The Elements of Academic Style

The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities, now out from Columbia; more or less a guide on how to write literary criticism for graduate students and faculty in literary and cultural studies. Comes free with two jokes about fascists and a picture of a Matryoshka doll.

Travel Plans, 2017

I will be giving talks (on worlds) in Dublin on May 11, and in Munich, probably May 23. Otherwise no conferences or talks planned for the Spring. I will not be attending the ACLA (in Utrecht) or the MSA (in Amsterdam) since I’m going to try to spend the summer working on the Kant book.

No plans for the Fall, but lots going on here at Penn State, including the second CHI conference in late September. Thinking about going to the SLSA conference for the first time ever, since MSA won’t be happening in Fall.

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Teaching, Spring 2017

Teaching two classes this semester, a graduate class on Derrida (syllabus) and the usual undergraduate class on video game culture (syllabus), this time with 400 students, a new record. I had planned to make a bunch of changes to the undergrad class, eliminating Will Wright as one of my auteurs in favor of someone younger and newer (I thought about the Belgian indie design group Tale of Tales, and Jonathan Braid), but I realize that basically you get lots of points for inventing a genre, even if all your recent projects have been failures (for almost a decade now!).

So I’ll still do some Wright, but I’m going to add in more Braid, more Journey, more Tale of Tales, more indie games overall, just here and there throughout the semester.

As for the Derrida class, I have to say that I borrowed (with permission) the opening six weeks from Christopher Bush, who taught a similar class at Northwestern a decade ago.

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Center for Humanities and Information

So one of the things I’ve been up to that I’m really excited about and proud of is Penn State’s new Center for Humanities and Information, which has just started up this year. The best thing (well, one of the best things) about it is that it spends 95 percent of its budget on people, including some very smart and interesting postdoctoral fellows. Read all about it here.

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Visits/Conferences Fall and Spring 2015-16

I’ve been terrible about updating the site, but here’s a quick rundown of where I’ll be:

Sept 18-19: U of Tampa (about literary worlds)

Oct 2-3: Concordia University, Montreal (the new Kant book)

Oct 22-23:  Norwich University, Vermont (talking about Elements)

Nov 5-6: University of Cincinnati (the new Kant book)

January 7-10: MLA, Austin (something from the To the Lighthouse project)

March 17-20: ACLA, Boston (on the end of the humanities)

April 8: UC Santa Cruz (the Kant/artwork project)

May 13-14: Oxford University (UK) (Elements again)

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More upcoming visits for Spring 2015

I’ve been terrible about updating the site, for which I apologize to the three readers out there. Meanwhile, a schedule of talks and travels for Spring 2015:

Feb 4-5-6: ACL(x), U of South Carolina

Feb 12-14: Berkeley, 5pm on Feb 12, on Kant and the humanities; Sat 13 all day at a conference at Stanford

Feb 19-21:at the Humanities Center at BYU, on Kant and the humanities

March 5: Rutgers, on Chinese metaphor

March 9: U of Florida in Gainesville, on academic writing

March 23-26: ACLA, Seattle

April 16: U of Virginia, topic tbd.

If you’re around at any of these places, and want to hang out, please let me know.

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Upcoming visits: Yale and Minnesota

Saturday, Nov 15: I’ll be speaking to graduate students in Sociology at Yale (along with real sociologists Elijah Anderson (Yale) and Mitch Duneier (Princeton)) on questions of academic style and writing in and around ethnography. Prepping by reading Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade, Elijah’s A Place on the Corner, and John van Maanen’s Tales of the Field. We’ll see if I manage to be helpful.

Thursday and Friday, Dec 4-5: I’ll be in Minneapolis, giving a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as talking to graduate students and research groups; topics On Literary WorldsThe Elements of Academic Style, and, for the public talk, new work on singularity, Kant, and analytic scale.

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Elements interview, with Carla Nappi

The fabulous-in-every-way Carla Nappi has interviewed me for the New Books Network. You can listen to the whole thing here.

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Center for Humanities and Information!!

I’m super excited to be the first director of the new Penn State Center for Humanities and Information. There are visiting fellowships, graduate student fellowships, and faculty fellowships, as well as a bunch of other cool stuff. And a new website!

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MLA: New Theories of the Novel

I actually spoke on this roundtable from a single page of notes, as is my preference; but then I typed up the notes for a friend and so here they are. I only spoke for 6 minutes so I’ve said more below, I think, than I said then… but for whatever reason (probably the same reason one hears one’s own voice differently from others the written stuff seems thinner… Hmm.

I have essentially six things to say having to do with the way that new theories of the novel might emerge from a more generous syncretism than the one with which we are familiar from the great examples of from the 1920s-1970s (Watt, Bakhtin, Frank, Lukacs, Auerbach).

