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, 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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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

Free Photo: Columns at the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

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Politics

Negative freedom, positive freedom, and opportunity

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished “negative” and “positive” liberty. In Berlin’s distinction, the former is the classical liberal ideal of freedom from government coercion, while the latter is the communitarian ideal of collective self-determination.

There is a related but even more basic distinction between two kinds of liberty that might be called “negative” and “positive”: negative freedom from government prohibition, and positive freedom to do something, to achieve some aim. A person who has no money is free in a negative sense to buy a loaf of bread, because there is no government prohibition on the buying of bread; but this person is not free in a positive sense to buy the loaf of bread, because he is not able to do so. He cannot choose to buy the bread. Likewise, we all have the negative freedom to become the CEO of Goldman Sachs, because no law prohibits us from doing so; but we lack the positive freedom, because we lack the practical ability to make the choice.

It is sometimes assumed that the American political tradition embraces only “negative” liberty from government coercion, and not the “positive” liberty to achieve one’s aims in life. But a case could be made that the ideal of “opportunity,” a central pillar of American political culture, implies a notion of positive freedom.

When the ideology of the Reagan era speaks of “freedom,” the response should be: freedom to do what?

If the 1960s called for negative freedom from social and cultural constraints, and the 1980s called in a confused way for negative freedom from economic constraints, then perhaps some coming decade can be the time when the positive freedom of Americans finally becomes the focus of our political life.

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