Wednesday, 19 April 2006

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On "Useable" History: A Rant in One Long, Hoarse Howl In his 1985 Social Text article "History and the Canon," Paul Lauter writes the following sentence: The search of the social movements for a useable past led out this closed [canonical] circle. (94) The emphasis is mine. While I hate the entire sentence, I reserve special hatred for its emphasized phrase. I find the idea that what literary scholars ought to seek is "a useable past" offensive. Scratch that. I admit that previous historical models were slim on all things not pale and sans penises. Rectifying such omissions was of the utmost importance. Why? Because with more than half its content stricken from it the historical record is what those in the business call "beyond useless." It speaks only to those who were spoken for and rewards those whose skin or unmentionables are the social equivalent of a firmly raised and vigorous waved hand in a small classroom. Take a peek into my book: Undermining white patriarchal privilege? An unmitigated good. Why? Because undue attention on particular particulars skews the record. I want to know what happened, not what happened to popular pricks whose girlfriends and "girlfriends" were on the yearbook staff. That sort of selective memory compels tears from my eyes and small angry flecks of spittle from the corners of my mouth. I hate it. What many literary scholars fail to realize is that the sin is the sin no matter who commits it. To move to a central locale some work of marginal literature is to strip said work of its unique engagement with the majoritarian culture. Perhaps that work attempts, Tolson-style, to outwit Eliot at his own game. Or perhaps the work attempts, Toomer-style, to recast the marginal as central on its own terms. To segregate a tradition from its context in order to establish its gendered or racial or ethnic uniqueness is to refuse to hear its protestation for fear it'll be considered protestant. Protestant. The irony menaces like thick chunks of corrosive fog. I understand the impulse to create a tradition separate from that of your adversary. I do. I don't understand massaging it into some useful form for some contemporary struggle. That elevates the needs of the now above the sacrifices of the then. And it bothers me. Current you-never-saw-this-coming-type example? Feminist evaluations of S.W. Mitchell and "The Rest Cure." Is it malice or ignorance which drove scholars to ignore his incredible string of successes among women of extraordinary intelligence so that they might pillory him as the embodiment of paternalistic condescension? Does it matter? Yes. I'm no defender of Mitchell—the chapter whose slave I currently am does the man's reputation no favors—but I do balk at condemnations of his life and work on the basis of his misdiagnosis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Did he punt it? You need not even ask. Did he punt every woman he treated and is he therefore the epitome of all that is vile and patriarchal in nineteenth-century American culture? Nope. "The Yellow Wallpaper" may, as Paula...
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On The Origin of Academic Jargon, Part II Of academics I obtained twenty-six kinds who speak of "deterritorialization" without fear of fructuous or vegetal reprisal. Seeing this gradation of thought in one large but intimately related group of scholars, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of thought in an isolated department, one species had been taken and modified for different ends. Mr. Gould observed that subsequent to one scholar uttering the phrase "phallogocentritheatricality," his compatriots brooded for days over the Butlerian intervention into the Cixousian supplement of the Derridean "text." Although they were supremely frustrated by their inability to crack this nut, their consternation afforded Mr. Gould and I an opportunity to note the disharmony among the various scholarly species. The most curious fact is the perfect differentiation in the mind of each critic. Of sub-group Astructatornis, lately brought from French confines, the eight species can often be seen entering the thorniest of vines and removing from them nuts of the aforementioned sort. Astructatornis then examine the nut and determine it both the cause of their hunger and of their satisfaction. If their earnest and searching cogitation fails, the nut will be turned over to their sexually dimorphic, booby-infatuated associates. The vampiric Zizicornis feed off the blood of boobies. They will stare at the nut for some time before determining it neither booby nor sublimated surrogate and therefore unimportant. Unwilling to be induced to undertake the office of Butlerian nut-cracker, Zizicornis defer to the bald-headed tyrant-catcher Mr. Waterhouse christened Powapowacornis (after its unique but ultimately repetitive song). They sing their signature hymnal then depart in anger at the nut's inability to understand that its very nuttiness is constituted by its presence on the beach, amidst these illustrious examples of adaptive radiation. Excluded from Powapowacornis' august company are the desanguiated boobies asleep on the beach. The sleeping boobies dream. They dream of an island on which none but boobies alight and of another on which the scholars fail to crack nuts in the company of other scholars. For generations each exists in utter isolation. When by force of accident the scholars venture into unfamiliar environs the indigenous response is of unequivocal hostility. [X-posted.]

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