1. Let’s say you want a new theory of the novel, with examples from beyond Europe. Quite quickly you encounter the general problem of the relationship between exemplarity and generality. At the lower limit of this problem you will find someone willing to say that the example determines the general absolutely; that is, that there can be no distance taken from the unit of the example and a general theory that would bind together examples. On this view all conceptual thought becomes impossible: even a general claim about a single novel would be merely a claim about the limited set of examples used to adduce it; only (again under this rubric) a general claim about the novel including all the sentences of the novel would be allowable, meaning that you would essentially just reproduce the novel, which would be a general example of itself.

So we need a theory of the relation between exemplarity and generality that does more than just that, while recognizing that any such theory will be potentially subject to the critique above, and also that since such a critique is inevitable and always possible it is of limited value.

The general always owes a debt to its examples; it never breaks fully free of their gravitational pull. 90 percent of the problems people have with general statements can be resolved if people simply would do a better job of recognizing the degrees to which their examples influence their theories; so for instance we wouldn’t be complaining about Ian Watt if he’d called it The Rise of the English Novel. Adjectives are good!

2. So now that you understand that, you still want a new theory of the novel. Assume you know what a novel is. Now it’s just a matter of choosing a reasonable number (and spread) of examples.

3. (a) But! This all depends on what you think a theory of something does. If you think a theory of something is supposed to explain primarily its origin and development over time then you will always have a Eurocentric theory of the novel because, honestly, the novel happens in Europe first (remember: we are assuming we know what a novel is). That’s no great tragedy—sometimes stuff happens in certain places first. But the point here is that the choice to make a theory of X something that primarily attempts to explain X in terms of origin and progress will tend to produce certain kinds of results. That would be ok if the only way to theorize something were to focus on progress, but it isn’t.

(b) Because in fact you can produce non-progress-oriented theories of things, via among other things structuralism. I have done this in On Literary Worlds so I won’t talk about it here.

4. Now, assume you don’t know what a novel is. Then you might want to think of other kinds of Venn diagrams that would include many of the things you currently think of as novels but also possibly some things that don’t (or alternatively that would include a smaller group of texts). That is, think about the ways in which your sense that you know what a novel is depends on the examples you’re using. And imagine what happens if you change the criteria for exemplarity. For instance, you could have a theory of prose fiction, which would include Genji, the Chinese classics, the Roman novels, and so on. Of course you would have to assume you know what prose is, and what fiction is.

5. Why is the question of the future of the novel different from the question of the future of the detective novel? Is this merely a matter of kind and degree, in which the larger category acquires a qualitative difference by virtue of its scope and size, one that makes the “end” of it or the question of its future terrifying? I am not scared of a future with no detective novels, a future with no novels seems completely impossible to me.

6. Nonetheless: can we imagine a future without the novel? On the ecosystemic evidence, I don’t think so. One of the things culture is good at is retaining in residual form aesthetic structures and genres that belong to (and expressed the deepest logics of) earlier historical ecosystems. See poetry and drama. Of course they survive in somewhat muted, less dominant forms. On the other hand this actually gives them more aesthetic freedom. So I cannot imagine a future in which the novel does not exist. But, pace Nancy Armstrong’s essay on “The Future of the Novel,” I feel no need to believe that the novel will always adapt and change so as to remain the dominant written form of its era. I’m not quite sure she is saying this but there is a touch of anxiety about whether the novel can continue as novel in her essay; whether the novel can weather the ecosystemic change produced by the transformation of the relation between family/individual and polity. I for one don’t care too much whether it can; if it cannot, there will be a new form. And in general I think one ought to hope for something like that—that is, one ought to hope that someday there will be an ecosystemic change such that the novel will no longer best (of the various available forms) speak to the patterns of social and historical being. To wish for something else is either to wish for a novel that can adapt to anything, or it is to wish that we are living in the end of history. I don’t think we should wish for either of those if we want to retain some reasonably ethical relation to the future… by which I mean a relation in which we remain capable of being surprised.

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MLA: What is Data in Literary Studies?

Remarks I read (much too quickly) at the MLA roundtable organized by Jim English. Feed of Twitter response to the panel here. Some of this drawn from the scale piece, some from remarks on close reading in On Literary Worlds, and some from thoughts leading into the new book, now tentatively titled What Kind of Information is Literature?

I want to begin by arguing that the current state of affairs with respect to “data” and “literature,” itself a mirror of the entire structure that organizes the cultural relationship between the digital humanities and literary criticism, is bad for proponents on both sides. I mean in the most general possible way, but here I want to focus especially on the antagonism between data-based analysis of literary texts, which has been called “distant reading,” and the more historically traditional reading practice of focusing on small units of meaning, which we call, pretty loosely, “close reading.”

