"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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December 2, 2008

The Function of Humanism at the Present Time

In an email exchange with a sympathetic but critical reader of this blog, an objection was raised over my assertion, in an earlier post, that James Wood is essentially an advocate for domestic fiction, that the domestic novel, as I wrote, is his “default setting.”  All one had to do to rebut this claim, the reader argued, was to look at the sheer variety of authors to whom Wood has awarded positive reviews.  Recently, for instance, he’s recommended Bolaño’s Savage Detectives and Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, neither of which could credibly be categorized as “domestic fiction.” 

It’s a line of reasoning that bears a striking resemblance to Wood’s own self-defense against charges of negativity and narrowness in his reply to the editors of n+1 magazine in 2005.  In the course of his career thus far, writes Wood,

I have written in praise, and often at considerable length, of Norman Rush . . . José Saramago, Saul Bellow, Graham Swift, Jeffrey Eugenides, Philip Roth, Victor Pelevin, Alan Hollinghurst, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark, J.F. Powers, V.S. Pritchett, W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Vikram Seth, Anne Enright, David Means, Geoff Dyer, David Bezmogis, James Kelman, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Yates, Francisco Goldman, V.S. Naipaul, and . . . Christina Stead . . . 

What begins as a response to the idea that he is somehow primarily a negative critic turns into a demonstration of his breadth.  He continues:

There is no obvious pattern here.  I am assumed to be a defender of “realism,” but I have skeptically reviewed Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe and John Irving, finding precisely their “realism” too conventional to deserve that noble and expansive word.  I am assumed to be an “aesthete,” but it is precisely John Updike’s aestheticism that has goaded me again and again into print in the last ten years.  I am assumed to be a “moralist,” but I like best to lose myself in the rich prose of a Bellow or a Melville or a Henry Green; probably no critic of contemporary fiction is more drawn to style and the enjoyment of style.  I love ideas in fiction, but not as Julian Barnes or Richard Powers practice them.  I praised Sabbath’s Theater and criticized The Human Stain; I was lukewarm about Disgrace but admired Elizabeth Costello.

At first glance the diversity of this list can look like an open-and-shut refutation of the charges of narrowness and the privileging of domestic fiction alike.  But there are at least two key ways that this line of defense is flawed.  The first flaw is that the breadth of the list is only apparent; it is really more a book-retailer’s than an intellectual’s idea of breadth, a list of names culled from the Fiction section of Border’s or Barnes & Noble.  Wood never really evinces any interest in art or culture or even literature (which includes drama and poetry as well as fiction) per se; with few exceptions he’s concerned solely with novels – which, by sheer coincidence I’m sure, tend to generate better sales than poetry, plays, and books on painting or sculpture or art-music.  And even his interest in novels is limited to Anglo-American and European novelists with the occasional garnish of some Anglo-postcolonial ginger.*  Of course one might offer as a counter-argument that Wood is, after all, a book reviewer, and to that extent dependent on the output of the market.  To which I would respond:  Now we are getting somewhere.

But there’s a second and, in my view, more serious flaw in Wood’s protestations of breadth.  To understand it, however, we have to look behind the sleight-of-hand of his “There is no obvious pattern here.”  Once one has read a critical mass of his actual reviews, one sees that there is indeed an “obvious pattern.”  He might award positive notices to what are arguably some quite different novels, but he awards them for more or less the same reason:  because they have (or can be construed as having) depictions of supposedly autonomous human consciousness.  They are all, in one way or another, versions of the “novel of character” he called for in his Franzen essay, and which he counterposed to the nemesis of hysterical realism.  Certainly a critic needs critical standards, but in Wood’s case, as in Procrustes’, the application of the standard has a funny way of leaving its subjects – or victims – standardized. 

