academic cultural writing is the stultifying reign of a few approved flavors of argufying. Myself, I think I'd be pleased with any of these outcomes, since I think all of them are capable of producing more of what I enjoy.

The thing about cycles of fashion, though, is that even when you know they're inevitable and fun and all that, you can't really summon up hearty enthusiasm for tight skirts and high heels the third time round. (I mean, not if you like women to be able to walk places.) A dose of Empson might be healthy for kids nowadays, but I associate him with a stultifying effect of his own: snobbish conservatism, with many a dismissal of post-Portrait James Joyce, and medicine-man William Carlos Williams the only barbarian allowed through the institutional gates.

Remembering that Empson was Donne imitator before Donne critic, let's think a bit about that argufication of his.

A poem was once just another way to deliver a message. For some time now, though, a poem has instead been above all else a poetic artifact: the form is the essential thing about it, for reader and writer both. (Have you ever noticed how many twentieth-century-plus poems mention the words "poetry" or "poem"? I recommend that you don't, 'cause once you start, it's irritating as a neighbor who plays the same Rush album every day.) That's a very different experience of poetry. And, like it or not, it's the one we've got. When was the last time that even a poet had their opinion swayed by a political poem, for example?

When Jack Spicer or Frank O'Hara "plead their case" in a poem, they acknowledge (miserably or lightly) the scare quotes: no one will really be swayed by their plea; their case isn't really the case of the poem; in fact, the poem frankly doesn't care about them one way or the other. When the New Critic poets plead their case in a poem, they sound like they expect us to pretend that they hope someone will believe them, and to give them extra credit for attempting the delusion. That's a lot of zombie-raising to go through just to hear some melodious groans.

. . .


Welcome back to the only web journal where errata outnumber entries! As you can see by this illustration of my earliest exercise in community building, it comes natural.

Donald O'Connor! thou should'st be living at this hour. Yes, Francis walks again, and it's all my fault for tying everything up in red ribbon. Next in line to unknot the bow with a single tug is Jake Wilson, The Hardest Working Co-Editor in Online Film Journals:

As a sucker for general aesthetics I've been following your recent series with interest, but while people are jumping in I thought I might as well say a word in defence of William Empson, who wrote sympathetically about Ulysses on several occasions, and as far as "stultifying conservatism" goes was no Eliot, or Winters for that matter.

Also, for the sake of argument, or argufication, I don't know if I agree that "a poem was once just another way to deliver a message." This bypasses the difficulties of separating message and medium - Sam Goldwyn said you could send a message by calling Western Union, but a declaration of love made that way might miss its mark. In any case the idea of poem-as-artifact rather than propaganda is at least as old as the lyric. It doesn't seem to me that Donne's "arguments", which are fanciful in the extreme, are meant to be taken any more literally than Frank O'Hara's; his rhetoric seduces better than it reasons, and typically the extravagant nonsense of the reasoning (e.g. in "The Sun Rising") is part of the seductive charm. That isn't "thinking" in the sense that Kant is a thinker, but viewing abstract system-building as the only legitimate mode of thought is like believing in I.Q. tests; wisdom takes many forms, and it's obtuse to maintain that the only people we learn it from are philosophers.

Empson, by the way, said somewhere that he didn't think poems were made of words, but rather "from the sort of joke you find in hymns". I'm not sure what he meant, but I still think he could have been right.

It was a mistake to drag twentieth-century poetry wars in as a mere argument capper a very pretty thought, but, you know, (sotto voce) not very B-R-I-G-H-T, poor thing.

Also I shouldn't talk any more trash about Empson till I'm ready to do it to his face.

PF managed to find time on the way to his appointment with doom to decode my Sister Noon non-review:

But you'll admit Flaubert did a hell of a job with Saint Julian and Saint Antoine.
I will admit it! Good lord, PF, how did you know?

I'll also admit that I tried to fit both into the piece, but decided it was already too lumpy and squirmy to hold any more digressions. (The digression would've been that neither are recognizably part of the historical fiction genre, "Julian" being fairy tale and Antoine being my favorite single New Wave SF Postmodernist Screenplay [ideally realized by Raul Ruiz, Harry Dean Stanton, and a 94-million-dollar budget].)

Finally, an anonymous reader summed affairs up nicely with the single comment:

its all very well its just not very good

I could live with that as an epitaph.

