The Crooked Timber folks have been getting into the swing of the whole literary criticism thing. Good. I want more lit blogging. I've decided it makes me happy.
Maria's chick lit thoughts? Well, I just prefer books about flaying myself. I mean: I myself prefer them to be about flaying. I just find all the awkward personal situations that arise in chick lit to be too painful. And it doesn't relate to my life.
Henry's fun post: already praised it. He started the ball rolling.
And life would be fewer thrilling without dsquared's comments in my comment box.
And now a little something related to this post by Henry a month back. I actually went and read the book: Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb. (Culler is a grand old man of Theory, and Lamb is a grad student, so that's why you haven't heard of him.)
Here it is. But I think the number two title when you do an Amazon search would actually suit the book better. (When I called up this page a month ago I was offered a discount bundle of the two; which was brilliant.)
The first thing to be said is that the book is not as bad as you fear it will be. Henry talks about the pain and unprofit of reading Homi Bhabha. Nothing on that order of worthlessness here, even though such past offenders as Barbara Johnson and Gayatri Spivak are in attendance. Which is actually quite a good sign. Everyone obviously too ashamed to try it. Mockery having a salutary effect.
The second thing to be said is that it's remarkable how dull and listless and, frankly, pointless, almost all of these pieces are. The charges that need to be rebutted are obvious, at least in general outline, and each author in turn earnestly pretends that the critics of 'bad writing' are saying that writing should never be difficult, or challenging, that common sense should never ever be challenged, so forth. Which obviously no one says, or would say. It's sort of like watching a press conference where the press flack is really working hard to misunderstand more and more direct questions. (Ari Fleischer knew a lot of the tricks these authors know about how to be 'difficult'.)
Along these lines, quite a number of people - including Culler - complain about how the original "Philosophy and Literature" Bad Writing Contest was conducted in bad faith, sentences ripped out of context, so forth. When, obviously, the original contest was sort of a prank. A joke. A wheeze. It was called the Bad Writing Contest, even though the object was obviously to make fun of bad capital-T Theory, because - seems clear to me - Bad Theory Contest didn't sound as funny. So now these authors have to waste our time pointing out how wrong (wrong!) it is just to focus on style, not substance. (How can you say the writing is bad without considering the thoughts!)
It is possible to say a prank or joke is bad, or in bad taste, or proves nothing. Pretending it was all serious and then moaning about deficient methodology? Is there anyone so dumb that they could be gulled by this absurd stance?
Here is a paragraph in which Culller, in attempting to describe these terrible people picking on him and his friends, manages a pretty decent description of himself and his friends:
The claim not to understand might seem an innocent posture that people would seldom adopt willingly, but in fact it is one of considerable power, in which authorities often entrench themselves. Eve Sedgwich has described the "epistemological privilege of unknowing," whereby "obtuseness arms the powerful against their enemies."
The existence of this volume goes a long way towards proving the humoristic appropriateness of the original Bad Writing Contest. If these jerks are going to pretend not even to understand why some people are a bit cheesed off about how badly Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler write, just turn that trick on it's head. Don't even offer the courtesy of a fair debate, if that courtesy will only be abused by willful refusal to respond seriously to serious points. Thank you for being such a pain.
However, when your sole remaining methodological tool of critical inquiry is armed obtuseness, filling the pages gets to be sort of a chore. Farcical and (I hope) not fully earnest but (definitely) essay-length explanations about how, sometimes, academics have to think about difficult things and, like, challenge received notions.
I'll give you a sample. [UPDATE: I've since semi-repented of the harshness of what follows.]It's from John McCumber's paper, entitled "The Metaphysics of Clarity and the Freedom of Meaning". The man starts out very badly with this paragraph, which seems to me indicative of the general level of non-rigor that characterizes the project:
Clarity, as a norm for speech and writing, presents a paradox: although the burden of achieving it falls on the speaker, the achievement itself apparently falls on the hearer. I can labor mightily to produce a clear essay, argument or sentence. But I have not actually produced it until you agree that I have - if only tacitly, but continuing the conversation. If, by contrast, you tell me that I have not made myself clear, there is no arguing with you about that; all I can do is try again to express what I have to say, in different terms, so that you can understand it. My words are not clear until you have understood what I have meant by them.