The essay, “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” from his first collection, The Broken Estate, is programmatic in this regard.  Chekhov is Wood’s avatar of Negative Capability: “More completely than any writer before him Chekhov became his characters,” he writes.  Chekhov’s characters enjoy “true privacies,” which amounts to a kind of watershed in the history of literature:  “It is the movement of free consciousness in literature for perhaps the first time.”  He explains: 

Chekhov’s characters, however they yearn, they have one freedom that flows from his literary genius:  they act like free consciousnesses, and not as owned literary characters. This is not a negligible freedom.  For the great achievement of Chekhov’s brilliantly accidental style, his mimicking of the stream of the mind, is that it allows forgetfulness into fiction.  Buried deep in themselves, people forget themselves while thinking, and go on mental journeys.  Of course they do not exactly forget to be themselves.  They forget to act as purposeful fictional characters.  They mislay their scripts.

This is the desideratum – if a novel has this, it is good; if not, not.  It’s the summum bonum, which becomes the programme, which becomes the metric:  in review after review, for book after book, with a finally numbing regularity, the citing of these little moments (or their absence) in which characters reveal their ostensible ‘free, spontaneous’ human interiority.  What he says about Chekhov he says about Hamsun, what he says about Hamsun he says about Woolf.  The most important thing about Woolf’s technique, he writes, is that it “frees characters from the fiction which grips them; it lets characters forget, as it were, that they are thicketed in a novel.”  We, however, are never allowed to forget that we are straitjacketed in Wood’s criticism, which soon enough takes on an identikit quality:  pick up the sentence from the Woolf piece and plunk it right back down into the Chekhov essay (because the most important thing about Woolf’s technique, after all, is also the most important thing about Chekhov’s technique), or further back into the Shakespeare essay, or fast-forward it into his reviews of Monica Ali, Jeffrey Eugenides, or Norman Rush, of whose novel Mortals he writes, “its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness.”  Or, for variety's sake, you could try his recent (June 2008) review of Rivka Galchen's first novel: "Atmospheric Disturbances is a novel of consciousness."  The catholicity of his taste and the variety of his benediction are hollow blessings, he is indeed a narrow critic.  In one way or another he reduces almost every novel that he approves of to this boilerplate.  Other aspects are secondary, mere vehicles of his humanist ideology; even style and form are just windows – dressed according to the transitory fashions of their times – through which good authors reveal, and poor authors obscure, these little flashes of private human inwardness.  His approval reduces the approved down to his own size.  He measures them with an inchworm metric. 

Look again at his paean to Chekhov’s supposed “free, human” consciousnesses – what is it but a displacement into the realm of fiction of the bourgeois-liberal political utopia?  It is a Chamber of Commerce-style political vision:  the classic liberty of the shopkeeper, laissez-faire “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to,” etc., etc.  The fictional characters get to enjoy an idealized little republic in their heads – oh, and hearts! and, oh! souls! – and the reader gets to enjoy it on the page, while meanwhile each must compromise themselves to the edicts of “reality.” 

You can see the same bourgeois-liberal ideology at work in Wood’s negative reviews, and nowhere more so than in his reviews of the writers he arraigns for practicing so-called “hysterical realism” and its other postmodern variants. In these polemics Wood’s language tars anti-realist aesthetic modes such as allegory, the “paranoiac vision,” and magical realism with the brush of totalitarian and anti-human (and therefore anti-novelistic) political agendas that supposedly subvert the liberties of the novel’s ideal republic.  The word “agenda” is Wood’s, carefully drawn from the deep well of his received wisdom, because we all know that leftists have agendas:  thus our red-baiting reviewer speaks of “the agenda of Pynchon’s writing,” and of DeLillo he writes that, “he can employ only characters who are loyal to him and his agenda” – get it?  And because we all know that leftists and radicals like to pretend to espouse liberatory ideals but really want to enslave people, Wood has developed the clever rhetorical trick of turning his opponents’ radical libertarianism against them.  Toni Morrison’s magical realism, he writes in his review of Paradise, “bullies” her characters and “oppresses” them – get the trick?  Pynchon gets the same treatment in Wood’s review of Mason & Dixon:  The “fantastic comedy” for which Pynchon is “famous” is actually “willed” and “unfree,” says Wood, and his characters are “serfs to allegory.”  “Pynchon’s allegories are somewhat tyrannical,” Wood continues, and just in case we didn’t get the point: “Pynchon’s novels have . . . the agitated density of a prison.”