. . .

The Cluck of the Plow-Chicken

The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?
- James Boswell
(via Caleb Crain at n+1 crossed with the Valve)

If my only duties were to range free and eat, I'm sure I would lay even more and make a even tastier stew.

On the other wing, I did duck that whole pecking order business....

. . .

Theory's Windowbox

For the sake of argument, and to judge all others by myself, I'll admit that people who don't explicitly theorize are working on the basis of latent or unarticulated, unreflective or implicit theory.

And with my admission, I'll affirm there are worst crimes than letting theory remain latent and unarticulated. Something has to. Just because we found our writing on a theory doesn't mean the theory's worth writing about.

Or, in my case, worth re-writing, since I myself am just bustin' out with theory! I reek of it! But whenever I consider explicating my metaphysics-and-all an sich I scribble a rejection note. It's not like I'm going to outdo the philosophers and theologians and scientists whose twigs I've limed together. I'm no philosopher, theologian, or scientist; I'm not a writer of primers or popularizations; in theory, I have nothing to add and something to lose, since, like unto the Tantric sage, should I expose my essence rare, I suspect you'd find it a bit clammy, a bit dull.

A guy who spends all his time elaborating the transience of human relationships may be trying to avoid bad faith, but that doesn't make him good company.


What lies latent and unarticulated beneath the theory itself?

I wish my colonoscopy team was here to answer that one....

Jeff Ward juxtaposes.

. . .

Theory's Windowbox, 2

It's close to the old Athenian issue, "Does studying philosophy unfit the student for the polis?", or, in its Academic form, "unfit the student for any life but the philosopher's?" Or the newer American issue, "Do only poets read poetry?"

I think not, but my view may be skewed by my own vocational specs. Even before I began writing discursive prose, I was, in the general sense, an essayist. Not so much well-rounded as bulging in odd places.


katamari damessay
Anyone who, by choice, reads poetry is a poet.

. . .

True Enough

The Social Misconstruction of Reality by Richard F. Hamilton, 1996

Hamilton gives us a polemic and a series of debunkings which ascend from trivial observation to war-cry:

  1. Wellington cared nothing for the playing fields of Eton.
  2. Mozart didn't die neglected and rejected.
  3. Weber couldn't connect Calvinism to capitalism.
  4. Hitler wasn't elected into power by benighted shopkeepers.
  5. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault lied! lied! lied!

Debunkings are always fun, don't you think? And since sociologists, like economists, advertise empirically-derived generalizations while under unrelenting pressure to justify policies which benefit specific parties, I'm sure the debunkers among them will continue to feel both vitally necessary and desperately beleaguered.

The polemic's more problematic. Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.

Hamilton nets most of his gulls from journalism (particularly book reviews), introductory textbooks (particularly sociology), and interdisciplinary citations. Within the errors' overlapping discipline of history, only once did Hamilton himself blow the first whistle, and that was a case of simultaneous discovery. As corrective scholarship goes, the record compares well to "harder" sciences: physics theories can be elaborated for decades before finding confirmatory evidence, and the social impact of slanted pharmaceutical papers dwarfs any of Hamilton's examples.

Regarding journalism, anyone appalled by reviews lauding Weber's or Foucault's "meticulous" research must not have opened many "poetic," "masterful," or "shattering" novels or examined the similarly meticulous research of popular science writers. And I don't know from introductory textbooks. So let's move on to the interdisciplinary mash-ups of philosophy and literary studies and so forth.

Now, I grant that an abstract argument founded on a false premise, although possibly charming in other ways, won't advance the great Sherman's March of scientific knowledge. But the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination.