The first thing to say is that distant reading is not really distant, and close reading is not just close. No reading practice ever maintains itself as one “distance” from a text; rather what we call a reading practice is among other things a pattern of system of habitual distances and relations among those distances. So “close reading” is not always close; rather it pairs a certain kind of analysis of relatively small pieces of text with very powerful analytic tools—the tools of New Criticism, but also of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on—that leverage those small pieces of text into structures that are more “distant” from the text than is, say, the sentence or the phoneme. As the farthest level of distance these readings manage to make claims about some of the largest possible conceptual structures in human society, namely the nature of being (or beauty), the organization of the unconscious, the ethics of language, or the totality of an era. On the way they almost inevitably pass through other levels of what we might think of as “distance” from the text, in which they both use (as tools) and make claims about (interpretively) things like subgenres (sonnets, science fiction), genres (poetry, the novel), modes (epic, lyric), and so on.

Close reading is not, I say again, close; it is an arrangement of closeness and distance that behaves as though its epistemological fundamentals took place entirely at the level of “closeness”; whereas in fact as in any system these fundamentals operate as part of a larger pattern. You could say the same for “distant” reading.

What I want to propose is that modes of reading contain buried theories of what kind of information literature is. And I want to suggest that literature is a both a very particular kind of information but also, that this particularity constitutes not a difference in kind from other kinds of information but rather one of degree. I am willing to make this argument both ontologically and pragmatically, but for now since I have no real time I will simply say that pragmatically if we could think of literature as information—the same way we have learned to think of the codex book as a medium instead of the thing that media were against—then we would be on our way to getting rid of the somewhat stupid antagonism between the digital/data-oriented/distant model and the older analaog/close reading model, which would free us all up to do a wider variety of work, and to think our old categories through in interesting ways via new ideas.

I’m going to close by rewriting a couple sentences of the anthropologist Terence Turner’s, which are part of an argument he’s making about the role metaphor plays in the production of social life, in which he (like me) wants to emphasize the contextual, contingent, and essentially degree-oriented differences among various tropic and social practices, against those who want to make those differences differences of kind. I only mention that I’m rewriting the sentences because I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism:

“It is essential to understand the structural continuity of the step from information to literature and back again—in other words, to grasp the nonuniqueness of literature an absolute structural sense—in order to appreciate the nature and importance of literature’s relative specificity and distinctive role in the construction, and continual reconstruction, of new or distinct contexts of cultural meaning and subjective consciousness. That the difference literature makes to the history of information is not fixed and qualitative, but pragmatic and, as it were, quantitative, does not imply that such a dimension of difference does not exist, only that it is a relative, fluid, and quantitative matter.” (Turner 129)

More specifically, I want to ask what happens if we think of literature as the site for the storage l of information, and if we think of literary criticism, then, following that model, as a series of efforts to retrieve that information. We then come back to the question that organizes this roundtable, “What is Data?,” and begin with an answer, not in the form “Data is X or Y or Z,” which I suppose is the usual way to answer such questions, but rather by saying, “Literature (among other things) is data (among other things),” which leads to the question, “What kind of data/information is literature?” … which is a question I would like to answer.


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Toward a plural theory of Anthropocenes


For all I know this has been said before, but: the anthropocene is a world-concept.

The normal way to understand the Anthropocene is as a historical period, defined more or less as the era when human beings acquire the capacity to affect the ecology of the entire planet, thereby opening the door to mass extinction, disastrous climate change, and, at the limit, the disappeareance of the species. Generally people want to date it to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though you see arguments for dating it to the beginning of agriculture. Since the challenge we are facing collectively at the moment (and for the next centuries) is the immediate result of the dramatic expansion in carbon-based energy (oil, gas) use that comes from the Industrial Revolution, my impression is that most people are inclined towards that date.

But that’s just because the scope of this environmental event is in fact the entire planet Earth. I want to suggest that we become aware of/wish to designate the Anthropocene at this crucial moment precisely because of that scope, that because like the various other -cenes (the Pleistocene, the Holocene) this era involves ecological/geological/meterological activity that is planet-wide, we feel comfortable declaring it to be “epoch”-worthy. That is, the epoch (that which can be designated by the -cene, that which is a scene for the -cene) is partially a temporal metaphor for spatial scale.

This is true of all world-concepts, and trivial. But now what we can do is to scale down the Anthropocene from the world to a world, and recognize that, unlike the Pleistocene or Holocene, we can use the concept to refer to any “world” (that is, any relatively closed totality, relatively closed because like our totality it can be potentially escaped from, in our case via rocket ships/space colonization) that is capable of producing self-extinction through the manipulation of its environment.

In that case there have been other Anthropocenes, some of them, perhaps, not even human. Any virus that kills its host too rapidly–before the host has a chance to infect others–is Anthropocenic in this sense. We might also think of the series of extinctions on Easter Island as one example of a quasi-Anthropocene (resolved by the arrival of European explorers). Or, an extreme and fanciful case, of a literary character like Raskolnikov.

I am not sure that it is politically useful to think of the Anthropocene this way — it may be that there’s more traction in terms of getting people to think about how to live, or die, in it if they can have the narcissistic pleasure of imagining themselves to be historically unique. But it may also be that philosophers and other humanists could benefit from a plural theory, a theory of Anthropocenes, both as a structure for comparative analysis and as a humbling reminder that self-desctruction, when it happens, is usually a matter of degrees of difference, not kinds, from ordinary life.

