Monday, April 25, 2005

Dworkin For a Living

Reason Magazine, staying true to their name I suppose, cuts through the crap about
Andrea Dworkin. Perhaps, it is not good to speak ill of the dead, but it is also hard not to when the dead are immediately valorized in such an unseemly way. Especially, when they said the sort of sociopath shit that Dworkin was known for. Anyway, she was certainly interesting, but in a sort of Ms. Kampf way, if you know what I mean.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

Theory: Still Dead.

Here's a massively self-deluded article about literary theory in American universities. Still, it has a few moments of surprising near-clarity.
The fellow is a theory-head, clearly. His argument is that theory was needed in academia in the 1960s because "logical positivism" just didn't fit the era. Now, of course, looking back, we can see that Americans never reached the... ahem, heights of Foucault. So, theory is on the way out. I agree with that, and I think he makes One Great Point.

So, let's go through his argument.
"Was theory a gigantic hoax? On the contrary. It was the only salvation, for a twenty year period, from two colossal abdications by American thinkers and writers."
Actually, it was more like a hoax. But, I like his crusading spirit.

"From about 1975 to 1995, through a historical accident, a lot of American thinking and mental living got done by people who were French, and by young Americans who followed the French."
Wow, you call that "living"?

"The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction."
I cannot tell you how astounding it is for some of us to hear a poststructuralist talking about someone else's "great abdication".

"In philosophy, from the 1930s on, a revolutionary group had been fighting inside universities to overcome the “tradition.” This insurgency, at first called “logical positivism” or “logical empiricism,” then simply “analytic philosophy,” was the best thing going."
I like his critique of logical positivism, because Russel and Quine did get a bit tiresome.

It triumphed in the Sixties, when the actual convulsions of US society called for a renewed treatment of love, freedom, the other, politics, and history—“pseudo-problems” turned intensely real. It was nice to have John Searle so understanding of SDS at Berkeley, and Hilary Putnam chanting Maoist slogans at Harvard; but the kids in Paris had Foucault.
Sorry if the nostalgia is getting a bit sickening. Going to Foucault for love is like going to David Duke for instruction in the Torah. By the way, those lucky kids in Paris got over Foucault by the seventies. Not thirty years too late.

In fiction, nothing is so clear-cut. But the overall problem will be familiar. During the same mid-century decades when analytic philosophy vanquished all comers, the novel was exalted in American culture as having a near-scriptural power of assessment and prophecy.
We're supposed to understand that the novel was flawed because it tried to achieve greatness. Terrible, eh?

By the 1940s and 1950s, when newly professional critics ruled both the small literary journals and the universities, American greatness became a closed system.
Criticism was a bit rigid. But, it wasn't Foucault that saved it.

In short order, 1968 arrived, and the chaotic Seventies, an era which received—in place of Germinal or Sentimental Education or The Posessed, or even The Grapes of Wrath!—Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’s JR.
But in retrospect these books appear marginal where the “Great American Novel” was supposed to be central, heroic sighs of depletion instead of inaugural hymns.
I agree that Gravity's Rainbow is mediocre. No problem there.

Now, the writer waxes poetic about what saved American letters...
Terry Eagleton once pointed out that the French theorists preserved the modernist tradition in literature when fiction writers did not.
And so, he clearly has no idea what he is talking about.
The next paragraph waxes poetic about Foucualt, because the writer has never heard of Leslie Fiedler! Never heard of Harold Bloom! Never heard of Northrop Frye! Never even heard of Erich Auerbach or Arnold Hauser! He pretends that the only choice was between Logical Positivism and Poststructuralism.
It is the willful ignorance of a Superior Tradition that makes me think that this author is a pisher. Or, more likely, scared.

Now, he turns into sad fanboy about Foucault...
“For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime”—with the Proustian longtemps thrown off, with such brio, in a work of history! You could walk away from a book like that able to understand nearlyeverything in the newspaper, on the street, in a brand new way.
Yes, but not if you actually knew about what Foucault was writing about (History of Sexuality), in which case you might be... well unimpressed.