As empirical ice-breaker, I took the top hundred returns from a Project MUSE search for "Foucault" and "Discipline and Punish," along with a dozen or so Google Book results and a few examples from my general reading over the past few months. In that sample I noticed only one argument which would have been invalidated by refuting Foucault. The vast majority of citations either occurred in studies of Foucault himself (a filter which would catch Hamilton as well) or were... well, here are some examples:

For actor-network theory is all about power power as a (concealed or misrepresented) effect, rather than power as a set of causes. Here it is close to Foucault, but it is not simply Foucauldian for, eschewing the synchronic, it tells empirical stories about processes of translation.
Discipline and Punish thus suggests a principle that can be seen to underlie many recent studies of early modern disciplinary power: "bad" discipline drives out "good." I want to ask whether it should or must, whether a more positive view of discipline can be successfully defended. My test-case is a lyric poem, George Herbert's "Discipline."
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, Foucault describes four basic techniques of discipline, all of which are exemplified in Lowry's novel and, to varying degrees, in the other dystopian novels as well.
The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster's fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault.
This makes Foucault's view of the professions as groups of pious experts devoted subconsciously to the establishment of narratives of knowledge, or "regimes of truth," for the propagation of their own power an intriguing line of investigation for those who are fascinated by the historic controlling and detached image of the librarian and by the discursive knowledge base of librarianship.
What we see here is a shift from the spectacular to the scopic, and the scopic gaze of surveillance is that of an anonymous "white stenographer," a gaze that is stamped by the phallic authority of whiteness as it arrests the black body in its divestiture. The scene suggests the emergence of a regime of discipline with a far more generalized and anonymous system of surveillance that does not draw attention to itself as spectacular.
What the reformers likely called the Fear of God may have seemed more like the Fear of the State to Foucault. Hawthorne, too, was wary of the state's power and skeptical about relying on its judgments for enforcing morality.
In understanding the power relations manifested in the parades of revolutionary Zanzibar, Foucault offers valuable insights.
Huckleberry Finn even more radically views subjectivity as enthrallment to convention and habit.
Jane [Eyre]'s first description of John Reed's abusive behaviour and of her reaction to his tyranny sets a pattern that continues throughout the novel and that exemplifies the responses to tyranny outlined by Foucault.

An intriguing subcategory argues against Foucault-citers in ways that parallel arguments against Foucault's own work:

A thorough empirical critique of this simplistic and mistaken application of the Panopticon metaphor to the call centre labour process will form the latter part of this article....
... even if one grants that panopticism may apply to the power relations represented within fictional worlds no less than to those enacted in the real world, serious problems are raised by its application to the formal relations that pertain between novelistic narrators and fictional characters.

And a few citers rival Foucault himself in the audacity of their applications:

Thus, Foucault shows us (1) that an emphasis on self-discipline and ritual conduct does not imply a lack of freedom in and of itself and (2) that self-discipline and ritual conduct can actually be used as the basis for practicing freedom deliberately, as was the case among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, Confucian codes of self-discipline and ritual behavior can become the basis for the active, participatory practices of the citizens of a modern society.

While reading Djuna Barnes' Consuming Fictions by Diane Warren, I encounter the sentence:

In effect, the rather random operation of censorship in the twenties effectively endowed critics with a kind of panoptic power, which could at any time lead to the invocation of the law.

And I look down to find an indisputable footnote:

The ever-present possibility of being watched, and the consequences that this has in terms of self-censorship have been theorised by Foucault (see Discipline and Punish).

Warren pretends no interest in the history of penology, and she introduces no "kind of" logical dependency between claims about censorship and claims about prison reform. What work's being performed here?

Nothing equivalent to technical vocabularies, which condense clearly agreed upon definitions. In the humanities, popular brands become stretched and baggy from overuse, and restoring them to bear a full load of meaning requires redefinition within the essay or book itself in which case no labor's been saved by their deployment. For instance, Michael Wheeler's Reconstructing the Cognitive World headlines a battle between Descartes and Heidegger, but then needs to explicate both philosophers in such elaborate detail that their names obscure the cognitive science he means to illuminate.

However, not all disciplines trade in generalizations about common nouns. Disciplines of particulars and proper names boast, if anything, a longer and more continuous history, reaching from Alexandria to the establishment and expansion of vernacular canons. What determines "scholarly value" within such disciplines isn't a correlative graph carefully sculpted from a half-hour test taken by twenty undergraduates for ten bucks each, but the prominent deployment of citations. The marking patterns of scholarship emerge from the talk of scholars, and this particular habit has nothing to do with detached analysis and everything to do with conversation: we begin each interjection with "Speaking of which..." or risk rudeness.

(Of course, political institutions which stabilize power imbalances may quickly make "politeness" indistinguishable from "coercion" and "obedience". See Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; Foucault, Discipline and Punish.)

