If, Literature, Politics

Modernism and the Finite Territory of the Avant-Garde

Free Photo: Woman Entertainer in a Wooden Egg Costume

(WARNING: This post ended up taking a very meandering path to its central argument, which appears after the jump. Against the assumption that a new avant-garde is always possible, the post considers whether each artistic form, including lyric poetry and narrative fiction, might exist in a kind of finite territory of formal possibilities — so that formal experimentation ultimately reaches a point of exhaustion. Finally, the post considers whether modernity itself, and its economic and political possibilities, might exist within a finite territory whose borders are already open to view.)

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.

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Literature, Politics

McSweeney’s: “Artisanal Coal”

Free Photo: Gold Bullion

Many people don’t know this, but in order to support my lifestyle as a progressive blogger, 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.)

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Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

Free Photo: Man With an Artificial Arm, Welding in 1919

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

Freedom

Free Photo: Path Through Debris, Galveston Hurricane

(Translated from the German.)

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

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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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