Source: Printculture

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Critical Distance and the Crisis in Criticism (2007)

One of the things I want to do sometimes is to repost stuff from Printculture’s archives, because it tends to be hard to find. Here is a series of discussions on the topic of something I called “leverage,” by which I meant, as Mark McGurl pointed out in the comments, “critical distance.” The conversation that ensues sees the two of us thinking through and explaining some of the things that motivated The Program Era and The Hypothetical Mandarin. The entire conversation series of posts (which are combined below) dates from October 2007. I will also say that one of the weird things about rereading this stuff is realizing how old some of my ideas are; I swear I’ve repeated some of the things I say below in the last couple of years as though they’d just occurred to me.

Leverage as a function of critical capability and interest

It occurred to me the other day — and in fact I may have already bored one or two Printculture readers with this — that it would be useful to think about why so much academic work on contemporary material isn’t very good. But perhaps the premises bear repeating: (1) a higher percentage of literary critical or cultural analysis of contemporary material — fiction, poetry, film, the culture in general — says, by my standards, completely predictable things (than does work on material removed from us in time) and (2) is therefore no good. I have no data to back the first part of this up; it’s merely an impression. For the movement from the first to the second premise, I rely on my belief that literary critical analysis should, in general, aim to teach us things we don’t already know about the world.

The question I’m setting out to answer here is why this is true. Why, that is, does work on contemporary material so often simply tell me what I (feel like I) already know.

The answer has to do, I think, with leverage. By leverage I mean to indicate the degree to which my ability to tell you something about X that X doesn’t already know about itself and isn’t obviously saying to anyone who’s paying attention, depends to a very large extent on the difference I am able to generate between myself, and what I know or see, and what X knows or sees on its own.

Leverage as I understand it is therefore largely a function of what one knows, and the greater the gap between what one knows and what the object knows, the more leverage one has, and the more likely one is able to be to say something that the object does not already say on its own. This does not in and of itself guarantee that one will produce interesting scholarship, but it helps.

So, for instance, if I want to write about Jane Austen, one of the things I have that Jane Austen didn’t have is a broad sense of how the history of marriage functions. Austen may have been talking about marriage, but she didn’t think in quite the way I do — having not read, say Foucault or Hayden White or Judith Butler — about either history (and its relation to novels) or about gender. I can thus bring an enormous leverage to bear on any given Austen novel, and use that leverage to understand meta-cognitively, in a way that the novel itself could not, the operations of the novel’s arrangement of its characters, the relations it proposes between them, and indeed the attitude it takes (or its narrator takes) towards those relations. Having read, say, the narratological work of Genette or Woloch, I also have a more structural and historical sense than Austen did of the workings and history of fiction — from this position I can therefore likewise use my leverage to make the text do a kind of work that it is both capable of doing and unaware of doing.

That’s what I mean by leverage. And in this example you see how easily one can develop leverage in relation to the past. Indeed, the further past the better, though of course in any one of these cases one would do well, also, to refine the mode of one’s leverage by having a good sense of what in fact the cultural object did know. This is why one has more leverage on Austen than one does on, say, Sappho, about whose life and history so little is known. That absence of knowledge effectively undermines the possibility of critical leverage, since the distance between the cultural object and the critic depends on being able to locate both those points as coherently in space as one can.

The other way to develop leverage is through radical differences in knowledge. If I want to do a reading of, say, the cultural meaning or value of Jake Gyllenhall, I can rely on the fact that I know (I imagine) a lot more than he does about, say, the history of celebrity, the development of the Hollywood star system, queer theory, and so on. This means that I can quite easily get a better sense of how Gyllenhall functions — and indeed what he means — in contemporary culture than he does. Things are different with, say, Madonna, an artist who’s well aware of at least some of what I know about queer theory, the star system, and so on, and who in fact integrates that knowledge into her public performances and being, often in quite explicit ways.

Notice that having critical leverage does not necessarily mean that one does good work. That there seems to be more bad work done on contemporary culture results, I think, from the fact that when one’s advantages are clear, the stakes are higher, and the obligation to say something new is actually more intense. That’s because a casual application of cultural theory to any one piece of pop culture will generate, without much effort, a lot of material: that television sitcoms reinforce heterosexist norms is, for instance, something more or less everyone on the academic left already knows, so you’re not going to get a lot of leverage out of pointing out that this year’s new sitcom does just that. Indeed, one might say that good critical work comes from producing new knowledge above and beyond what a casual application of leveragewill do for your community of peers.

Take for instance the idea of writing something about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which someone I knew once proposed to me. That’s an ok idea, I said, but you’re going to have to say something about it that I can’t think of in the next 30 seconds. At this point, that cuts out saying that it’s sexist, and that it seems sexist but is actually radical… which leaves you with some work to do. So, paradoxically, you can have such a thing as too much leverage: a condition I would define as having so much leverage (as in the relation between the critique of sexism and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue) that the effort required to produce knowledge becomes trivial, so minimal that anyone can do it.