In these examples, the citation is analogical and the cited author or text serves as a totum pro parte for some generality, or even some mood. Rather than a logical premise, it's an association, a hook, an inspiration, or an excuse. At its best, the arbitrary authority primes the essayist to genuinely novel insights. The middling browbeaten formula goes "I found this and was able to come up with something vaguely reminiscent in X." At its worst, "I went looking for something that would remind me of X and I found it," justifying pages of fond X reminiscence by one utterly unrewarding sentence's worth of application.

The pattern holds in primary sources as in secondary scholarship or, to put it another way, primary sources in one context (Foucault studies, say) began as secondary sources in another context. Freud's blunder about Leonardo's bird was a bit embarrassing, but a mistake holds only a little less truth value than references to fictions like "Hamlet" and "Oedipus Rex." And in fact, the original whistle-blower, back in the January 1923 issue of The Burlington Magazine, also complained about Freud using Dmitri Merejkowski's Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci. To which the editor responded:

[Freud] says: "This deduction of the psychological writer of romances is not capable of proof, but it can lay claim to so many inner probabilities, it agrees so well with everything we know besides about Leonardo's emotional activity that I cannot refrain from accepting it as correct." He gives his reasons for doing so very clearly. Mr. Maclagan plainly states that Freud did not even pretend to have any data beyond "the unsupported guess of a popular novelist." Freud refers to Merijkowski on other occasions as an example of how an imaginative writer may sometimes illuminate matters that remain obscure to the merely exact investigator. We have all experienced the truth of that.

Seventy-seven years later, references to Freud himself would be defended on similar grounds:

... his work loses little if some of his sources are doubtful, and if not every single hypothesis proves to be fertile. It is self evident that, after almost ninety years, most of Freud's answers should have been refuted. But the potential of his questions is not exhausted. He himself predicted that his essay would primarily be understood as "merely... a psychoanalytic novel," but he also guessed that it "was especially pleasing to a few knowledgeable people". Perhaps they understood that it was these poetic overtones that were able to direct art analysis away from dull scholarliness and away from emotionalist reveries.

In other words, Freud could have justified his ideas with any made-up shit and have achieved the same results. However, it's particularly helpful to invoke someone else's made-up shit to find a third party to interrupt, to incite, to provide some friction and spark in what might otherwise become a rather dull cocooning of the author-and-topic couple. The historical fiction of Leonardo worked as a hooky and ambiguously encouraging pretense for fantasy (which, appropriately enough, stabilized narcissism's role in Freudianism). And once Freud himself becomes primary cultural material, his historical errors matter almost as little as Shakespeare's.

(Although again ethics turn foggier and darker as we move outside a text-delimited community of equals to, say, the business of health care. See Foucault, Madness and Civilization. But let's leave that for another day; here I strive to understand the text-delimited community of equals.)

Since the history of referential scholarship is necessarily one of accumulation and fashion, reductionist threats of a firm theoretical foundation will always fall flat. For a long while after Discipline and Punish, most academics who wanted to talk about internally imposed constraints felt compelled to mention Foucault, if only so reviewers wouldn't criticize them for not knowing Foucault. At other times, the super-ego or false consciousness or the Harper Valley PTA might special-guest-star with very little modification to the central plot line. Some citations take the low common ground of a Nike T-shirt, while others are worn with the fervor of a team jersey during the World Cup. In the first edition of Factual Fictions, Lennard J. Davis namedropped Foucault as enthusiastically as a cafeteria chef shaking canned parmesan over a dish to make it "Italian."

There's a bit more to academic truth-value than just lack of rigor, though. The "scientific" heroism of Freud (and Foucault, and Nietzsche, and so on) didn't include careful transcription of sources, painstaking replication of results, or double-checked blind studies, but it did require expressing engaging and potentially unpleasant thoughts applicable across a range of enduringly interesting problems. Which is to say such humanities scholarship can be "true" or "false" somewhat as a novel or poem is true or false, with a truth-value that's utilitarian and context-dependent. The utilitarian side shows naked when defenders mock the barrenness of debunkers' "ideas": a flourishing brood of citations in itself proves the scholastic validity of the cited source.

