Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Manqués

An amusing feature from The NY Observer on the inability of the current generation to be the older generation, pairing a member of this generation with the man or woman whom they are supposedly trying to emulate, but failing to live up to. (E.g. "Rufus Wainwright is Judy Garland manqué," "Paris Hilton is Patty Hearst manqué")

Okay, that's not very amusing—in fact it's downright asinine, not to mention sophomoric, puerile, and a heap of other pejorative terms denoting youth, ignorance, or something in that vein.

I say that mostly because this was the sort of thing that really spun my wheels in high school—and the memory of my former, less-informed self burns in the back of my mind with a ferocious sense of shame. Rather like stumbling upon a clutch of silly verse written in lovelorn throes of angst and self-pity (or like thumbing through the archives of this blog will be five years from now), to be reminded of my unholy and unreasonable passion for lists, comparisons, and remonstrations of my own age's inadequacy next to the decades and centuries past—it is simply disheartening (especially since my first reaction was still "how cool!").

Some of the comparisons are, I must say, provocative—they are somewhat original (or at least I haven't seen them before) and lead to further thought. For instance... actually I'm joking. Some of them are modestly humorous because you know they would burn their intended target (e.g. "Keith Gessen (N+1) is Dale Peck manqué") and completely untrue or ridiculous (apparently Nicole Krauss=Jonathan Safran Foer manquée AND JSF=NK manqué, which is somewhat funny, I guess, if you know they're married). Some are painfully obvious and therefore neither interesting nor in the least bit funny, especially since the comparison does tend to make one feel bad for the contemporary schlub (e.g. Adam Gopnik = E.B. White manqué, George Saunders = Kurt Vonnegut manqué). Others are almost surreal in their absurdity ("Alicia Keys is Chaka Khan manquée," "Angelina Jolie is Audrey Hepburn manquée"—not so much, I think).

But that is not to say that even those comparisons which work, and to the detriment of the contemporary, are convincing in regards to the loose argument of the feature, which is more eloquently expressed by the illustration than by the copy—that today's stars exist as diminished echoes of past heroes, and that they represent some general diminution of celebrities and, I guess, authoritative presences in the American mainstream.

Okay, every cultural theorist of late capitalism talks about the fracturing of American mainstream culture (the disappearance of unifying institutions like Henry Luce's publications or the radio or the urban experience or bowling leagues or what have you) into today's multifarious late late capitalism, but it seems rather dim to take the cultural arrangement of (to judge by the illustration) prewar America and contrast it with contemporary America's celebrity culture. The old guard standing in such marked contrast (and really, few of the comparisons are from this prewar era, or even the years just after) are the ones who have remained cultural icons from their own day—lost to us are those who faded into obscurity, who might be more apt comparisons to many of those on the list. Comparing the pointedly ephemeral celebrities of the present with those who have already withstood the passing of time is pointless and daft.

Is ephemerality a critical characteristic of modern celebrity? Certainly, although it seems funny how ephemerality is also only truly applicable to the present or the very recent past. One "rediscovers" writers of the more distant past whose work vanished from public view quickly, but this rediscovery is a separate cultural phenomenon, not a repetition of the past.

Do we give less credence to our celebrities now than we did in the past? Or, to put it another way, has cultural capital been, to some extent, democratized? I find that to be an unanswerable question, inseparable from the question of whether, in hindsight, we don't consolidate cultural capital and authority, allowing novelists, for instance, say more about the bygone era to us than those novelists did to their contemporaries. While I would not go so far as to say that the hegemonies of the past are created by the present, I would say that we give them the textures they appear to have naturally. For instance, Edmund Wilson's reviews of the 30s and 40s are being released in a new set by the Library of America. Can it be doubted that Edmund Wilson was the most important literary critic of this era? Certainly not, and yet that apparent hegemony (or just plain influence) works far differently in our assessment of it than it possibly could have in reality.