The patent inadequacy of this opening is inauspicious. If you say you don't understand what I have written - and you have just drunk seven beers - I can perfectly well respond that actually it is quite clear, and when you sober up you will see that for yourself. The basic problem here, to jump ahead a bit, is that it never occurs to our author in the course of this essay even to consider the following line of analysis. Text X can be clear to Y and not to Z. We all know that's possible. Therefore clarity has to be, to some extent, a relational property. Also, it does not occur to our author that something does not actually have to be read to be clear. It is clear if it has a certain complex dispositional relational property, maybe. Text X is clear (with respect to Y) if Y would be able to blahdy, blahdy, blah. Pursue the analysis if you feel like it. The thing is: here we have a person earnestly proposing to analyse the concept of clarity. He is obviously incapable of anticipating the most elementary complications, counter-examples, so forth. Why is he proposing to horn in on the analysis business? He obviously has less than no interest.
Moving right along. In paragraph two our author seems suddenly on the verge of a reasonable point: "truth appears to be a cognitive norm, whereas clarity seems to be aesthetic." Yet clarity seems to be a cognitive demand, yet aesthetics is not cognitive. A fairly familiar philosophical point, in one form or another. But worth pondering. Unfortunately, McCumber declines back to the low standard set by paragraph one: "As a judgment of taste imputes beauty to its object [if it is found beautiful anyway], so I can impute clarity to my words; but this means nothing more than that I expect that others will agree that they are clear." This is supposed to be Kant; maybe it is; I'm sure it's bad. I can think that something is clear and that no one else will find it so, because I am sure a genius. Also, McCumber is in the process of staggering into the arms of another mistake with which he struggles vainly for pages to come: he assumes any undefinable notion has to be unclear. But that is a strange thing to assume. I can't define 'red' (probably). Does that make the word unclear? Not to people who know what red is. As you might guess, a couple of these perfectly obvious problems right at the start are later on pulled out of the hat (sort of unclearly) as discoveries on towards the end. Yawn.
And then a second 'paradox': clarity is unclear, because to demand clarity is an unclear demand. (How much? What sort? So forth.) Stretching a point to call this a paradox, but I'm feeling generous.
Obviously all this is a bit off-point, since the charge of Bad Writing is not in fact a change of Unclear Writing. As Denis Dutton frequently mentions on these occasions: he studies Kant. It cannot be the case that he does not tolerate Unclear Writing.
But OK. Maybe the guy will have something to say about his chosen topic. And now this:
This pair of paradoxes combines into a rather simple dilemma. If, on the one hand, the nature of clarity were clear, then we would know whether we had attained it when we speak, and the first paradox of clarity would not arise. But if the nature of clarity is unclear, we have a sort of practical version of Russell's paradox: a norm that cannot apply to itself. A given sentence or argument or essay might be clear, but the judgment that it is could not.
This is shaky Russell scholarship. I bite my tongue.
Many contemporary American philosophers, bobbing along in the wake of logical positivism, have "solved" this dilemma by denying outright its first horn. they would call a statement "clear" not if it accurately conveyed the thoughts of the speaker to someone else but if it allowed for a single and complete distribution of truth values. If we can say, for every object in the universe, whether a given sentence is true of it or not, then that sentence is clear, and we do not need any hearers to tell us so.
There are many major problems here. Can you find them all? I'll start you out.
1. It is false that significant enough numbers of American philosophers to be worth mentioning are helplessly unable to think outside the tiny logical positivist box in which their puny minds are helplessly trapped. (Like flies in a flybottle! Look at them! And yet there is a way out! But they'll never find it! The fools! Everyone said I was mad! Urk.)
2. Truth-functional definitions of clarity? That is obviously not going to work because, obviously, statement X might be clear to Y and not to Z.
For the rest, I simply haven't the patience. It's so obviously ignorant and ham-handed. (Brian Weatherson? I haven't linked to you yet this post. Care to count all the major problems with this short paragraph? It's a thankless task, I know.)
Blahdy, blahdy, blah. Some senseless, doomed nattering about this senseless paragraph. And stuff about Kant that smells fishy, but I'm not sure. Then this, to round it off.
The first horn of the above dilemma has now been legislated away [by these stupid, oh-so-stupid philosophers] - like drug use, and with approximately equal effect: the behavior still continues. In this case people still feel obligated to reformulate their statements when others do not understand it.
So there you have it, kids: philosophers have convinced themselves that there is no need to reformulate statements so as to make themselves understood when others misunderstand them. 'Truth-functions all in order, ma'am. Please move along. Nothing to see here.' Can you guess what McCumber thinks 'Bad Writers' have been earnestly trying to do, that has led all these philosophers to accuse them so unjustly? Well, he doesn't quite come out and say they have all just been oh-so innocently trying to explain themselves as best they can. And the mean philosophers with their infernal logical devices don't recognize that as legitimate. (Waah.) But he comes close to saying that.
This is just so ... made up. I mean: who is he talking about? What's the point of getting it this wrong?