Returning to the out-and-out errors reported by Hamilton, their longevity may spring from a few enduring mysteries:

  1. Why has an abomination like Eton not been razed to the ground?
  2. It sucks that we can't buy Mozart a beer.
  3. The New Testament condemns greed as straightforwardly as it does anything, and yet most European and North American plutocrats are Protestant. And they rule the world!
  4. Hitler's father was a civil servant and Goebbel's a factory clerk and Weimar Germany was a democracy, but normal people don't do such things.
  5. Despite the work of reformers, prisons don't seem particularly humane. Also, even though I've left home I feel kinda constrained instead of all liberated and shit.

The simplest explanations will probably remain the most stable in the face of argument. To take the three cases which exercise Hamilton most:

  1. Most people are hypocrites. And just wait a while.
  2. A representative electoral government can magnify minute shifts of popular advantage into unthinkably extreme results.
  3. Ethics, law, and the administration of justice are incoherent, shifting, and therefore inevitably clashing systems. Also, welcome to adulthood.

Unshakable though they might be, none of these snappy answers satisfy our perplexity. There must be more to it than that. A residue of an urge to explain will remain, and will be met by one plausible story or/and another.

But if I don't quite share Hamilton's high-colonic ideals, neither would I welcome the erasure of all distinctions between "Hamlet" as produced on Gilligan's Island and "Hamlet" as described by Stephen Greenblatt. The pretenses of a genre don't have to be air-tight (or thoroughly sincere) to be productive; the inevitable constructions of sociability and the "social misconstruction of reality" overlap but aren't identical. And there are other measures of scholarly worth besides citation volume Michael Baxandall, for example, seems worth emulating despite his low production of forever footnotable trademarks.

Moreover, quasi-refutations of quasi-premises hold their own context-sensitive utilitarian value. For example, as satisfying and useful as attacks on the fascistic aspects of your parents' milieu were if your middle-class youth occurred in 1950s or 1960s Western Europe, in the post-Vietnam United States it might have been wiser to recall that most of Hitler's support came from the wealthy and from rural Protestants, and that religion determined votes more reliably than economic class.

To my non-academic eye, any harm done by Discipline and Punish hasn't been to historiography but to the ability of non-historians to keep track of the world surrounding them, a bit closer every day. For the sheer directness of its display, I'll perhaps unfairly single out Janet Holtman's "Documentary Prison Films and the Production of Disciplinary Institutional 'Truth'," published in 2002 in Virginia, which pits Foucault, Deleuze, Jameson, and Bourdieu against all of two actual films: The Farm: Angola USA, which "merely acts as another social scientific node by which the disciplinary power of the prison functions," and Titicut Follies, which "may number among the many 'odd term[s] in relations of power... inscribed in the latter as an irreducible opposite.'"

As mentioned above, and for perhaps obvious reasons, the documentary prison film is a type of discourse that seems to offer particularly interesting possibilities for analysis in terms of Foucault's theories. It is perhaps here that one might look to find a discursive formation whose effects are clearly recognizable on Foucauldian terms; an analysis of this particular cultural production as a type of truth-production may evidence the ways in which filmic discourses perpetuate humanist values such as the movement toward prison reform, the continuation of the social construction of subjectivities such as "the delinquent," and the normalization and implementation of some of the social scientific technologies of discipline that Foucault describes, such as the examination and the case study. A key question here, in other words, is "what do documentary prison films do?"

A more pressing question here and now, I would think, is "what are prisons doing?" In this regard, recent anti-humanist academics fought an enemy that in most parts of the world (notably the USA) had already been thoroughly defeated by a common foe. It's wonderful that Foucault gave us a new way to talk about repression in a relatively comfortable material position which permits extraordinarily free movement and speech, but not insofar as that's distracted us from H. Bruce Franklin.


Josh Lukin:

H. Bruce Franklin has had extraordinarily free movement and speech, just not simultaneously. Back when he became the first tenured professor to be fired from Stanford for reasons other than moral turpitude, he lacked free speech; now that he's more safely tenured, he lacks free movement on accounta he's ol' (Possibly on a no-fly list too, with a history like his).

Peli Grietzer:

As for academic style, I think being an academic is a lot like being in a band that's trying to make commercially viable music (pardon if I drop the obligatory 'only not cool' etc.).

Oh, and -- I've this months for the first time really read Foucault more than in passing, and man, he can fake sources all he wants for all I care, the man is an analytic dynamo.