(Note that this critique applies equally to certain kinds of historical work, but it seems more prevalent with contemporary work, perhaps because with historical material there is at least, in many cases, the shock of discovery. But it may also be that the past has an auratic quality resulting from an aristocratic-academic prejudice against the new; it may also be that, given how much more likely it is that a contemporary audience knows enough about sitcoms or Jake Gyllenhall to make the trivial leap to judgment, the simple fact that most people know less about the past than the present explains this difference.)

This brings us, finally, to two problems: the problem of contemporary fiction, and the problem of critical history’s effect on criticism. But, having run out of time, I will have to take both of these up sometime in the next couple days, when I’ll talk about why I think contemporary highbrow fiction is among the most difficult subjects for scholars to tackle, and say that the answer has to do, once again, with the concept of leverage I’ve developed here; after which I’ll address the question of why it may be, paradoxically, easier to write the 3000th article on James Joyce than the very first one on Jake Gyllenhall. Meanwhile I’m eager for comments and revisions, if you have them…

Leverage Part 2

In the comments BabyKong anticipates much of what I was going to say next, perhaps because, like his/her older sibling Donkey Kong (or perhaps, since I am not fully up-to-date on the Kong family tree, the nimbler Donkey Kong Jr.), he specializes in reacting to the moves of slightly over-adventursome Italian plumbers like myself. What follows is — with the exception of my explanation of why it’s easier to write the 3000th article on Joyce than the first one on Jake Gyllenhall (or whoever–I’m not even sure I’m spelling his name right, but I think his appearance in the recent SNL love song for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [whose name I did bother looking up] has really got him on my mind) — thus more or less a response to the girder-shattering stomps of BabyKong’s intrepid comments. To wit:

BabyKong writes:

I wonder: what is the relation between your idea of “leverage” and the more or less traditional idea of “critical distance.”

I would like to say that there’s a huge difference here, but I’m afraid there isn’t. This makes me feel sad. Perhaps I’m simply reinventing the wheel. Let’s see what happens as I go.

I wonder also whether and to what degree you need to introduce the concept of reflexivity into your discussion? Many contemporary writers have read theory, or at least have internalized a hearsay version thereof. That’s why criticism on contemporary fiction has such trouble saying anything interesting about it.

See, on this general topic, Sianne Ngai’s chapter “Bad Timing” in her book Ugly Feelings.

Yep. What BabyKong says in the second paragraph above is exactly where I was going with this. If you argue that Pynchon’s writing creates a postmodern world full of signifiers without signifieds, or that Coetzee undermines Enlightenment theories of the human, then you really aren’t saying anything that Pynchon and Coetzee aren’t (in some general sense) trying to say, largely because, as BabyKong notes, most highbrow and even middlebrow contemporary writers have internalized some version of theory.

BabyKong continues:

Thus, in my opinion, the best way to gain “leverage” on contemporary writing is to be (in a sense) less “knowing” than it is, eschewing a shared experience of the dizzying postmodernism of it all in favor of pointing out obvious but unsexy things like the institutional position of contemporary writers and contemporary writing. In and around the school, where most of these writers now work, “reflexivity” circulates as one value among others. Thus, I’m not sure I can accept your premise about the badness of work on contemporary culture: I think what you are describing is the badness of poststructuralist accounts of contemporary culture, which are condemned to a boring redundancy of reflexivity.

Accounts premised on a specialized knowledge of institutions, economics, etc., will by contrast have a good chance of saying something interesting about contemporary culture, perhaps even about the Swimsuit Issue.

I guess I’ll say this, just briefly, before moving on to the interesting bits: my claim that a lot of work on contemporary culture is bad rests on the fact that I think a lot of work hasn’t understood the basic principles laid out in BabyKong’s response. In the past two weeks I’ve reviewed a couple documents that seem to confirm this. I wouldn’t even necessarily claim that these accounts are “poststructuralist,” because in some sense they’ve internalized the same vague theory that many of the writers they’re writing about have, and so it’s not a case of a hard-edged and critical poststructuralism encountering a vague or poorly understood version of it, but rather a vague and fairly untheorized and unhistoricized version of poststructuralism (that is, a version to which poststructuralism itself has not been applied) encountering a smarter and more elaborated version of itself. (That’s not to say that well-researched and carefully considered postructuralism doesn’t produce this kind of criticism, but that at least in the couple things I’ve been reading lately even that doesn’t seem to be happening.)

And so if work on the contemporary is more bad than other work, it is because the contemporary produces two kinds of pitfalls that we critics have not sufficiently been warned against: (1) the pitfall of too much critical leverage (explained by me last time), and (2) the “poststructuralist” problem BabyKong outlines above, which applies equally well to criticism of poetry as it does to fiction (do we really need to hear that another L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet has destablized the ontologies of meaningfulness?).

