Saturday, February 28, 2009

Corregidora and Irrelevant Modernism

I am really glad that Richard points out that I sort of abandoned Corregidora in my post supposedly about the novel. And he also leads me to realize that my comments about modernism being irrelevant to at least some literature didn't make much sense. I returned the book to the library, unfortunately, so I won't really be able to address the novel any more substantively than I already have, but I will try to clarify my argument about modernism.

I said, "After reading Corregidora, Birkerts's critique that she slights the value of modernism's experimentalism comes to seem like a wholly different conversation; Jones doesn't dialogue with Joyce or Pound because they simply aren't relevant to her project, to what she means by 'liberation,' to what experiments she conducts." After a rather disingenuous set of asterisks, I broadened the claim: "The idea that modernism is not overwhelmingly relevant to every literary object is perhaps one of the most radical positions one can take at the moment. Our feelings and affective associations (even more than our ideas) about modernism structure everything about the categorization, evaluation, and historicization of literary objects."

I think those asterisks were disingenuous because I really meant for the broader claim to pick up immediately from the previous paragraph, so that modernism would be understood very specifically in Birkerts's terms, and would refer to the highest of high modernisms—to Joyce and Pound. What I meant to emphasize was that modernism as an idea of something unprecedented, unrepeatable, and comprehensively meaningful was not something that one has to accept in order to write, even experimentally. The idea that modernism must be responded to, must be considered, included, accounted for in order to create serious or meaningful literature after modernism is not something I believe, and I think Jones can be read as fairly ambivalent about. Joyce doesn't need to appear in her critical account of the development of African-American narrative, nor what Joyce represents, and modernism doesn't have to be a felt presence in her fiction—and you don't really get much of a modernist presence in Corregidora—Baldwin and Ann Petry certainly, and Nella Larsen, probably; Zora Neale Hurston was rediscovered by Alice Walker the very year Corregidora was published, so that influence is less likely. But this is most definitely not the Pound Era speaking or being addressed.

What I wanted to say was: Modernism is not the mandatory hub of literary history, the station at which all trains must stop however briefly.

Richard argues for a very different conception of modernism than the one Birkerts uses (and the one I was most directly trying to critique), but Richard's conception is no less comprehensive—quoting Gabriel Josipovici, he offers modernism as "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself." In a different post, "the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, 'conventional' ways are simply not suitable, not justified." Later in that same post, he quotes Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder: "Modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond."

As you can see, this is not really that different from what I demur from about Birkerts's modernism: the monumentality, the can't-go-back, the sheer aesthetic imperialism of modernism is what I want to back away from. Not because I think modernism should be forgotten or ignored, but that writing can be good, important, serious, innovative even if it doesn't pass through modernism explicitly, or really much care if it is passing through it implicitly. Whether you conceive it as a neat periodization or an ongoing, always emergent event, the idea that not to address it is folly is something I would like to think past.

Well, not so much think past as feel past: to me, what is held in common by Birkerts and McCarthy is a set of affective associations more than ideological commitments or theories about literary history. Monumentality, irreversibility, etc. are, I think, more about how we feel about modernism than anything that can actually be established as historically valid.

What I mean, therefore, by positing the irrelevance of modernism to Corregidora or to Jones's project more broadly, is that it is affectively irrelevant, that one does not have to acquiesce to those feelings about modernism in order to understand what Jones is doing or why. Jones's incorporation of oral culture into Corregidora does not need to be channeled through our affective associations about modernism in order for us to note, comprehend, or appreciate what she is doing and how it is, after all, innovative.

Wittgenstein's Nephew, by Thomas Bernhard

I greatly enjoyed this book, but I can't really say that the enjoyment was primarily intellectual. I realize that Wittgenstein's Nephew is Bernhard's most accessible work (which is why I chose to read it first among his novels), but I'm not really certain on how it exceeds a half-hearted toying with some themes from Mann.

I found it very difficult not to think of Mann throughout my reading—particularly The Magic Mountain, with its weak lungs and over-enunciated philosophy. (Don't get me wrong—I love Mann and wanted my whole freshman year to be Hans Castorp. The philosophy is just a little bald, and piebald.) There was also the re-run of Mann's Trilemma: if one is two of the following three attributes, then one will soon be all of the three: brilliant, German, and mad. (Bernhard extends this to Austria.) Maybe it is just the shared influence of Schopenhauer, but there were moments in Wittgenstein's Nephew in which I thought I detected homage, or parody. Paul Wittgenstein is as much Bernhard's allegory for an enfeebled, self-destructive Europe as Leverkühn was for Mann. For example:
It was difficult now to imagine that thirteen or fourteen years earlier he had been in love with an American soprano who played the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta in nearly all the world's great opera houses and that he had followed her around the world, though in the end he had to give her up and be content to dream about her. It was inconceivable that at that time, not so very long ago, he had attended the most famous motor races in Europe ad taken part in them himself, and that he had been one of the finest yachtsmen—inconceivable that for decades he had spent most of his nights in Europe's most famous bars and had never gone to bed before three or four in the morning, that he had even been a professional dancing partner at one time, in defiance of all the principles and precepts of the Wittgensteins—that this was the man who had once frequented all the best hotels of old-time Europe and fashionable Europe. And it was inconceivable now that this was the man who had shouted or whistled when the Viennese opera reached its most splendid heights or most abysmal depths. During the last sad years of his life everything he had lived through became inconceivable.
I was also almost disappointed not to find Bernhard difficult to like—how can you not like someone who writes:
I have known the Sacher for thirty years, since the time when I used to sit there nearly every day with friends belonging to the circle of the brilliant composer Lampersberg, who was also as mad as he was brilliant [see the Mann Trilemma?]. At this time, around 1957, I had just completed my studies, and it was the most difficult period of my life. These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna's premier coffee-house—not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant, but to one frequented by their victims.
The scene where the narrator (who calls himself Thomas Bernhard) receives the Grillparzer Prize is even better—like something out of Roth almost. (Actually, come to think about it, Wittgenstein's Nephew has more than a little in common with Bellow's Ravelstein.) I was told Bernhard would be difficult, a challenge to appreciate!

I fully recognize that this is not Bernhard at full strength—I've actually peeked into some of his other books on occasion in bookstores or the library, and it does look satisfyingly forbidding. Yet I was surprised to find this book so charming, even effortfully so.

Of course there are some important differences between Mann and Bernhard. Most abundantly clear is that Bernhard has given up on or rejected the dialectic as any part of the undergirding of his work; Mann is the king of novelistic dialectics. The dialectic is present in this work, but is trivialized down to mere taste (Paul and the narrator's disagreement over Karajan, for instance) or is completely undesirable and sterile (the narrator's shuttling back and forth between city and country to keep his lungs healthy—the narrator hates the country and gets nothing from it other than clean air). Paul simply never becomes a productive antithesis for the narrator, and the instances where he speaks are never in dialogue.

I am eager to read more Bernhard, of course, and am looking forward to it. And perhaps I've missed quite a lot in this book, and would benefit from some deeper analysis of its subtleties. I didn't find it shallow so much as, well, almost populist.

Edit: This weekend there is a review of The House of Wittgenstein in the NYTBR, making this post inadvertently topical (?).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Popular Notions of Populism

From Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form:
It should be pointed out, however, that this new modernism [Perry Anderson points to this passage as Jameson's first broaching of the postmodern] differs from the older, classical one of the turn of the century in at least one very essential way: that older modernism was in its essence profoundly antisocial, and reckoned with the instinctive hostility of the middle-class public of which it stood as a negation and a refusal. What characterizes the new modernism is however precisely that it is popular: maybe not in small mid-Western towns, but in the dominant world of fashion and the mass media.
Anderson (and others) use the term 'populist' to refer to the orientation of postmodernism, whereas here Jameson is simply describing a predicate of its existence, or rather of its emergence. Yet I would like to build off the differentiation Jameson makes between being popular in "small mid-Western towns" and being popular "in the dominant world of fashion and the mass media." For now, I would like to think of "populist" as meaning simply that barriers to enjoyment are kept purposely low to facilitate the creation of popularity—of widespread, generally approbative consumption.

But it seems to me that the process by which populism succeeds and establishes popularity is conceived to operate in two very distinct modes, and that we associate them, more or less with discrete geographical spaces—the Midwest mentioned above, and Manhattan and its ambit, which can be as circumscribed as Manhattan and a few parts of Brooklyn or as extensive as "Blue State America," but which for brevity's sake, I'll just call Manhattan.

Popularity in Manhattan is primarily discursive and speculative—it's what gets mentioned and constantly adjusted by the process of mentioning. "Have you heard of…" "I just heard about…" etc. are applicable to the popularity of stocks, to neighborhoods, to books, to film, to art, to fashion. Populism consists in playing this discursive/speculative game consciously, adroitly, willingly.