Of course this rhetorical trick involves the reviewer in a logical contradiction:  If these authors’ characters are just cartoons, ciphers, and stick-figures, as he says, then they can’t be bullied and oppressed.  So Wood must transform them into a trapped population of “live” characters, presumably yearning to breathe free and requiring his special agitation on their behalf.  It’s this missionary zeal that makes him, as I wrote in an earlier post, the perfect example of a Blairite in the realm of letters.  Once the characters are liberated, of course, they can be bitch-slapped with “personal responsibility.”  It will be high time for them to quit loafing and get real jobs, if any are available.

The function of humanism at the present time:  apologetics to keep a certain sector of the population – specifically the book reading part of it, and especially the part that reads “literary fiction” – on board with galloping inhumanity.  It doesn’t matter if they watch CNN or FOX, it doesn’t matter if they vote Democratic or Republican, as long as they keep watching the news and subscribing to popular magazines, as long as they keep going to book club, as long as they keep going to the polls – in other words as long as they keep believing in and cherishing the “free, spontaneous” privacies of their profoundly human consciousnesses. James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face.  The system must be legitimized as it hurtles to destruction and drags the entire globe with it.  The novel – as a recent post at the Existence Machine has done an admirable job in outlining – has always played a privileged role in this legitimizing task.  You need look no farther than the pages of the New Republic and the New Yorker themselves:  advocacy of “free” characters and their precious interiorities in the ‘cultural’ back pages, and advocacy of bombs away in the Middle East and bulldozers to bury Palestinians in the front pages.  “Interiority” for some and nullity for the rest. 

Abjection is humanism’s eternal Other, the abject always the shadow the humanist drags in his wake.  The fraudulent Anglo-European ideology of humanism and “free” human interiority, in its Christian-humanist and Enlightenment rationalism flavors – the Middle Passage long ago exposed it as a sick joke.  It shouldn’t have survived King Leopold’s Congo ‘Free’ State, shouldn’t have survived Wounded Knee, shouldn’t have survived two European world wars, shouldn’t have survived Auschwitz or Hiroshima or the Nakba or Algeria or Vietnam.  To the extent that it does survive, it is sheer apologetics.  The real shadow cast by Wood’s bourgeois-liberal republic of “free human consciousness” is the ghetto, the bantustan, the shantytown, the occupied territory.


*If you want to at least start to get a feeling for the genuine breadth of global literature, scan the postings at the invaluable Literary Saloon site, the weblog of the complete review; if you want an idea of a critic with real breadth, go back and read George Steiner, on whose reputation Wood broke a lance in 1996, or Edmund Wilson, about whose career Wood wrote a defensive, grudging review in 2005.  Next to these two figures Wood is a dwarf.


LML said...

From another sympathetic but critical reader of this blog:

"James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face. The system must be legitimized as it hurtles to destruction and drags the entire globe with it."

Really? You really believe that "intent" is there? Seems quite a stretch. Though you make Wood's fetishization of consciousness sound subservient to some Blairite agenda, and though maybe you're right in his particular case (I haven't read him nearly as thoroughly as you have, and am not really a believer in his importance as a cultural figure), a case can easily be made that to privilege consciousness and character is to honor the fundamentally anarchic and unsystematic nature of the human, as distinct from the competing dogmas of artificial systems. Certainly Chekhov's fiction (as well as Chekhov's stated intentions, often) supports this view. And I read Wood as at least believing that this is what he's professing, though I'm open to your corrective reinterpretation of him. Maybe I'm misreading you, but you come pretty close to saying, at times, that a profession of artistic independence is really a profession of allegiance to the dominant political system. This is a depressingly limited view of art, in my view.

Edmond Caldwell said...


And thank you for the sympathetic yet critical comment! The quotation you cite comes from the “Function of Humanism at the Present Time” paragraph of the post, where I’m giving what I think is the objective “intent” of the humanist position (or metaphysics, imo), its social and political function, when it is articulated in particular contemporary venues (the New Republic, the New Yorker). I’m writing about the objective effect of this discourse, which Wood participates in.