Other kinds of work is, presumably, the subject of different kinds of pitfalls (for instance the tendency to turn a small and relatively broken-off piece of the past into an allegory of its era [when done well = Benjamin; when done badly = terrible; where terrible != Benjamin for the most part]; all the historical tendencies Ranciere identifies in his critique of the Annales school, etc.). But these are the subject of another discussion, or someone else’s discussion.

All that said, let’s now head back to BabyKong’s final paragraph, which I repeat here:

Accounts premised on a specialized knowledge of institutions, economics, etc., will by contrast have a good chance of saying something interesting about contemporary culture, perhaps even about the Swimsuit Issue.

I think this is right, especially as it reminds me very much of the work of someone I know (whose name rhymes with Dady Bong), work that has taught me a great deal about the potential effectiveness of such an approach. I do wonder if this work is, as BabyKong suggests, deliberately “less knowing” than the work it writes about; it seems to me instead to be a question of being “differently knowing,” of bringing to bear on the work a mode of thought (“systems theory,” say) and/or field of knowledge (institutions, economics, etc.) that it itself has not accounted for (despite all its vaunted “reflexivity”). Indeed, this critical maneuver seems to illustrate the value of critical maneuvers par excellence, since it depends rather precisely on recognizing (one of the) central features of the recently contemporary as a mode of postmodern reflexivity that can itself be the subject of history (when thought of outside the already reflexive optic of much of contemporary literary critical work).

This is as much as to say that one of the major problems of work on the contemporary is that it has failed to recognize that it shared with the contemporary (and especially with highbrow art in all genres) too many fundamental epistemological and social assumptions, and thus that it tends to be unable to generate critical distance (aka “leverage”) on that work, thereby reducing it to simply repeating what that work already knows. But now I’m telling BabyKong something I at least partially learned from reading his work in the first place.

Long parenthesis: How different this moment is, then, from the moment when French poststructuralists discovered (or invented) their critique of language in the work of literary modernists like Joyce or Celine, an era when the “theory” seemed refreshingly belated when compared to the artwork. In the past ten or fifteen years it has seemed that criticism was instead ahead of the work of art, or perhaps that criticism had to pretend to be slightly behind it in order to pretend to discover in it the thing that criticism already knew. Only now with the death of theory (or whatever you want to call it) is this becoming widely visible — though the structural blindness of a certain mode of this kind of criticism was perhaps visible to some people all along. (This does not mean, for me at least, that the critics of theory were always right; one can elevate, as Sartre suggested, one’s anti-anti-communism ahead of one’s anti-communism without fully abandoning the latter position.) End of long parenthesis.

In any case, if the way to do good work on the contemporary is by shifting the field of analysis to one not already anticipated in the contemporary itself, this is tantamount to articulating once again the particular case of a general truth, which is that good critical knowledge proceeds invariably through the friction wrought by the presence in a single space of two paradigms, the first the one of the text, and the second the one of the critic. In a perfect world, I’d say, there should be just as good a chance that the former will teach the latter something as the reverse, but I suppose that one of the bad habits of contemporary criticism (in all fields) has been a kind of false genuflection before the object, in which the fact of critical projection (that is, the discovery in the object of the thing you were looking for all along, and indeed perhaps the only thing you were capable of finding) was concealed by the claim, made over and over, that this (whatever it was: usually poststructuralism) was what the object was teaching us, as though for the first time.

… And now once again no time to say why it’s harder to write on Gyllenhall than Joyce. Next time, unless, as is my secret hope, BabyKong does it all for me.

Leverage Part 3

Somehow it’s easier to deal with long comments in this format for me, mainly because I can break things down into pieces. So.

Babykong writes:

Do you think there is a connection between what you are saying the the oft-heard idea that “there is nothing truly exciting going on” in literary and cultural criticism these days? I guess the first question would be: Do people still say that, or has the rise of the globalism thing, the science and literature thing, et al, quieted that gloomy sentiment? Is our disclipline more intellectually confident now than it was, say, five years ago?

Or are the rise the globalism thing and the science and lit thing two different symptoms of a continuing anxiety about our possible irrelevance?

My sense is that yes, people do still say that, and that part of the reason they say it is because it’s true. A lot of the globalization stuff coming out of the humanities seems to me almost entirely predictable. And even in my own latest book I feel like the advance I’m making depends for its impact on the illustration of a particular mode of labor (i.e., mine) and the working out of some very specific historical activity (that actually occurred in the world) than on the more general claim that universal ideals coming out of the Enlightenment depend rather intensely on a relation to otherness — which is something everyone knows, and something that bad readers of my work will agree with and recommend that I say even more explicitly. (I might say that the difference between my work and the work of others in this space is that I am most interested in material that has an especially interesting relation to self-consciousness and reflexivity, material that quite explicitly privileges a particular subject (in my case, China), and knows it, while being completely uninterested in (n.b. not “unable” to) allowing that subject to interfere with the conclusions it draws; thus I attempt to avoid the “gotcha” move that occurs when one simply applies a fairly facile form of leverage to historical texts, because in fact I am not interested in the “unconscious” of the text but rather in some kind of intermediary form of awareness and reflection that I generally do not read in Freudian terms (since I don’t think that history has an unconscious). I’m interested, that is, in “less knowing” forms of history than in more knowing ones. But that’s another story.)