Midwestern popularity isn't considered a product of discourse and it isn't considered quite so speculative—it's more like real estate, or I should say, like what we once thought about real estate. At any rate, what I think marks this form of popularity is that it is predicated not on discourse but on broadcast—we speak of market penetration or saturation, branding, things that aren't interactive, and aren't about generating "buzz." They're about forcing the product on someone, whether that product is a politician or a cigarette or a vulgarian comedy or James Patterson. Populism is Willie Stark, it's Dodge Ram trucks, it's Paul Blart, Mall Cop [G-d save us all].

It could be argued that this second mode is not geographically limited in practice, that much more "branding" occurs in Manhattan, NY than it does in Manhattan, KS. I think this points more to a class differentiation in terms of how we conceive these operations being applied rather than an actual, straight-out geographic distribution, but the avoidance of class-conscious thinking rearranges this division in terms of comfortably separate geographies. This class into geography transmutation is evident if we consider the way these terms get used: market penetration isn't getting your product on the shelves of D'Agostino; it's getting it stocked on an end-of-aisle display in Meijers.

What this dual modality means for postmodernism or late modernity or post-post-modernism or [insert your terminological flavor here] is, I think, quite interesting, particularly as new media has generated new ideas of popularity (i.e. virality) that are (or seem to be) incredibly non-spatialized. I'm honestly not as interested in carrying out this inquiry at the present as I am using this division to read theories of postmodernism, but it is (I hope) a provocative question.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From Franco Moretti, "The Novel: History and Theory"

I don't know how many of you have access to the New Left Review, but this essay by Franco Moretti (from July-Aug 2008) is teeming with really productive lines of potential inquiry. It is also a highly succinct (and I think charismatic) introduction-by-example to the kinds of literary work he thinks scholars should undertake.

Moretti tosses out three questions which he will consider briefly in the essay: "Why are novels in prose; Why are they so often stories of adventures; and, Why was there a European, but not a Chinese rise of the novel in the course of the eighteenth century." The first question is dispatched creatively: unlike verse, which renders a persistent sense of symmetry, prose's asymmetry produces a sense of irreversibility which allows for (or restricts the form to) narrativity: "the text has an orientation, it leans forwards" and thus it relies on what comes next—in the order of the sentence as well as the plot. (This is a curiously syntactically non-specific assumption—does Moretti assume it is equally true for SOV languages or other syntaxes?) At any rate, Moretti adds another, more ingenious observation:
But there is a second possible starting point, which leads, not towards narrativity, but towards complexity. It’s a point often made by studies of dérimage, the thirteenth-century prosification of courtly romances which was one of the great moments of decision, so to speak, between verse and prose, and where one thing that kept happening, in the transfer from one into the other, was that the number of subordinate clauses—increased. Which makes sense, a line of verse can to a certain extent stand alone, and so it encourages independent clauses; prose is continuous, it’s more of a construction, I don’t think it’s an accident that the myth of ‘inspiration’ is so seldom evoked for prose: inspiration is too instantaneous to make sense there, too much like a gift; and prose is not a gift; it’s work: ‘productivity of the spirit’, Lukács called it in the Theory of the Novel, and it’s the right expression: hypotaxis is not only laborious—it requires foresight, memory, adequation of means to ends—but truly productive: the outcome is more than the sum of its parts, because subordination establishes a hierarchy among clauses, meaning becomes articulated, aspects emerge that didn’t exist before… That’s how complexity comes into being.
Moretti goes on to describe the history of the (European) novel as a conflict of these two properties of prose—its orientation to narrativity, its capaciousness for complexity. The two roads have diverged progressively, but the critical valuation of the latter term has produced a sort of parallax of understanding whereby it appears that the developments and reinventions of complexity are the historical markers of the novel's development. No, Moretti says, if the novel is a "form divided between narrativity and complexity, [it is a form] with narrativity dominating its history, and complexity its theory."

He goes on, "I understand why someone would rather study sentence structure in The Ambassadors than in its contemporary Dashing Diamond Dick. The problem is not the value judgment, it’s that when a value judgment becomes the basis for concepts, then it doesn’t just determine what is valued or not, but what is thinkable or not, and in this case, what becomes unthinkable is, first, the vast majority of the novelistic field, and, second, its very shape… Taking the style of dime novels as the basic object of study, and explaining James’s as an unlikely by-product: that’s how a theory of prose should proceed—because that’s how history has proceeded." There is an interesting slippage here between "history of the novel" or "theory of the novel" (or their combination), formulations which Moretti hews pretty consistently to, and "theory of prose." Many critics of James Wood have underlined his casual inconsistencies in using "fiction" and "novel" as opportunistic synonyms (I tend to think the slippage is due to Wood's colossal disappointment that Chekhov never wrote a novel), and I hope this is not the seed of a similarly damaging lack of rigor in Moretti. A more precise formulation would have been "theory of prose in the novel," but maybe I'm just being pedantic and everyone understands that Moretti naturally implied that delimiter.

Moretti's ideas of what should constitute literary study are, as any cultural materialist would be quick to point out, enabled, produced, and governed by a change in the means of scholarly production: we now have massive digitized databanks of novels which can be queried to produce all kinds of quantitative answers, to resolve chronological issues (primacy of a construction or neologism, for instance), or to create models of the morphologies of various stylistic elements. Moretti charmingly calls this approach "too interesting not to give it a try." (Could the same be said about another generic monograph on Henry James?)

Moretti toys a little with the other two questions before closing with an extremely provocative thought which provides both an offhand answer to the second question he asked (why are so many novels about adventures) and a glimpse of what he's working on:
I have been often surprised by how limited the diffusion of bourgeois values seems to have actually been. Capitalism has spread everywhere, no doubt about that, but the values which—according to Marx, Weber, Simmel, Sombart, Freud, Schumpeter, Hirschmann . . . —are supposed to be most congruous with it have not, and this has made me look at the novel with different eyes: no longer as the ‘natural’ form of bourgeois modernity, but rather as that through which the pre-modern imaginary continues to pervade the capitalist world. Whence, adventure. The anti-type of the spirit of modern capitalism, for The Protestant Ethic; a slap in the face of realism, as Auerbach saw so clearly in Mimesis. What is adventure doing in the modern world? Margaret Cohen, from whom I have learned a lot on this, sees it as a trope of expansion: capitalism on the offensive, planetary, crossing the oceans. I think she is right, and would only add that the reason adventure works so well within this context is that it’s so good at imagining war. Enamoured of physical strength, which it moralizes as the rescue of the weak from all sorts of abuses, adventure is the perfect blend of might and right to accompany capitalist expansions… In finding distortion after distortion of core bourgeois values [including those created by adventure narratives], my first reaction was always to wonder at the loss of class identity that this entailed; which is true, but, from another perspective, completely irrelevant, because hegemony doesn’t need purity—it needs plasticity, camouflage, collusion between the old and the new. Under this different constellation, the novel returns to be central to our understanding of modernity: not despite, but because of its pre-modern traits, which are not archaic residues, but functional articulations of ideological needs. To decipher the geological strata of consensus in the capitalist world—here is a worthy challenge, for the history and the theory of the novel.
The articulation of hegemony is particularly interesting to me, although it seems that Moretti has dropped the "complexity" strand of the novel and is here quarrying simply the narrativity line. How does the complexity allowed by prose act as a vector of "pre-modern traits [which serve as] functional articulations of ideological needs" in later societies? The article is quite brief, so it's not like Moretti was going to address all concerns, but I hope this question does get answered in his eventual book.

From The Origins of Postmodernity, by Perry Anderson

Some more posting to come on this book, but for now I just wanted to pull out this interesting trifurcation:
Jameson construes the postmodern as that stage in capitalist development when culture becomes in effect coextensive with the economy. What is the appropriate stance, then, of the critic within this culture? Jameson's answer rests on a three-fold distinction. There is taste, or opinion, that is a set of subjective preferences—in themselves of little interest—for particular works of art. Then there is analysis, or the objective study of 'the historical conditions of possibility of specific forms'. Finally there is evaluation, which involves no aesthetic judgements in the traditional sense, but rather seeks to 'interrogate the quality of social life by way of the text or individual work of art, or hazard an assessment of the political effects of cultural currents or movements with less utilitarianism and a greater sympathy for the dynamics of everyday life than the imprimaturs and indexes of earlier traditions'.
-Anderson 131, quoting Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 298 ff. (Emphases mine)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Corregidora, by Gayl Jones

[Here is a page describing Jones's work and career, with a few paragraphs about the novel covering the basics of the plot.]