Although I will say that he’s certainly a much more political critic than people usually recognize or give him credit for. Go read the Chekhov essay and look at the way he uses the words “freedom/free” and “revolution.” Think about his Chekhov and his Austen essays in The Broken Estate in terms of the way that the Russian and the French Revolution provide a kind of unspoken political backdrop to the argument. Those are only two examples – there are many more, some of which I’ll write about. But whether he’s “conscious” or not of how political he is or somehow deluding himself I consider irrelevant.

I’m unable to follow, however, the steps by which you arrive at the conclusion about my depressingly limited view of art. I’m not saying that my view of art isn’t depressingly limited, either; I just can’t piece together your particular approach (the approach of the reproach!). You seem to have mistaken my remarks about Wood for remarks about Chekhov, which in turn are remarks about the artist and artistic independence generally, but I can’t locate a few of the links in the logic of the sequence, I’m afraid. Did Wood make a profession of “artistic independence” (is he an “artist”?) that I missed somehow? And what are “professions” worth, anyway? Isn’t the practice the thing? I do know that I’ve written about artistic practice – see my Handke posts next door at The Chagall Position. I consider them, and the other posts there, to be pretty accurate reflections of my “view of art.”

Lethe said...

Recently I have begun reading James Wood and I feel I have enough knowledge about him and his stance to comment here.

The first thing that occurs to me is you have created a blog entirely in opposition to this man, which implies that whether you agree with him or not, he is an important enough figure to have commanded so much of your time and effort.

Second of all, I have been reading criticism for about ten years now and Wood ranks among the critics that I most enjoy reading. In criticism it is a balancing act, maintaining the reader's interest and putting forth an original thesis.

I will agree that Wood, upon first reading, seems much greater than he is. He has that quality to his criticism where expectations fly, and by the end of "How Fiction Works" for example, we get a somewhat paltry thesis; ie. realism as "lifeness" vs. "lifelikeness".

But we must compare him to Calvino, to Frye, to Bloom (who I detest), and to Kundera. In this company, I can honestly judge his work as erudite but not ephiphanous, and informative but not ingenious.

It comes down to two simple things for me. One) I enjoy reading a good literary critic, and he's one. He helps me form my ideas although he doesn't blast them to pieces. Two) When it comes down to it, his thesis is rather simple and you ought to accept it. All he is saying (in terms of realism) is that realism is a function of belief on the reader's behalf. It's easy to complicate things from there, and that's what it seems everyone is doing. Using Woods as a marker for some silly identity politics game. But the bottom line, as I see it, Wood believes what any average reader would agree with--A excellent work of art is one with the most life in it. Skip the theory; here's the point.

Saul Bellow was praised for--not being the best writer of his century, but for having the most energy, the most life in his prose, same with Nabokov.

NigelBeale said...

Giving the 'culture of imperialism a human face'...Wood’s 'bourgeois-liberal republic of “free human consciousness”'?

What a wet, Marxist blanket you are.

You condemn him for forwarding the agenda of a system that destroys lives and creates misery, others criticize him for staying sealed inside literature... he must be doing something right to elicit such contradictory responses.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Lethe, and thank you for writing.

First, a clarification. You write that I have “created a blog entirely in opposition to this man.” This is not so. I’m not against “the man” JW at all. Maybe he’s a nasty, reprehensible jerk like me, or maybe he’s a great guy; either way I could care less. I’m against his work, his aesthetics, and the ideological conjuncture that now bears his name.

I don’t understand your remark about identity politics. As far as I know, “identity politics” refers to politics based on affirming a particular social “identity” that the dominant society has tried to marginalize. Thus black people’s struggles, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the struggle of disabled people, to name a few, have all been labeled by some as “identity politics.” I’m not sure how that applies to my blog; perhaps you meant something else.

Clearly we see Wood’s work quite differently. That’s OK with me. But why should you ask me, in essence, to stop doing what I’m doing? If, as you say, you’ve read his works, then you will surely have noticed that he’s not exactly a live-and-let-live, “let a hundred flowers bloom” kind of reviewer. He’s picked a lot of fights in his time; he’s a very polemical critic – so what is the problem if someone should argue, and argue vigorously, back? Do you believe that those who have positions of cultural authority (such as being a lead reviewer for the New Yorker and a Harvard professor) should be listened to in silence by the rest of us?