And Josh adds for very good measure:

Most of the first dozen uses of Foucault you quote are refreshing in their clarity and restraint: "Here's a nifty correspondence" generally beats Jamesonian or Bloomish grandiosity in my book. But you've persuaded me by the end that U.S. academics, with a few exceptions, are doing something, mutatis mutandis, like what James Holstun calls the fate of European philosophers whose "work has had a more productive history in Europe and Britain, where it actively engaged a lively humanist marxist tradition, than in the United States, where it rather quickly assimilated itself to regnant anticommunist ideologies." In the case of Foucault, himself an anticommunist, I guess you'd substitute something like "gay activist circles" for Europe and Britain and "the broader intellectual public sphere" for the United States. See, notwithstanding Halperin's fine demolition of it, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sodom casts a shadow over every public discussion of Foucault, from the Right and the Left (Rée's "defense" of Foucault is about as helpful as Shaw's of Wilde or Struwwelpeter's of racial equality). Studying Seventies Foucault is fine, and a heartening number of cultural historians and literary scholars have made good use of his ideas without turning his highly experimental propositions into dogmas; but a look at, say, Chapter 16 of the Eribon biography shows Foucault spending two or three years doing work not only worthy of H. Bruce Franklin but being a kind of amalgam of Franklin, Bruce Jackson, and Clifford Levy: why doesn't "Foucauldian" connote work like what MF did in the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons? Part of the answer, I fear, has to do with the replacement of the activist philosopher with the bogeyman Foucault Jim Miller's book gave us.

Juliet Clark noted that Holtman sets Titicut Follies inside a "Correctional Institution" without mentioning that it was a state hospital for the criminally insane, which lent at least a bit of surface plausibility to the censors' concerns about inmate privacy. (See Robson & Lewton, Bedlam,RKO, 1946.) The omission seems strange in an article so avowedly Foucauldian.

That voice on the phone

I have been remiss in not yet mentioning that this piece was guest-posted at the Valve (thanks, SEK) and will be reprinted in the next issue of J Bloglandia (thanks, Ginger).

. . .

The Secondary Source Review : A bunch of polemics & puffs for grant-funded projects

He used to be one of my favorite scholars. Lately, though, it seems like all he does is preach. And yeah, I know I'm in the choir, but I only joined for the music.


Doxology the study of PhDs? and then?

Then I highly recommend Herr Doktor Adam Kotsko's essay on Augustine on the Fah-ther and on the Son and on the Hoh-ly Gho-host, because I highly enjoyed it.

. . .

The Limits of English Department Memory

The Limits of Literary Historicism
ed. Allen Dunn

Global search-and-replace is here applied to an old anti-Theory polemic, or possibly an even older anti-New-Criticism polemic. How many more generations of this cycle are needed before combatants recognize an institutional issue rather than an issue specific to the straw-dogmatists du jour?

And when will the Yankees and Red Sox realize they could save a lot of bother by staying home and reading a book?

. . .

Summa contra juxta Gentiles

  1. Feminism's face-shove into repressed works and lives seemed pure good to me, as did similar redirections by other scholars in and out of the academy. No one had burnt Milton or Dickens or Hemingway; Dead White Heterosexual Guys were as eagerly available as ever. Only on the preset battlefields into which conscriptees were force-marched, canon to right of them, canon to left of them, were losses incurred.
  2. Barthes's groundskeeping didn't (and can't) erase the irrepressible notion of motivated utterance, or bar citation of a writer's, publisher's, director's, or performer's conflicting reports of intent. It simply made room.
  3. I kept "my" poststructuralists for their apparently inimitable expressions of previously unexpressed experiences. I never felt an impulse to layer their crazy clown costumes over my own or interpose them like Tom Snout's Wall in front of other peculiar personal expressions.
  4. In 1993, I began catching up with contemporary (post-behaviorism, post-expert-system, post-my-youth) cognitive sciences, and have followed them since, always with an eye to aesthetics.

    Long before 1993, I'd thought of art(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible)-making as a human universal, and since I don't believe homo sapiens was formed de limo terræ on the sixth day by that ginormous Stephen Dedalus in the sky, I must perforce believe the inclination to have evolved(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible).

