On Felski’s Hooked

A woman said to the profession,
“Hey, experiences of literature exist!”
“However,” replied the profession,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

My first conscious aesthetic experience, for the purposes of this blog post, is a moment when I must have been eight or so. We had gone to a theme park and had been riding on a rollercoaster in the dark (whee!); the rollercoaster stopped, we got out in the half-dark, guided by a single light (probably not, truthfully, but hey, memories) to a swing door. The door opened, and we stepped into the glistening lights of a (fake, obviously) Paris boulevard-side café, all white facades around us, little tables set under triple street lights, also white-painted, with large (fake?) maples (?) set between, everything bright, sparkling, beautiful. It was a shocking experience, so much so that I can still remember (or imagine) it today—and still feel the same about it today that I felt then. I’ll always have fake German theme park post-darkness Paris.

Looking back on it—not even as a trained reader of culture, merely as an adult—I recognize, of course, that my reaction was a bit out of whack: my response was partially manufactured (surely the theme park designer realized the effect of darkness-to-light), partially rose-tinted; those cutesy little tables were probably bolted to the ground and littered with discarded fast food boxes. Such criticism devalues, in a manner of speaking, my initial aesthetic experience. Am I “obscuring or overshadowing [my] objects rather than allowing them to shine forth” (134)? I suppose. Is that, in this instance, a bad thing? I’d like to say not.

This is a problem I will recur to throughout this meandering, long review of Rita Felski’s Hooked. I don’t know if Rita Felski would agree, and in part, I want to say that that’s because Hooked doesn’t actually tell me. It does, to its credit, tell me a lot that I didn’t know before about what Felski things the troubles with the discipline are and what we could be doing differently—after the polemic of Limits of Critique, that’s very refreshing. In fact, the entirety of chapter 4 of Hooked is meant to (but I’ll come back to that, too) tell us what her ideas about attunement and attachment could mean for the work we do in the discipline. But overall, I’m still baffled, and this is going to be a grumpy means of puzzling out why.

Hooked’s split into two parts: the first three chapters, on attachment, attunement, and identification, reiterate (in the last case, literally) points Felski has made elsewhere about how reading (to her) works, and what terms might best describe the personal relationships people build up with art. None of this is new, either in terms of content or in terms of style; and it’s this latter bit that grates more than the largely unspectacular claims about how people relate to art.

It’s strange to say it, but Hooked at 163 pages is wordy. It is repetitive—not just of earlier things Felski has said, including essentially reprinting her essay from Character, but also of itself, repeating over and over variations of the (controversial?!) idea that aesthetic experiences happen, and are not completely internal to either the observer or to the work of art . Felski has honed a writing style that is long on generalities and short on particulars, especially when it comes to naming names and providing evidence for her largest claims. Large claims stand on narrow grounds (“Attunement cannot occur without a nascent state of readiness; aesthetics cannot forgo or dispense with the first-person response” because Zadie Smith was surprised by suddenly liking Joni Mitchell on a visit to Tintern Abbey; 52). Words like “the usual” do very heavy lifting: throughout the book, Felski posits, but never establishes, common place versions of academia, critique, literary studies, professional reading, non-professional reading, indeed even of aesthetics and social theories of art, that she studiously avoids weighing down with footnotes. The breeziness of Felski’s prose makes Hooked a preternaturally easy read (that is, if you discount the breaks for throwing, cursing, breathing in, picking up, and settling back into a reading stance); it also makes it deeply annoying to anybody, I think, who would be interested in getting answers to the questions that Felski poses throughout. Nor does the book offer much in the way of readerly guidance as to the relevance of these claims for anything. My most frequent annotations, I see as I skim my notes, in the first three chapters are “evidence?” and “so?”—the latter being shorthand for “even if I grant you this wild claim, what the everloving hey does it mean!?”

This may well be me: I’m clearly not attuned to insistences like “Mediation does not detract from the magic of art but creates it” (78; this is not Marxist mediation, sadly.) Fuck the magic of art! But while I can skip these kinds of esotericisms, I have a much harder time when, just a line or two before, Felski insists that she has “argued a thesis: that attunement is the result […] of things ‘coming together’ in expected or unexpected ways” (ibid.). The thing here is: if this were thesis in a paper I was grading, I would return the paper. That’s not a thesis: that’s a description of everything. “Life” is… “Happiness” is… “All there is, is…” This definition, such as it is, may even be correct: but eloquently describing an impossible “puzzle” (ibid.) does not make an operative theory, as the rest of her book also plainly shows. Sheila Liming has pointed to Felski’s rhetorical violence in her LARB review, her insistence on describing her intervention as cutting, slicing, and so on (I disagree that this is a major thing, by the way); I want to point, instead and again, to her persistent use of constructions that in her deft hands are variations of both/and: not all; and yet; another word is; but also. Felski throughout asks us to see as meaningful that attunement can be sudden and mysterious, but also explicitly worked towards; not all of it arrives as a bolt from the blue, some of it does and some of it doesn’t; attunement is societally prefigured, and yet people disagree with one another about art. Long and short, spontaneous or willed, this, and that, and something other yet, aesthetic experience is ineffable.

This remains of a rhetorical piece with her penchant to insist that those things she doesn’t want to do anymore are “only” doing one (bad) thing: “If a work exists only as an object to be deciphered, its impact will be attenuated” (152), she writes (repeating herself). Yes, I say. Who thinks art should be treated like that? Better: what theory proscribes that? What method works like that? These lines—and they remain frequent in this book—are still strawmen, still do not describe the reality of critical work. This is, perhaps, the most clearly frustrating aspect of the book: the sense that, after twelve years (since Uses of Literature) of repeating claims about the discipline that fellow scholars have resolutely sought to counteract, Felski cannot be bothered to engage. After Limits of Critique, which almost singlehandedly made postcritique a thing, such criticism on its part has engaged (not: dismissed) with Felski’s desire to move literary studies towards ANT, broken down the problems with her championing of experience, and commented explicitly on her penchant for sweeping generalizations about the discipline’s diverse methodology. In Hooked, none of these criticisms are picked up, no defense is made, no argument put forward to situate her work against her critics. After twenty years at least of engagement with the clear limits of Latour’s ANT, not critic of Latour warrants citing. What much of Felski’s argument boils down to, I think, is that modes that don’t pay attention to the experience of individual artworks cannot account for the experience of individual artworks (see 45-47 for what I mean). That’s shocking! The only thing more shocking, perhaps, is that Felski then proceeds to not account for these experiences either. In an echo of Caroline Levine’s Forms, subjectless actors in a Latourian network make things happen. “As constellations [of what?] come together or fall apart, as actors turn into allies or antagonists, as meanings are remediated and translated, new realities come into view—and new attachments to artworks are formed” (48). Does this help us understand why Felski is “captivated by The Unconsoled rather than Ishiguro’s other works” (47)? How is this not just a pretentiously theoretical paraphrase of “somehow!”? In point of fact: how, and why, do constellations come together? What makes networks? Who pushes actors into new networks? How do things happen? These questions are, to be sure, more readily addressed to ANT than Felski, but given that for the past twelve years or so, ANT has been what Felski champions as a replacement for critique, I find it baffling that she does not—one presumes cannot—answer them. Another way of saying that “ANT’s flat ontology is designed to skirt dichotomies” (138) is to say ANT doesn’t take a stance on anything. Network theory, certainly as Felski uses it, but I think generally, does not answer questions of why—or “is that a good thing”—it only answers questions of how. In fact, I think, she is wrong there, given that “how” seems to at least allow for a causal answer. “How does it do that?” “By doing X…”. What ANT seems to do instead is asked “what connections are made”? That is fine as a point of departure, I guess (if you’re not interested in questions of history, or of power), but it’s not a place to end.