In addition to a few novels, Gayl Jones is the author of Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, an academic work that shows by a series of close readings of black authors who actively incorporated African oral or musical traditions in their writing. Jones argues that this incorporation was crucial in each writer's case to their development; it allowed them to find their voice. In a review of the book, Sven Birkerts faintly praises Jones for the closeness of her readings, but he rails at her for ducking the important questions:
the central problem of Jones's study… is, simply, that to set up her thesis, she also decides to set up a straw-man figure called "European and European American traditions," and, alternatively, "Western literary forms." This shorthand seems tenable enough at first glance—we have a reflex sense of what she means—but on closer inspection, it crumbles away. In that crumbling, certain deeper and more vexing issues are disclosed… Given the context, African American literature, and the title's telltale "liberating," I cannot but pick up trace elements of the pejorative. And though Jones never spells out her conception of these traditions—which she absolutely should—I sense throughout that she has construed them as essentially upright (or uptight), formal, prescriptive, exclusionary, canonically oriented in their references, and altogether unsuited to the expressive needs of the African American culture—indeed, of any Third World culture.

This is important. What is Jones talking about when she conjures up this monolithic entity? What underlies the conjuring? Is she suggesting that there is some general way in which these traditions prescribe what literature ought to be and proscribe everything else, or is she referring only to specific forms and conventions?… Jones never makes this clear, and by not doing so she leaves the impression that they, whatever they were, remained closed to the kinds of expression that African American writers found impressive.
Birkerts lustily takes this last note as an opportunity to prove how much Jones is ignoring in her cruel quest to monolithize Western culture. What about modernism? he asks. "Jones effectively preempts any discussion of European and American modernism, which was not only contemporaneous with the careers of most of the writers under discussion, but which was also entirely given over to cutting ancient boundary wires and opening up aesthetic options of every sort. Liberating Voices gives almost no inkling that this was a revolutionary era within the white European tradition."

Marshalling the full weight of aesthetically emancipated modernism, Birkerts happily proceeds to drive what he thinks is Jones's argument into a tiny, beleaguered corner, pinning the "liberation" trope until it is revealed as just another way of grabbing "authority." Black writers started wanting authority at some indeterminate point in literary history, Birkerts pontificates, but the only way they found they could do that was by being/sounding blacker. "The point is that while the African American writer might very well have developed a wide and useful expressive idiom from available models, the expression itself would necessarily carry the taint of prior use. A work could manifest every artistic excellence and still lack the authority conferred by a sustaining cultural connection. It makes perfect sense that the African American writers should have sought to anchor their production in what are widely felt to be the well-springs of African American culture—oral narrative and music."

Birkerts's review was published in 1992, Jones's study the year before, at what I take to have been approximately the high-water mark of the culture wars. Birkerts's and Jones's arguments have since become almost rote, worn by heavy use. Yet I think a revisiting of exactly what these positions were and what they've hardened into now presents a really interesting window not only on what this debate was, but what its legacy has been. Additionally, I think the distance from the weariness, the fever, and the fret of the early 90s allows a clearer look at how vast the shortcomings of Birkerts's critique really are.

In "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary," Amy Hungerford (whose lectures on "The American Novel Since 1945" are available to view here) writes:
by the end of the century scholars of the period since 1945 had the pleasure of a vastly expanded canon, a wealth of well-crafted novels from relatively unknown writers to consider, a few major careers to account for, and the task of defining the second half of the twentieth century ahead of them. Wendy Steiner, in her section of The Cambridge History of American Literature, volume 7 (1999) (“Postmodern Fictions, 1970 to 1990”), quite elegantly represents the position in which the next generation of scholars of this literature found themselves as they defended their dissertations in the closing years of the twentieth century. She showed how a reading of experimentalist novels can be—and, indeed, must be—integrated with a discussion of realist writing. She thus set herself the task of undoing the reigning bifurcation of contemporary fiction into the “postmodern” avant-garde and the writing of women and people of color that was so often dismissed, in the academy, as naively realist or concerned more with social issues than with the development of literary aesthetics.
This bifurcation is very active in Birkerts's critique of Jones, as he tries to dragoon Jones's examples onto the side of formal experimentation, suppressing any concerns they might have with realism or social issues. Toomer and Baraka and Hughes and all the others thus must be seen as experimenting with new forms of aesthetic production, trying to broaden the expressive register of the written word in ways inseparable from modernist or postmodernist experimentation. By looking at these writers in this way, and in this way only, Birkerts opens up for himself the room to critique Jones for ignoring the fact that white people were trying just as hard as black people to subvert white aesthetic traditions. Really, he says, everyone's on the same side here, just trying to make lit new, so what's the big idea getting huffy and giving white tradition the finger?

The tremendous shortfall of this position is that it simply can't understand that innovation is not exclusively undertaken for expressive/aesthetic purposes. Experimentation isn't always about finding new ways of creating an aesthetic experience; it isn't sheerly formal. What Corregidora demonstrates very well is that experimental strategies are also deployed to invent or improve forms of transmission, of passing an idea, a feeling, a though, a warning, a lesson, a story, a memory, a message on more securely, more durably, more clearly or more indelibly. The novel is vitally concerned with the transmission of the experience and memory of slavery from one generation to the next, from one woman to the next. Jones seems to question whether any form of transmission is secure, whether any memory is durable enough to last, and the novel is in many ways an effort to try out new forms of transmission and evaluate their clarity and robustness. Purely written forms of memory are shown to be untrustworthy, as the slave-owners are able to burn all the documents that would tie them to their cruelty. The counter to this textual liability is oral culture, which can be diffused into the community through a general broadcast method (represented in the novel by the singing of the blues) or tied more narrowly and more intimately to a lineage, to genetic reproduction, the creation of a new "generation" to whom one can pass the story. Yet Ursa, the protagonist of the story, finds both methods ultimately fail her; when she is attacked by her husband, she suffers injuries which necessitate a hysterectomy, and, having produced no children, she now becomes a genetic dead-end. She also finds her ability to sing the blues too controlled by the men she attaches herself to; by choosing men to sing to or to sing for, she loses her ability to transmit a story or a memory that is properly her own.

The fact of her writing and the experimental form that writing takes suggest that Jones was attempting to find a form that superimposes orality and textuality in a manner that covers each medium's weaknesses and liabilities. Jones is writing not so much in defiance of the bifurcation Hungerford describes as she is writing above the recognition that such a bifurcation exists. After reading Corregidora, Birkerts's critique that she slights the value of modernism's experimentalism comes to seem like a wholly different conversation; Jones doesn't dialogue with Joyce or Pound because they simply aren't relevant to her project, to what she means by "liberation," to what experiments she conducts.

***
The idea that modernism is not overwhelmingly relevant to every literary object is perhaps one of the most radical positions one can take at the moment. Our feelings and affective associations (even more than our ideas) about modernism structure everything about the categorization, evaluation, and historicization of literary objects.

One of the primary results of this overdetermination has been the bifurcation of experimental fiction and realism described above. The division between formally minded experimentalism and socially minded realism is so dominant and oppressive that championing either side of the issue obligates certain responses to the other side. Accusations of naïvete (formalism is naïve because it disregards context; realism is naïve because it disregards language's inherently unstable referentiality, etc.) are a—perhaps the—primary argument, followed by implications of undesirable political affinities (largely tied to those forms of naïvete). But let's not forget the eternal condemnations of the other side's inchoate sterility, narcissism, and solipsism (traits which are applied, strangely, to either side with equal vigor and vim). I think reading someone like Jones shows us that we make these same arguments over and over again not because the ideological options have always and ever been the same, but because the debate is set up to produce only identical iterations of the same affective associations.

The path Hungerford describes in her excellent essay is exciting precisely because it seems so decoupled from the affective associations of this bifurcation, and from the overdetermining emotive resonance that modernism retains to such an intense degree among those who study literature—Hungerford seems eager to build new associations to these literary periods and events. Her essay practically rings with the excitement of this break, of being able to take these literary artifacts into new discussions that aren't predetermined by decades of entrenched oppositions. The essay demonstrates how fertile these new discussions can be, and points out a few of the scholars who are engaging in them: Andrew Hoberek, Rachel Adams, Sean McCann, Michael Szalay, Mark McGurl, Jonathan Freedman, Debbie Nelson, and Brian Edwards. Hungerford also refers to a group of scholars of which she and many of those just named is a member:
Another way of registering where we are now is to cite the founding, in the fall of 2006, of Post•45, a collective of scholars mainly just finishing first books or in the middle of second books. What emerged at the group’s initial symposium was the growing edge of scholarly work in the field formerly known as contemporary, produced by a new generation of scholars born at or after the end of the 1960s. For this generation, the 1960s are history, not memory—an advantage when it comes to the business of historicizing—and the politics of the 1960s are less a nostalgic ideal than an ambivalent example of what happens when institutional politics turns into cultural politics. Some of us work in the wake of our disillusion with multiculturalism, some in the hope of bringing a related agenda of inclusiveness further along with a more complex conception of what can be done with such an approach.
To say this development is exciting to me is an understatement. It's what I've been waiting to hear ever since I started reading theory or academic criticism.

