Tuesday, 18 October 2005

When the Heart Beats, Bruise It; or Part the Second of an Interminable Series on Evaluative Criticism The responses to my initial offering cloud (through no fault but my own) the issue more than I'd already managed to: Rich reaches for the universal, Luther points to the particular and Stephen goes Goebbels. To my tired eyes, I think the strongest account mashes their three incommensurable ones into a single incoherent whole: the particular qualities of a literary text woo the reader into thinking in familiar enough terms while simultaneously challenging those same terms which render them communicable. What are those terms? Why does every evaluative critic consider Shakespeare an achievement and the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders beneath consideration? Because both accomplish what they intend to accomplish: Shakespeare produced entertaining comedies and tragedies of value commensurate with that of his sources and the DSM-IV's multiaxial analytic guides mental health professionals through the biological, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal and familial contexts responsible for mental disease, defect or disorder. The Shakespearian corpus, however, need not correspond to reality as must the DSM-IV. This obvious but essential difference pays immediate dividends for my argument (whatever it will turn out to be) because it dispenses with the need for the creative work to refer in any empirical sense to the world. Call this "the First Fuzziness." (More fuzziness, intentionally or otherwise, will no doubt follow.) Unburdened of the need to be referential, the work of literature can address whatever world it wants in whatever manner it sees fit. A work which addresses neither a recognizable world nor recognizable human relations will either be entirely unintelligible as an act of communication (think post electro-shock therapy Artaud) or a highly suggestive but never specific or entirely effective simulation. A book like Finnegans Wake has one foot squarely planted on both sides of this unintelligibility border, but one foot remains (albeit barely) within human ken. It challenges the human ability to produce and understand language without ever exceeding it. Here Luther's "stupid rhetorical question" becomes critical: if the critic wants to mirror the sciences, then a work like the Wake interests as a technical achievement made possible by contingent circumstances at a particular historical moment in a particular neurobiological environment; if the critic wants to parrot the arts, then a work like the Wake becomes an occasion to produce criticism in the style of the Wake (or at the very least informed by it). I think this dilemma has horns too wide for human arms. To grab one requires the other be released. This decision seems unreasonable because literary scholars imagine, by professional proxy if not personally, that the line between the two exists for one reason and one reason only: for people like literary scholars to toe. What we need then is a governing system we all feel free to violate the moment its restraints chafe more than usual. But we need the system and the restraints and the chafing for the show to whiz-bang. Now keep in mind that I'm ignoring the entire history of aesthetics here so that...
Sir, I Need You to Keep Your Hands Away from Chapter, Sir, Away From the Chapter When I earned a summer dissertation fellowship last May, I felt as if a burden had been lifted. I would have the time to finish "This Damnable London Chapter: Radical Frustration and the Dissertating Subject" by the end of September and spend the Fall Quarter hard at work on evolutionary romance. I had reason for optimism: 36 pages of distilled prose from 129 pages of notes and an entire summer in which to refine it further. Only no refining happened. Instead I decided to dig deeper into the historical record in order to verify (according to what I now realize may have been an enthusiastically embraced but utterly unreal standard) the claims that I had made. First excised from the original 36 pages: an essential but highly selective account of Haeckel's influence on London. I hadn't read enough Haeckel—I hadn't even read all the Haeckel London presumably had—so the strength of those claims could be considered suspect. Note the infected language: "enough," "presumably," "could be considered," "suspect." So I read more Haeckel and more American reaction to Haeckel. I accumulated another 76 pages of notes. The tally? May 1, 2005: 36 pages polished, 129 pages of notes June 1, 2005: 32 pages polished, 205 pages of notes So I put aside the chapter for a week and focused on reading Theory's Empire and producing an account of the early years of Critical Inquiry. Exactly the healthy distraction I required to refocus on writing. Reading the rigorous but a- or anti-historicist accounts of literarture liberated me to chance tangents I wouldn't have in May. I expanded material I'd thought polished a month previous and finished June with 48 pages of polished prose and barely three more pages of notes. June 1, 2005: 32 pages polished, 205 pages of notes July 1, 2005: 48 pages polished, 208 pages of notes I put it down again and focused on reading for pleasure. Spent a day with China Mieville, another with John Clute; one week re-reading Octavia Butler and another the articles and books I'd be teaching in the Fall. I returned to my chapter refreshed but unprepared to encounter this steaming pile of unsubstantiated leaps of a logic unrecognizable to Man or Beast. (Not all Beast, mind you: a literate house-cat island-hopping shelves in a campus bookstore would recognize the "interdisciplinary" nature of my disaster.) I could hardly stomach my own complacency. I had though this deserving of reward? After seven solid hours of prodigious hyperventilation I managed to lift the pencil and make the first incision. Four days later, the patient was alive but paralyzed from the governing logic down. An intralineal drip nourished it, but as I looked at it in that bed I knew that unless it could someday manufacture evidence of its own, it wouldn't matter what I placed between its lines. I knew I could rebuild it. Better. Faster. (a rehabilitation montage—complete with uplifting '80s quasi-hair metal anthem, frantic but purposive-seemingly displays of vigor, and a fade out,...

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