Sunday, 23 November 2008

How not to use Theory's Empire Scanning through the critical literature on Kafka—the dissertation finished, I'm free to pursue old ideas—I run into an essay which uses Theory's Empire in the very manner the anthology's critics assumed everyone would. I will, however, Google-proof my exasperation by replacing all mentions of Derrida and things Derridean with cognates of the word carrot. The essay begins: The 2005 volume includes major reassessments of poststructuralist theory, notably [The Carrot's] . . . . The emphasis on "undecidability" in Kafka can be viewed as symptomatic of the influence of [Carrot] Theory embraced by the American literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s . . . . But [lowercase-c carrot's] skeptical effect undermined the certitude that Kafka was a politically important novelist. For its detractors, the [carrotist] view that there is "nothing outside of the text" ignores that texts like Kafka's have shaped human lives and human history. Reductive enough for you? No? How about this? Wellek, who helped to introduce [Carrot] theory to American literature departments, now asserts that [carrots] have destroyed literary studies, while Frederick Crews argues that "[the Carrot's] judgment that 'there is nothing outside the text' automatically precludes recourse to evidence." In Crews's view, "both [the Carrot] and his myriad followers think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected." Thomas Nagel goes further in condemning "post-modern relativism" as a "quick fix" which puts reason to sleep. In Theory's Empire, [the Carrot]'s language is described as a "maze," a "prison house of language," a "limbo of combined attention and nonassertion." These assessments appeal to raw authority. Crews and Nagel hate on [the Carrot] and rightly so. Why? Because [the Carrot's] language is as empty and invidious as that of Kafka's bureaucrats: [T]o what degree do [the Carrot's] rhetorical devices and ingenious language games resemble the language of the Courtiers who torture Joseph K.? Care to guess what conclusion the author draws? I take comfort in the thought that everyone will admit this is an awful appropriation of the thought forwarded in Theory's Empire—that it is to academic argument what posts on Kos are to nuanced political thought—but remember that this sort of anti-intellectual response is exactly what the anthology's detractors warned would follow if it ever gained traction. While I think this falls under "the abuses" instead of "the uses" of the collection, I still feel the queasy creep of wrongness starting to settle in . . . .
Black people can't swim, &c. In the summer of 1968, Charles Schulz—born yesterday in 1922—decided not to take the path of least resistance. In the first months of the Presidential race, the politics of Peanuts were as inscrutable as ever: The political positions of the birds—one of whom Schulz would christen “Woodstock” two years later—are literally cryptic. (Snoopy later embraced of identity politics via a nifty collapse of signifier into signified, but let’s not lit-crit these panels quite yet.) For Schulz, the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were less important than baseball: This dead-pan surrealism here is Peanuts at its artistic best, but at a time when America was at war and a segregationist was a viable Presidential candidate, dead-pan surrealism wasn’t the order of the day. So Schulz sent Charlie Brown to the beach: This strip’s a fairly typical example of Charlie Brown’s half-hearted exasperation with an unfair world. The next? Not only does the world cease its relentless, playful torment of Charlie Brown, but the boy who tamps it down is black and can swim. Because on 31 July 1968, Schulz introduced the world to Franklin. May not seem like much, but it’s as explicitly political as Peanuts ever ventures. Until, that is, 1 August 1968: The father of Franklin, the black boy who swims, is over in Vietnam. That second panel neatly illustrates how far Schulz strayed from his comfort zone. Charlie Brown’s father “was in a war, but [he doesn't] know which one.” That’s the extent to which contemporary politics typically intruded the most popular daily comic in America. But for some reason, Schulz felt the need to contradict conventional racist wisdom that summer. The racists responded in the manner befitting Wallace-backers: “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.” It must’ve sucked to be a racist. Unless, that is, you’re a fan of Dennis the Menace: That’s from 13 May 1970, two years after Schulz quietly integrated public schools. There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics. Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football. (x-posted.)

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