Felski, appealing for generosity of spirit in a (slightly tacked-on) final couple of paragraphs, is not generous enough to acknowledge, let alone debate her critics; this is all the more unfortunate given that her final chapter does address some of the obvious gaps in her previous writing. I’ll turn to this section now. Perhaps a “period of incubation” (58) will be necessary to appreciate the first three chapters of Hooked as more than a somewhat trite set of banalities about aesthetic experiences reported by an expert spinner of tales. But I rather think not. The problem with this book is not that its attempt to make attunement, attachment, and identification operative as points for professional critical engagement are unpersuasive; it’s that even if they were persuasive, Felski does not manage to make them cohere into a program for literary studies.

There so, so many ways in which this book takes long strides over logical crevasses. Felski takes reported experience for granted as actual experience; and of course, she must, because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have anything to write about. But she never deigns to theorize this gesture of surrender to the truth of self-reportage. Would anything about her theory (such as it is) change if it turned out that Zadie Smith liked Joni Mitchell all along, or that T.J. Clark is not offering a “painstakingly precise record of what he sees,” but rather a record of things he sees that he a) consciously noticed and then b) felt worth reporting to his readers (59)? When she insists that to understand the analysis that Claudia Breger’s film Western puts forth, “no strenuous reading against the grain is needed,” but only what she calls readerly “actualization” (146), why does she appear to think that a critical reading of Breger’s film is not merely an “actualization” of things in Breger’s film that another actualization does not achieve? How does she determine what is “in” a film, and what is not? If this is not the point, why does a critical reading, being read in turn, not simply aid in the actualization of a different reception of Breger’s film? If it is—then why does Felski not have the courtesy to acknowledge that point? (And of course, in saying all of this, I’ve not even mentioned the simple point that no-one disputes that some films have overt political messages that need not be read against the grain!) What are we to make of a line such as “coactors are needed to discern the metaphysical subtleties of Mozart” (140)? Are these “subtleties” actually there, in Mozart all along—that seems to be the force of “discern.” Or are they “made” in the network of actors—like Latour’s “social”? Are metaphysical subtleties “valuable”? If so, why? A text, she avers, “is not a sequence of signs to be decoded but a structure that we come to inhabit” (77). Surely, at the very least, and very practically, a text is exactly a sequence of signs to be decoded before anything else can happen with it or through it or from it to anybody else: decoding signs is precisely what reading is, is it not? Does decoding play no part in inhabiting the “structure” of the text? What kind of structure is it? Is this structuralism’s structure (surely not)? Do the words “structure” and “inhabit” mean anything here, or are they just nice-sounding ? Again: the breeziness of Felski’s prose, the light steps she takes when paragraphs end in declaratives whose corollaries remains studiously unexplored and whose evidence remains thin at best, the rapid-fire, individually low-stakes but cumulatively fundamental, no-evidence claims that Felski has made her trademark are very much present here.

But here, I think the fact that Felski departs from polemic in the final section, and turns towards attempting to forge a pedagogy, makes it all the more problematical. What remains utterly, and shockingly, unclear, is what all this ANTish work is supposed to be doing. Felski is quick to dismiss the “unearned complacency” of “humanists patting themselves on the back for creating empathetic persons or democratically minded citizens” (130), but precisely what it does to “trace out the entanglement of humans and nonhumans within the borders of literary works” (136) does is left obscure. It’s also left obscure how this work is in any way more “attuned” or closer to how ordinary people read—as in, my mum doesn’t trace out the connections to the world in Virginia Woolf’s careful description of the stamp (see 136-137), in large part because mum doesn’t read Virginia Woolf, but in a smaller part because that’s no more how real people read than critique is. In fact, when Felski cites Gabriel Hankins’s “compositionist aesthetics” as a possible ANTish reading practice, noting that it shows how “novels give eloquent testimony to the force of things” (137), I wonder if I’m being messed with. Who can take seriously, as meaningful, readings in which “the postal service” of Imperial Britain becomes a “thing” like her pencil, and the “worldwide network” in which Woolf sits “just a “commonplace object,” imperialism, power, and institutionalizing political and social forces vanish, and stamps become the “stars” of a book (ibid.)? Such is the magic of art. But problematically, what this no longer is, is a turn towards more ordinary forms of reading. If everybody has aesthetic experiences, nobody reads networks; but if reading for networks, for connections drawn, is now a thing that can be taught to students, why can we not also train people in better critique? Network-reading is “relevant model” for their own reading; but it’s not something that interests them in the first place. But if critique being “offputting,” as she had it in Limits, should be a strike against it—by what rationale can you not teach everybody, Johnny Q. Public included, to appreciate it, and the work it does? This returns me to the question I raised above: in what way are critical readings not means to a “better” actualization of the text, but rather violence on it? The answer is, of course: in no way, except in so far as Felski wills it.

The problem with the whole of Felski’s approach comes through best, I think, in the final pages, where she addresses her sense of translating her ideas into practice. She reports on her use of Lost in Translation, a memoir by Eva Hoffmann, in a class usually reserved for critical readings of postcolonial and transnational theorists. Hoffmann, Felski notes, has been the subject of important critiques: her memoir has been read as “based on misperceptions that need correction.” But, she suggests, “one might [instead] come to identify with Hoffman’s perspective or find oneself reattuned by the sensuous gravity and clarity of her style” (152). Boldly venturing into Godwin’s law territory, we might note that it’s easy to attune with the Polish émigre longing for her home, slightly more taxing to think through what this alternative position to take on a work of art (oh, and by the way: that’s not a term Felski defines, in this neoliberal age!) would do if you had your class watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Her intense attachment to facism remains affectively foreign, but now I know what it means to celebrate the Fuhrer, hate the Jews, and glory in martial imagery (see 153—just to make sure, I’m extrapolating here terms appropriate for Nazi fascism, not saying that these things are things Felski thinks.). Is that a good thing? I, again, do not know; I doubt Felski knows; I doubt this is very well thought-through. Of course, Felski has earlier hedged her bets to note that dismissal or rejection are also forms of acknowledgment, and so she can certainly say for herself that her attunement to Leni’s camera work might not mean she “acquir[es] a deeper understanding” of a desire to celebrate the Fuhrer, hate the Jews, and glory in martial imagery “that has implications, both existential and political, extending well beyond [Riefenstahl’s] works” (154; I’m extrapolating again!). But she cannot say this for everybody: nor, theoretically speaking, should she; for ANT, all connections are the same.

I’m not fan of Felski’s work (and here she goes saying Marxists can’t deal with surprises). But I was genuinely curious, and like to think genuinely open-minded, when I read that she was going to explain the relevance of her thoughts for critical practice. I ended up in a strange place. It goes without saying that I still don’t know how attachments, attunements, and identifications work: I doubt we ever will, and the trite commonplaces of “it takes lots of things coming together!” are inexcusable, frankly. I’m partially intrigued by Felski’s ideas for a critical practice, the notion that to read with a sensibility for attunement in mind, we may be able to train students into being better “knowing how something is rather than that something is” (153). But to me, this just simply begs the question: what is the value of knowing, and being able to teach to know, the use of literature to know “how” something is—how to “learn to be affected by literature”? What is the value of affect? What is the work that this work will do? I can’t help but think that this is an unbridgeable impasse.

