Neuro Lit and Crit

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

At the risk of self-contradiction, I want to draw attention to a recent "Room for Debate" in the New York Times. Gathering together a number of critics, including Stanford’s very own Blakey Vermeule, the Times asks: 

A recent Times article described the use of neurological research and cognitive science in the field of literary theory.

“At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift,” the article said.

Does this research — “neuro lit” is one of its nicknames — energize literature departments, and, more broadly, generate excitement for the humanities? Is it yet another passing fad in liberal arts education? If the answer is both, why does theory matter, even if we sometimes don’t understand what the scholars are saying?

While I am a fan of the empirical study of literature, and have been more than willing to join the persistent chorus decrying the current state of humanistic study, and would argue that a literate, humanistically inclined public is vital to the flourishing of democracy — and would argue, as a corollary, that in an era where one in four Americans read zero books per year (of any type), we face a very serious crisis in humanistic education, and by extension democracy — something about this prompt in the Times strikes me as strange and disingenuous.

The problem:  if our problem is budget cuts and a bad job market, shouldn’t the solution be more money and better jobs?  What does any of this have to do with "neuro lit" or "crit," as worthy an enterprise as that might be?  Indeed, if "neuro lit" or "crit" answers questions such as, "Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?" as the Times article on which the "debate" is based claims, some new questions come to mind almost instantly.

Why, if we care so passionately about literature and nonexistent characters, are we unwilling to fund the humanities?  If we love stories, why do we read so little?  Why does the introduction of scientific terminology into literary scholarship excite enough passion to draw the attention of the New York Times, while run-of-the mill criticism and scholarship elicits almost no commentary at all?

Very Interesting

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Is it possible to organize departments of literature, culture, or humanistic study without norms, or around “the general norm that there are no norms,” as Meredith Ramirez Talusan suggests in a provocative Arcade comment? If it were possible, would such an approach be desirable? Should we replace questions of the form “Does this person fit into our preconceived notions of what our department does?” with questions such as “Is this person’s work interesting?”

My answers, admittedly thinly defended here, are that we can’t dispense with norms; that even if we could, we shouldn’t; and that accepting norms doesn’t entail abandoning the question of the interesting.  On this last point, something like the opposite is true:  the question of the “interesting” is directly tied up with the deliberative processes through which we decide what to study and what not to study, through which we determine what we value.  After all, who claims to rely on “preconceived” notions in allocating funds?  Who advocates that norms should be passively accepted without question?  Indeed, by bringing our norms into the light of day, deliberation and conception are exactly what come into play.

I would maintain that were we to eliminate such norms — that is, were we to eliminate e.g. specified/designated fellowships — we would simply displace or temporarily delay the ultimate questions of value we’re constantly asking each other.

The problem wouldn’t be that “anything goes” in a normless department, but rather that many things would still go and not go; what goes and doesn’t go would become mystified, dependent on an unacknowledged crytonormative foundation. Everyone will jostle to figure out how to gain attention, prestige, and funding, but unknown factors — such as fashion, personal vendetta, and whim — could prevail, though they wouldn’t necessarily prevail.

As Sianne Ngai writes, in her Critical Inquiry essay on the “Merely Interesting”:

Here interesting comes to the fore as the aesthetic judgment in which this question of justification looms largest of all… the interesting doesn’t seem tethered to any features at all. Though bound up with the perception of novelty (against a backdrop of the expected and familiar), what counts as new is much more radically dependent on context…

Far from being an aesthetic without content, the deepest content of interesting is the process of its own justification.

Ngai’s description seems correct to me, and sheds light on the politics of the interesting, which is as she later suggests the politics of deliberation (as opposed to revolution): more Habermas, less Foucault.

The value of named fellowships — in “feminist studies, sexuality studies, German studies, and Southeast Asian studies” — is that they wear their values on their sleeves, or try to. Indeed, we create such fellowships, often after a process of political struggle, in order to establish new norms, new areas of inquiry, new approaches to humanistic study. Such norms, institutions, and programs intentionally proceed by shutting down the aesthetic or charismatic dimension of study in favor of the deliberative, the institutional, and the procedural.

