Friday, 27 May 2005

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So Much For Memory... [Warning: This is bound to bore the kids.] Even though thinking about books you haven't read often produces displays of rank stupidity, I've been thinking about Edward R. Jones' The Known World this afternoon and I've reached some damn damning conclusions about the conclusions Sean McCann draws from it over yonder. Not really. I'm loath to think too long about what I haven't read, so what I'm really talking about here is McCann's suggestion that The Known World chooses "history over memory" because emphasizing history will mean assuming that no one living in the present has a privileged, supra-empirical knowledge of the past. It’s true, of course, that you don’t have to assume a racial soul to believe that you’ve been affected by history. (In that sense, everyone’s affected by history, which is I think part of the reason for Jones’s wide social canvas. He’s less interested in special individuals than a whole society.) But you may need something like a racial soul to believe that you possess a history that is a special inheritance. That's a damn fine point, and I think he's right. He's building off what Walter Benn Michaels argued in the penultimate chapter of The Shape of the Signifier. In it, Michaels argues that ideas of "special inheritance" and the "materiality of the signifier" inevitably slide into identity politics. I'll tackle the more complicated, less convincing case first. What Michaels means by "the materiality of the signifier" is a De Manian commitment to the "material vision" of a text. The text becomes a thing, a series of physical marks readers don't interpret but experience. This focus on the experience of the readers leads, inevitably, to identity politics. Building on "Against Theory," Michaels wants to prove that if you think the intention of the author is what counts, then you don't think the subject position of the reader matters, but if you don't think the intentions of the author is what counts, then the subject position of the reader is the only thing that matters. (11) That's the Short Version.* This argument hinges on the materiality of the text because, in the first case, you believe that the author of the intention is inscribed in every single copy of the text for anyone to interpret, but in the second, you value your experience with this particular copy of the text and you're the only one who can experience your experience. If this sounds like a strange argument to be making, it's because 1) it is and 2) Michaels is arguing against the position that every last dash, stroke, line and doodle in Emily Dickinson's notebooks is a part of her poems (and that if you only reproduce the words and dashes you're not reading the "real" poems). In other words, he's arguing against the De Manian position that all these marks "count as part of the object...not because they are important to the 'purpose' of the object's maker but because--insofar as they are part of the object's...
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Six Shining Glasses, Consumed Rapidly, Stuffed with Irregular Hungarian Verbs This past Monday, Cultural Revolution wrote about Christopher Hitchen's pounding of The John Hopkins Gude to Literary Theory and Criticism. The title of CR's entry floats above a photo of a blitzed and bloated Hitchens: "Hard to copy edit when you're loaded..." According to Gore Vidal, it's easier than it looks. In 1980's "This Critic and This Gin and These Shoes"--a paean to Edmund Wilson on the occasion of the publication of his notebooks and diaries--Vidal notes that the alcoholism that "ended the careers of Hemingway [and] Fitzgerald" and "turned the William Faulkner of As I Lay Dying into a fable" failed to topple Wilson: Meanwhile, the contemporary of these three blasted stars, Edmund Wilson, outlived and outworked them all; he also outdrank them. Well into his seventies, Wilson would march into the Princeton Club and order a half dozen martinis, to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which Wilson would work, all the while talking and thinking at a rapid pace. To the end of a long life, he kept on making the only thing he thought worth making: sense, a quality almost entirely lacking in American literature where stupidity—if sufficiently sincere and authentic—is deeply revered, and easily achieved. Although this was a rather unhealthy life in the long run, Wilson had a very long run indeed. But then he was perfect proof of the proposition that the more the mind is used and fed the less apt it is to devour itself. When he died, at seventy-seven, he was busy stuffing his head with irregular Hungarian verbs. Plainly, he had a brain to match his liver. Note how Vidal is careful to temper his praise of American literature by reminding his (and its) readers that it is, fundamentally, profoundly nonsense; that "sense [is] a quality almost entirely lacking in American literature where stupidity—if sufficiently sincere and authentic—is deeply revered, and easily achieved." Wilson, Vidal implies, spoke intelligently and rationally about the boundless stupidity that is American literature. Read generously, Vidal intends something like "Wilson thought and wrote intelligently about something that should've been beneath his notice." This generosity is rewarded in the review's ultimate paragraph, in which Vidal unveils his real target: English professors who would disagree with Wilson's dictum that no matter how thoroughly and searchingly we may have scrutinized works of literature from the historical and biographical point of view…we must be able to tell the good from the bad, the first-rate from the second-rate. We shall not otherwise write literary criticism at all. After one final cheap shot (in the form of the most marvelous parenthetical insertion I've ever encountered), the essay concludes gnomically: We do not, of course, write literary criticism at all now. Academe has won the battle in which Wilson fought so fiercely on the other side. Ambitious English teachers (sic!) now invent systems that have nothing to do with literature or life but everything to do with those games that must be played in...

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