Lethe said...

Thank you for responding. And here is my response in turn.

First, I applaud your blog for being interesting, and I've included it on my blogroll despite our differences.

What I would like to know is, "What camp do you represent?" Are you espousing a Marxist ideology in direct opposition to what you call "bourgeois-liberal ideology"? Because as much as you are attacking Wood's supposed agenda, you seem to be responding in equal parts with an agenda of your own. That's what I meant about identity politics: the privileging of an identity over the matter-at-hand. Therefore, you will never concede to anything Wood says or does b/c he represents something to you; he has become an abstract ideology.

I'm reading his books from a completely different angle. I read his books because I esteem great literature and I've read many of the books he discusses. I also read many books, outside of the Western Cannon, that he does not discuss, but I don't hold that against him. Like most English-speaking literary critics he's comfortable within a very limited Eurocentric literature. But I don't expect him to be anything more than a critic of this sort of classical cannon, and there is much to be learned from the books he does discuss.

Now, this question of "free consciousness" which means so much to you and which seems to imply a vast power/knowledge network, something akin to oppressor/oppressed. Do you have a bone to pick with the New York Times or the New Yorker or the New Republic? Then state that; attack the publications who you believe are involved in this liberal-bourgeois conspiracy.

In all honesty, it begins to sound like some conspiracy theory. Perhaps you are thinking that with this belief of "autonomous consciousness" they infiltrate the media, brainwash readers and maintain a position of dominance?

I don't buy it.

And I don't buy the fact that James Wood is your fall man for this malignant humanism--a humanism you interpret as imperialistic. Because when I read Woods I put none of these preconceptions before my reading. I read a man who admires clear, effective literature, an enthusiast of believable fiction (because all good fiction is believable--meaning you can suspend disbelief), and fiction that moves the reader through characters with life in them. These are hardly provocative starting points for a book of criticism. Which is why I've said that ultimately, Wood is not a radical thinker; he just happens to be an excellent writer which is why he provokes you; he's good at the craft of writing and that's what good writing does, it gets people's blood moving.

But wait . . . I have more.

If you read Wood he actually contradicts many different positions on the question of realism. That is, he doesn't take a single, unequivocal stance toward the question of realism. You cannot pin this catch-word to a political agenda. It doesn't hold water. This is mainly because by doing it you stray so from the matter-at-hand (into post-colonialism, into metaphysics, into philosophy; subjects he is not even addressing) so far, to make your point, that you're not even in the domain of literature anymore.

You're in the sad domain of what literature has become. An insipid socialized, politicized battleground for -isms.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Ah, what can I say, Lethe, I paint what I see.

A good place for you to start if you actually want to learn something about the positions you're arguing against is a book called "Aesthetics and Politics," edited by Fredric Jameson, which includes debates between Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and George Lukacs; it's published by Verso Press. Good luck.

Lethe said...

I've ordered your book along with a Walter Benjamin's Illuminations. But by stepping into your world of theory (Marxist aesthetic theory); I fear losing my firm standing in the appreciation of literature itself. Nonetheless, I will venture forth and return with my insights into this obvious polemic.

Anonymous said...

"James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face."

Your shotgun blast criticism splinters a lot of air and catches precious little wood.

You accuse him of legitimizing the horrors of predatory capitalism.

But this is as absurd as arguing that Bach's cello suites puts a pleasant face on imperialism.

Your argument would gain some respectability if you would take the time to explicitly state and defend your assumption, that the proper role of art — especially literary art — is to challenge state power and private concentration of wealth.

Of course, there are outstanding dissident journalists who already do this.

Why read novels and criticism when we can more profitably read Chomsky or C. Johnson or Cockburn or Palast?

And that's part of Wood's point: the novel lends itself very nicely to an exploration of "free spontaneous consciousness."

In fact, no genre does it better.


Edmond Caldwell said...