So does a Southeast Asian studies fellowship incentivize doing work of a certain type? Yes, that’s precisely why it exists in the first place.

Should it exist? That’s precisely what we need to deliberate on, a deliberation process where new interests, programs, and norms can be proposed, examined, defended, or rejected.

The key for me isn’t to eliminate such established areas of study but to continually open up space for new fellowships, new programs, new kinds of work. But even the “opening up” process requires deliberation within institutions, whose processes and procedures are themselves guided by (often tacit) norms. That’s why I think we’re stuck with norms, all the way down, at least if we want to operate in concert with other people.

But the most important caveat to our stuckness is this: to be stuck with norms isn’t to be trapped in an uninteresting world, but to be within the very domain where we deliberate (endlessly, productively) about what we find interesting, and why.

From “Happy Days” to “Mad Men”

in Happy Days, Mad Men, midcentury, Ronald Reagan

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Some recent conversations on Arcade have gotten me thinking about midcentury America, or rather our idea of the midcentury as a privileged moment of literary production, consumption, and promise. In particular, I’ve been turning over Natalia Cecire’s query, “[W]hat is to be gained in mourning the passing of a genre or a medium”?  We might also ask, what is to be gained in mourning the passing of an era?

To begin thinking through how we might answer these questions, let’s recall two forms of nostalgia for midcentury America.

The classic form of midcentury nostalgia comes from the cultural (and often the political) right. Celebrating the fertility and energy of midcentury intellectual and popular culture was a solution to the problem posed by the 1960s. The problem was that the 1960s screwed everything up; the solution was to recall those days when things weren’t nearly so screwed up, when there was consensus, order, and good sense all around. Think of American Graffiti (1973), Happy Days (1974-84), the vision of the good life invoked by Reagan’s “Morning in America” (1984).

These fantasies saw the 50s as simpler, square-jawed, short-haired times, before all those crazy America-hating radicals took over the country. By these accounts, even rebellion against the era’s norms have nostalgia value.  Fredric Jameson ably describes the aesthetics of such rightward-leaning nostalgia in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the priviledged lost object of desire — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naïve innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs.

Lately, though, nostalgia for midcentury has come largely from the left. Left midcentury nostalgia focuses on the era’s broad manufacturing-led economic growth, relatively higher levels of economic equality, relatively more regulated markets, better capital controls, etc., while also admitting that there were endemic — and highly destructive — problems within the domains of race, gender, sexuality, foreign policy. One thinks immediately of Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, but even Naomi Klein, in her recent Shock Doctrine, pines for a return to the Keynesian welfare state or the era of “embedded liberalism."  Whether one agrees in every particular with the policy preferences of these writers, there is something valuable in remembering that things were once otherwise, that our current economic, social, and intellectual environment once looked quite different. In this sense, nostalgia can be very useful, if only in a qualified form.

More often, however, left nostalgia for the midcentury fetishizes the intellectual culture of the period, longing for an era when Partisan Review–like little magazines were all the rage, when even the CIA felt obliged to pay attention to intellectuals, and when more formal social norms forced people to wear fabulous outfits. The medium-sized cult that has emerged around Mad Men exemplifies the left nostalgia I have in mind — and I admit to being a card-carrying member of the cult. Through from one perspective we might see the show as arguing for the fundamental necessity of the 1960s — and, indeed, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and corruption run rampant in the halls of Sterling Cooper — do we not also detect that the creators of the show possess a kind of obsessive love for the era’s material culture? Are we not supposed to revel in the idea of reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (1957) shortly after its publication? Abstracting beyond Mad Men, don’t left midcentury nostalgics wish they could non-ironically have the top of their heads (metaphorically) blown off by some symposium in the pages of Partisan Review? Be shocked again by countercultural subversion as if for the first time, all while enjoying some tasty martinis?

