Sunday, 17 July 2005

Life among the Bhabhatistas: a Memoir in the Key of Clatter, for Dry Bones and Cello Brad Delong complains of the noise my dry bones make when they clatter. Then he sprints below decks and stands, in the boiler room, at the contact point, before the mast. (I'm relieved his metaphor's metaphorical: I would pity the crew quartered in the boiler room.) He says: Over at The Valve, they are talking about the book Theory's Empire--and thus about the damage done by "Critical Theory" and its spawn on the American humanities over the past generation. But most of it is all too... theoretical. What work can you do with statements like... ...and then he quotes, among other things, the second half of the fourth paragraph of my contribution as an example of the bloodlessness of the Valve's critique of Theory. Now, DeLong is sharp on matters economic, but if his reading of my essay's typical of his analysis of all matters outside economics, then I applaud his decision to stick to his strengths. On what grounds, if not logical, would he have literary critics confront the excesses of more Theoretically-minded critics? My essay, as you know, fingers the decline of rigorous thought as the motive force behind the rise of Theory in the humanities. And I argue my point, if you please, rigorously. But rigor and logic are bloodless, whereas invective is sanguifluous. In Timothy and Sean's posts, the streets run crimson as the life runs from the things which late were Theories. Those posts excel where mine fail: they make sweeping arguments designed to appeal to those who are already convinced of Theory's vacuity. In other words, they have the rhetorical flair which appeals to someone who, like DeLong, dismisses Theory as so much blather. And some of it is. However, no one who practices one or another of the regnant Theories will read Timothy or Sean's posts and reevaluate their life's work. They will recognize, in both, the hostility that they and theirs have (admittedly) earned. But it still reads hostile, and it's still likely to be ignored. Consider an example: Sean and Timothy are Generals in the War Against Theory. All available intelligence points to a battalion of Bhabhatistas hiding in the Deconstructed Zone. On the eve of battle, General McCann delivers a rousing condemnation of the Bhabhatistas. General Burke follows suit. The troops, intoxicated by the rhetoric, grab their gear and prepare for the assault. Sounds about right to me. But what would happen if Covert Operative McCann delivered that same condemnation to Bhabhatistas he bunks with? How long before the life begins running from the rapidly de-sanguinating body of poor C.O. McCann? Not long at all. So C.O. McCann, knowing his intentions and his audience, would probably choose to encourage defection by other means. "We have the logic," he mouths to a bunk-mate. "But, the Bhabha said..." "Forget about the Bhabha!" he whispers with a vehemence belying volume. "The Bhabha lied. Logic is real..." "...The Logic is The Real?" "No," McCann mumbles. "Logic is real. As in 'it exists.'" "Oh, I...
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.]

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