It would indeed be absurd to argue that Bach’s cello suites put a pleasant face on imperialism, when the bourgeoisie hadn’t even finished enclosing the commons, and capitalism was still in its mercantilist phase.

I subscribe to Walter Benjamin’s view that every document of culture is simultaneously a document of barbarism.

“Respectability” I’ll leave to you.

Anonymous said...

Why feign a response?

A nation-state can be predatory without being capitalist. You know this.

If you don't like the Bach example, provide one you do like, as this will give us a chance to make a substantive disagreement clear. You know this, too.

No dry husk of a response, please.

I'd rather be ignored.


Edmond Caldwell said...

My response, referencing Benjamin, was more serious than your first comment even deserved, Kevin. You haven't made a "substantive disagreement" with anything on this blog, you've just thrown a few stones.

Read the posts on this blog, starting with the first one, in chronological order. Then send me a detailed argument, supporting your assertions and charges with textual evidence. I.e., I'm holding you to the same standard I hold myself when dealing with Wood's writing. If you send me such a serious comment, I'll give it a serious response. If not, not.

Anonymous said...

There are two substantive disagreements.

One between you and Wood; the other between you and me.

The first concerns the role of free spontaneous consciousness in the "good" or "well-crafted" or "aesthetically-pleasing" novel.

In works ranging from How Fiction Works to most of the reviews he's penned over the years, Wood clearly believes that the pre-eminent purpose of the novel is to evoke the qualia of others' lives.

Good fiction does this well; bad fiction, poorly.

Now, a fair to midland case can be made that Wood fetishizes consciousness in his criticism.

This is an area of real disagreement that can be productively mined, and every yokel with blog appears to be doing just that.

When you go beyond this disagreement, beyond a meaningful dispute with Wood's kantian commitment to consciousness, and enter the realm of extra-political effects of his criticism, the second point of contention crops up.

I don't have anything particularly interesting to say on the connection between art and politics except to say that your argument is a non-starter.

I'm fairly content to do just that.

The form of your gripe appears to be this:

(1) Wood privileges interiority, but (2) this is a symptom of "bourgeois-liberal ideology," which (3) functions as a kind of "apologetics to keep a certain sector of the population" obedient to state-corporate power. Hence, (4) Wood's criticism puts a happy smiling face on domination.

Of course, there's no logical necessity between (1) and (2) or (1) and (3), so your conclusion simply doesn't follow.

Want to make your argument stronger? You can do one of two things.

You can show how (1) involves (2) or (3).

Or you can explain how listening to Bach or reading Madame Bovary or Sabbath's Theater are inherently depoliticizing as they don't challenge state/corporate power.


Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi "Kevin."

I haven't made an argument anywhere on the blog that Bach or Roth or Flaubert are "inherently depoliticizing because they don't challenge corporate/state power." This seems the result of either sloppy reading or unexamined assumptions on your part. My argument is about a critic publishing in New Yorker and New Republic, and it is more about legitimization than about "obedience."

Obviously, I can't say everything at once, but I am demonstrating the connections you call for in each of my posts, building my case, always with specific reference to the texts in front of me. It's more important for me to continue to do that than to waste my time in a pointless "debate," in which I'm asked to reinvent the wheel at the request of someone who, so to speak, denies the existence of motion.

It's easy enough for anonymous commenters to say "well, you haven't demonstrated x and y" without doing any heavy lifting themselves. If all of these issues matter to you, start a blog of your own to demonstrate how aesthetic objects exist in the pristine realm of la-la land or whatever it is you're doing such a "fair to midland" job of arguing. After all, as you say, "every yokel" has one.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Alright - here is the NEW COMMENTS POLICY that I've just figured out how to affix permanently over that tempting little box on the Comments page. But I'll reproduce it here for good measure, so that nobody from this thread has to waste a click:

I RESERVE THE RIGHT TO DELETE, rather than post, any comment that does not reflect intelligent engagement with the issues on this blog (not to mention comments which don't meet standards of basic literacy). Just sending a comment to say how disgusted you are with the blog or the post won't make it through -- start your own damn blog and post away there to your heart's content. Comments which show that you have merely skimmed the post will not make it through. Comments which show that you have read the post, considered it carefully, but are still a hopeless, blithering idiot will not make it through. If you still want to comment, make sure that you have a basic familiarity with all of literature in English and a great deal of it in translation, plus have some working knowledge of the thought of Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, Slavoj Zizek, and Fredric Jameson, and others whose names don't occur to me at this moment (but you should know them anyway).