If you just want people to think badly of philosophers, and you think you can get away with making up any old thing, why not say we are those dog-faced people who walk upside-down on our six hands? That would surely damage our reputations. (Just trying to be helpful.)
There's sort of an interesting - but by no means good - piece by Peter Brooks. There's a funny paragraph, for example, in which he demonstrates the following humorous critical technique. Start by asking a question. Then sort of start treating that question as though it has already received the highly counter-intuitive answer you are obviously angling for. Under no circumstances consider other possible answers, or defend your answer. Or let on that you are aware that you are just assuming your answer without argument. Even though it's quite obvious you are. Just put on a dumb face if someone asks. Do an Ari Fleischer, in effect.
I want to evacuate the question of "bad writing" and leave it for what it is, bad writing, to get on to the more interesting question of difficult writing. [Yep. He actually thinks it's interesting to ask whether writing difficult things is a good idea. No he doesn't. He can't. So why is he pretending?] The issue may be stated in this form: must critical writing put certain notions of common sense into question, unsettling the grammatical frame of understanding and reference by which we usually proceed? [Obviously, no. It strictly needn't. But go ahead, assume the 'yes' answer if it makes you happy.] And if so, what is the relationship of this critical unmooring of common sense to the responsibility that we, as scholars, have to communicate effectively to a wider audience and to those who are not necessarily schooled in the same idiom? standards of decorum, clarity, even grammatical and syntactical conventions, in order to convey, or rather to do, something new and unsettling. How can you speak the old idiom if you are trying to make a revolution? Yet, if the revolution is to be effective - reach a wider public - how can you sacrifice the common language?
This question has plagued the avant-garde since its inception.
What if they held a revolution and no one ... noticed? Would it actually be a revolution? There is something in that querying thought that indicates an unclarity or problem with what this gentleman thinks he is up to.
Here's a nice paragraph:
To be sure, our recent culture wars were partly about a nostalgia - on the part of extra-academic cultural commentators - for a polite, gentlemanly exegesis of great literary works, expressed in a language that didn't need much more technicality than sestet and metaphor. Whereas the public is perfectly willing to conced that the language of the sciences - and perhaps even the social sciences - may evolve in response to the imperatives of research, produce new conceptual difficulties and even neologisms, the humanities ought to remain the realm of the true, the tested, indeed of the eternally true. Like "human nature" itself the subject matter and language of literary study and philosophy should not change. Since we humanists still write about Sophocles and Shakespeare, why need we invent new difficulties in the talk about them? Let the humanities remain the place of cultural truisms.
When it comes to armed obtuseness, Brooks is really locking and loading all twelve barrels with this one. The idea that the battle is between earnest theorists and people who think we should all actually be frozen in amber for our own Sophoclean good? I think more sophisticated versions of humanism might possibly be confabulated. And the patently irrelevant attempt to align capital-T Theory and science? Back in the 1970's, people sort of still pretended that structuralism and semiotics and scientific Marixism and Lacanian psychoanalysis were sciences. But no one even claims that anymore. So what possible point could there be in pretending that the difficulty of theory jargon is warranted on some analogy with the technical difficulty of any number of scientific fields? Suppose I write a bad poem, and you point out this awkward fact. And I fire back: 'well, you know a lot of physics is just equations and stuff. I'll bet you can't understand those!' Does this seem like a cutting response? I mean, beyond my own throat?
Well, never mind. But this gives you a pretty good indication of the profound non-usefulness of the contributors' collective profound non-engagement with the pretty bleedingly obvious issues, such as they are. Fantastic waste of time. And here I am writing about it.
You're weird. My kind of weird.
But there are actually some things in this essay that are sort of interesting. Brooks even makes a few good points, quite by accident I think. Certainly what he has to say sheds rather unflattering light on the bad state of academic literary studies.
The situation of criticism was impressed on me recently when I wrote one of those (agonizing) letters of comparative evaluation of candidates for a professorship at a major university. All the candidates had published original, important and readable books. Not one of these books has been reviewed in any media one would recognize as "public" - and I don't simply mean The New York Times Book Review but such other serious media as New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and the nearly moribund quarterlies such as Partisan Review [now dead, but presumably not as of Brooks' writing]. I suppose the commonsense explanation is that there are too many books being published because academic careers demand it. But it's by no means clear there has been a recent increase in publication rates in literary criticism - it has become more difficult than ever to get oneself published. What I think we really see is a failure of discrimination. It's as if the public journals had accepted the view of the cultural right and decided that all academic literary criticism is unreadable and trivial and therefore needn't be bothered with. this was, after all, the position championed by Lynne Cheney when she headed the official organization ofor our kinds of study, the National Endowment for the the Humanities.