So back to the contemporary moment in criticism. I would say that one of the things that “theory” seemed to teach people was that the best way to do criticism was either (1) to read some French person and apply his/her work to literature before everyone else did, or (2) to find in the realm of another discipline a new method — a heuristic for finding new objects, and a hermeneutic for interpreting them, or (3) to find some new set of objects to which an already established hermeneutic had not yet been applied.

These three methods cannot easily be separated, and indeed (1) is merely the local expression of the more general habit of (2), which tended in the 70s and 80s to appear through French philosophy. But one only has to think of New Historicism, which follows rule (2) without following rule (1), to see that it’s the more general case. As for (3), I will say that the recent rise (and now decline?) of work on animals is a classic example of the genre, one that emerged significantly through a the confluence between (1), via Derrida, and (2), via the work of people like Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum.

(As I write this the Denver Broncos just gave up a 45-yard play on 2nd and 33 to the San Diego Chargers, this while playing at home and losing 20-3. Sigh.)

I would say that in the contemporary academy the work of Franco Moretti is a good example of the application of rule (2) above, as is the use of systems theory and economics. The hostility directed towards these methods thus has little to do with their strategy for creating leverage (which is classic) but rather with the move towards the social sciences, whose relation to the humanities has long seemed antagonistic. That the social sciences themselves continue to divide ever more sharply between those whose work depends on statistical analysis and those who read theory (so that you have “hard” sociologists and “soft” sociologists, who can barely communicate with each other, but can have productive discussions with economists and literary scholars, respectively) suggests that what is happening is perhaps a much larger re-division of the field of knowledge in and through the disciplines, so that what had seemed originally to be a fissure operating at the level of the institutional College (the College of Liberal Arts vs. the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences) or the institutional department (economics vs. sociology) now seems to have penetrated down into departments themselves, provoking a situation that could only perhaps be resolved by an entire redistribution of the professoriate as such. The results would be damaging, because it’s better for us to be challenged by each other, and for different hermeneutics to operate on the same or similar objects. But when I hear (as I have) someone seriously claim that Moretti doesn’t belong in an English department I hear the echoing of our lesser, stupider demons.

More banally, I suppose, the rise of interest in “globalization” feels more like problem (3) above than problem (2): simply the application to a new field of play of hermeneutics whose answers are fairly predictable, in which the hegemonic and the resistant are arrayed along lines whose vectors have been, since the early days of postcolonial theory, thoroughly familiar. This even down to the continuing appearance of the Marxist pox-on-both-your-bourgeois-houses critique, where, in the case of the field of “cosmopolitanism,” for instance, the role previously played by Aijaz Ahmad or Arif Dirlik is taken on (well, I should add) by Timothy Brennan.

It’s clear, in any case, that globalization is a “problem,” not a “method,” and is thus unlikely I think to produce any especially “new.” Indeed I would say that the literary academy’s lack of faith in itself comes largely from the fact that it has not been able to generate new methods, only new problems, for a while now, and from a general tendency to privilege the former over the latter in terms of intellectual prestige. (Even the transnational turn in American studies, so widely announced, is simply the arrival of more material on which to do the same kinds of criticism that we’ve been doing; and all the work on “things” is of, I’m afraid, the same order–unless Bill Brown’s almost-radical simultaneous performance of critical modesty and chutzpah constitutes a methodological approach, which, though I admire it, I’m not sure it does.)

If our discipline lacks intellectual confidence, which I think it does, it has as much to do with the fact that no substantially new methods promising socio-political “relevance” have in fact emerged in the last ten years or so. Criticism’s newest objects (transnationalism, globalization) might be thought of as temporary substitutes for relevance, since their quite obvious relevance to the field of politics allows them to function as prosthetics in the search for a new method. Or, one might say, as ways to avoid coming to terms with the fact that new methods, if and when they have appeared, may in fact not be “relevant” in quite the same political ways (I take this to be one source of people’s “problem” with Moretti).

If, faced with this stuff, people feel like there’s nothing exciting going on in literary criticism, or experience a lack of disciplinary self-confidence, this may have ultimately to do more with the larger operation of the relation between “method” and “problem” than anything else. Or perhaps with the way that the problem of “relevance” works across those two other nodes.

That said, I feel like I have plenty left to say, with more book and article ideas than I have time for. And most people I know and respect feel that way. So perhaps the problem is one of perception rather than actuality, and perhaps in fact I (and all those other people) have resolved our relation to the question of “relevance” and “method” in ways that do not cripple us but inspire and motivate us. It would be interesting to find out what we thought those resolutions were, and to wonder why, when so many people agree that the discipline itself lacks self-confidence, energy, and direction, there’s far more good work being done — even by people I actually have met in person — than there is time for me to read it.