This second version of left midcentury nostalgia seems less productive to me. If we want to return to a dynamic, vibrant literary-intellectual culture, we shouldn’t attempt to revive the styles of some previous era, even its intellectual styles, however appealing those styles might often be. The real task ahead of us is to build new institutions, to coordinate with educational activists, to build synthetic accounts of the present moment that help us lay the foundation for the flourishing of whatever new intellectual culture will be — with luck, effort, and invention — looked back upon nostalgically by future generations.

This should be our mission. 

Am I Turning Empirical?

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Continuing my progressive descent into vulgar materialism (I use the words "progressive" and "vulgar" in positive senses!), I’d like to continue the line of thinking of my previous post, "Reading under Neoliberalism." I will use the questions Joel Burges asks in a comment to guide my reflections here. His questions are too good to cosign to the comments section of my previous post. I will begin with a caveat: everything below is, as with my previous post, provisional and only vaguely sketched.  Critical comments will do much to help me sharpen my primitive ideas.

Joel asks whether my approach to literary study, at least the approach I take when I discuss historical changes in reading practice, is marked by an "empirical turn," an "operative assumption that we will know more if we get more empirical — not just materialist in the sense of assuming that economic conditions lead to cultural elaborations, but in which we turn ourselves into something like sociologists." The short version of my answer is simply yes. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the academic study of literature more generally is swinging away from the era of theory toward an empirical orientation, if recent studies are any indication. We might recall new work in cognitive science and literature; the rise of evolutionary literary studies; "distant reading" research programs, spearheaded at Stanford by Franco Moretti, and other database-driven forms literary study; Bourdieu-inspired literary sociologies (McGurl, Casanova, Jim English come immediately to mind); the "postpositivist realist" epistemology of Satya Mohanty and, here at Arcade, of Paula Moya; the myriad anti-theoretical children of Walter Benn Michaels (one need merely look at the 20/21 series for excellent criticism in this vein); and so on.

The longer form of my answer comes with numerous necessary caveats and complications.

"Is an empirical turn in literary studies a turn away from theory, from, say, bridging textual analysis and conceptual thinking?"

This question assumes a stronger distinction between the empirical and theoretical that I am comfortable with. After all, isn’t the work of Bourdieu both thoroughly empirical and theoretical? Doesn’t Foucault make all sorts of empirical claims (ranging from claims about prison systems to claims about the history of science to claims about how discourse functions to reproduce power relations)? Isn’t Lacan interested in correcting Freud’s fallacies, relocating psychic processes not in the minds of individuals but in relation to intersubjective processes of recognition and "within" structures of language? Do not Jameson, Žižek, Hardt, Negri, Laclau, Mouffe, and a range of theoretically sophisticated Marxists and post-Marxists all base their arguments, at least in part, of empirical claims about capitalist economies?

Likewise, all empirical studies are, I would argue, necessarily suffused with theoretical abstractions. You correctly identify many of the abstractions I rely on to make my case: "literary market," "reading public," "sophistication," "literary culture," "postwar." There’s no way to study the world apart from our abstractions, theories, and interpretations, even if those interpretations are the translation of photons hitting our optic nerve into terms discernible by our cultivated mental capacities. The question is, What are our best theories? What theories should we reject?

The theory I reject is the notion that we should see in literary form an elaboration of material contexts on the model of homology. The theory I accept is that texts and contexts are dynamically linked together in a greater whole or totality, whose determinants do not necessarily operate according to a logic of homology.  Causes do not necessarily look "like" effects.  To the degree that “theory” in the academic humanities tends to refer to the former of these two intellectual frameworks, then I do reject theory, though in a partial and highly qualified way. I am more interested in "mechanical causality" than "expressive causality," to use Jameson’s terminology in The Political Unconscious.

"Is an empirical turn in literary studies a turn away from hermeneutics, from, say, textual analysis — and what would we gain from that?"

I don’t see how we can avoid hermeneutic activities in the classroom as long as we ask our students to read individual texts — I tend to teach individual texts in much the same way that they were taught to me — nor do I think that there is some simple empirical practice apart from interpretive, cultural, and historically situated frameworks. That said, I think a lot of self-avowedly materialist criticism and theory today makes large empirical claims without doing the legwork to back up those claims. That’s what I take to be the source of Moretti’s frustration with literary study.