This isn't earth-shaking or novel or in any way something that wouldn't be apparent to anyone with some time to think, but the impulse to compare pasts and the present in the manner of this feature seems to be a hard one to check among many different classes of people.

I read an essay today by Frank Lentricchia in a collection of pieces from the defunct journal Lingua Franca—it detailed the development of his frustration with statements like "The first thing we have to say about Faulkner is that he was a racist." I have gone back and forth over this kind of issue—it was even raised while I was at Great Books this summer by Joe Ellis, the historian. Ellis railed somewhat against presentist arguments while also maintaining that slavery and ethnic cleansing are legacies of the Founding. I think he meant that, while one must be historically accurate about the circumstances of any given event or text, one cannot judge the actions involved in those events or in the production of those texts against present standards of conduct. But that suspension of contemporary standards is not an exoneration nor is it a suspension of causal analysis. Did the actions of the Founding Fathers lead to the expansion of these practices? Yes. Could they have acted differently? Perhaps. And isn't, I think he might say, this "perhaps" answer more worthwhile of study and more productive than the answer to a question of whether we could properly judge their inner or expressed thoughts or feelings racist according to our sense of racism today?

What Lentricchia is objecting to, effectively, is the fact that applying these questions to texts produces answers that rather deflate the cases made against the authors, but that these questions are not asked. One could ask, "Did Faulkner's novels lead to acts of racism, or the spread of racist ideologies?" The answer would have to be "Probably not," and Lentricchia is annoyed that we often disregard this question and its answer in favor of the one which, he says, makes us feel better morally—"Can Faulkner be read as a racist? Yes."

I struggle with completely accepting, or rather sharing, Lentricchia's frustration because I think race is quite clearly a very relevant issue in reading Faulkner, and part of its relevance lies in determining what Faulkner's views on race are, and a necessary part of that determination may be reading him provisionally as a racist—then reading him as an anti-racist, then as ambivalent, then as something else.

If I share in Lentricchia's frustration, it is that I believe that too often (though not as often as many critics allege) texts are approached with the assumption that the author's views on race or gender or class are what we have to understand—and agree upon—first, that these must be the preliminary working assumptions that we can ground our discussion or analysis in or on. Establishing the author's position on these topics is our first obligation to the text; after that, we may deconstruct or formalize or historicize or psychoanalyze at will. But I am not so sure we can establish those things at the outset for all writers. Certainly there are writers whose anti-Semitism or misogyny or racism or homophobia or classism distort and disfigure their work in easily recognizable ways, and it would be foolish to save the examination of those distortions for later, after looking at the work from another angle—there is no point reading Waugh, for instance, as a workingman's advocate in order to determine more finely his views on class.

Yet there is some value, I think, to reading Conrad, for one, in a number of different ways on the issue of race. And I don't think the academy collectively misses this value as often as its critics insist they do; Conrad has clearly been at the center of a very intense debate for many years regarding his views on race. The problem is, the debate is never brought up in the anti-PC rants, just the views which proceed from the most accusatory perspective. This selectiveness is aggravating, especially when it comes from someone like Lentricchia. Insofar as he means that these opinions must be part of a broader discourse about any given author, but threaten the integrity of that discourse with a frequently (though not universally) premature moralism, I agree with him. That there is no place for the statement "Faulkner was a racist" anywhere in the classroom or in the critical literature on his work or life—with that I vehemently disagree, and I don't believe it's "presentist" to allow that opinion to enter the discussion. To overwhelm the discussion, to close the discussion—that is the danger, as with any opinion.

1 comment:

Robin said...

I'm drinking wine while reading this, so can't actually formulate thoughtful response. Go me. But I really liked this entry a lot. (Maybe someday I'll expand on that).
P.S. I read your blog on a regular basis and am going out to get Oscar Wao as soon as I finish studying for the literature GRE, but realized I've never commented. And what better time than in the midst of wine?

P.P.S. Are you planning on grad school for next year? Email me?
Robin