Rather than asking, “What does this work fail to see?” one can ask, “What is this work forcing me to notice?” Rather than deploying political or philosophical perspectives to interpret a work, one considers how it might alter or reframe those perspectives. (153).

Me, me, me. If you’re the kind of critic who thinks what you notice, what the individual is touched by, in the kind of flat ontology, ahistorical, and in principle necessarily value-free network of connections that Felski draws from Latour, is important, you’ll probably like this. You’ll like it when scholars trace the connections which Woolf’s description of her character using a stamp traces on a world map free of power struggles; you’ll like it when classrooms start paying attention to “beautifully handled reflection(s) on aesthetic attachments and how they are formed [in a single individual] in predictable [retrospectively] and unpredictable ways, without ever losing sight of the music” (154). And you’ll probably dispute that one, fairly major, problem with this “sense of inhabiting from within” (153) cannot theoretically be different whether you’re watching Triumph of the Will or Roots.

But make your case—Hooked doesn’t.

A Scholarly Apology

Jeremy’s Book

A couple of weeks ago, Palgrave published Corinna Norrick-Rühl’s and my edited collection, The Novel as Network: Forms, Ideas, Commodities. And now I need to take the small platform of this blog to apologize to one of the contributors, Jeremy Rosen.

Jeremy’s an extremely smart scholar and one whose work I’ve had the pleasure to engage with for quite some time now! His Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace (Columbia UP, 2016) is an astoundingly good book, one that I encourage you to go out and buy immediately, not just because of its unique topic, but because it’s superbly well-written and uses what in less deft hands would have been a simple thematic study (Look! A minor character from Shakespeare! How interesting!) to do deep explorations not just of its chosen texts, but of so complex a topic as genre as a whole. His Post45 essay, “Literary Fiction and the Genres of Genre Fiction,” has been a text I’ve engaged with over and over because of the depth of its insight and the productive quibbles I’ve had with bits of it. And one less productive engagement with, which is the occasion for this post.

Jeremy is a contributor to the above mentioned book, but crucially, he is also mentioned in the essay I wrote for the volume, which is called “The Novel Network and the Work of Genre.” There, I suggest that part of my argument will be that something interesting is going on in the contemporary moment’s development of genre, genre fiction, and the literary novel, and suggest that one possible immediate reply to what I posit as a “belief” in the opening is simply to say, “no it’s not.” I say:

The Book

The simplest reply to this second belief amounts to its dismissal: the novel has always been omnivorous of genres, “plasticity itself” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s phrase (1980: 39). If not always, then at least since postmodernism and its voracious pastiches—at any rate, there is nothing interesting going on in the turn to genre that we appear to have been diagnosing for the past couple of years. “Literary fiction,” says Jeremy Rosen, “has always worked with existing genres, because all texts use genres” (2018).

I think that an argument can be made that such a reply shortchanges what is happening in the current moment, that something more is happening in the contemporary that shifts, if slightly and in fits and starts, the idea of what “the novel” is.

Lanzendörfer, Tim (2020). “The Novel Network and the Work of Genre.” The Novel as Network: Forms, Ideas, Commodities. Ed. Tim Lanzendörfer and Corinna Norrick-Rühl. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. 70.

The quote is taken from Jeremy’s above-mentioned essay, and what I make of it here is essentially: Jeremy Rosen says that nothing interesting is going on, and that we can dismiss the turn to genre.” That is completely and utterly false, and nothing like that appears in Jeremy’s writing. It is also not what I thought the paragraph I wrote said, but that’s neither here nor there, obviously. Jeremy my apologies—that was not my intention. I meant the quote illustratively (It’s correct! This has been going on!) of points that people might use to deduce that nothing interesting is going on, not that Jeremy is saying that nothing interesting is going on, which he manifestly, obviously, straightforwardly is not.

I genuinely thought this paragraph worked. But having been told by attentive readers that it doesn’t, I can also see it. I can’t probably do anything much about the book, but if readers of it find my blog, or per chance googling Jeremy leads here, maybe it helps.

There’s a lesson here I hope I’ll learn, though I’m not sure which it is. I’d appreciate pointers.

On Kathleen Fitzpatrick: Generous Thinking

I tend to write about books on here that I have arguments with, because I need to get things off my chest and nobody tends to publish pointless and unfocused rants on theory, except postcritique collections (I kid!). But this time around, I want to write things about a book that I have enjoyed reading like I have few books in the last few years. I also agree with much of it, and I’m in awe of the writing. I’m talking about Katherine Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Go and buy it. And I write because today (well, tomorrow, actually, or whenever the stupid contract actually gets signed), I start my job as a Heisenberg Research Professor (no tenure) for Literary Theory and Public Literary Criticism, and I think Fitzpatrick’s book will be a guide to me for the next five years.

I came to it from Phil Wegner’s Invoking Hope: Theory and Utopia in Dark Times (which, incidentally, I also enjoyed!). Wegner notes in there that he felt “the argument [Fitzpatrick] advances for generosity of mind and openness to possibility complements the claims I advance” (222); and since I also am a firm believer in Phil Wegner’s argument, as voiced in Invoking Hope, and want to make use of it in my own work, Fitzpatrick’s seemed a must-read. I’ll say this: Wegner’s certainly right to say that Fitzpatrick complements his own work. It’s also distinctly different, and part of this post is to point out how it’s different, and why that matters to me—and also, perhaps, why it ought to matter to you?

As both readers of my blog know, I’m very much engaged in the critique-postcritique discussion, and Wegner’s book is, too—affirmatively on the side of critique and of theory, and with an eye towards establishing why the postcritical alternative isn’t an alternative at all, but rather an abdication of professionalism and, through its refusal of hermeneutics and interpretation, a deeply solipsistic endeavor. In this sense, it is a reinforcement of a general trend towards singularity rather than solidarity—to any Marxist, whether Wegner or myself, not at all a good idea, that is. As Wegner points out, too, much of postcritique in fact rests on a misrepresentation of critique, its essential openness and dialogism, and the way that (at least, Jamesonian, and, at least, theoretical!) critique is meant to be a dialogue, and not meant to postulate final truths.

I find Wegner’s points to be persuasive and strong, and cannot find anything in postcritical writing to rebut him, largely because, as I and others have now ad nauseam pointed out, postcritique doesn’t actually point to any concrete examples of critique when it critiques critique—it just claims. Wegner’s work is important, and I think it makes a good case for why we need theory, and utopian thinking. Where I think it doesn’t go far enough is in trying to diagnose opportunities for shared thinking about the future, or deeper problems about how we do our work. And Fitzgerald offers much of this.