In our monographs and articles we have a habit of sliding between perfectly valid hermeneutic claims and large historical claims, often based on three or four close readings, often without explanation or with vague gestures toward some notion of discourse. This is the academic version of what the journalist Daniel Radosh calls “trend journalism” — three examples of anything can be selected to argue for a historical trend. If we supplement textual analysis with an empirical orientation, we will possibly learn more about the material determinants of literary history and we will also learn what claims we should not be comfortable making with great confidence. Like Socrates, we will at least know what we don’t know.

"Literature departments are… notoriously bad at making the normative and conventional ways in which their members read and write clear to students… So… shouldn’t we also examine what knowledge we already transmit, and how we might do it better?"

Yes, I enthusiastically agree that we should study the normative and conventional ways we read and teach. We should understand how and to what effect we transmit knowledge to our students.

Indeed, my interest in empirically analyzing postwar literary culture is motivated by explicitly normative concerns. I begin from the premise that certain practices of reading are good and desirable. Reading long, complex novels is salubrious for human wellbeing. Cultivating the attention required to understand and appreciate poetry improves us. Literary reading gives scope and depth to life. These claims are normative — and not strictly instrumental — to the degree that they have no foundation. No empirical study will be able to prove to a persistent skeptic that literature matters. No data beyond self-reporting will explicate words like "wellbeing," "improvement," and "scope and depth."

My second assumption — really, in a longer work, which I fantasize about someday writing, it would be my argument — is that literary culture is unnatural, in the sense that it isn’t a spontaneous or inevitable development in human affairs and existence. We don’t just decide to care about literature; and we don’t automatically move from such caring to a society that enriches and supports what we care about. Our reading culture is, instead, the product of considerable investment, education, and political work. Humans may at all times have generated one sort of narrative art or another, but a society where all persons have the opportunity and capacity to appreciate literature requires hard work and years of institution-building.

If our empirical and critical work is grounded in the norm of producing such a "reading public," then we cannot help but self-reflectively understand our own teaching in relation to the broader project of the production of such a public. This doesn’t meant that every critic would take or teach sociology and economics classes, but that every critic would understand that when they teach a course on Shakespeare, they are always whether they intend to or not linked to a larger public-producing machine, the University, which itself interlocks with other social spaces — the book club, the marketplace, little magazines, and institutions of primary education.

Reading under Neoliberalism

in Andrew Goldstone, Joshua Landy, neoliberalism, The Millions, The Program Era

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

This post is a response to a comment made by Andrew Goldstone in a comments thread on Joshua Landy’s fascinating Arcade blog post, "Human Minds, Literary Texts, and CD Players."  I was originally going to post this as a comment, but the response grew too long and unwieldy, so here it is as a stand-alone blog post. Suffice it to say, you should read Josh’s provocative posting, and the comments thread before proceeding.

In his original post, Josh proposes that "[i]f we abandon our efforts to train minds" in the project of reading and appreciating poetry "certain kinds of human pleasure [i.e., poetry reading –LK] will eventually fall forever out of reach," and poetry will come to resemble CDs in a world without CD players.  In my original comment, I agreed with this sentiment, and suggested that the source of poetry’s public decline can be traced to changes in our educational institutions and reading priorities, which have also eroded the public position of literary fiction.  Andrew asks, in response to my comment, about Mark McGurl’s claim, in The Program Era, that university creative writing programs have radically enlarged the sphere of "good" writing.

I largely agree with Mark’s claim that more good fiction is being produced now than has ever been produced before, though The Program Era reads texts (and careers) in relation to the institutional context of their production, and (understandably) doesn’t do the empirical legwork of quantifying this big, provocative claim — if such quantification is even possible.  Still, I am enough of a vulgar materialist to believe that when the R&D-oriented university pours cash into the project of developing good fiction writers, it will yield fruit.  It indisputably has.