And to be honest, it's what I'm still waiting to hear from the blogosphere, although I have hopes that it will eventually come. But that's probably another, very different post.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tournament of Books Bracketology

A couple of weeks ago I posted on The Morning News's Tournament of Books, which had just released the field of competitors, though without seedings or matchups. Now the bracket and judge assignments are out.

I've now done a bit of research into past results (2005-2008), trying to glimpse any patterns or tendencies in previous tournaments' outcomes. It's a small data set (just 64 books, 66 total matchups), and there are a number of variables which are really difficult to account for (mostly involving which judge is assigned to which book), but if ESPN can eke months worth of coverage out of the highly inexact science (a.k.a informed bullshit) that is "Bracketology," I suppose I have enough to fill out a post or two.

I tried five different types of variables to see if any patterns emerged: seeding, the publisher of the book, the awards it won, the page count of the book, and gender of the author. I also noted the books which were paperback originals and the books which were short story collections, and the tendencies of judges who have participated in more than one Tournament. I'll get to the awards, page counts, and judges' histories soon; for now, enjoy the following breakdowns.

Seeding turned out as one might expect:
  • Only #1 or #2 seeds have won the Tournament (two of each)
  • #1 seeds win their first round match-up 75% of the time (twelve out of sixteen), and 75% of those first round winners also won their second round. Two of the four #1 seeds knocked out in the first round were revived in the Zombie round.
  • However, only about 19% of #1 seeds advance all the way to the Championship bracket without a loss, which is actually less than one a year, so the #1 seed is not an automatic path to victory by any means.
  • The #4 seed is not a very good place to be: of the four books which were #4 seeds and won their first round matchup, only one won in the second round, and that one (Half of a Yellow Sun, probably a seeding mistake anyway) lost in the semifinals. (Remainder last year threw everyone a curveball and was revived in—and won—the Zombie Round).
  • #2 and #3 seeds have split first round victories, though it seems #2 seeds have significantly better luck in the second round, winning about 63% of the matchups they feature in, though that number's a little deceiving. Their winning percentage is split between three wins against #4 seeds—out of three matchups—and two wins against 1 seeds—out of five matchups.
  • #3 seeds do not fare well past the first round, winning only once against a #1 seed in the second round, and only 13% of their second-round matchups overall.
The publisher of the book actually turned out to be a good, though very general, predictor. (For uniformity's sake, I tried to use only the publishers for the hardcover edition. Also, I recognize that some companies are subsidiaries of others, but for simplicity's sake, I'm just going to keep them separate.) Here's how it turned out:
  • Knopf leads the way with 10 books in the field (or about 16% of all the books selected), Random House, Farrar, Straus Giroux, and Houghton Mifflin come in next with 7, 5 and 4 respectively, altogether representing more than two-fifths of the books in the field. No other publisher has sent more than 2 books to the Tournament. I guess these would be your analogues for the "power conferences" which routinely send 6 or 8 teams to the NCAA tournament.
  • Three of the four winners have come from these "conferences," half of the runners-up, half of the Zombies, a full half of all first round winners, and also half of the second round winners. In other words, they've been dominant collectively.
  • However, they have not all performed evenly. Knopf is great at getting its books into the second round (winning 6 of 10 first-round matchups), but bad at advancing past there. Of their books, only The Road made it past Round Two.
  • Random House is much better at getting their books deep into the Tournament: not only have they produced two champions, but of the four books that won their first round matchup, three also won their second round. And one of their books which was knocked out in the first round came back as a Zombie and made it to the Championship (Absurdistan, 2007).
  • Houghton Mifflin has had terrific success in the first round—all four of their books have won there. Two of those won the next round as well, and one ended up a runner-up.
  • FSG has had fairly mediocre results: of its five books, two have made it past the first round, but those two also won their second round matchups.
  • The only really successful "minor conferences" have been Riverhead and Back Bay. There have been a number of publishers that have had individual books do well, but Riverhead and Back Bay have had some success with each book they've sent to the Tournament. Last year, Riverhead's two entrants made it past the first round, and Oscar Wao won the whole shebang. Back Bay has had two entrants, and both have won their first and second and semifinal matchups, although both tragically lost to Zombies, the only Zombie victories in the (short) history of the Tournament.
  • In a glass half full kind of way, although "minor conferences" haven't had the kind of success the big publishers have, it's still nice to see almost 60% of the entrants have been from small or independent presses.
Gender is an interesting variable, although again, not really a case of overturning what would have been the expectation:
  • Of the 64 books to have participated (not counting this year), 38 have been by men, and 26 by women (a 60/40 split). Interestingly, the past two years have been increasingly less balanced: 2005 featured seven women authors, 2006 had eight, but 2007 dropped to six, and 2008 had just five. 2009 again has five.
  • But more than just quantity, men slightly overperform their numbers in the first round: in twenty-six total matchups of men vs. women, men win about 62% of the time. (There has never been a first-round woman/woman matchup).
  • In the later rounds, the women who survive the first round hold their own, splitting the remaining men/women matchups.
  • There has been only one championship match featuring a woman, though Ali Smith did win that, for The Accidental in 2006.
  • Poor first round performance might be an issue of seeding: only four women have held #1 seeds (against twelve men). Toni Morrison's A Mercy makes it five this year. [Edit 2/22: On further reflection, seeding doesn't completely account for the poor performance. Two of the women who have been seeded #1 lost in the first round—Ann Patchett last year and Zadie Smith in '06—making women three times as likely to lose as a #1 seed in the first round.]
Check back later for further analysis. Sportscenter coming up next.

[Part Two—analysis of the effects of page count—is here.]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ethnicity and Class, from a Werner Sollors essay

Regarding the post on Walter Benn Michaels:
One of the frequently expressed axioms in the literature on ethnicity is that ethnicity is not class. Whether scholars view this axiom with sympathy or regret, they still see the relationship of class and ethnicity as crucial… In 'The Case Against Romantic Ethnicity (1974), Gunnar Myrdal argues that the debate about ethnicity 'serves conservative and, in fact, reactionary interests' and explains: 'Its adversarial tone attracts some liberals and radicals, but since it does not raise the crucial problems of power and money, it does not really disturb the conservatives'… 'Ethnicity,' in this view, is nothing but the new clothes for the emperor class provided by conservative tailors: talking about snazzy ethnicity instead of naked class is a symptom of confusion which breeds further confusion… [Yet] Anthropologist Abner Cohen sees ethnicity as part of a power system… as a symbol system operating on all class levels. Cohen first developed his theory at the conclusion of a case study of Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns (1969)… Taking Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot… (1963) as a point of departure, Cohen writes that American 'ethnic groups are not a survival from the age of mass immigration, but new social forms. In many cases members who are third or more generation immigrants, have lost their original language and many of their distinctiveness in different ways, not because of conservatism, but because these ethnic groups are in fact interest groupings whose members share some common economic and political interests and who, therefore, stand together in the continuous competition for power with other groups.
-from "Foreword: Theories of American Ethnicity," Werner Sollors, in Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader (1996) xii-xv
The Cohen quote really isolates what I think is missing in Michaels's banishment of immigrant literature and 'historical caretaking' from the future of American literature. Losing this literature would wipe away some truly valuable insights into the ways communities—often organized around ethnic lines—maneuvered to protect the interests of disadvantaged or marginalized individuals. I'm thinking of Toni Morrison, for sure, but also someone like Jhumpa Lahiri, who depicts mainly upper-middle-class South Asians in the Northeast, hardly a recipe for "class-consciousness." Yet her stories seem to me to be extremely sharp sketches of the social forms these families assume in order to succeed economically, socially, intellectually. Class arrangements, accomodations, collaborations, and oppositions are obviously all important parts of these negotiations.

For what it's worth, I think it is quite easy for such sketches to be assimilated into a generic rubric of the "immigrant narrative," a slack canvas on which are smudged unidentifiably the particularities of individual accomodations and resistances to power, the ephemeral networks and strategies created to enable alternatives to the dominant globalizing "neoliberal" culture. Lahiri could glide in next to Thomas Friedman on many a bookshelf (yech!). Yet I do not think the liability to being coöpted or misread makes these works less worthy of study; we don't stop reading Melville no matter how many bad term papers crammed with Sunday School symbolism are written in his name.