At the heart of her book, somewhat unsurprisingly, is a call to be more “generous,” and I’ll confess that I found this, from the title of the book alone, a bit—naïve, maybe? Coming from contemporary literary theory, it sounded very much like the postcritical call to be more appreciative of texts. Needless to say, having read the book, I find it a concept that carries, and that is deeper, and more theoretically and politically committed, than postcritique. It’s also far, far more self-aware. Fitzpatrick is very aware of postcritique, quoting and commenting on Felski (very generously),  and I think she does an excellent job of picking up strands that she agrees with without being dismissive of things one suspects she may not. No need to rehash here my point that Felski’s diagnosis of literary studies is wrong, of course. As an aside: interestingly, I think some of the certainty that drives postcritical belief in the primacy of suspicion is located in the kinds of scenarios Fitzgerald offers in the introduction,  a scene in a graduate seminar in, it’s assumed, an English Department. Having offered a recent article for discussion, she receives “fairly merciless takedowns, pointing out the essay’s critical failures” (2), instead of open engagement with the premises and arguments of the text. And, in another anecdote, that’s what I was told, too (I didn’t go to U.S. graduate school): when I talked about Felski in 2016 with a colleague at UC Davis, he also told me that he saw the truth of Felski’s points in his graduate seminars. So fair enough, and interesting; not, still, I think, actual evidence of the most immodest claims of postcritique, but at least intersubjectively useful pointers to where and how this exists.

Most of my penciled notes of disagreement are in the chapter “Reading Together,” and I don’t want to delve into these here, as I will do so in more detail and rigour, I hope, in a forthcoming article. What I am completely on board with is the perspective change which Fitzgerald brings to bear on literary studies here. “Critical humility is one key to generous thinking,” Fitzgerald says at one early point (39). In that forthcoming essay, I am wrestling with this point—I call it critical modesty there, for reasons that are too long to go into here—and I want to emphasize it here, because I think it’s one of my two major takeaways from the call of this book, the other being to work toward restructuring completely the university’s internal and external, all of the social that is, relationships: first and foremost, to engage in literary studies not competitively but collegially, and to extend this understanding of a common interest and the ability to learn from, rather than against one another, to the larger public. And I want to emphasize (in fact, I have done so once before) that those in privileged positions, even in relatively privileged positions, as academics, often tenured, in stable, well-paid, publically-financed jobs have an obligation. Fitzpatrick notes this obligation, but also frames it as a request of generosity—a smart move, to be sure—and I think it can get lost how very, very radical it is, because it does involve getting us out of our comfort zones: it’s not enough to write for the Los Angeles Review of Books and claim you’re a public intellectual. It’s vital to look to the “world beyond” (157), as Fitzpatrick notes. It’s also vital to be active, and engaging, and not just to wait for people to come to you. Another anecdote: at a recent workshop, I felt obliged to note that it’s not nearly enough to say, even if it is true, that everybody could theoretically come to our lecture classes (in Germany, lectures are generally open to the public), or to say that our conferences are available to all. The campus isn’t, in a meaningful sense, a public space, or if it’s public, it’s not particularly inviting. We cannot wait for the public to come to us, we need to find, and find ways to talk to, the public. That’s incumbent upon us, especially if we are paid by that same public.

I’m not doing the book enough justice; but this is already running on too long, so let me end here. Two final things (again, not as generous as I would like to be): I cannot stress enough how different, despite superficial agreement, Fitzgerald’s book is from postcritical proposals, and if nothing else (though there is some “else”) in its unromantic view of what needs to be done. Where Felski et al. sound like it’s enough to just write different essays for American Literary History, as if literary studies can remain relevant simply by changing its methods, Fitzgerald knows that there is no meaningful survival for the humanities without a radically changed university. For that alone, this is a necessary read to literary studies scholars. Second, let me conclude by quoting at some length an early episode in Fitzpatrick’s book:

[A] few years ago, after a talk in which a well-respected scholar discussed the broadening possibilities that should be made available for humanities PhDs to have productive and fulfilling careers outside the classroom, including in the public humanities, I overheard a senior academic say with some bemusement, “I take the point, but I don’t think it works in all fields. There’s long been a ‘public history’. But can you imagine a ‘public literary criticism’?” His interlocutor chortled bemusedly: the very idea. But the word has long been filled with public literary critics, from the most well-regarded and widely disseminated book reviews through large-scale public reading projects to widespread fan production. All of these are modes of literary work that reach out to nonspecialist audiences and draw them into the kinds of interpretation and analysis that scholars profess, and we ignore that work to our great detriment.

I remain in awe at Fitzpatrick’s generosity here: I also am weak enough to say that I am on board with the spirit, but would like to the see the notion extended. My own work over the next five years will, hopefully, be to build on that but to ask and answer something slightly different: Can you imagine a public literary studies?  We need the work of review, of reading projects, and fan engagement, without any doubt at all. But I think that’s not “the kinds of interpretation and analysis that scholars profess”—for certain, it’s not the work I do, or read in Contemporary Literature. The work I do is not “better,” or even “more complex.” It is, however, an expression of a particular set of professionalized practices—a return on our ability to invest a lot of time and labor into the act of reading—that I feel is well described as “strong.” Again: I mean this disagreement not to disparage in any way Fitzpatrick’s larger claims, which I think may not actually be in disagreement with me here, although they may. I think we are, as literary critics “better readers” in a certain sense—a sense conditioned, again, by the sheer mass of time we (can) spend reading, and our interpretative reading tends to end in different places than lay readers does. But I think that that work has value: and I think that that work can be public. We can make our interpretative work, our historicizing work, our work on the text as symptom, public; and when we do, we must keep in mind Fitzpatrick’s injunction to do so generously. That, I think, must mean to advocate for the principles of interpretation, not the results; not to sell a reading, but to engage with readers in readings; and to bring the necessary modesty to bear on ourselves and our findings, understanding them as provisional and, perhaps, so pre-focused by our professionalism that meanings escape us that are otherwise available.

Five years, then, to advocate for public literary studies. But if that project fails, as fail it might, I’ll be glad to know that Generous Thinking is there to say things that need to be said.

Toril Moi: Revolution of the Ordinary

revolution-of-the-ordinaryI’ve been struggling for a couple of weeks now with a review of Toril Moi’s 2017 Revolution of the Ordinary, and I’ll use this blog post for two things, I think. First, I need to work through why this review gave me so much trouble; and second, I’ll expand here on a couple of points that I couldn’t raise in the review for reasons of space. It’s already inordinately long (here’s a PDF of the draft)!

I’ll say this to start: I’ve reviewed quite a few books in my career, but this one has best shown me the limits of the review as a form of engagement (Moi might say “acknowledgment”) with a text. It’s just a relict. What Moi’s book needs is a discussion more akin to the roundtable which nonsite.org had on it, but even more open, with a genuine back and forth, a question and answer format maybe, in which my genuine puzzlement might be picked up by an open-minded Moi. Because the thing is: in the end, I think I have more questions for Moi than a desire to complain, and I would much prefer her to tell me what she thinks about those questions than accuse her book of being a shallow disappointment (which I kinda do in my review).

But you can’t have a discussion in academia! And so I’ll repeat my review in a nutshell, and then proceed from there. Moi’s project in the book is deceptively simple: as she has it, it’s to “rethink fundamental issues in literary theory in the light of the ‘ordinary’ reading” (18) of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language philosophy, largely as it has interpreted by Stanley Cavell, who is also her second major philosophical source. There’s a minute bit of J.L. Austen in this book, but it’s really a mislabeling—Wittgenstein by Cavell would be the most realistic description. And it’s a joy to read, at least at first! Moi’s a good writer, as you know if you’ve read anything by her, and she offers what appears a cogent and precise reading of the parts of Wittgenstein that are important to her.

