Monday, 19 March 2007

n+1 vs. Lit-Bloggers; or, on with the Resipiscence, already (x-posted from the Valve) The lit-blogging community is positively apoplectic about the latest n+1. In “The Intellectual Situation,” you’ll recall, the editors write: The blogs salved this ennui and created nourishing microcommunities. Yet criticism as an art didn’t survive. People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested .... The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction—"The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!"—or displeasure—"I shit on Dante!” So man hands information on to man. The pace of the contemporary moment is ruinous. Who has time to develop an opinion anymore? We must choose between the obvious and la critique trouvé. The former wins little readership; the latter, a devoted following. Canny appreciation will win a blogger an audience—earn him entrance into the nourishing microcommunity of his choosing—but the quality of his thought will suffer. He will repeat himself repeating others and be praised for it. But it’s not like the editors of n+1 won’t begrudge such coteries the solace of companionship. As Keith Gessen writes in an email Mark Sarvas posted: It’s just a different model of magazine. As you say, Eliot’s Criterion, where he published The Waste Land, or something like Partisan Review (those guys published their own poetry!), are places where the editors had things they wanted to say that they believed no one else was saying. Irving Howe’s Dissent. Herzen’s Bell. Dwight Macdonald’s Politics. Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. The other model is curatorial: you’re throwing a creative writing contest and whoever wins the contest gets published. That’s the New American Review or the Paris Review—or the thousand magazines associated with MFA programs. They’re both valid models, but obviously we’re working in the first one. Most of those—especially those publishing the work of the New York Intellectuals—are coterie work. When judging it, you take into account the intellectual environment that produced it. You look for the shared ideological, intellectual and personal assumptions of the group of people writing for a particular venue and you adjust your assessment accordingly. To rail against n+1 for treating a self-sustaining intellectual community as a single entity is a general complaint, one easily recognizable to you folk if I substitute “theorists” for “lit-bloggers.” You can, like Jodi, consider any such effort inherently dismissive, but much of what I’ve learned earning my Book of the Month Club degree says otherwise. The issue is always...
What, Wait, When? As mentioned elsewhere yesterday, I'm reading Allegra Goodman's Intuition on the advice of a friend in the hard sciences who claims it the most accurate (sociologically speaking) account of interlab dynamics. "Goodman captures," she said, "what happens when scientists stop being polite and start being real." (She reddened before the last word left her mouth.) I'm not sure she meant the entire novel—near the end, a lapsed Jew saves his lab's reputation in a House subcommittee by invoking Godwin's Law—but the routine indignance and perfunctory jealousy outlined in the first half of the novel ring true enough. What makes this novel unique, possibly even brilliant, is the sly turn Goodman pulls more than halfway through it. To this humanist, the descriptions of research sound bleeding edge. Isolating strains of a virus and militating them against cancer cells? Sounds plenty contemporary to me. Then I stumble across this passage on page 165: Larry and Wendy militated to keep software in the public domain and away from greedy profiteers like Lotus and Wordperfect, and their upstart rival, Microsoft. While other people wore FREE MANDELA T-shirts, Larry and Wendy donned shirts emblazoned FREE SOFTWARE. Microsoft an upstart? Mandela still imprisoned? This novel takes place in the '80s. Skimming through the first 164 pages, I find one passage about a backwards character eager to discuss Reagan's Star Wars initiative; but because this character prides himself on possessing the mindset of an earlier era, I took that reference as one more indication of his obsolescence. Sprung as it is, the Microsoft reference must be intentional. There's no other reason to, pause the sentence, and highlight, that Microsoft is, an upstart rival. Goodman wanted the reader to be shocked out of his or her moment, to feel their woeful ignorance of all this scientific. The ploy is well-played. Only now I feel like a ham.

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