The question Josh’s post got me thinking about is the demand side of the equation, whether this flood of good fiction is connecting with readers, and — if so — how.  Readers read, as they always have, even in an increasingly complex media environment, but what do they read?  How do they read?  In what direction is our reading culture heading?

I began thinking about these questions at last year’s ACLA, where I was part of a panel called "Master of the Universe: Literature, Culture, and Finance Culture"; the panel organizer, Patrick Gallagher, gave a fascinating paper on the rise of conglomerate-owned publishers and the effect of media conglomeration on literary production.  The short version is that midlist authors got killed.  In the era of what we could call "neoliberal publishing," every book was now supposed to turn a profit; bestsellers no longer subsidized what editors deemed to be high-quality products.  Editors became warier of taking risks "developing" young writers.  The results are obvious for all to see.  We now live in the era of gigantic-advance-getting celebrity authors.  Even literary authors operate on the model of celebrity.  These developments occurred alongside other developments, including the rise of creative writing, but I think they had a serious effect.

Literary scholars need to investigate this transformation in literary culture.  My unsubstantiated hunch is that the reading public has begun a long-term process of parting ways with literary writers.  I think, beyond the rise of the university creative writing program and the conglomeration of publishing, transformations in the broader US economy have had a serious effect on our public literary culture.  My very sketchy thesis would go like so:  When the American economy experienced its postwar boom — across-the-board manufacturing-led growth — readers sought to "sophisticate" themselves.  Suburbs expanded, cars were purchased; the population was upwardly mobile on a number of fronts, including in the domain of literary consumption.  Sometime around the early seventies, things began to change.  Stagflation hit the economy; manufacturing fractured, and the service economy absorbed formerly high-wage upwardly mobile unionized workers; inequality began to increase, leading to social and educational stratification; an increasingly competitive media environment put downward pressure on the low-profit literary marketplace.  For the "ambitious" literary writer, the University became appealing because it provided a shelter from the broader economy.  

Thus: Time once put Updike on its covers; today, it features Dan Brown.  Readers of the New Yorker needn’t worry, though; they still enjoy interesting reviews of high literature (whether or not you like James Wood).  Mysteriously, though, the copies of the New Yorker sitting open beside me as I type this post have advertisements for BMW, Louis Vuitton, and iPhones.  

Whether the parting ways of reader and writer is good or bad remains unclear.  If literature has a public mission — if reading a well-crafted novel (or poetry) affords unique, serious, and vital pleasures for all people — then we are moving in a bad direction, despite the profusion of good writing in creative writing programs.  If long-form prose fiction gives us nothing that an engaging television show doesn’t already give us — and I in no way mean to disparage television; I’ve watched more than my fair share — then there’s no reason to worry; we can just renew our subscriptions to Netflix.

The truth may live somewhere between those two poles, but I must admit, I am a partisan to the idea that every person ought to have the capacity — and the desire — to occasionally sit down and read a long, difficult, rewarding novel.  Many, many people still do.  But we should not assume that they always will, even if great fiction continues to be produced in great quantities.

Norms, Norms, Norms

in Amanda Anderson, Judith Butler, Richard Rorty, Seyla Benhabib

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’ve been rereading Amanda Anderson’s fascinating and cogent collection of essays, The Way We Argue Now. Reading through her opening account of the debate between Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler, a version of the Habermas-Foucault debate in the domain of feminist theory, we find this cogent summary by Anderson of the differences between each thinker’s definition of the term "norm":

Paralleling these divergent understandings of autonomy are fundamentally different conceptions of “norms.” For Benhabib, a norm is a rule or principle that provides criteria for evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action or practice. One might specify such norms as evaluative norms. While Benhabib believes the norms of reciprocity and respect are embedded in communicative practices and reproduced through socialization, she follows Habermas in calling for our selfreflexive justification and extension of such norms. For Butler, by contrast, norms are mechanisms of social reproduction and identity formation internal to hegemonic social structures. One might specify these norms as functional or normalizing norms. Whereas Benhabib would certainly distinguish between these two senses of norm and fully admit the existence of the latter, it is not at all clear that Butler admits a distinction in kind between them. Indeed it would seem for her that all normativity ultimately reduces to normalization. Even more: Butler feels that evaluative norms are insidious precisely insofar as they attempt to mask their normalizing power. (30)

I find this to be a very succinct description of the two senses in which humanities scholars use the term "norm." We either celebrate the aspiration toward a universal system of ethical principles, on the theory that such a system promises human liberation, or we decry the secretly normalizing impact of allegedly universal claims, focusing on who gets necessarily excluded by the project of articulating universalist ethical principles.