Now I would like to point out only one pinheaded thing about this paragraph. Brooks advocates - as per that bit I quoted some distance above - revolutionary criticism that, not to put too fine a point on it, presupposes that the reader is an deluded idiot. That is, it presumes that the reader needs to have his paradigms and so forth fundamentally rescrambled right down to the grammatical level. Now I do not wish to say this is wrong. But to advocate revolution on those lines, and then to wonder why everyone doesn't give you a big hug? This just goes to show, basically, that Brooks is not thinking about what he is saying. His paradigm is scrambled at the most basic level. You think your job in life is to show everyone else that they are trapped in the Matrix of late capitalist Enlightenment instrumental reason gone to sleep and bred monsters. Whatever. Fine. But if you then evince surprise that you have a low readership? That shows you didn't think the first thing after all. You just said it. Because all your friends say it, and it seems sort of, y'know, cool. And that's not very punk rock.
I told all my friends to piss off and now I have no friends. I am not a plausible sympathy case.
On we go.
But if we have resigned ourselves to the situation of seeing good work go unreviewed (I don't want to be construed as saying that we should so resign ourselves - we need new journals that do serious public book reviewing), it may well be from a certain weariness with literary criticism itself; which i think derives from a crisis in belief about its usefulness. Most of us who continue to write and publish literary criticism don't particularly enjoy reading it any more - not most of it, anyway. We continue to do so (if we do) out of a sense of duty, because we continue to think it important to learn what's new in the discourse. But most of the fun is gone, since the stakes appear to be diminished, and there isn't much sense of real dialogue about our understandings of texts and issues that matter - that matter in a way on which there is some consensus. Literary criticism gained its broadest audience at a time when literature was taking the place of religion, as a kind of secular scripture - see Wallace Stevens for an extreme statement of the case: "After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is the essence that takes its place as life's redemption." It may prove to have been a historically delimited field.
I simply note the tension between the author's thesis that the New York Times ought to be reviewing this stuff and the confession that he himself is bored stiff; only reads it out of agonized duty to keep up with 'the discourse'. A bit further on:
We have placed a premium on "original published scholarship" that leads to a certain critical hyperventilation, the promotion into books of what should not be books, and the claim to significance where one would prefer a modest elucidation.
That's damn true. Give the man a point. Give the man two points.
We all know why this is so. Indeed, I find myself telling younger colleagues that only books "count" any more; articles just don't make the weight ... I doubt if anyone under the age of seventy turns to Partisan Review for its literary and cultural commentary, and if the library catalogue didn't assure me of the continued existence of Kenyon Review and Hudson Review, I would not be aware of it. Commentary and the New Criterion disqualified themselves as interepreters of culture by becoming public executioners during the culture wars. And nothing has come to take the place of these journals of mediation. (Witness the rise to prominence of Lingua Franca, a kind of academicv People magazine; and even it is now defunct.) But there is perhaps no point in lamenting the decadence of the serious cultural journals since journals of any sort mainly go unread at at present
At this point I pause to link to Armavirumque, in hopes that the poor dears will see and be cheered with being credited with fell executions committed. I notice that Roger Kimball himself is now blogging. That means I shall be reading more often. I like Roger Kimball very much, even though his politics are most definitely not my own. I've been thoroughly disappointed by Armavirumque, so this is a good sign. Derivative warblogging and some potshots at easy targets. I challenge them to win my discriminating custom with their future offerings. But I always read The New Criterion. This is really the proof of Brooks' doom. I am a lefty pop-culture hound, and one of the only academic 'cultural studies' journals I habitually read is every issue of a righty high-culture outlet. Why? Because I am rational and interested in philosophy. And, although The New Criterion has been known to fall far short of that standard, there are no lefty academic-grade culture studies publications that currently ever attain to it, to my knowledge. (Tell me I'm wrong.) If The New Criterion were consistently as bad as Peter Brooks' essay, for example, I would stop reading it. And Brooks' wishes he ever wrote anything as good as Lingua Franca on a bad quarter.
But I digress.
The decline of the quarterlies of course can be explained as part of a general decline of the literate print media in an age of the "frenzy of the visible," to use Jean-Louis Comolli's phrase. Nonetheless, it participates as well in a loss of faith in the value of exchanged understandings about the meanings and conditions of meaning of literature. I don't think it is simply nostalgia to claim there was once a culture in which serious writers and serious readers were able to meet on the grounds of what to think about Kafka or Wallace Stevens. Now, each new book of literary and cultural criticism must be an individual performance, strenuous, original, self-inventing - and inventive, too, of an audience it hopes to shape and indeed create through its rhetoric. Some of these performances succeed remarkably - as in the works of Judith Butler. Many others simply produce a kind of hypertrophy of rhetoric and alleged significance.
