Thursday, 06 December 2007

What is the Regnant Theory of Naturalism, Anyway? As there's confusion over basic procedural issues like how long a dissertation abstract should be (one single-spaced page, two single-spaced pages, five single-spaced pages), I figure there's no harm in asking a basic intellectual question: What do you consider the dominant theory of naturalism? If I'm to be redefining it, I ought to know what the majority of scholars think it is. I'm tempted to follow Lisa Long, who, in her review of three recent attempts at defining naturalism, threw up her hands in defeat: In the end, naturalism turns back on itself, becomes the uncategorizable category, precisely because the taxonomic and evolutionary tendency of literary history is naturalist in and of itself—concerned in its own way with determining what nineteenth-century critic Hippolyte Taine theorized as the ubiquitous "race, moment, and milieu" that have produced literary naturalism and other generic categories. American literary genres emerge as living, breathing, and ever-changing entities in these texts and in critical history as a whole; much collective scholarly energy has been spent, like that of biological taxonomists, looking for similarities between genres/"species" of literature, and hierarchicalizing those groups based on evolutionary relationships. She identifies the current attempt to define naturalism as one more lost battle in a long, unwinnable war ... which means the best I can accomplish in my introduction is another pointed setback in an unending campaign of failure. Of course, I could really surrender and claim, as one critic recently did, that naturalism is "less a movement than a jumble of proffered peculiarities." The mind rails against the brutal honesty of that definition, but I admire its bravado. So which naturalism should I be redefining? The most current consensus? The most powerful?
You Don't Deserve the Job You Land Any More than You Don't the One You Don't (This post began as a response to Sisyphus' latest post, but was eaten by Blogger. Instead of risking repetition, I'm posting it here. I'm not telling anyone anything they don't already know. I just think it's important to remind people what "random" really means.) I know about fifteen people on the market this year, and I'm constantly having to remind them not to personalize their successes and failures. When they fail, they appeal to the randomness of the market and despair—but when they succeed, they believe it a sign of their inherent value. They're now beautiful and unique snowflakes whose true value has been finally been recognized! Never do they stop and think about all the candidates who didn't land that job—you know, the ones who are at home consoling themselves by appealing to the randomness of the market. So I want to say this loud and clear: Those of you who land interviews, campus visits and offer sheets? You are no more deserving of them than anyone else on the market. I know you think you are—I know you're thrilled by the very thought of your own deservedness, but consider the conditions of your "triumph." You have bested your contemporaries in a game of chance. Put another way: Do some players deserve to win at roulette? Are they inherently better scholars because they do? Of course not. Having been on two hiring committees now, I can tell you that, short of gross incompetence, the odds of you making the final cut depend not on you, but on a host of factors to which you're not privy. They include, but are not limited to: the personal histories of the committee members; internal departmental politics; unadvertised but vital institutional needs; &c. (And &c. &c. &c.) For example, your chapter on Wyndham Lewis might be forthcoming in Modernism/modernity, but if one of the committee members believes Lewis' contributions to Vorticism are overshadowed, aesthetically, by Jessica Dismorr's, and that were it not for the sexist assumptions of early 20th Century art critics (which, by writing on Lewis, you've unthinkingly replicated) Dismorr would be hosanahed and Lewis dustbinned—if someone on the committee believes that, you've no shot at that job. Your merits matter far, far less than their prejudices.* If, however, you happened to write on Dismorr, and this same person is on the committee, you're almost guaranteed a campus visit. This is what I mean when I say you don't deserve the what you land any more than you don't what you don't. If you remove the personal element—if you treat the market like a roulette wheel, you won't believe your losses reflect poorly on you, nor that your victories are deserved. They're not. This will make you a much happier person. That is all. *A purely hypothetical example. I just happened to be reading Shane Weller's "Nietzsche among the Modernists: The Case of Wyndham Lewis," from the latest Modernism/modernity, before I composed this post.

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