Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Wherever Could I Be Headed with This? Part the First of Many In June of 2006, a law student named Laura Ventura wrote a critical response to Anne Stevens and Jay Williams’ “The Footnote, in Theory” [.pdf], an article which tells “the story of theory’s reception in the American academy” (219) by tabulating citations in Critical Inquiry. Her complaints were consonant with the ideology of the venue in which she aired them, the conservative Campus Report. “Academics Footnote Liberals Exclusively” contains all of the nuanced thought suggested by its title. Deconstruction, Ventura declares, “is a method for discrediting historical theorists such as Aristotle and Plato for the sole purpose of promoting Derrida’s belief”; C.S. Lewis “was most likely left off the list because of his strong Christian beliefs and influences”; Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain “were not included because of their patriotism to a country that the cited authors despised.” While critical in the colloquial sense, her response assumes every citation took the breezy form of the one Stevens and Williams criticize in which “a well-known theorist” submitted an essay containing the footnote “See Jacques Derrida” (221). That is, Ventura assumes all acts of citation entail a tacit acceptance of the ideological beliefs of the thinker being cited. Any citation of Mark Twain demonstrates, to her mind, a patriotism similar to the one she attributes to him. An author would remain a patriot even if the article cited is his infamous anti-imperial tract “To the Person Sitting Darkness,” even if the passage quoted is: And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one—our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones. The absurdity of Ventura’s response—her patent ignorance of deconstructive thought, her inability to understand the difference between primary (Twain) and secondary (Jefferson) works—underscores the problem with the way those outside the humanities criticize work done within it. This is especially true of a time of disproportionate access to different venues. Anyone with an internet connection can log onto campusreportonline.net and read Ventura’s article, but it would cost someone $42 to access the Stevens and Williams’ article online. The price a Campus Report reader would have to pay to fact-check Ventura almost guarantees none will. Instead, the quality of “The Footnote, in Theory” will be judged by an article written by someone not merely unqualified to judge its merit, but one who is ideologically predisposed to declare it valueless. The problem, however, is not primarily of qualifications or ideological disposition but, as Lindsay Waters’ “The Lure of the List,” one of venue. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Waters uses Stevens and Williams’ article as an occasion for criticizing “the human cost of such list making,” as “the learned duplicate unthinkingly the worst behavior of society as a whole.” His evidence, such that it is, consists of rejoinders that address, without correcting, the limitations of Stevens and Williams’ methodology. “You humanists,” he scolds, “should...
Observations on the Latest Modern Fiction Studies (x-posted to the Valve ) The Winter 2006 number of Modern Fiction Studies hit the streets this morning. This issue is special, devoted to what it calls “graphic narrative,” but which everyone I know calls “funny books.” De gustibus, yes, but accompanied by a strong impulse to legitimize the objects they’re studying. After all, this is MFS, not The Journal of Popular Culture. For the sake of reference, the previous special issue (Summer 2006) was devoted to Toni Morrison, not exactly a marginal figure in contemporary literature. Reading the introduction and first three essays, I sense that the audience of this issue is MFS readers, not scholars of the works in question. More evidence: Art Spiegelman’s Maus rests the on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Not that Maus isn’t brilliant—although, what with my interest in race and essentialism in contemporary literary studies and fin de siècle evolutionary theory, I find elements of it highly problematic—only that scholars have been embracing it for the better part of two decades. Project Muse alone pulls up 261 references to it, many of which with serious, scholarly titles like Erin Heather McGlothlin’s “No Time Like the Present: Narrative and Time in Art Spiegelman’s Maus” and Victoria A. Elmwood’s “‘Happy, Happy, Ever After’: The Transformation of Trauma between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.” Being the subject of articles in Narrative and Biography indicates a work has acquired canonical cachet—so much, in fact, that its mention lends prestige to the lowly genre to which it belongs. Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven, the editors of this issue, say as much: The project of this special issue is to bring the medium of comics—its conventions, its violation of its own conventions, what it does differently—to the forefront of conversations about the political, aesthetic, and ethical work of narrative. For many of us interested in graphic narrative, without any clear-cut methodology established for considering contemporary comics texts as multilayered narrative works (aside from debates within the field of postmodern fiction and postmodernism generally), and, until recently, without a range of examples to sit next to Maus on our bookshelves, Maus itself set the terms for ways to talk about what comics could do. It continues to set the terms, as a great, lasting work. While I endorse all Chute and DeKoven say here, I’m a little perplexed by the notion that “until recently, without a range of examples to sit next to Maus on our bookshelves.” Cerebus—about which I’ll say more in a minute—hit its stride thirty years ago with High Society, Church and State and Jaka’s Story; Neil Gaiman started publishing The Sandman in 1988; the first volume of Maus appeared in 1986. All of which is only to say, if someone couldn’t find something to put on their shelves alongside Maus, they must not have been looking. And before anyone complains this is my inner enthusiast speaking, let me state plainly: It isn’t. It’s my inner historicist—who is, admittedly, no less petulant—compelling me...

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