Have I then argued myself into a corner where literary criticism must finally expire and be seen in historical perspective as the acolyte of modernism, rising and falling with the long passage from romanticism through to postmodernism? I think this is a distinct possibility, although not one to which I am currently willing to resign myself. I consider that the writing of literary and cultural critique is still worth the agony. This may be simply the result of years of professional deformation. But there still are grounds to believe that criticism matters. To paraphrase the French poet Paul Claudel, the world is before us like a text to be deciphered. ONe need not share Claudel's religious commitment to believe that the semiotics of literature and culture are crucial to understanding not only discrete messages and how they affect us but also our very compostion as fiction-making animals.
There's a sort of amiable inaccuracy to that ending that I find endearing. A discrete message would be, say, 'Honey, I forgot to buy milk. Make sure to pick some up.' Now whether or not one shares Claudel's religious commitment, one need not be a semiotician to go buy the damn milk, and understand what it was that made one go buy the damn milk. Not that this picky detail matters, but the likes of Brooks' are obviously worse than useless for purposes of analysing anything so twiddly and particular as us fiction-making animals.
He should find something to do with his life that's simple and obvious. For example, earnestly maintaining the importance of Theory, as currently practiced in the academy, in Ari Fleischer-like tones.
But I am cruel.
The thing that strikes me about this - quite apart from the wholly unwarranted and gratuitous removal of Judith Butler (of all loathsome writers) from Ground Zero - is the whiny, wound-licking, self-pitying pointlessness of it all.
How to put this? Literary criticism is not like alchemy after the chemists figured out lead into gold is not a going economic proposition. Literary criticism is not like astrology in an age of astronomy. Literary criticism is people interested in books writing things - possibly books - for other people interested in books. Brooks' wholly unwarranted determination that all literary criticism must be implausibly revolutionary; his sullen, accusatory finger-pointing at these newspapers that, for reasons best known to themselves, do not wish to drive their readers away by reviewing over-produced academic pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-critical pabulum. Can he not just give it a rest and say something interesting? Mightn't it be the case that saying something interesting is what readers really want? Literary critics who moan because the revolution hasn't come seem silly to me. It's like saying: I really liked Shakespeare until I found my writing about Shakespeare wouldn't cure cancer. And now I find reading Shakespeare to be agony. But I think the New York Times ought to review more books by professors about Shakespeare.
This attitude makes no sense to me on so many levels.
And about those moribund little magazines and journals of opinion? Crooked Timber and the Volokh Conspiracy publish a full issue worth of learned material from the pens of professors every week. I'll bet both have more circulation than most of the famous old organs in their heydays. (And I am personally very sorry to see Partisan Review go. That was where Lionel Trilling wrote. End of an era.) It's not like our recent excursions into literary criticism in these parts are ground-breaking, of course. But it's obvious lots of people will show up to hear university professors (mostly) write thoughtful thoughts they are thinking about stuff they are interested in. If we wrote even more impressive stuff, more people would come more often. That's my guess. And I think people will even read long stuff, too. (Anyone out there?)
It's not like blogs will cure cancer either.
I don't want to fall into that dorky trap. But the thing Brooks really doesn't seem to see is that his problem is that he keeps thinking, 'how can I force them to read my stuff, the deluded bastards?' It's the worst sort of top-down, command, pushing string mentality, seems to me. There is no respect whatsoever for the intelligence and - above all - autonomy of the sought-for readership. There's no: if we wrote worthwhile stuff, they would come. If they don't like us, maybe it's because we presupposed they were wrong ,and they found that treatment annoying.
He ends the article by proposing that all the collaborators lobby together - "perhaps a consortium of university presses along with foundations" - to publish a "new periodical dedicated to serious critical reviews of serious critical writing." But are you going to write less dull stuff? If not, will you pay people to read it? If not, why would they? (Answer: because they are morbid, like me. But that's my problem. And yours, apparently.)
UPDATE: I should not be such a complete bastard as not commend Brooks' for his spot-on point about how everyone in literary studies is professionally obliged to engage in absurd, self-promotional hyperventilation. Good point. But he doesn't see that his windy insistence on the necessarily revolutionary, transformative quality of literary criticism is hyperventilatory and arrogant and annoying. If you think you know how to start a revolution, fine. Start one. If you really haven't a clue, then settle for saying something interesting about some literature. Don't just weep about how no one is willing to read journals about how you are going to start the revolution you have no clue how to start.