But problems arise as she goes along. When she turns to literary theory—and it’s late she does so, after about two thirds of the book have passed—it’s to do two things that are constantly, and at times annoyingly, interrelated. Moi offers a general—and philosophically grounded, though that may not mean much—attack on “theory” (which, as someone a generation younger than Moi, I confess to find a bit esoteric) and a related attack on the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” familiar as the chief antagonist of postcritique. Both of these attacks are well-taken and cogent (if you buy that Wittgenstein is more correct about language than the structuralists, and that Moi’s interpretation of Wittgenstein is correct, among a few things). Moi is most interested here in theory’s alleged tendency to prefigure its readings, that is to say: if you subscribe to a theory such as the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (which isn’t really a theory, anyway), you will always read suspiciously, and all your readings will bear out these suspicions, so that all literature will end up deserving of suspicion. This may sound familiar. Like fellow postcritics, Moi also does not mean to dismiss critique (and in her case, quite unlike Felski’s, I actually buy that) outright: merely to suggest that suspicion must follow attention to the text, rather than precede it. She then ends by offering a number of what she takes to be alternatives, alternatives which will sounds familiar to readers of postcritique: a foregrounding of the act of reading as an individual experience, stress on communicating the “adventure” of reading, understanding the specific affordances of literature as a communicative action dependent on the acknowledgment of the other’s writing, and so on. I won’t say that the details of this aren’t important to distinguishing Moi’s version of postcritique from others; but I think for here it suffices to say that the logic of approaching texts from an angle other than suspicion is the same, as, unfortunately, all the absolutist claims Moi raises throughout.

I return to my review of Character when I note what I find most baffling, again: the gesture which supports almost the entirety of Moi’s argument as a counterproposal is a strawman, the strawman of absolutely suspicious critique and of the committed skeptic unwilling to grant literature anything but hidden meanings, neither of whom Moi puts forward for examination. I’m citing several of her utterly and insistently dichotomous claims in my review, but here is one: Moi suggests that for the practitioner of critique, “all readings must begin in suspicion” (205). This is because, as Moi outlines as well, “[t]he suspicious reader assumes that language itself hides its meanings from us” (180). This is the grounds for her Wittgensteinian intervention—she approvingly notes Wittgenstein’s insistence that “nothing is hidden” (§435, though it’s by no means clear to me that her condensation of this, which comes in the middle of much else, is wholly accurate). Here comes my first major quibble: the question here seems to be what you mean when you say “hidden.” Of course, texts “hide” nothing, in as much as everything you can say about them will be in them in some fashion—that is to say, textual exclusions, elisions, and so on, are as much part of the text as the inclusions, given that you haven’t anything else to work with. Again, Moi argues that theory requires us to understand texts as always hiding because language always hides, but this “hides” is never fully explored. How does Moi think theory argues this “hiding” is taking place? What is it that is not hidden by language, that suspicion thinks is hidden, and how is it not? My point here, and this is also touched on in my review, is that Moi throughout takes what I would take for metaphor for theory: that is to say, Moi asks us to overvalue the possibility that practitioners of critique have a theoretical investment in the idea that language really necessarily hides meanings that we can access given our superior reading methods, and she undervalues the possibility that “hidden,” “depth,” “symptomatic,” and so on are metaphors describing a different set of assumptions about what the ultimate horizon of our reading should be. I think this question may be illustrated in Moi’s point that “claims about hiddenness and depth in literary criticism are empty,” that “the fetishization of the hidden and the deep does no work for literary critics” (179). What is it she is arguing here? For one thing, I am reasonably sure that she is actually not arguing anything about “fetishization,” simply in as much as the opposite claim (“this fetishization does a lot of work”) seems so odd. Nobody is claiming that: critics who hold with the hidden and the deep simply do not see it as a fetish. So Moi appears to want to say that the words and/or notions of “hiddenness” and “depth” do no work for literary critics. This, too, is odd, however, because they so clearly do: they name a particular argument about how to understand the meaning of a text, in many versions at least an understanding that—to stick somewhat with Wittgenstein—the language used in fiction is socially embedded, that read against the context of their times and their history texts can be understood to be acted on by ideology and be revelatory of ideological overcodings. As Barbara Foley has recently put it in a concrete example of a symptomatic reading practice, namely Marxism, “for the Marxist, the literary work is constituted by its embeddedness in history; it cannot be understood apart from the ways in which it is shaped and constrained by material existence” (2019, 131).

The complaint which Moi voices with Wittgenstein then seems to be artfully petty. “Hidden!?,” we might suggest Moi’s Wittgenstein-influenced scholar asks, “you’re not using that word with its ordinary meaning, you’re trying to make it mean something different from what ordinary people would mean by.” Or, as Moi has it at one point, her argument would be to say that a Marxist finding evidence of class struggle or of ideology in a text isn’t discovering something hidden. “It was never hidden. We just failed to see it” (185). But that’s a bit bananas. Of course things aren’t “hidden” in the way that treasure is hidden; reading is not a quest (though paradoxically, it is Moi who wants us to express “our adventure”!); and different interpretations aren’t spatially “deeper,” only metaphorically. These metaphors name the difference between a reader, for instance, who reads Jane Austen as campy romance with a prospective Colin Firth behind every second bush, and the reader who notes the determinate absence of a discussion of the source of Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth—from Caribbean slavery—in Mansfield Park. Moi would suggest—and she would be correct—that the difference between those two readings is neither made by the text, nor the “approach” to reading, and that readers who would want to discuss this ideologically important absence are, like readers who would want to talk about the question of how hot Mr. Darcy is, both merely doing the same thing with the same thing: reading the text. Of course the text does not “hide” Sir Thomas’s Caribbean plantations, nor does Austen—or, rather, neither hide the possibility of asking the question of the source of wealth in the novel. But it also makes no sense to see no difference between these two endpoints of reading. To suggest that they are not differently “valuable,” of course, is essentially a political, moral, and ethical choice; to suggest that they are fundamentally the same is to shortchange obvious differences, differences aptly captured by the metaphors Moi dismisses, in favor of a wholly unnecessary flattening.

It’s also a flattening that despite her rhetoric, I think, makes hash of her apparent openness to existing versions of criticism, notably Marxism. “Wittgenstein’s philosophy does not prevent us […] from being feminists or Marxists” (171), she avers. “Why this” may be asked by “a Marxist interested in the class struggle, or in modes of production and ideology; a feminist in women, their social status, their relationships, their actions and expressions” (190-1). I talk about this a bit in my review so won’t repeat it here, but I do think that some fundamental assumptions in Marxist literary criticism are entirely at odds with Moi’s proposals, not least her apparent desire to foreground the critic’s experience of the text. I’m not saying you can’t do that—let a thousand flowers bloom, yeah?—but I don’t think you can do that and still do a reading of the kind Barbara Foley outlines. If Moi’s book is any guide, too, her way of actually doing critical work is unlikely to square with Marxism, whose fundamental to the dialectic is faced down here with resolute insistence on dichtomies There isn’t a hint of the dialectic in her writing, and that seems a Wittgensteinian artifact, too: Moi at one point cites Wittgenstein thus:

“Here the word, there the meaning. The money, and the cow one can buy with it.” (37)

This is how Wittgenstein describes the view of language he is writing against. But not coincidentally, I think, his choice of metaphor also suggests how far removed the dialectic of Marxist though and literary criticism is from the kind of theory-inflected literary criticism Moi disparages is. Now, here’s the thing: the last bit, if taken to be criticism, sounds a bit Marxy! But I suppose that Ludwig Wittgenstein actually meant this not so much as a repetition of the criticism of the first line. “Don’t think that words and meaning work like money and cows,” is what I think he means: while money and cows are properly separate, words and meanings aren’t. In other words, I think Wittgenstein means the latter image transactionally: you use the word to a mean a thing distinct from it, the way you would money (write me a postcard if you disagree). With Marx, of course, we know that money does not work this way either, that there is in fact a dialectical relationship between those two things, money and commodities. Moi misses this, and adopts Wittgenstein’s transactional sense throughout, building from it, in fact. It’s very, very hard to think that she doesn’t know how Marxism works, though, to put it mildly. But the absence not just of dialectical thought, but also of the acknowledgment of the dialectic nature of so much of critique, is only made more baffling by knowing that she must know, and perhaps even more baffling than it was in Felski’s clearly more polemical, less interested in fairness, Limits of Critique (2015, which really sketched the limits of a strawman of critique only…).