It helped that the concepts of theory were so complicated that only a nineteen-year-old could understand them.
Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society—from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho?

Aside from the fact that American Psycho is probably more insightful than Foucault... he offers only these choices because he is too poorly educated to have heard of the aforementioned authors, who on a bad day, make Lyotard and Foucault look like merde. I love the backpeddling too. "Well Okay Theory was a bunch of crap... But, what else was there?"

Theory is only something that could “die” in the last five years because it was an import from a country, France, that had discontinued the model, while the most visible American inheritors were exegetes and epigones, translators and disciples—therefore mediocre.

Here's where he makes One Great Point. American theory has not produced one great book- in Thirty Years! Not a single one. Where is the Mimesis? Where is the Love and Death in the American Novel? Where is the Anxiety of Influence? Instead, the best anyone can do is The Epistemology of the Closet? God! "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
Well it is almost dawning on the author that he has wasted his life. But, he does not quite get it...

The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us.
Oh God! It's The Big Chill Part 2!

You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don’t have to read “that stuff” anymore—the ones who never read it in the first place.
Oh the sanctimony! We're so "relieved" because we don't have the sterner stuff that can appreciate Foucault. Not a great mind like this guy's. How about those of us who read it the first time and were unimpressed?

But who will insult these people now, expose their life as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren’t regularly insulted.
Oh, right. I see. Our lives are self-deception. How completely bitter and self-deluded do you have to be to write an essay that reads:
1) I dedicated my life to Theory.
2) In retrospect, it never really did pay off. My career was sort of a waste.
3) So, the only hope for me now would be to insult people who didn't buy into theory, because sure, my life was a lie, but their life must be a bigger lie. So there!

Theory is dead, and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?
Ah, tenure. Of course. "Our work is crap, but we have tenure!" So, maybe in another Thirty Years, someone will write a great work of criticism. My suggestion for what to do about the hole that has opened up? Get out of the way! You're close-minded, bitter, deluded, and boring! And, you're a hack! Give up the tenure and let someone with actual talent pass you by.



The Police Have Brought Playboy in for Questioning

Andrea Dworkin, the anti-porn theorist whose star burned brightest in the 1980s, is dead at 58. I remember being about 21, and everybody I knew who was in University was reading Dworkin. She was provocative in a way that few writers are anymore. But, she was also insane, and a lot of people didn't really know how to deal with that. I have deep sympathy for mental health consumers, especially the undiagnosed ones. But, I was very uncomfortable with people like Dworkin or Kate Millet whose deep psychological problems were their selling point for a sort of feminism that can't appreciate women who aren't psychologically damaged.
Anyway, the best thing I've seen about Dworkin is this obit by the ever-wonderful Susie Bright. It also shows why so many of us love Susie Bright. Few people have the expansive kindness to honor the life of someone who, in this case, called for their assassination. Should I contemplate the utter decency and goodness of this perverted pornographer as compared to the mean-spirited wrath of the anti-porn crusader? Or wonder what that could possibly mean?


Beyond You and Me

A blogger working on a
in progress about the wife of a grad student.
I'm sure that one of the circles of Hell involves being married to a grad student. We're always distracted and worn out, or excited about something extremely boring. I'm sure Claire will back me up on this.
Anyway, it's a good read so far.


Monday, April 04, 2005

Rainer Maria Rilke Poem

Black Cat

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
-Rainer Maria Rilke


Friday, April 01, 2005

This Just in: Humanities Professors are Treated Like Poo

A very funny article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that may explain why Humanities professors are so critical of Scientists; they have much better digs than we do. In most universities, the business, law, and science buildings are state-of-the-art, while the humanities buildings... well, let's just say that they look like a bomb shelter after a bombing. Oh, well.
But, you can understand why so many underpaid, overworked, unappreciated humanities profs feel the need to snipe the sciences? Especially in light of the fact that they hear 100 times a week, "So, you're writing a book about John Donne? Have you ever considered using your high intellegence for something... useful?"
No, me neither.