Progressivism

I have so far tried to stay away from direct political commentary on this blog, as my goals for it were about improving my writing and trying out a few different types of cultural commentary. Yet I feel compelled to address Nate Silver's post on progressivism at FiveThirtyEight.

The shorter version is: Eeek! Marxism!!

Silver sets up a binary between "rational progressivism" and "radical progressivism." Even if I hadn't learned from Derrida to treat all binaries like Trojan horses at best and blatantly hegemonic thought-oppressors at worst (thanks, Jacques!), the terms Silver selected give away which end of this binary he's going to endorse. If you can't guess, let's take a look at the table he creates to distinguish these types:
Nate Silver's Guide to ProgressivesSilver goes on to describe each type in more detail, consistently undercutting the radical side of the equation, ending up with this:
The truth is, I don’t particularly care whether you call me a “progressive” or not. In fact, I'm suspicious of people who line up on the same side of the ideological divide on every single issue. The world is more complicated than that, especially when one strives to see the world through a scientific, empirical lens. While progressives, in my view, clearly have the preponderance of good ideas, they do not have a monopoly on them. Nor do conservatives have a monopoly on bad ideas, especially when radical progressives flirt with Marxist modes of discourse.
Silver's attempt to oppose "Marxist modes of discourse" with "scientific, empirical" analysis lays bare a tremendous indifference to a lot of actually existing Marxism, substituting for it a bogeyman borrowed from the conservative imagination. I would submit that maybe DailyKos and OpenLeft are not the interlocutors Silver should be engaging with, and that taking them as the intellectual standard-bearers of Marxism or the Left is kind of silly when he could be taking a look at someone like David Harvey and working through The Limits of Capital.

Attempting to split the Left with a characterization cribbed from the Right is not going to help "rational progressives" win anything—elections, reform, even ideological debates with conservatives. Well, it might "win" some blog arguments, but the idea of "winning" an argument on a blog is like winning a kissing contest at a family reunion—doesn't everyone just end up feeling icky? And what's the prize, really?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Walter Benn Michaels, the Novel, and The Wire


Walter Benn Michaels has been trying awfully hard for some years now to drive a wedge between, well, mostly between everyone and himself, since I'm not sure who's actually lining up behind him, but I suppose what he thinks he's been doing is convincing people that liberal attention paid to (mostly racial) diversity has been at the expense of any consideration of economic inequality. I haven't read his book The Trouble with Diversity, but I did follow along closely when n+1 ran his piece "The Neoliberal Imagination" (not available online) and then Bruce Robbins wrote in with a harsh critique and Michaels responded and Robbins responded back (the latter two are found here—I can't find the first Robbins critique).

Michaels accuses liberals of stooping to a politics of respect or recognition where we should be practicing a politics of redistribution. "[T]he politics of the neoliberal imagination involve respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth." Liberals, he argues, like to treat classism as homologous to racism or sexism—as being primarily about the destructive force of prejudice, rather than the destructive force of not having enough money to pay for basic needs. "So, just as being opposed to racism is by no means to be opposed to racial difference… to be opposed to classism is by no means to oppose class difference."

There are two crucial jumps for Michaels here: the first is to turn this homology into history, which he tries to do by arguing that the increased commitment to racial/gender diversity both in the academy and the private sector has coincided with the exponential growth of economic inequality during the same period. (This is a fairly truncated view of a rather long struggle against prejudice and racial and gendered forms of injustice, struggles which have remained active in greater or lesser measure through periods of widening and decreasing inequality, and which have often worked as not against a struggle for economic equality.) The second jump is to turn the history into action: because fighting for diversity has coincided with greater economic inequality, give up diversity as an agenda-setting value for the left. Michaels openly acknowledges that he sees diversity vs. equality not only as an historically adversarial relation but a zero-sum game. So, presto-changeo, ignoring diversity will lead every good leftist (and, it seems, also all the faint-hearted liberals who warm to diversity because it's so much easier than fighting inequality) to re-commit themselves to the struggle for redistributive national economic policies. Hmm. I'm probably missing something here, but even if I'm missing a lot, I can't imagine that in all of this, Michaels isn't missing more than a little.

Of course, it's quite interesting to re-visit this ca. 2006 thesis in the midst of a depression global clusterfuck recession like we have today, and Michaels obligingly does this in this essay, "Going Boom," in the most recent issue of Bookforum. He writes,
What if what we’re seeing now is not just the end of a boom but the beginning of a new period of “ideological struggle”? If good for markets was bad for art, will bad for markets be good for art? For it does seem fairly clear that, with respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism hasn’t been so great. The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking… [Although these historical caretaking novels] about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans, are more or less definitionally sad, it’s also true that the logic by which they are produced and that makes them so attractive is an optimistic one.
From there, Michaels goes on to accuse novels about slavery and the Holocaust of basically pandering to a liberal desire to ignore inequality, but Michaels offers the solace that everyone might soon be so economically screwed ("disapproval of holocausts is getting serious competition from fear of poverty") that we will all start writing and reading novels about hard times and the vileness of capitalism again.

Novels he suggests we write would be like… American Psycho???

Actually, a quote (the same quote he cites here) from Easton Ellis's novel showed up in his original n+1 piece, so I think he's being serious about holding it up as the type of literature which will return us all to our redistributive consciences, despite the fact that it worked demonstrably better in the film version when it took on masculinity and gender, a re-focusing which probably did not please Michaels. Whatever. Michaels goes on:
So—no memoirs, no historicist novels, what else? Actually, a lot of other novels will have to go, too. The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results. For sure, no more books like The Corrections, or any of Oprah’s other choices. And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages. But they don’t. You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing (“a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren”) than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.
And then, in the move that's rapidly becoming popular with every single critic of the State of the Novel everywhere, he suggests that maybe the novel isn't the answer: the answer is TV (a.k.a The Wire). It's amazing to me how much like a mirror The Wire has become: everyone sees the justice of their vision reflected in its complexity. (It also allows Michaels to end the essay showing that he's cool with urban minorities. Sort of.)

At any rate, the easy thing to say is that I don't know where the hell he gets his idea that novels like American Psycho are going to change the world. The slightly harder thing is to recognize that Michaels shows no real concern with changing the world: his critique is bindingly local, devoted really only to America. Every single first person plural pronoun (and there are a lot of them in this essay) refers directly to Americans, to citizens of the US of A. Immigrants are just Americans with a past that they spend time writing about, and which non-immigrant Americans read to "sentimentalize" class conflict. At this point I should probably also admit that I haven't read Michaels's book on nativism, which I probably should if I want to critique his attitude toward immigrant narratives, but it seems to me awfully, awfully obtuse to treat immigrant narratives so simplistically and so indiscriminately. I wonder if he's read Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist… I'm dubious.

Putting Michaels's argument in a global context does quickly raise some fairly obvious questions, which Robbins (rather glibly) articulated at the end of the response cited above: "Consider, if we're in the business of raising the moral ante, that Americans constitute roughly 5% of the world's population but consume roughly 30% of the world's resources. In other words, the playing field at the level of the planet is even more racially tilted than it is at the level of the nation. How is giving poor American whites a better chance at $135,000 a year legal jobs (Michaels's example) going to have any effect on that inequality?" It should be said that in fighting against inequality, moving quickly to a larger context of inequality can just as quickly gut the will and drive to do anything: Americans do need better, more progressive economic policies, and the existence of massive global poverty doesn't really change that need.

However, there is a difference between arguing for immediate local action and ignoring global consequences, connections, and commonalities. The "historical caretaking" which Michaels so derides is often an attempt to split this difference, and at its best it is able to inspire both global consciousness and local action. Avoiding the easy lapse into Michaels's political provincialism (neoliberalism for him seems to be a primarily American tragedy, always ruining American lives first and not even really considering who else gets jacked in the process of ruining America) is precisely the reason why we should read authors like Toni Morrison. Morrison's narratives make it very difficult to see property and ownership as something unproblematic (an effect which I would think Michaels might applaud), but also make it impossible to see the present problems of property and ownership as something historically disconnected from a much more overtly violent and cruel understanding of what it means to "own." Morrison's historical caretaking is not just about "the burden of the past," a phrase which positions racism's legacy as something which can eventually be removed from its carriers—it's about how the past lives still. And that past's persistence creates not just a critique of prejudice, but a critique of capitalism, a critique of a system that has built into its notion of economic expansion a ready willingness to abuse labor to the greatest extent possible.

