Daily Archives: October 2, 2009

“Updike has psoriasis”


Anyone who has seen Todd Solondz’s scabrous Storytelling knows that it’s an uneven but still unsettling satire of the “post-modern condition.” The hapless “documentary film-maker” of the movie’s second half, “Non-Fiction,” hollowly boasts that he intends to get Jacques Derrida to narrate his latest project.  The first half of the movie, meanwhile, “Fiction,” takes place in an English department where the passive-aggressive politics of shame and resentment roil pointlessly in the seminar room.  Perhaps the clip above is something like the seminar-in-hell Clayton Chrusch imagined for himself last week.

Another, more horrific clip, after the break.

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Re: “Celebrity Scholars”


Responding to Russell Perkin:

We seem to be living in an age of sharply diminishing returns when it comes to literary scholarly relevance, let alone “celebrity.”  The “public scholar” is a curio now, a quaint holdover from an earlier age — when someone like Frye, for example, could boast of talking over the heads of his peers to the general reading public, and quip that while he believed in scholarly “rigor”, he was always concerned it might become “rigor mortis.” 

The turning point seems to have been the mid to late 1990s when the market in academic incoherence was reaching its surreal height, and notoriety took the place of celebrity.  First there was the Sokal hoax. Physicist Alan Sokal (above) strung together some poststructuralist gibberish in a paper with the all too familiar sounding title, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which was then duly published in the journal Social Text.  In announcing the hoax, Sokal said of his fraudulent paper that it was merely “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, which was “structured around the silliest quotations [he] could find about mathematics and physics” made by postmodernist academics. 

At about the same time, the journal Philosophy and Literature was holding its annual Bad Academic Writing contest, whose eminent winners included Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha and Frederic Jameson.  Here is editor Denis Dutton explaining the purpose of the competition:

The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere. Just as a cigar box is elevated by a Rembrandt painting, or a living room is dignified by sets of finely bound but unread books, so these kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight. Here is this year’s winning sentence, by Berkeley Prof. Judith Butler, from an article in the journal Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.

What seems to underlie this kind of phenomenon is a contempt for the non-specialist reading public, and that contempt has been returned.  Whenever you hear the banshees at Fox News howling about an “America-hating liberal elite,” you can be pretty sure the kind of people they have in mind. Universities are now mocked on the right as “islands of repression in a sea of liberty,” which of course is an ugly lie, but it’s a lie with just enough truth in it to gin up the anger on all sides.

In fact, it’s hard not to wonder whether the current sharp rise of demagoguery on the right is the result of the decline of the public scholar.  Frye called the university the engine room of society.  In what used to be known as the Humanities at least, the engine has been hacked at with crowbars for the last thirty years by self-declared iconoclasts and comfortably tenured revolutionists.  It may be that the steadily waning influence of this generation of scholars will have to collapse in on itself completely — the way the old Soviet Union did — before something better can take its place and a scholarship with a wide general audience can re-emerge.  Until then, maybe the best we can hope for are quasi-academic polemicists, like Naomi Klein.

Celebrity Scholars?


Bob’s account of the exchange between Frye and Wayne Booth (above) is a fascinating snapshot of an encounter between two great critics; a bit like the camera catching Tom Brady and Peyton Manning chatting before a game. And then I thought of the extent to which some critics had a kind of celebrity status, at least within the academic world, in the 1980s. One reviewer referred to Imre Salusinszky’s 1987 collection of interviews with various critics as the first hard-cover theory fan magazine, which did not do justice to an excellent book, but which probably did reflect the way that many of us read it (and looked at the photos).

Which made me wonder which critics, if any, have the same wide appeal today. Is literary studies too fragmented into subdisciplines and competing approaches for anyone to be able to have this authority now, or could another Anatomy of Criticism or Rhetoric of Fiction come along, another book that everyone has to read and discuss?

The late Edward Said was one such figure: Culture and Imperialism was published by a commercial press and must have sold widely, following on the immense influence of Orientalism. Terry Eagleton’s books also have a considerable profile.

I’d be very interested to hear what others think.

Who’s Anatomy?


“The present cannot really be known or understood except through the past.  It follows inescapably that the more we know of the past the more we know of the present.  As T.S. Eliot has . . . said, the poet is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” 

“I sometimes think with Oscar Wilde that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”

Do these two passages have a faint Frygian ring to them?  They are from Anatomy of Criticism.  Not Frye’s Anatomy but The Anatomy of Criticism  by Henry Hazlitt, pp. 155 and 239.

While on the topic––In 1982 Wayne Booth wrote to Frye to apologize for listing Anatomy of Criticism as The Anatomy of Criticism in the bibliography of The Rhetoric of Fiction, saying that it would be corrected in the next edition.  Frye replied: “Well, I don’t suppose it did any harm to either book to have mine listed as “TheAnatomy for a brief time.  Most people when speaking to me about it say ‘your Anatomy,’ which is much more disconcerting.  In the meantime, I am very pleased that ‘The’ Rhetoric of Fiction continues to do so well.”