    But scientists' applications of neuroscience, neural nets, and comparative zoology to art were sheer inanity, and with a few very welcome exceptions the "neuro-aesthetics" and "evolutionary turns" which migrated to humanities journals and popularized books catered no better fare. As Paul Bloom put it in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry:

    Surely the contemporary human's love of literature has to have some evolutionary history, just as it has a cultural history, just as it has an instantiation in the brain, just as it emerges in the course of child development, and so on. Consider, as a concrete example, the proposal by the English professor Lisa Zunshine. She argues that humans have evolved a taste for stories because they exercise the capacity for social reasoning or theory of mind. Suppose, contrary to my own by-product view, Zunshine is correct. Why should this matter to your average Jane Austen scholar (to use a common synecdoche for English professors everywhere)? It would seem to be relevant in exactly the same way as finding that stories are processed in a certain part of the frontal lobe that is, not at all.

    While literary critics can safely ignore those interested in theories of the origin and nature of stories, the converse isn't true.

  5. Like generations of analytic sensualists, I've mapped, diagrammed, and sought patterns in bare lists without forsaking delight in prior arrangements.
  6. And, like generations of readers before me, I've felt no compunction about deploying historical anecdotes against an artifactual field. Looking into Sir Thomas Bertram's slave trade connections hardly violates the spirit of the novel ("I was in hopes the question would be followed up by others"), and hardly necessitates casting protagonist or author as villainous collaborators or heroic liberators. What it must do, I think, is deepen our ambivalence toward Fanny's fallout-shelter reward. And if ambivalence doesn't sound appealing, you're denied access to far more than Mansfield Park.

To a published-or-perished team-player, my little biographia literaria may sound naïvely promiscuous: tacking to each newly prevailing wind without a glance at the charts, discarding yesterday's party allegiance in the face of today's confident campaign ad.

I swear, however, this ever unrulier tangle springs from one integrated ground, albeit of well-manured soil rather than bedrock: a faith born at pubescence in the realization that mumbling through Shakespeare's King John was a different thing, a different incarnate thing, than speed-reading Isaac Asimov or Ellery Queen; a faith which developed through adolescence and reached near-final form by age twenty.

This chapel's sacrament is aesthesis, sense-perception, rather than "high art":

For it is false to suppose that a child's sense of beauty is dependent on any choiceness or special fineness, in the objects which present themselves to it, though this indeed comes to be the rule with most of us in later life; earlier, in some degree, we see inwardly; and the child finds for itself, and with unstinted delight, a difference for the sense, in those whites and reds through the smoke on very homely buildings, and in the gold of the dandelions at the road-side, just beyond the houses, where not a handful of earth is virgin and untouched, in the lack of better ministries to its desire of beauty.

But honest attention to sensibility finds social context as well as sensation. Words have heft; the color we see is a color we think. And art(-in-the-most-general-sense-possible) wins special interest as a sensible experience which is more or less bounded, shared, repeatable, and pre-swaddled in discourse.

Pluralism is mandated by that special interest. Any number of functions might be mapped into one chunk of multidimensional space. Integer arithmetic and calculus don't wage tribal war; nor do salt and sweet. We may not be able to describe them simultaneously; one may feel more germane to our circumstances than another; on each return to the artifact, the experience differs. But insofar as we label the experiential series by the artifact, all apply; as Tuesday Weld proved, "Everything applies!" And as Anna Schmidt argued, "A person doesn't change because you find out more." We've merely added flesh to our perception, and there is no rule of excluded middle in flesh.

Like other churches, this one doesn't guarantee good fellowship, and much of the last decade's "aesthetic turn" struck me as dumbed-down reactionism. But The New Aestheticism was on the whole a pleasant surprise. Its reputation (like the reputation of most academic books, I suppose) is based on a few pull-quotes from the editors' introduction; the collection which follows is more eclectic. Howard Caygill sets a nice Nietzschean oscillation going in Alexandria, Gary Banham's "Kant and the ends of criticism" nostalgically resembles what I smash-&-grabbed from the display case back in college, and Jonathan Dollimore snaps at ethical presumptions with commendable bloodlust.

The contributors keep their disagreements well within the disciplinary family, however. They cite Adorno, Kant, and Heidegger very frequently, Wilde once, and Pater never, and disport themselves accordingly. After all, Adorno was a contentious fussbudget and therefore makes a respectable academic role model, whereas Pater was an ineffectual sissy.

