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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