Cut! Apologies for the disjointed closing here, but I can’t really make my other complaints about this book cohere, for which I blame Moi’s tendency to paper over logical gaps in the progress of her argument with rhetoric. I want to close this, so let me do that by asking questions I have left. Maybe they’ll spur some thought…

Who do we write for, when we write attentively, when we write well? Do we educate others to emulate our acknowledgment of the text?

How does it matter that “actions aren’t objects” (180)? Why would “anyone who thinks of a text as an object […] have trouble escaping the New Critics’ view of intentions as ‘outside’ the text” (202)?

What is the “use” of a word in the case of literature? What is the “life form” that’s relevant to interpretation? How do we access past life forms?

How is Judith Butler’s language (163-166) not “ordinary” language by Wittgenstein’s measure?

Where is Fredric Jameson (say) “cynical” when he talks about (say) Kim Stanley Robinson?

Why does Moi feel the need to rescue description, if description in the specific language game in which she intervenes does not actually have the use she would want it to have?

Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies

I’ve been at this whole critique and postcritique issue for a good while now, and so I did feel obligated to read Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski, and Toril Moi’s brand-new Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies (U of Chicago P, 2019). At a slim 170 pages, it includes three separate, and indeed only very sporadically mutually enlightening essays by three well-known literary theorists. It’s about literary characters—it’s not a self-help book, and it won’t help you build character at all—and what they are, what you do with them, and why we should pay attention to them. And having read it, it’s a puzzling book, with the emphasis on the “book” part; I’m not quite sure what the essays do together. This is very off-the-cuff, rather than a fully-worked out review, but I thought speed counts for something here.

Character is not billed as an intervention into the postcritical debate, but it’s almost immediately clear that it is; or perhaps, it is immediately evident that that is what its elevator pitch would be, although, in practice, it’s not at all clear to me that it coheres as an intervention. From the introduction onwards, the volume echoes postcritical arguments about the importance of the reading practices in “ordinary life” (2) and its “ordinary readers,” whose concerns it behooves us take more seriously today for “reasons that are both intellectual (a rethinking of the techniques of demystification) and institutional (the decreased enrollments and plummeting prestige of literary studies inspire a concern with building bridges to wider publics)” (10). It also ends with a similar injunction, Anderson’s argument that accounting for the “moral dimension of fiction” requires “a more forthright and noncynical acknowledgment of our profound interest in character as we read” (166). This is pretty much par for the course; the book does not, finally, boil down to an argument that we should take characters seriously because actual readers do—but it does enjoin us to do so, us cynical literary critic, and also to recall our ordinary reading as a source for critical inspiration ourselves: we are interested in characters, as readers, so why not acknowledge it?

Let me start, simply because this is my blog, by saying what I dislike about this volume. It’s the same thing I dislike about 90% at least of postcritique’s important texts: the annoying tendency to make sweeping statements about what literary studies is today. In the case of this slim volume, it is the central claim that propels these three critics’ arguments that irks: namely, that somehow literally studies resists attention to characters, that, in what’s largely Moi’s argument but which the other two adopt in their shared introduction, there’s a “taboo on ‘treating characters as if they were real’” (22). I’ll do some exempting below for Moi’s measured and specific argument—by far the best of the book—but by and large this remains a key problem. There is so much work that focuses on analyses of characters—just from my own professional work, you cannot read any criticism of Junot Díaz without being constantly reminded about the need to talk about the way in which his narrator-slash-protagonist, Yunior, works, how he appeals, what he thinks and likes, and so on—that this argument, like much of the postcritical claims about the contemporary landscape of criticism, rings hollow, and is not helped by postcritics constant refusal to name their opponents, and cite their adversaries. (A bracket: all of these three chapters actually name their opponent: John Frow, with whose Character and Person (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014) they all disagree with.) It’s also fundamentally unnecessary to the book’s claims, which are, whatever else they are, attempts at widening (at least in part) what we think about character, rather than substantive arguments against our critical practice with characters so far. And these claims, for their part, are just fine, if largely unexceptional.

I will reserve Moi’s essay for the end of this, and start at the book’s back end, with Amanda Anderson’s effort to centralize the idea of “rumination” in the study of character. I find this essay utterly unobjectionable. I’ll happily reflect on instances of rumination in the novel, and consider what its value in the making of the moral meanings of any given novel is! It’s fine! Also, it’s not clear what precisely it adds to the overall argument. Obviously, only characters (well, as Anderson shows, narrators too!) can ruminate—plots can’t, and form can’t, and so if you want to talk about it, you seem to have to focus on character. But, again: it’s not clear that the specific focus on character here is an actual intervention. We’re all talking about characters, all the time, anyway. Anderson’s argument is to take seriously a specific activity narrated by novels, and its specific meaning for the novel, and yeah, that’s fine. But for the life of me, I cannot see what this has got to do with a radical rethinking of character, and Anderson, to her credit, largely ignores the question, too: the final sentence of the essay, as I’ve quoted it above, reads about as tacked-on as one imagines it to have been in the process of editing the book to quasi-coherence.

I’ll also confess to simply not understanding what Rita Felski was trying to tell me. Apparently, the Danish Research Council sponsored this particular essay with money—one hopes they can get a refund. As she concludes, there are different ways of identifying with characters, and identification with characters is—important, one assumes, in as much as it “drives various kinds of engagement with fiction” (118)—though hold that thought. I find myself desperately underwhelmed by this insight. The most important part of Felski’s—far too long—argument may be that lay readers’ identification with characters and professional readers’ appreciation of complexity are importantly thought of as both forms of identification, so that our attachment to particular kinds of literature are really only different in expression, not in kind. This is par for the course of Felski’s levelling tendencies, of course; it’s also logically spurious. Having previously spoken about genuine identification with characters—as would befit a book on the topic—she turns, when she turns to professional readers, to identification with texts, suggesting that professional readers prefer Benito Cereno over Uncle Tom’s Cabin because we appreciate it structural complexity. But I doubt any professional reader “identifies” with Benito Cereno, or Amasa Delano, the character, in the way that Felski previously talked about identification with James Bond. Felski, of course, is aware of that, which is why she finally does not argue, as I have intimated above, that it is “identifying with characters” that’s driving engagement with fiction, it’s “acts of identifying” (118): with authors, actors who play characters, characters, with form, complexity, difficulty—an apparently endless litany of possible ways in which you may identify (now a largely empty term, I feel) with fiction. This is all the more frustrating in a book that is explicitly about character, which Felski ends up not being about: Felski, as she notes at the end, is actually disputing the claim (the unsubstantiated claim) that professional readers profess a distance from their object of study that her argument for their identification with, say, the difficulty of Benito Cereno disputes. Felski holds vaguely besides one another two “insights:” first, that if your mum “identifies” with, say, Jane Eyre, and you (the critic) “identifies” with the complexity of Jane Eyre’s historical situation and the novel’s insights into the class structure of 1800s Britain, these are similarly “identifications” through fiction; and second, that “actual” readers “identify” as much (if perhaps in different ways) with James Bond, Jane Eyre, and, say, Leopold Bloom. But I’ll say this: nothing, except rhetoric, actually connects these insights, and what comes of them, individually, is left in superlative vagueness. “Let’s give these characters their due,” Felski concludes (119).

