Literature, Politics, Religion

Silo: a play from 2018 about a pandemic in Trump’s America

Interior of Red Cross House at U.S. General Hospital #16, New Haven, Conn. during the influenza epidemic. The beds are isolated by curtains

In 2018, I finished writing Silo, a play about a highly fatal pandemic spreading across the United States in the Trump era. It was a political allegory. The play considers how a group of plague survivors might try, and fail, to live together in an emergency shelter.

The play was my first work since publishing If in 2014. Although the play ended up being a semi-finalist for the Bridge Award in 2019, it never found a producer. One reason may be that it is extremely violent.

Now that the United States is actually facing a pandemic, and one that has been shaped by our current politics, I thought I would go ahead and publish the play. A link to the PDF appears below.

Silo - page 1Silo

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If, Literature, Politics

Modernism and the Finite Territory of the Avant-Garde

Influenza ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Wash., D.C. [Nurse taking patient's pulse]

This post is about the limits of the avant-garde, and the possibility that the formal possibilities within any art-form are finite.

But first: I recently learned that within the hopeless market for literature professors, the situation is even more dire for aspiring professors who specialize in Modernism — my favorite period in English literature, the period stretching from writers like Conrad, James, and Yeats through writers like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, and too many others to list: Williams, cummings, Moore, Faulkner…

Apparently there are few or no openings for teachers of Modernism in the entire United States in an average year. A search of the MLA Job Information List seems to confirm this picture, although there are a few positions that include Modernism within a broader job description.

I find this particularly sad, because I’ve always felt that Modernism was the last period in Anglophone literature that succeeded in doing something new and great — the last period that can plausibly claim to stand beside the accomplishments of earlier revolutionary literary moments like Romanticism. As the modernist scholar Marjorie Perloff mentioned in a conversation on Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions a few years ago, her students have been attracted to Ezra Pound’s work, despite his promotion of fascism, his embraces of historical, economic, and linguistic crankery, and his voluminously unsatisfying literary experiments, because he at least made a case for poetry mattering — and mattering greatly — and he wrote poetry that attempted to fulfill his grandiose demands.

Growing up in a period when poetry for the most part felt lifeless and faux-antiquarian, Pound rethought how poetry can work from the ground up — using the framework of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia — worked through countless formal innovations in his own poetry, played a role in launching the careers of other Modernists like Eliot and Joyce, and went on to attempt a monumental “poem containing history,” The Cantos, which, even if it inevitably failed to satisfy his impossible vision, contains some of the most beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking passages of poetry in the English language — for me at least. The failed ambition itself supplies some of the pathos, especially in the final fragments.

(It is probably no coincidence that the best and most thrilling and memorable work of literary criticism I have ever read, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, is also concerned with Modernism. It offers a survey of what made Modernism revolutionary, with Pound at the center of the vortex.)

When the literature of the intervening century is compared to the work of the Modernists, it is hard not to feel a sense of belatedness, of arriving after the main act has already ended. From the powerful, quasi-Biblical intensity of the images and music in, for example, The Waste Land, we pass to the mostly self-defeating, self-protecting ironies and light finger-exercises of mid-century poets like Auden and Larkin; the dated, small-worlded pleadings of the countless confessional poets from Lowell onward; the shoddily rambling half-experiments of those who came in Pound’s wake — even the best of them, like Olson and Zukovsky; the dead-end conceptual experiments of the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” school and the “unoriginal geniuses” like Kenneth Goldsmith whose work Perloff has heroically attempted to defend; the trivialities of countless New Yorker-style MFA-industrial poets attempting to capture what it feels like to drink a cup of coffee at an empty kitchen table while listening to NPR after getting divorced; and on and on.

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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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Economics, Literature, Politics

This Must Be What Freedom Feels Like

In the waiting room of the hospital sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who is in pain and seeks to gain entry to the hospital.

“Anyone may enter the hospital,” the gatekeeper tells the man. “All you need do is enter through the emergency door.” She gestures toward a wide, swinging door at the far end of the waiting room.

The man approaches the emergency door, then turns back. “How much will it cost to enter through this door?” he asks. The gatekeeper says that there is no way of knowing the cost before the man enters. She encourages him to enter for the sake of his health. “We can settle the cost afterward,” she smiles. “We are not barbarians, after all.”

The man returns to the gatekeeper’s desk and asks her if there is another way to enter the hospital. Continue reading

If, Literature

Dendritic fiction: the structure of If

if graphviz kindle loc PNG

At long last, by popular demand, the graph above shows the structure of the chapters in If — using the “loc” (location) numbers from the Kindle edition, rather than the page numbers from the print edition. Click on the graph for a higher resolution, printable version.

A similar graph already appears at the beginning of the print edition, but with page numbers instead of loc numbers.

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If, Literature

If, Modernism, and Metamodernism

Free Photo: Log Trestle

As the publication of If recedes in the rear view mirror, and I move on to some other projects, I find myself wondering whether I took the right approach to presenting the novel.

When I decided to write If, I had in mind two general models, both modernist: Hemingway’s attempt, in his earliest stories, to “write one story about each thing that I knew about,” and Joyce’s attempt in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to show the evolution of the character’s linguistic consciousness through the form of the novel. In If, it’s not so much the narrative voice as the genre and style of the novel that change in response to the protagonist’s development. I guess you could say that if the stylistic shifts in Portrait can be seen as reflecting how the protagonist might write (or, earlier on, think), the stylistic shifts in If often reflect what the protagonist at a given place in life might read.

None of the publicity materials for If mentioned either of these modernist models.

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

Free Photo: Posing Lumberjacks

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Is Ecology to Environmental Studies as Rational Choice is to Economics?

Free Photo: Homeless Family Walking US 99

I’ve been working on some poems about the environment lately, and as part of that project I’ve been getting my first exposure to environmental studies and some related fields like ecocriticism. Previously, my exposure to environmental writing was mostly through popular journalism and history by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert and Jared Diamond.

I have to say that what I’ve encountered of environmental studies so far has been a little troubling. The issue is summed up in the title of this post: does the theory of “ecology” dominate environmental studies in the same way that the theory of “rational choice” dominates economics?

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