I am interested in what seems to me to be a signifiant omission here: a sense of norm I would term "functional norms," a sense quite important to parliamentary procedures, traffic management, etiquette, and narratology. When we drive down a road and keep (in the U.S.) to the right side of the road — to give the most banal but clearest example — are we not performing and possibly internalizing norms just as much as when we (as Benhabib would emphasize) condemn a neoNazi from a universalist stance or when we (as Butler would emphasize) accept a pernicious heteronormativity?

Is not most or all literature built around the arguably "functional" norms of typography, bibliographic convention, and tacit understandings of intelligibility (I specifically omit linguistic and syntactic regularities and patterns, because I believe these are less norms in my sense than cognitive capacities)? Does literary theory have adequate terms, tools, and categories to deal with functional norms? Is the idea of a functional norm itself a sort of pernicious obfuscation? Or, as someone like Richard Rorty might argue, are evaluative and normalizing norms really all secretly reducible to functional norms, that is norms are just conventions we let each other get away with?

Life, Art, Life

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I remember hearing once that FBI agents who had wiretaps on various mafia operations noted a change in the speaking style of the gangsters they were monitoring after Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was released in 1972.  The real gangsters began imitating the patois of their film counterparts, thoroughly identifying with their brutal ethos. 


Today, I found another example of film invading life.  Palestinian protesters are reportedly dressing up as Na’vi from James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar.  The AP notes that these activists have compared "their struggle to the intergalactic one portrayed in the film," and are opposing the separation barrier Israel has constructed in the West Bank.

Ignoring the fact that Avatar depicts an interplanetary — not intergalactic — struggle, we should ask, What does this mode of activism say about how narrative templates and popular culture shape everyday life and real-world political struggle?  Obviously, unlike the case of The Godfather, Palestinians don’t think they literally are the Na’vi, but to what degree can digital blue aliens serve as the locus of identity-formation, ethical self-definition, and new conceptualizations of human rights (ironically, or perhaps necessarily, triangulated off of the digital non-human)? 

Is this an example of activists cleverly appropriating popular culture, or an example of popular culture even more cleverly appropriating the imagination of activists?  Or is this perhaps an example of the desperate lengths to which an activist must go to get our attention — by flattering our pop cultural vanity?  Would I have written a post about Israel and Palestine if these activists had not dressed up like fictional blue aliens in a blockbuster film?  The answer is probably no.  Is that a problem? 

1 Comment

The Threshold of Politics

in Amir Eshel, Arcade crosspost, Diary of a Bad Year, Francis Fukuyama, J.M. Coetzee, Walter Benn Michaels

(Crossposted at my new blog at Arcade.)

Amir Eshel has been composing a series of fascinating posts on his Arcade blog, which I presume are related to his current book project, on life after the End of History, the return of liberalism as an object of scholarly interest, and recent trends in contemporary literature. I recommend that you read all three posts (here, here, and here) to get context for what follows. In sum, Eshel proposes that the end of the cold war saw the renewed focus on a kind of political agency that had previously been absent from film and literature.

In my response to these inquiries, I questioned Eshel’s use of the term "agency." Wasn’t the end of history supposed to be precisely the time when politics went away for good, leaving only the refinement of technical systems, the solving of local problems, and a relaxation in ideological conflict? Walter Benn Michaels reminds us of this common interpretation of the End of History in the inaugural issue of the second volume of The Baffler.

When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history back in 1989, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was the ideological triumph of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them. Even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art.