So I’m not enamored with the logic that places Felski and Anderson’s essays in one volume; I’m not enamored with Felski’s argument, period. I’m not enamored with Moi’s essay, either, but in this case, because I do not agree with its cogent, philosophically grounded, and indeed wholly interesting argument. Moi’s plot, I will say, also seems to develop from a slightly strawmannish point—her’s, after all, is the claim that the injunction to never treat characters as though they were real people was a particularly limiting demand on literary studies—but in performance, her lucid essay draws a critical history from literary studies’ modernist genesis and the requirements of that moment to the present. Moi locates the demand, now more broadly, to abandon character analysis in the radical necessities of the “Cambridge Revolution,” the rise of formalist and analytic approaches to high-literary texts. Drawing this logic on into the theory revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Moi suggests that the taboo on character analysis is an artifact of the history of literary studies, one which rests, as she avers (I’m quoting slightly out of context here) on a fundamental logic which “makes little sense” (38) but stems directly and recognizably from the discipline-political urgencies of the modernist moment. The real question of whether, and how, to talk about character, Moi suggests, is yet unsolved. John Frow’s solution is Moi’s point of departure for the rest: Frow suggests that characters are ontologically hybrid—partially, indeed, persons—while Moi resists this. Instead, she invokes (as she did in Revolution of the Ordinary) language philosophy to suggest that arguments about what characters are, which is to say ontological arguments, are pointless: instead, what is important is how we talk about them, which is essentially the same as what we do with them

Moi’s point, as I said, is challenging, cogently argued, and rooted in a principled understanding of what a “good” way of looking at fiction is, which Moi draws unapologetically from language philosophy. But the conclusions which follow naturally and necessarily from that are, to me at least, frustrating. “To respond to fictional characters with emotions (and so on) is just what we do” (59), she avers, and thus to ask about the logic of this is pointless; “we understand what characters are by looking at how we talk about them, how we use and respond to them, and not by trying to subsume them under a more or less metaphysical concept” (61). When she says “how we talk about them,” of course, she does not mean how John Frow talks about them, but how “ordinary readers” talk about them; a privileging which, again, follows logically from Wittgenstein, but seems somewhat helpless as critical practice. Moi attempts to develop the consequences of this, much to her credit; an entire subsection is headed “What now?” But the answer to this leaves me, personally, cold. “Each critic will have to discover her own questions, stakes herself—her own experiences and judgment—in her criticism, show us what she sees, and take responsibility for her own choices” (64); and she realizes, as she goes on, tentatively, that the challenge which the Wittgensteinian view of literary criticism poses expands far beyond character: the question which develops from it is “what should academic literary criticism be” (68). Moi does only partially answer this question—she does it more extensively in Revolution of the Ordinary—but it genuinely is the question that her language philosophical, and thus to an extent descriptive vision ends up at. I personally find it somewhat resignative in its suggestion that the answer to most of the pressing questions about literature and its role in the world boil down to saying “let’s just have a look and see what people do, right?,” but again, it’s coherent, well made, well-written (which I cannot say about Felski’s essay, for one), and a serious challenge to my view of things.

Will you need to go and buy this book? No. Buy Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary instead.

Edit: Lee Konstantinou reviews this book more thorougly here.

Reading in the Age of Trump, Or: How to Make Not-Fascists

I gave this argument as a three-minute talk last week at the Volkswagenstiftung Symposium “Positioning the Humanities in the 2020s,” co-sponsored by the German U-15 association of research universities. I figured I would put a written version of it here, including a PDF of the poster I used. This is part of my ongoing, but as-yet unfunded research project on contemporary literary theory, literary practice, and literary education programs.

This is the most ambitious version of the project I am sketching on the poster. I’m offering something of a syllogism, except with claims, rather than ifs. Here’s the first:

Claim 1: The Work of Literary Studies is Reading.

When I say that, I mean a particular kind of reading, however: professional reading, expert reading, and most importantly, interpretative reading. Academic, literary studies reading is reading that makes arguments—this is why the act of reading and the production of a (written) reading use the same word. It wants to be argued with, it’s always in a small way public. It’s not “just” reading, and never can be. Something that was said at the opening ceremony of the conference I gave this talk at is important: the humanities at large, it was claimed, affirms the right to interpretation. This is doubly true for literary studies, but it must perhaps be made even stronger: literary studies reminds us of the duty to interpret, of the duty to both make and receive arguments.

Claim 2: The Present of Literary Studies is Sterile

And indeed, much stronger adjectives could be used here! The point here is that we, the professional readers in academia, already know this—or at least, we are not the ones in need of telling this to, because even if we disagree, we disagree knowingly. It’s pointless to remind professional readers of the work of professional reading—and it’s even more pointless to do our professional reading only for each other. But that is what we do when we publish in academic journals, when we write interpretations for one another in order to convince one another of our brilliance, often for the sole purpose of landing a job opportunity that will allow us to do so for the rest of our careers.

What Follows, Then?: The Future of Literary Studies is Public

What follows from this is the urgent need, indeed the necessity, of addressing our work to the public—indeed, to many publics, and to tell those publics about our work of interpretation. At the opening talk of the conference, Homi Bhabha asked why it is that we, as humanities scholars, but also specifically as literary scholars, are so often required to justify ourselves. And the answer is simple: because our work is opaque. Because nobody knows what a professional reader does, and why what she is doing is important. And that is the work I hope to undertake under the name of “Literaturwissenschaftsvermittlung,” which in analogy with music education would be “literary studies education” in English—but is probably better rendered with one or all of the various translation alternatives offered: mediation, negotiation, exchange, translation. It’s the act of transporting the essential good of literary interpretation outside. We were asked, repeatedly, what the purpose of the humanities was; and Ian Baucom suggested it was an essentially democratic purpose. I’m reminded of my friend Stephen Shapiro, who has said that he saw his purpose at the university of make “not-fascists.” I want to take this idea on board: the purpose of public literary studies is to make, in the most ambitious and ultimate political horizon of our work, not-fascists of people. Literary studies can do so precisely because it enjoins people to have arguments; and by “have” I mean both to engage in arguments as well as to have something argumentative to say; about books, yeah, but through books also, perhaps, about the value of arguments as such. Fascists, the point here is, don’t have arguments. And of course, an argument as such isn’t a politics, either. But as Nicholas Brown has recently said, you can’t have a union—I take this to mean you can’t have any politics—without an argument.

Improving Literary Studies, Part II: “Slavoidance”

In an inspired fit of anger, I have coined a further useful term, perhaps. Not as useful as faceit. But still eminently useful. Feel free to use at will!

Slavoidance, n.: The act of not reading, after recognizing for the third, or possibly fourth time, that they are really all the same book, the newest book by Slavoj Žižek.