All this best left for another time, however. But two last thoughts in relation to Babykong’s comment:

I think we should recognize that there might be places (like the classroom) where the overfamiliar truths of feminism are still worth uttering– we might feel differently about these now all too obvious truths.

Amen. The classroom is a totally different space. The problem with relevance is never clearer than in that space. It’s actually a mark of the discipline’s relation to teaching that it can’t be satisfied with its intense relevance in that extraordinarily public location (we’ve all had teachers who changed our lives, but more importantly, we’ve all been those teachers for our students, even ones who didn’t go on to graduate school).

Indeed, I think it’s part of a foolish academic self-loathing that so many of us spend all our time worrying about our “relevance” to politicians and other “public” people when in fact teachers at every level have more access, and more intense access, to members of the public than any other publically-funded person in this country. Rather than blame ourselves for being so irrelevant, we might point out that most of us could be making twice or three times what we currently make had we gone to law or medical school, and marvel at the way in which any teacher has engaged in a profoundly complex economization of vocational joy that speaks to a desire to be relevant to other people — no matter how unimportant, in political terms, those people turn out to be. Even the “relevance” that we have in relation to a student whose life we’ve “changed” is temporary and limited, but it’s nonetheless far more than nothing, and worthy of praise.

But speaking for myself, I do typically find this more interesting than routinized poststructuralism, because it at least offers us new data and new objects– new “stuff” that is– to think about.

I think that’s right, though the fact that we’re arguing about whether “routinzed” poststructuralism is worse than “routinzed” historicism or not feels like an argument about which carbohydrate-free bread tastes better. I would say, however, that part of the problem with routinzed poststructuralism has been that it’s been so unadventurous about its objects. And that — to refer again to some of my current work, which I know leaves some readers out — that what I was trying to do there was to see if I could combine certain kinds of poststructuralist modes of reading with certain kinds of historical work, in the hope that the latter’s ability to produce new knowledge would be revitalized, and altered, by its application to a new set of objects — that the thing wouldn’t be to say, “see, you can do historicist poststructuralism,” but rather to suggest that a classically poststructuralist critique might find itself transformed into something “new” (or newish) and exciting through its interaction with a different kind of object. That the object might rework the method, one might say.

Come to think of it, this may be one of the hopes for all that work on globalization. Since I’m teaching a whole course on the latter next semester, I have some thinking to do…

Source: Printculture

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Recidivism in weight loss

Nice article from NY Mag on the psychological and physiological adjustments that come with having lost large amounts of weight.

Cultural fantasies of weight loss present a tidy, attractive proposition – lose weight, gain self-acceptance – without addressing the whole truth: that body image post-weight loss is often quite complicated. Perhaps that helps explain why the rate of recidivism among people who have lost significant amounts of weight is shockingly high – by some estimates, more than 90 percent of people who lose a lot of weight will gain it back. Of course, there are lots of other reasons: genetic predisposition towards obesity, for one. For another, someone who’s lost 100 pounds to get to 140 pounds will need to work harder – including eating much less each day – to maintain that weight than someone who’s been at it her entire life. (Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent piece “The Fat Trap” explains these physiological factors in much greater detail.) But what about the psychological? Who would be surprised if a person – contending with both a new body that looks different from the one she feels she was promised, and the loneliness of feeling there’s no way to express that disappointment – returned to the familiar comfort of overeating? At least its effects are predictable.

Two thoughts: first that the last bit is of a piece toward a more general understanding of how psychologically difficult deprivation is, and how things like being fat or being poor change the wiring of our bodies and our brains. Beginning from that understanding makes compassion for the choices others make far easier (and moralizing judgment oriented around disgust more difficult).

Second is that Iwonder if anyone’s ever done a comparative analysis of the disappointment one feels after losing a great deal of weight and the post-pregnancy/childbirth body. Both are situations in which one does not return (unless one is a certain sort of celebrity, I suppose) to the status quo ante; in the case of weight loss this is exacerbated or made more weird, of course, by the fact that the new status quo may never have been ante. I was 6’1″, 215 pounds at age 16, 6’3″ 240 at 18, and 6’3″ 278 in summer 2002. Since 2007 I’ve bounced between 190 and 200 (I was at 184 at one point, but never again) and I’m still not used to it.

Source: Printculture

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Bonus points to the cynical guy

So a few months ago I predicted that one day actors would be hired by firms like Coursera to teach MOOCs (because once you don’t have to respond to student questions live, who cares who reads from the script? Might as well be a hottie…).

And now one of the leading MOOC firms, EdX, is considering hiring Matt Damon to teach a course.

Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now: In meetings, officials have proposed trying one run of a course with someone like Damon, to see how it goes. But even to consider swapping in a star actor for a professor reveals how much these free online courses are becoming major media productions—ones that may radically change the traditional role of professors.

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

Source: Printculture

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