Michaels's turn at the end of the essay to The Wire is, perhaps, not surprising. For him, America is Baltimore as the show depicts it. Although there are obligatory nods in the show to the larger world (the FBI's unwillingness to help Baltimore police unless they can connect the drug trade to terrorism or corruption; the second season's globalized crime syndicate that operates out of the city's ports), the efforts to correct injustice are self-laceratingly local. Baltimore is a hell, but hell is a fairly bounded place. I'm not sure how different Michaels's attitude toward the United States is. The literature Michaels derides at least shows how easily hell spills into other places, or how hells can flow together. I just don't think McNulty Michaels is that interested.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Long Takes and Long Sentences

[This follows up on my previous post, on Blindness by José Saramago, where I considered the rather generic way we read long sentences as being primarily effects, designed to be noticed, rather than tools or strategies which can advance a wide variety of aesthetic or ideological agendas. In seeing the long sentence primarily as an effect, or even as a sort of spectacle, we tend to flatten out the differences between the writers who employ this prose technique. Here, I want to consider the long sentence's relation to the long take in film. Since this has been, for the most part, a lit-blog, here is some background and examples: Here, at Daily Film Dose, is a well-curated list of famous long (tracking) shots, along with YouTube clips; here, at Reverse Shot, is an insightful post on the politics of the tracking shot central to Atonement; and here, at Cinemetrics, is a big but obviously incomplete database of films, which I've set to sort by average shot length (in seconds)—unfortunately, I don't think the table can sort descending, so you'll have to scroll a lot to the bottom.]

What is notable about the long take is the amount of effort required to create it—the coördination, the precision, the multilayered and panoramic vision necessary to plan, prepare and execute it. People screw up on movie sets all the time, even on 3 or 4-second shots, so keeping a whole cast and crew from screwing up for a few minutes or longer is actually quite an achievement. We are meant to be impressed by the sheer fact that the long take happened, but even more so by the fact that someone decided to try to make it happen. Interestingly, although a successful long take requires the coöperation and skill of dozens of people, the credit for its execution floats all the way upstream to that moment of decision—to the director's "vision" or ambition. The long take is the underwriter of auteur theory, a role it plays more so today than ever.1

The tendency has been for some time now to glorify the long take as a sort of auteurist gesture par excellence, the watermark of mastery. The sheer act of including a long take in a film is almost automatically read—by film geeks, anyway—as a vigorous claim to artistic ambition at least, if not also to artistic skill. The long take is an unmistakable announcement of its own audacity, perhaps because the directors famous for their long takes—Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Antonioni—is such an elite group.

***
I think the way we read the long sentence has been shaped by cinephile enthusiasm for the long take, and, speaking more generally, the way we read experimental or difficult novelists has been fueled by the residual energies of auteur theory.

Of course, "auteur" as a term was selected to name the theory that the director could imprint a highly personal vision because (it seemed at the time), the author of a novel was so unproblematically able to do just that. So it may seem strange that I am here reversing that chain of influence and arguing that now our literary ideas are being affected by the remaining illusions we have that the director has god-like creative powers. Yet if one considers that auteur theory really just got under way in America as the figure of the (literary) author began to suffer from an enormous crisis of confidence and was most actively questioned, resisted and even taken for "dead," then it is perhaps not surprising that later efforts to restore greatness to an author (if not to the author in general) would siphon off some of the vitality of auteur theory.

I suppose it is also rather strange to argue that the enthusiasm behind writers like Sebald or Bernhard or Bolaño comes from a desire to restore the author to greatness, yet I cannot understand that support in any other context. The swell of enthusiasm behind Bolaño over the past two years has really been at its core a push toward stardom, and I don't think it's inaccurate to argue that the lit-blogosphere (or at least that coterie of blogs which focuses on or promotes experimental fiction) acts pretty damn well as a star-making system.

I therefore find it almost natural that the newest literary "stars" tend to use a technique which fits in so well with auteur theory and its glorification of the long take, that their writing is dominated by something so easily analogous to the dominant technique of high art in another medium. The long sentence makes an author an auteur again.

1 This blog, Unspoken Cinema, presents an interesting example of the dominance of directors who use the long take as a principal element in their film-making; the site is devoted to "contemplative cinema," which as you can see basically means the biggest names in contemporary arthouse film. [back to top]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blindness, by José Saramago

It is not very original to refer to the length of the sentences one encounters in reading Blindness. Unspooling like so many tracks of flypaper, everything sticks between the periods—multiple speakers, direct and indirect discourse, metafictional asides and stage-whispered narratorial confidences, and a whole lot of proverbs. In discussing the specificities of Saramago's style, I can't really improve on the job done here by Edmond Caldwell. Read the two paragraphs beginning with "There comes a point, however…" In my opinion, Edmond hits several nails on the head, providing a very comprehensive analysis of the basic components of Saramago's style as well as his likely purpose and desired effect in writing in such a manner.

Yet it seems to me that most criticism which touches on the long "baroque" sentence is neither so subtle nor so specific. It treats the long sentence rather as an effect or a performance than as a strategy—one gets the sense that the length of the sentence is there primarily to be noticed, the author congratulated for threading a tricky needle or completing a high-wire act—for achieving art under precarious conditions. This stress tends to flatten the abundant variety of the long sentence, both within a single author and among the very many authors who practice the form in a wide assortment of contexts, for very different projects, and with very different results. When the long sentence is noted primarily for being notable—for being, in essence, experimentation-as-ostentation, a radical technique employed mainly to draw attention to its radicality—we lose sight of what the long sentence does for the author, what she tries to make it do, and why she tries to do it.

To me the most notable thing about the long sentence as a category is not its audacity, but its enormous dispersion into so many different (often transnational) contexts—it is quite obviously tremendously adaptable, malleable. I think what's called for is a good deal of comparative work, standing Bolaño up against Bernhard or Beckett up against Saramago or Stein up against Hrabal. Despite the popularity of these writers within the blogging community, I haven't seen much extended comparative work, although I'd be very glad if someone showed me what I've missed.

I think it would also be extremely valuable to consider the role of length or duration in the long sentence in relation to the role of duration in other media, particularly film. I'm hoping to have a post ready soon about long takes and the long sentence, and hopefully soon thereafter, I can start on some of this comparative work I think is needed.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

More From Gwendolyn Brooks, Annie Allen

The Womanhood

4

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering.
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.

***
X

Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical disguise.

***
XV

Men of careful turns, haters of forks in the road,
The strain at the eye, that puzzlement, that awe—
Grant me that I am human, that I hurt,
That I can cry.

Not that I now ask alms, in shame gone hollow,
Nor cringe outside the loud and sumptuous gate.
Admit me to our mutual estate.

Open my rooms, let in the light and air.
Reserve my service at the human feast.
And let the joy continue. Do not hoard silence
For the moment when I enter, tardily,
To enjoy my height among you. And to love you
No more as a woman loves a drunken mate,
Restraining full caress and good My Dear,
Even pity for the heaviness and the need—
Fearing sudden fire out of the uncaring mouth,
Boiling in the slack eyes, and the traditional blow.
Next, the indifference formal, deep and slow.

Comes in your graceful glider and benign,
To smile upon me bigly; now desires
Me easy, easy; claims the days are softer
Than they were; murmurs reflectively "Remember
When cruelty, metal, public, uncomplex,
Trampled you obviously and every hour…"
(Now cruelty flaunts diplomas, is elite,
Delicate, has polish, knows how to be discreet):
Requests my patience, wills me to be calm,
Brings me a chair, but the one with broken straw,
Whispers "My friend, no thing is without flaw.
If prejudice is native—and it is—you
Will find it ineradicable—not to
Be juggled, not to be altered at all,
But left unvexed at its place in the properness
Of things, even to be given (with grudging) honor.
What
We are to hope is that intelligence
Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness.
Politeness will take care of what needs caring.
For the line is there.
And has a meaning. So our fathers said—
And they were wise—we think—At any rate,
They were older than ourselves. And the report is
What's old is wise. At any rate, the line is
Long and electric. Lean beyond and nod.
Be sprightly. Wave. Extend your hand and teeth.
But never forget it stretches there beneath."
The toys are all grotesque
And not for lovely hands; are dangerous,
Serrate in open and artful places. Rise.
Let us combine. There are no magics or elves
Or timely godmothers to guide us. We are lost, must
Wizard a track through our own screaming weed.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Essay Collection: "The Novelists' International"

Michael Denning's "The Novelists' International" in Volume 1 of The Novel, edited by Franco Moretti.