I should start by saying that I agree with using 1989 as a periodizing marker; what my comment was asking was whether the transition from pre- to post-89 might have had more to do with a stripping away of political agency, more a sclerosis of the political imagination than its renewal. My own research on what I call postirony underscores the plausibility of this interpretation for me, because everywhere I look on the literary scene I see authors who wonder whether they have any agency in an era of the world market, of the total system, of — in a word — postmodernity triumphant.

In his thoughtful response to my questions, Eshel invokes J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee’s novel is a complex, highly ironized artifact, which stages multiple voices in conversation, voices which literally map onto the space of the page. One of our characters is the politically frustrated C., an aging South African writer, living in Australia, and author of Waiting for the Barbarians, a clear a stand-in for Coetzee. His short political screeds, "Strong Opinions," occupy the top stack or "story" of the three-story page. The middle story of the page features a diary C. is keeping, the eponymous diary of what is a bad year indeed for C. On the lowest story of the page we meet Anya, a sexy Filipina — arguably a cliched and unconvincing character — who is employed as a typist by C., and who comments on the inanity of C.’s political fulminations.

The crux of Eshel’s response seems to be encapsulated in a complex affirmation of Anya’s claim that “Politics is all around us, it’s like the air, it’s like pollution. You can’t fight pollution. Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt.” In a supportive gloss of this sentiment, Eshel writes, “politics today might simply mean making sure that as many people as possible have clean water, minimal healthcare, functioning sewage systems and opportunities to advance. Adapting might mean seeing how this kind of politics is, indeed, ‘all around us,’ and accepting that challenge.” This is ethics (we might also say politics) without ontology.

At one level, I agree completely with Eshel’s argument. What Eshel calls "politics today" very clearly describes the dominant, pragmatic relationship citizens have to politics today, a good description of how our world actually works, day after day. On another level, what Anya is arguing for might be understood as just another way of saying what I have suggested above. The problems of the world, problems of human making, are something that are “best to ignore” or “adapt” to. In light of the political impact C. wants to have, the impact he wishes intellectuals could have, this is the end of a certain kind of agency. But what about clean water and healthcare? Are these the intellectually nonsexy issues that C. should be focusing on if he wants to be a political “agent” post-89? What is missing from Eshel’s account, it seems to me, is a justification for what it is legitimate to disagree about, or criteria for determining what belongs in the category of small-p politics and what belongs to large-P Politics. What is up for grabs, and what is off limits?

If only the projects of the world’s Stalins, Maos, Hitlers, and Pol Pots count as capital-P politics, then C. should be celebrating the end of politics. But what about the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and the United Nations? What about labor unions, anti-war activists, and the ACLU? Preventing Anya’s boyfriend Alan from swindling an elderly intellectual: this is the crux of Anya’s "political" intervention in the novel, Eshel suggests. But is this politics or an episode of Law and Order? (And don’t get me wrong: I like Law and Order!) To bring this question back to the text of Diary of a Bad Year, let’s examine one of the most intense and uncomfortable essays that C. writes, “On national shame.”

C. informs us that

An article in a recent New Yorker makes it as plain as day that the US administration… not only sanctions the torture of prisoners taken in the so-called war on terror but is active in every way to subvert laws and conventions proscribing torture… The shamlessness is quite extraordinary … Suicide would save one’s honor, and perhaps there have already been honour suicides among Americans that one does not hear of. But what of political action? Will political action — not armed resistance but action within the ground rules of the democratic system (circulating petitions, organizing meetings, writing letters) — suffice?… In the present climate of whipped-up fear, and in the absence of any groundswell of popular revulsion against torture, political actions by individual citizens seem unlikely to have any practical effect. Yet perhaps, pursued doggedly and in a spirit of outrage, such actions will at least allow people to hold their heads up. Mere symbolic actions, on the other hand–burning the flag, pronouncing aloud the words “I abhor the leaders of my country and dissociate myself from them” — will certainly not be enough.