In my case, this time, it was The Courage of Hopelessness that inspired this coinage. Do I buy the argument? Yeah, probably, perhaps. Is it new? Hell no. He’s made it over, and over, and over again, in various venues and lots of books.

Improving Literary Studies, Part I: “The Faceit”

I want to coin a new critical term: the “faceit”. Without necessarily inscribing myself in the tradition of Derridean wordplay as Derrida’s rightful successor, I want to shortly praise the term’s as-yet unused possibilities. As adept poststructuralists will no doubt already have surmised, the idea of the faceit plays on several terms.

First, it takes up the idea of the critical conceit, which I take to be a guiding principle of individual acts of literary criticism: the act of “let’s assume that X holds,” or “let’s say we read X under the auspices of Y,” “let’s assume that X is true about Y,” and so on. It’s an inevitable act of critical creativity, in other words, with a broad range of uses, most of them related to revelatory possibilities inherent in kinda making up stuff and seeing if it works.

Secondly, it plays on the idea of the facetious, the not entirely serious but also not entirely not serious, the tongue-in-cheek, on the surprising (but possibly false) linkages drawn between one thing and another, the humorous act of suggesting something that you full well-know isn’t true, exactly, though it is, perhaps, in spirit.

Thirdly, it picks up the Latin faciet, “it will make” (well, lest I’m mistaken, which is possible, as I don’t speak Latin), which is aurally indistinguishable (well, lest I’m mistaken, as I’m not an English native speaker and actually pronounce Latin intelligibly), thereby suggesting in no uncertain terms the productivity of the idea of making funny shit up in order to have something to talk about at length.

You may feel free to use faceits from here on out in your critical work. Literary studies will be better for it.

Books of the Dead: Cover

University Press of Mississippi sent me the (preliminary, I suppose?) cover design for my forthcoming book on literary zombies, Books of the Dead. Author’s photograph on the front–a bit of a novelty.

I’m not exactly sure when the book is going to be out–I haven’t seen page proofs yet, so I assume it’s a while yet, probably summer-ish. But I’m looking forward to seeing that thing in print!

On Urban Fantasy

(This is probably the quickest update to this blog in, like, ever, man. It’s not going to be a habit…)


I’ve been recently reading, whenever I needed to read something that felt less taxing than, say, Teju Cole’s boring Open City, one of the many, many urban fantasy novels that have appeared over the last two decades or so. I guess that much of it started with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series (it’s almost always series): books in which a Chicago private investigator-slash-wizard named Harry Dresden solves the problems left in their wake by various supernatural forces, all of which are arrayed as something like a substratum of our “real” reality, an entire alternative society of various kinds of vampires and fairies, assorted monsters, wizards, obviously, and other kinds of magical and supernatural beings.

There’s numerous such series out there, and I’ve read only a few of them: Ben Aaronvitch’s PC Peter Grant series, in which a magically-abled London police constable discovers the unreality of his own city; Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, set in Los Angeles (and Hell); Charles Stross’s Lovecraft-inflected Laundry Files, about a supersecret British supernatural spy agency defending Britain from the apocalypse that lurks just around the corner; and Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series, in which a less magically-enabled London police unit finds itself faced with the unreality of their own London (it’s very frequently London!). And we might also include David Wong’s trilogy of novels, starting with John Dies at the End, here, even though it’s less centered on an urban agglomeration.

severedstreetsThere are echoes here of China Miéville’s Kraken, Neil Gaiman’s late-90s novel Neverwhere, of course, and no doubt also echoes of other, older fictions, such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which, after all, can be reached by stepping through a pretty mundane wardrobe. Yet, for the purposes of this post, which after all aren’t wholly scholarly, I’m going to suggest two things: first, that this has become a more commonplace motive than the mere proliferation of any kind of fantasy would suggest. That is to say, we might be inclined to say that given the increase in the volume of fantasy writing since Lewis, or indeed Gaiman, this might just be a reasonably simply expansion of the subset of fantasy that is concerned with urban magic, but that’s not what I think is happening. And second, it’s a shift in the focus of fantasy that is symptomatic: it bespeaks something about our relationship to the world, it suggests a broader desire to identify things beyond, beneath, besides mundane reality, not as a (negatively connoted) means of escape, but rather as a symbolic resolution of the contradictions of the contemporary cultural moment.


I put this here because this isn’t a very well argued point yet, but one which I stumble over every time I read one of those books. But it seems to me that there is a reasonable claim to be made here for a symptomatic reading of urban fantasy. In such a reading, we might see the central trope at work in all of these novels, namely the existence of a largely hidden, non-mundane, magical, but also frequently threatening world very frequently described as “below” or “beneath” the surface reality of our (non-fictional) everyday lives as a means of working through and counteracting a generalized sense of a restricted space of action in the “real;” or, conversely (and this is one of the hitches I keep hitting), a means of expressing the limited scope of action in the real world through recourse to restrictions originating outside it, inaccessible to most of us, left to the manipulations of a (here, magical) elite. This “elite” status is not encoded here on a class basis, of course: David Wong’s slacker, dead-beat twentysomething heroes, who are able to see and actively work against the supernatural threats they encounter thanks to having imbibed a mysterious black substance they call the Soy Sauce, are pretty much par for the course here. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is perpetually strapped for cash; the policemen of Aaronovitch and Cornell’s series are just that, regularly employed police officers, and Charles Stross’s secret agents likewise are simply public servants themselves.

Each of these cases would probably warrant closer exploration as to its politics, and I’ll work through two examples very briefly here. In Charles Stross’s series, the initially somewhat uncomplicated way in which the security state is expanded to include a (unsupervised, non-democratically legitimized) agency charged with supernatural defenses, in which this supernatural security state is implicitly championed in its attempts to defend humanity, is later broken by the recognition that this apparatus itself has increasingly become autonomous of regulating forces, increasingly fights for its own survival more than that of its charges. The series’ recognition that the bureaucratic apparatus, no matter its ostensible public service, will easily mutate into an almost entirely self-serving entity without any kind of public, democratic supervision, also suggests that urban fantasy is ill-read as always a (negatively) escapist form of fantasy.

In Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police (spoilers ahead, skip the paragraph if you’d rather not know), we discover in volume three that an earlier supernatural police force of sorts, the Continuing Projects Team, failed five years earlier and was wiped out by the evil that is now encroaching upon London. The twist: the CPT consisted, and had consisted for some time, of five representatives of the upper echelons of British society: knighted architects, successful film producers, well-heeled barristers, a senior civil servant, the chaplain of King’s College. As one of the new team of cops—two of them black, one gay, one the daughter of a criminal—notes, this earlier group was amateurish: a nod, and a decidedly negative one, to the upper class genteel amateurism beloved of much British genre fiction, at least. What’s important here, I think, is the way the representatives of the upper class fail to stop the encroaching danger, fail to uphold to already tenuous balance of the world, and end up replaced by a group recruited from a different social stratum, now tasked with picking up the pieces.

It’s not, obviously, that urban fantasy has recently replaced the more traditional sword-and-sorcery, neither broadly nor in the upper levels of recognition—it’s really only necessary to mention G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series—but rather that it’s an interesting bell weather of sorts, one which may permit us insights into the way, more generally, we see genre fiction work through the central issues of the contemporary moment. And this may bear more working on, or not—we’ll see. But with the zombie book done, maybe I’ve got some spare time?