Denning begins by considering the place of magical realism in terms of the history of the Cold War. "As the age of three worlds (1945-89) reached its midpoint, the novel looked dead, exhausted." Then came García Márquez and his Buendíases: "In its wake, a new sense of a world novel emerged, with Cien años de Soledad as its avatar, the 'third world' as its home, and a vaguely defined 'magical realism' as its aesthetic rubric."
Like "world music," the "world novel" is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan "world beat," with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted. There is, however, a historical truth to the sense that there are links between writers as unlike as García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Paule Marshall, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for the work of each has roots in the remarkable international literary movement that emerged in the middle decades of the twentieth century under the slogans of "proletarian literature," "neorealism," and "progressive," "engaged," or "committed" writing.
The bulk of the essay is a straightforward account of this "remarkable international literary movement"—it outlines the development and diffusion of the proletarian novel—where such a form took root, what adaptations occurred, and how it influenced other communities of "engaged" writers. It is worth reading just for the embedded bibliography dropped piecemeal through its pages, and even more worthwhile for the way it helps the reader to assign places, influences, and ideas to names. I was frankly unaware that Cesar Vallejo had written a novel, for instance, or that Cesare Pavese was a communist (all I knew about him was that NYRB Classics had published The Moon and the Bonfires, and now, as I look at his author page there, I see that they've written out his leftist commitments).

Denning provides an excellent history of this process of diffusion and adaptation, and he also pauses periodically to take stock and note connections, commonalities, and continuities. What I found most interesting, however, were the moments in which Denning analyzes the challenges presented by embedding proletarian themes and situations into a form that almost repelled such material:
Several challenges immediately presented themselves: the attempt to represent working-class life in a genre that had developed as the quintessential narrator of bourgeois or middle-class manners, kin structures, and social circles; the attempt to represent a collective subject in a form built around the interior life of the individual; the attempt to create a public, agitational work in a form that, unlike drama, depended on private, often domestic consumption; and the attempt to create a vision of revolutionary social change in a form inherently committed to the solidity of society and history.
Denning is also especially good at isolating the factors that make it difficult for critics to keep the results of this struggle to wed content and form in our sights:
[A]lthough the aesthetic ideologies of "proletarian literature," "socialist realism," or "engaged" writing are found around the globe in the twentieth century, most literary histories focus on a single national tradition, and there is little comparative work that would indicate whether the novels share common modes, forms, and styles. Mainstream literary criticism has generally taken one of two stances: either arguing that proletarian or social realist novels share a transnational formula that marks them as less-than-literary outsiders to the national literature, or claiming that the finest left-wing writers transcend the generic formula and are thus best understood within the particular linguistic and cultural tradition that makes up the national literature. Moreover, the two leading transnational aesthetic terms—realism and modernism—were so embedded in the cultural cold war that they became mere honorifics, with little actual meaning. In the communist world, favored writers were proclaimed realists; in the capitalist world, they were deemed modernists.
If novelists had to work overtime, however, to overcome the novel's "inherent" affinities to bourgeois individualism, and critics now also have to work extra-hard to read these novels against the grain of those traditional novelistic affinities, Denning suggests this surplus labor is appropriate: coming full circle back to magical realism, he argues that rather than a "successor and antagonist to social realism," magical realism is best seen as "a second stage of the proletarian avant-garde: if the first moment in the wake of the upheavals of 1917-1919 was dominated by a paradoxically ahistorical modernism that tried to document the lived experience of radically new factory and tenement… the magical realism of 1949 [the year Alejo Carpentier published El reino de este mundoThe Kingdom of This World, the preface of which introduced the term "lo real maravilloso," the marvelous real] is the return of the repressed history" of the deeper traumas of "a history of conquest, enslavement, and colonization."

This half-mythic past's return unexpectedly resulted in the "unleashing of desire and utopia" most associated with magical realism, although the general interpretation of that release is highly depoliticized and given little or no context, political or otherwise. "World literature" sells best when shorn of its history of radical sympathies and stances. It sells a whole lot better if "the unleashing of desire and utopia" gets re-coded as simple tropical vitality.

Edmond Caldwell has done some very interesting analysis of James Wood's handling of self-avowed leftist writers—Saramago here and Bolaño here. Caldwell holds that Wood employs a process of recontextualization and misreading that "domesticates" these authors. I think there is a great deal in common there with the attempts Denning describes of nationalizing or aestheticizing proletarian literature. Denning does, as you can see above, mention Saramago as precisely one of these writers whom we are so apt and eager to absorb as a representative of some gauzy cosmopolitanism.

From Gwendolyn Brooks, Annie Allen

"pygmies are pygmies still, though percht on Alps"
            -Edward Young

But can see better there, and laughing there
Pity the giants wallowing on the plain.
Giants who bleat and chafe in their small grass,
Seldom to spread the palm; to spit, come clean.

Pygmies expand in cold impossible air,
Cry fie on giantshine, poor glory which
Pounds breast-bone punily, screeches, and has
Reached no Alps: or, knows no Alps to reach.

***

Appendix to The Anniad

leaves from a loose-leaf war diary
1
("thousands—killed in action")

You need the untranslatable ice to watch.
You need to loiter a little among the vague
Hushes, the clever evasions of the vagueness
You need the untranslatable ice to watch,
The purple and black to smell.

Before your horror can be sweet.
Or proper.
Before your grief is other than discreet.

The intellectual damn
Will nurse your half-hurt. Quickly you are well.

But weary. How you yawn, have yet to see
Why nothing exhausts you like this sympathy.

2

The Certainty we two shall meet by God
In a wide Parlor, underneath a Light
Of lights, come Sometime, is no ointment now.
Because we two are worshipers of life,
Being young, being masters of the long-legged stride,
Gypsy arm-swing. We never did learn how
To find white in the Bible. We want nights
Of vague adventure, lips lax wet and warm,
Bees in the stomach, sweat across the brow. Now.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Function of Lit-Blogging Part II

A few days ago, I expressed some of the frustrations I've been harboring with the general attitude and practice of lit-blogging. I don't think I did a great job communicating exactly what I find aggravating and even hindering about the lit-blog community, but I doubt I'll correct my inarticulateness with another denunciation. Instead, I'll try to express what it is I like to read.

To put it very basically, the blogs I enjoy reading seem to be written with the idea that posts which fall off the frontpage will continue to inform and affect the next thing written. There is a high degree of unity that goes beyond smug self-referentiality. These blogs read as a sort of sustained self-education, either because they are concentrated around one core conceit (e.g. Contra James Wood, The Criterion Contraption, Stuff White People Like) or because they are focused on a densely related set of problems (FiveThirtyEight, Post-Bourgie, Rough Theory, Vertigo, Jezebel). They are centripetal, not accidental, not meandering, focused less upon what the author "came across" or "happened upon" than what the author went looking for and found. These blogs are more than literary social bookmarking tools—browse, read, tag, comment, share.

***
This blog is much more like the blogs I don't much care for: wholly dependent on what I "happen upon" in my reading, whether that's what I found on the web today or what book I picked up for vague reasons or no reason. I've been struggling with how to change that, how to add to or change this blog in ways that will make it less adventitious, short of imposing a mandatory reading list on myself or ceasing to blog about anything but a narrow subject. I want to keep a little randomness: I don't object to randomness—I just don't like the self-satisfied surrender to entropy that comes with the idea that I'll blog about whatever catches my fancy.

I already have a project of sorts going: hoping to fill in some gaps in my reading, this year I wanted to focus my reading choices on literature by women, persons of color, and literature-in-translation or, in my blunter terms, "I would like to resolve to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year." This isn't so much a project as a series of decisions about what to read, but it offers, I think, the chance to organize what I read in a specific way and the chance to produce more cohesive posts.

My choice of readings fits in very well with a set of issues and problems that I deeply want to tackle, but have had a hard time paring down to fit into a post about a single book. Looking at literature from a transnational perspective has become, for obvious reasons, a vital position to be able to occupy as a critic or even just as a reader. I would like to turn myself more in this direction, perhaps a bit awkwardly at first, but solidly.

It's not that I want to churn out boilerplate interpretations of any novel that comes my way; at least, it's my goal for this not to be the effect. Instead, I hope to choose what I read a little bit more carefully and prepare my posts a little more diligently, less apt to dash off a quick post on whatever comes to mind. I also want to do a good deal more blogging about criticism and theory: I mentioned Franco Moretti's 2-volume behemoth The Novel, which I'm hoping to work my way through selectively. There are some other very valuable anthologies and collections of essays on relevant topics: I've had this really great book edited by Ilan Stavans called Mutual Impressions: Writers from the Americas Reading One Another sitting on my bookcase for awhile.

I hope that the forthcoming changes and additions will make this blog much more interesting to read, rather than less. I am eager to try some things out not just in terms of what I write about, but also how I write it. Hopefully you'll bear with me, and tell me what you think works and what's interesting or valuable.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

It took me almost the entire book to realize how good Beloved sounds when read aloud. It was only when Morrison basically said it straight out, that she was looking to create meaning on a deeper level than the flat of the page, that the words my eyes passed over were only half-activated in that state, that I saw how much I had missed. Morrison wrote:
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound dep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.
It wasn't the first time Morrison had tried to alert me of the importance of sound to this story. As simple a thing as the main character's name—"Sethe... Seth-thuh," as she helpfully prompts a delightfully nitwitted whitegirl in search of Boston velvet—should have been enough. You can't just see your way into a character whose name could sound a couple of ways.

