Monday, 18 July 2005

Warranted Bombast? Or, Apposite & Oppositional Rhetoric I’m a fan of American Literary Scholarship. So much so I have a complete set (atop the shelves on the left). When the latest edition arrived, I scanned it 1) to check if someone else’s written my dissertation yet and 2) to ensure that my notion of where the field’s headed is more accurate than not. (For those interested: my dissertation’s still mine and only a minor course-correction’s needed.) I’ve read all the sections relevent to my work and I have but one complaint: the rhetoric. I’ll focus on Michael J. Kiskis’ otherwise excellent round-up of “Late-19th-Century Literature,” but this inflated rhetoric peppers the entire volume. Kiskis’ review opens thus: The scholarship produced during 2003 is a complex mix of perspectives and materials: in the host of essays and books we see evidence not only of the end of the academic apartheid that relegated women and minority writers to the margins but also a greater awareness of the intricate relationship between genre and challenges of aesthetic and political intention and result. (275, emphasis mine) Now, I should say that the presence of that rhetorical bombast doesn’t diminish the intelligence or comprehensiveness of Kiskis’ review. That said, doesn’t the appellation “academic apartheid” 1) trivialize the consequences of historical apartheid and, in so doing, participate in the same logic of marginalization it wants to denounce? 2) needlessly needle those critics who choose to work on canonical or semi-canonical authors? 3) create the impression that the field, as currently constituted, is almost perfect? Three sentences later, Kiskis condescends again: “We are growing out of separate spheres; we are finding our way to an adult appreciation of complex and compelling literary and cultural meaning” (275). Earlier critics apparently lacked the maturity necessary to cultivate an “adult appreciation” of “literary and cultural meaning.” The insult’s implied but easily deduced. Now, I’m compelled to note that I’m satisfied with the direction of the field, as the course Kiskis charts is one in which ever more emphasis is placed on the historical context of literary works. However, even though I belong to Kiskis’ intended audience, I still find his self-congratulatory magniloquence as shrill as it is unnecessary. [X-posted on the Valve.]
Damned by an Accurate, Honest Summary? A couple of months back, I outlined the argument of Donald Pease's "Psychoanalyzing the Narrative Logics of Naturalism." Scratch that: I tried and failed to outline his argument. Donna Campbell--author of the "Fiction: 1900 to the 1930s" section of the most recent American Literary Scholarship--summarizes Pease's argument as follows: [It] refutes previous criticism by taking issue with Mark Seltzer’s idea that narrative control is restored at the end of The Call of the Wild. ‘‘Buck’’ appears first as a signifier of the Judge’s property and then as ‘‘the agent’’ of the panoptic ‘‘free indirect discourse’’ through which Buck’s thoughts are narrated, but he still escapes ‘‘the normative control of the disciplinary society’’ through his communication with Thornton. Buck’s dreams, which reproduce authentic free indirect discourse, and the instantaneous, extrarational impulses through which Buck and Thornton communicate escape the narrative’s foreclosure of ‘‘the disciplinary society’s foundational violence’’ in those passages in which the ‘‘libidinal intensities’’ of Buck’s are set in motion. Her summary, curiously devoid of affect or judgment, strikes me as criticism by paraphrase. It's as if she's reluctant to criticize a major figure in the field and has decided instead to let his argument sink on its own merits. Her direct quotations almost insinuate that the argument works despite the thickets of jargon; then again, maybe it fails on account of its reliance on jargon. To be frank, I can't tell what Campbell thinks of the argument. And I believe that ambiguity might, itself, be damning.

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