Till at a corner of the way
We met with maid Bellona,
Who joined us so imperiously
That we durst not disown her.
My three companions coughed and blushed,
And as the time waxed later,
One murmured, pulling out his watch,
That he must go—'twas Pater.
- "The Traveller" by Arthur Graeme West

Some (Adorno for starters) might feel at home in a community of li'l Adornos; whereas a majority of such as Pater, "the very opposite of that which regards life as a game of skill and values things and persons as marks or counters of something to be gained, or achieved, beyond them," would admittedly be the heat death of the world. But there's more to existence than procreation, and aesthetic philosophers, of all people, should be able to appreciate the value of one-offs and nonreproducible results. We can no more say that Derrida "proved" Searle wrong than that Bangs "proved" the Godz brilliant musicians or Flaubert "proved" us all doomed to follow Frédéric Moreau. That doesn't mean Derrida was therefore best when dishing unset Jello like Glas and Lester Bangs was therefore best when writing fiction and Flaubert was therefore best avoiding emotionally hot topics. Every flounder to its own hook.

Back in the land o'Adorno, if false dilemmas and Mitty-esque battles against empire or barbarism were what's needed to drag some of these white bellies to the surface, well, I suppose that's no more ridiculous a procedure than our own, of constructing imaginary villages with real explainers in them. I wouldn't presume to say it's all good, but it is all that is the case.


giddy upon the Hobby-Horse

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Aw, come on, horsey! Please, horsey? Please, whoa. Purty please? Doggone it now, horsey! Won't you please whoa?

Has Dollimore gotten less irritating since his days of applying Godwin's law to literature? ("Here essence and teleology are explicitly affirmed while history becomes the surrogate absolute. If we are used to finding this kind of utterance in our own cultural history it comes as something of a shock to realise that these were the words of Alfred Bäumler, a leading Nazi philosopher writing on race." etc etc)

He kicks off with Hesse, so probably not.

Dollimore kicked off Radical Tragedy with Hesse as well! So this is a rerun, I gather.

A preview of the third edition intro, looks like.

. . .

Genre note

Although auteurs like M. John Harrison will always fit old clips into new montages, the all-out fixup novel served as loyal attendent to the commercial market for short stories and novellas and did not survive its patron.

While fiction magazines withered, academia doubled-down on publish-or-perish. Journal and books lists exploded, culture took its course, and for several decades humanities' new-book-shelves have been as loaded with fixups as a 1950s paperback rack.

Of course, not all the tactics of their original home were carted over. Lacking the pretense of organic character-focused narrative, no fixing-up scholar need attempt the reconstructive surgery of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Isaac Asimov's Foundation is the model: elucidation and proof of millenia-spanning psychohistory through chapters on Theocritus's Idyll 15, Eliza Heywood's Distress'd Orphan, and Grand Theft Auto V's soundtrack. As the man says, "ideal for tales of epic sweep through time and space."

. . .

Vice Ethics

Some while back, I spent a few weeks' quota of spare time ("scholar" being, as we know, derived from the Greek for "leisure") mournfully analyzing a book which attempted to champion a cause dear to my heart by sandwiching overblown or easily debunked historical claims between mopes about problems like the impossibility of publishing literary criticism outside academic journals. After talking it over with a friend I decided not to post my review because, hey, the author had suffered enough already.

Above everything else, the question which blanketed the book and finally stifled any wisp of high spirits was "How can a classroom teach students to take pleasure in literature?" But ooh, ooh, pick me, I know this one!— like most of us know it, from experience.

If by "teaching" one means "grading debt-imprisoned students on the intensity of their faked orgasms," the desired results are indeed unlikely. From the standpoint (or cowerpoint) of students who don't immediately feel the funk (or fake the jouissance), such pleasure sharing is more accurately described as bullying, public shaming, or extortion. I guess it would count as training for "the real world," but honestly, most undergrads receive sufficient training outside the English department.

As with all such corruptions of youth, the most effective approach is to openly exemplify and (by implication) permit the possibility of finding pleasure in odd ways. Some onlookers will sooner or later be led to admit a corresponding unsuspected or repressed perversion of their own; most will simply consider you odd. That's fine. You can make a talking mule drink but you can't make it like the flavor.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.