Then there are the oddly ungrammatical sentences that crop up throughout the book, like "The pair and a half of skates were lying by the front door, the stockings hung on a nail behind the cooking stove to dry had not." The failed parallelism and ellipticality of the second clause seems like it could be "fixed" with a slight restructuring. Yet the simplest fix would just be reading it aloud: the grammar mends itself in the voice. And this happens a number of times in the book: Morrison is saying, "You can't just read it; it must be spoken to be understood."

In an incredible stretch of pages, Stamp Paid is repelled from 124 Bluestone when he hears, "mixed in with the voices surrounding the house, recognizable but undecipherable to Stamp Paid, were the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken." The four chapters that follow are precisely those "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken," chapters which greatly resemble many of the monologue-like sections of A Mercy.

The politics of the voice—the ability and even the motivation to speak—are of paramount importance in the history of slavery, as it was almost the sole vector of resistance and the sole vehicle of memory. Morrison's use of voice breaks into the story, becomes the story at times, and has the power in almost every moment to reshape the experience one has of the book itself.

She does something similar with color, I think: she takes the color line and shatters it through the prism of her story so that color does so much more than divide. I would like to excerpt the passage about Baby Suggs's dying meditation on color, but I think the following is a better illustration of what I mean. Though the colors are mostly implicit, they are richly so:
Alone, the last man with the buffalo hair among the Cherokee, Paul D finally woke up and, admitting his ignorance, asked how he might get North. Free North. Magical North. Welcoming, benevolent North. The Cherokee smiled and looked around. The flood rains of a month ago had turned everything to steam and blossoms.

"That way," he said, pointing. "Follow the tree flowers," he said. Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone."

So he raced from dogwood to blossoming peach. When they thinned out he headed for the cherry blossoms, then magnolia, chinabery, pecan, walnut and prickly pear. At last he reached a field of apple trees whose flowers were just becoming tiny knots of fruit. Spring sauntered north, but he had to run like hell to keep it as his traveling companion. From February to July he was on the lookout for blossoms. When he lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him. He did not touch them or stop to smell. He merely followed in their wake, a dark ragged figure guided by the blossoming plums.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates

[Wikipedia link for basic plot outline and some background]

An intriguing but not particularly engaging book, Black Water is as strongly unified as a fable, every element a meaningful contributor to one idea and one question generated by that idea. Yet this unity is a strength only if you find the idea sharp and the question provocative. I did, but the book doesn't really do all that much to help you to find them so; I feel that in a not very different mood, I would not have been terribly interested.

The idea, as I see it is this: that there are masculine and feminine modes or kinds of invasion—invasion is the master motif of the novella, but it takes both forms. There is the bluntly assertive invasiveness of The Senator, who forces his thick tongue into Kelly's mouth when he kisses her, an event recalled many times over in Kelly's recollection. The Senator's driving—crude turns and erratic accelerations that ultimately force the car into the water—is also an extended invasion of night and space and nature.

The feminine mode of invasion is represented by the obvious formal connection between the way Kelly's narrated recollections lap at and eventually immerse her consciousness and the way the water she enters laps at and eventually immerses her body. Oates creates tides, ripples, waves, breakers, swells, currents, undertows of thought—the metaphors can only really be obvious, so tight is the connection between thought and water. After all, don't we call it stream-of-consciousness?

To say that this form of invasion is feminine is no doubt both tenuous and tendentious, but it is a tendency I think Oates backs up consistently. There is little doubt that she has chosen a politician as her main male character because politics is precisely the stereotypically male form of invasiveness: the politician must make himself a part of your life, must thrust himself into your existence in order to claim your attention and your support.

There is even a playful exchange between Kelly and The Senator on this subject, after The Senator refers to man as "the political animal":
It was unlike her to be so bold, so flirtatious. Asking The Senator archly, "'Man'—and not woman? Isn't 'woman' a political animal too?"

"Some women. Sometimes. We know that. But, most of the time, women find politics boring. The power-play of male egos. Like war. Eh? Boring in its monotony, beneath all the turmoil?"

But Kelly was not to be led. As if this were a seminar, and Kelly Kelleher one of the stars, she said frowning, "Women can't afford to think of politics as 'boring'! Not at this point in history. The Supreme Court, abortion—"
The Senator concludes this seminar by kissing Kelly forcefully: "how swiftly this was happening, how swiftly after all, yet as he kissed her after the first moment she stood her ground firmly, hells dug into the crusty sand, she leaned to the man taking the kiss as if it were her due, a natural and inevitable and desired development of their conversation. And bold too, giddy too, parrying his tongue with her teeth."

The two instances of the word 'bold' so close together here—both times referring to Kelly's unusually assertive behavior—are belied by the obviously greater assertiveness of The Senator: Kelly takes the kiss "as if it were her due"—she is being invaded and is trying to act as if the invasion were natural.

Yet if Kelly is not usually so bold, what is she? Oates writes minutely to create an exact model of her mind, dilating almost compulsively upon the same fragmentary thoughts, the same micro-sensations, returning again and again to the ephemerality of all the tiny thoughts that anticipated Kelly's death. Kelly is being acted upon, invaded just as surely by Oates (and by the reader) as she was by The Senator. In this case too, Kelly is positioned as if this invasion were natural—this is the reading experience, after all, for so many novels—yet as Oates continues her repeated probings into Kelly's mind, that common reading experience is made uncomfortable, unpleasant, like realizing you've been staring at someone on the subway only when they look up at you.

Early in the novel, Oates acknowledges this invasiveness; she takes a step back from her submersion in Kelly's mind to describe a limit for the novelist's ability to enter the mind of her character:
In the subsequent hours, Kelly was to radically revise her opinion of The Senator.
It could not be said that in those six hours Kelly Kelleher had fallen in love with The Senator, nor could it be said that The Senator had fallen in love with her, for such matters are private and unknowable; and what the future may have brought (in contrast to what the events of that night did in fact bring) will forever remain unknowable.
Except: Kelly certainly revised her opinion.
Thinking how instructive, how purifying for the soul (smiling into a mirror of the guest room that was hers at Buffy's would have been hers again for the night of the Fourth had she not decided so precipitously to accompany The Senator back to the mainland) to learn that you are fallible, to be proven wrong.
Even if it's merely interior, private proof.
Even if the one you've so carelessly misjudged never knows.
The unexplained arbitrariness of Oates's distinction between what is "private and unknowable" and what is accessible to the novelist (even though it's "interior, private") suggests an intentional anxiety about the invasiveness of the novelist in prying into the character's thoughts. Where can this line be drawn? And why does the novelist herself draw it?

I don't think this form of invasion is as clearly gendered as The Senator's, but its clear opposition to the masculine mode of invasion is fairly clear. And there is a tendency to associate the intense novelistic depiction of consciousness with femininity—Richardson's heroines and Austen, with her "free indirect discourse, but more significantly Woolf and Joyce's Penelope section of Ulysses, perhaps the ne plus ultra of stream-of-consciousness.

The question comes about when one weighs these modes of invasion against one another: bluntly, which is worse? The novel does seem to ask this question, as the issue of blame is so inextricably linked to its subject matter, the Chappaquiddick incident. Oates doesn't unequivocally reach the same conclusion so many Americans did at the time of Chappaquiddick: that The Senator did it. Kelly Kelleher in many moments almost blames herself, blames her instant dependence on The Senator.

Of course, Oates does make it clear that the accident was unambiguously The Senator's fault, but by invading Kelly's own doubts and diffidence, she encourages the reader to begin to walk backward from The Senator's blatant irresponsibility and towards Kelly's naïvete as a more comprehensively descriptive explanation for the accident. This is, of course, blaming the victim, and once the reader realizes that, she recoils (I hope).

What this does, though, is to tether that "blame the victim" impulse to the process of invading Kelly's consciousness; at the same moment that one recoils from victim-blaming, one also recoils from the depth of this invasion. Only by reaching a point where we inhabit Kelly's self-doubts—a point which permits us, momentarily, to blame her—do we begin to pull back from the novel itself.

As I said, I very nearly did not find myself engaged by the novel in the first place, and despite being engaged by it, I still didn't find it captivating nor was I much gratified by my engagement with it. I do think it's necessary to note, however, that Oates's heavy-handedness (readily apparent from the selections I cited above) is necessitated by what she wants to do; if that is a fault, it's a fault you have to accept to get anything out of Black Water.