Literature, Politics

McSweeney’s: “Artisanal Coal”

Many people don’t know this, but in order to support my lifestyle as a writer of experimental fiction, I sometimes moonlight as a copywriter for the coal industry.

I was particularly happy with the reception of my latest work, “Artisanal Coal: A Message from the American Federation of Coal Producers.” Not only did my sponsors at the AFCP promise to put me in touch with an administrator at the EPA to talk about employment possibilities. They also agreed to repost the ad on a website run by publishing baron Timothy McSweeney (of the San Francisco McSweeneys). Enjoy!

Hi. I’m a young American. If you’re like me, you care about locally sourced produce and environmental sustainability. That’s why I bike to work, ferment my own cabbage, and only use organic coffee beans in my cold brew.

The last thing I ever thought I wanted in my life was coal, or a coal-powered mobile electricity generator. 

But then some friends introduced me to small-batch electricity. It’s fresh, all-natural, and American-made…

(The rest at McSweeney’s.)

Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

It seems hard to believe, from our current vantage point in which the academic study of literature appears to be in a state of perpetual crisis, that there was a time, not so long ago, when the literary humanities reigned over an expanding scholarly empire — one that was not unlike the empire of the quantitative social sciences, and especially economics, today. Instead of literary academics feeling tempted or obligated to apply quantitative methods to the study of literature — as, for example, Franco Moretti has done, with results of (predictably, it seems to me) real but limited value — non-literary scholars felt tempted or obligated to become conversant in literary theory.

I was reminded of this while reading some essays by Jerome Bruner, an academic psychologist who died in 2016. In works like “Life as Narrative” (1987), Bruner found it useful to draw on literary theory about the structure of narratives as a source of ideas for understanding his own field, and even for designing empirical experiments. He cites Vladimir Propp, Frank Kermode, and Paul de Man, among many others.

Who outside of literary academia reads the works of literary academics today? What happened?

I would like to propose, a little controversially, that the literary humanities finds itself in its current state of isolation in part because of its rejection of structuralism. By “structuralism,” I do not mean only what Lévi-Strauss meant when he introduced the term. I mean something more broad: arguments that attempt to reduce complex, unwieldy human phenomena into relatively simple structures that can then be used to make predictions. The kind of models that the structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas developed, for example. In its turn to poststructuralism, American literary academia developed a profound antipathy toward this kind of thought — an antipathy, I would argue, that has discouraged literary scholars from developing insights and models that might be of use outside of academic literary studies.

When literary scholarship turned against structuralism, it also implicitly turned against modeling. But models are a large part of what we use to make sense of our worlds, and they are one of the primary ways that ideas move between academic disciplines. To reject the search for predictively useful models is to invite the kind of intellectual isolation in which literary academia currently finds itself.

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