There is an obvious irony here. C.’s name-checking the New Yorker should inspire a bit of eye-rolling — despite Jane Mayer’s very important reporting on the U.S. torture regime, which is what C. must be reading. We might also sigh at the bombast of C.’s suggesting that the route to alleviating the shame produced by U.S. torture policies is suicide — as if this were a serious solution to serious political problems. And yet the question remains. Torture was happening. It was approved of at the highest levels, and openly applauded in the mainstream media and by esteemed public intellectuals after 9/11.

What if you, like C., don’t approve?

“Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt”?

Coetzee is here engaging in a form of postirony. C. and Anya ironize each other through mutual commentary, destabilizing C.’s skewed sense of what impact an isolated intellectual can have on mainstream political life. But the bottom line is that Coetzee, like C., cares about ending torture. Through all the novel’s layers of structural irony, his fear that he has no agency, his words have the force of conviction. I would argue that Diary of a Bad Year dramatizes the difference between Politics and politics as the difference between caring about Guantanamo Bay and caring about getting through the day. If the question is “what of political action?” and the answer is “Best to ignore it,” then perhaps C. has a reason to mourn the rise of the regime of small-p politics.

The question of whether to provide water or health care through the private market or public systems (municipal water, the Veteran’s Administration) is also a question for politics, of course, even if this is not the politics of a Lenin or Mao. And yet the nature of this political decision may turn out to be huge: transforming a private medical system to a public system, turning a public Social Security system into a big hedge fund. What seemed to have “ended” at the End of History was the viability of debate on matters that many — on the left at least — felt were not settled questions. Do markets lead to optimal outcomes? Is individual liberty really identical, or even plausibly correlated with, to the freedom to buy and sell on a market without interference?” Those who mourn the passing of capital-P Politics, more often than not, are mourning the narrowness of debate on a host of questions of enormous human significance.

Is C. not right to mourn?


in David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

I haven’t had a chance to write up the MLA panel I helped organize, “The Legacy of David Foster Wallace.” It was very well attended — especially for an 8:30 a.m. panel on the last day of the convention — and the talks were all terrific. Fortunately for me, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has written up the special session, offering much more detail than my swiss cheese memory would have been able to provide.

Here are some key tidbits (from Michael Pietsch’s talk) about Wallace’s forthcoming unfinished novel, The Pale King:

Pietsch says Wallace had been working on since 1996, and the novel went through various working titles, including “Glitterer,” “SJF” (which stood for Sir John Feelgood), and “What is Peoria For?” As we’ve heard, Wallace did extensive research for the novel in accounting, tax processes, and so forth. What I hadn’t heard before today was that various pieces we’ve seen in stand-alone form are in fact chapters of the novel, including “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Incarnations of Burned Children.” Pietsch is working with more than 1000 pages of manuscript, in 150 unique chapters; the novel will be published in time for tax day in April 2011. As we know, the subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity. The finished book is expected to be more than 400 pages, and will be explicitly subtitled “An Unfinished Novel”; the plan is to make available the drafts and phases the text went through on a website that will exist alongside the book. Pietsch is editing the book in close collaboration with Bonnie Nadell and the estate, but as we’ve heard him say before, he sees his role very clearly as attempting to order the text into a unified whole, and not making changes that the author isn’t there to argue with.

There is something deeply appropriate about Wallace’s decision to confront the question of boredom, given how much Infinite Jest is concerned with rapturous entertainment. It’s almost as if Wallace saw in the boring, the banal, and the cliché the best candidates for what used to be called grace or spiritual enlightenment.

My New Year’s Paradox

in 2010

My 2010 resolutions: (i) to separate myself from this diabolical device known as the Internet, which sucks up my time, distracts me from what I would at some second-order level of intelligence prefer to be doing, and doesn’t really lead to lasting learning and/or self-improvement; (ii) to turn this Web site into a real blog, to actually, like, post semi-regularly about my life, books, ideas, and other stuff. Is this a paradoxical resolution or merely a hypocritical one? I.e., am I not going to be able to keep this promise to myself in full, because to do so is impossible, or am I going to be able to do what I want only by posting things to an Internet that I want to have nothing to do with (but that I demand that you want to have something to do with)? I suspect the latter.