In other words, this is the graduate course. If you think it's illegitimate to talk about art and ideology at the same time, you need the freshman course, which I'm not going to teach here, because for me it's boring review. Go do your homework and come back if you're still interested and have something intelligent to say.

On the other hand, brazen flattery will most likely sail through, even if it's featherbrained. After all, it's my blog.

NigelBeale said...

The trinity of silence, knowledge, and alertness constitutes the figure of Edmond the polemicist. His silence is a dam before which the reflecting basin of his knowledge is constantly deepened. His alertness permits no one to ask it questions, forever unwilling to conform to principles proffered to it. Its first principle is, rather to dismantle the situation, to discover the true question the situation poses, and to present this in place of any other to his opponents.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Nobody’s being silenced, Nigel. That’s not how the web works, as you know. People are free to post whatever they like about my blog or anyone else’s on their own site. If it matters enough to them to take the trouble, that is. And if it doesn’t matter enough to them, that’s fine too, but then why should it matter to me?

Nor will I be closing myself off in silence from the words of others. I will continue to follow and respond to what other intelligent commentators have to say about the issues this blog takes up. The other day, for example, I had an exchange with Andrew Seal at his very interesting site Blographia Literaria about a few posts of his which included a critique of my own project as well as one of the most robust and delightfully-written defenses of JW that I have read. Andrew and I clearly have very deep differences about JW and his merits and demerits, but I am happy to have a dialogue with him because he’s not a clueless shill, he bases his arguments on reason and evidence instead of unconsidered reflex and engrained prejudice, and he has done his homework.

I hope every reader of my blog will check out Andrew’s site and the posts & comments I’ve mentioned here:



I’m also happy to see any intelligent and informed challenges to my own views here as comments. But I invite everyone to look at your own contributions to this blog. What do they amount to? A quibble, a grouse, and a fart.

Tell you what, though – as soon as your idol opens his New Yorker reviews to comments or, if they won’t allow that, then starts a blog of his own with open comments, I’ll switch my own policy back, OK?

Because I know you’re even-handed and consistent about calling for such things.

LML said...

Here I was thinking you had finished with graduate school...

Edmond Caldwell said...

A figure of speech.

Lethe said...

First of all, I am conflicted about this blog b/c on the one hand I enjoy lively, intellectual debate, but on the other I feel as though, you, Edmond, want to restrain that free-flowing exchange of ideas.

"Your argument would gain some respectability if you would take the time to explicitly state and defend your assumption, that the proper role of art — especially literary art — is to challenge state power and private concentration of wealth."

I've been following this blog post from the beginning. This statement elucidates what no other statement has, and the writer of it demonstrates that he is far more intelligent by his cogent responses and rational, level-headed approach to the issues at hand.

I'm wondering why you couldn't have stated your argument lucidly without requiring every reader to start from the beginning, or worse, to read a bunch of textbooks. Come on, rather than cloak yourself in the "texts" for your "graduate class," just tell us you argument plain and simple. If you can't explain your point to the common public (even Einstein had to), then you're just hiding behind abstractions.

Edmond Caldwell said...

I’ve done nothing to “restrain that free-flowing exchange of ideas,” Lethe.

I think most people would agree that we have a right to be selective about what questions we’re willing to answer, what conversations or debates we’re willing to engage in.

For instance, there are some people who will show up on the Comments section of a blog and ask questions not because they care about your answers but because they want to argue for the sake of argument or “win” a debate (this often afflicts males – boys – for some reason). “I haven’t read much x,” they’ll start, “but—” and then they proceed to tell you what they think about x and argue with you about it, and no answer satisfies them because the answer isn’t the point, the posturing is. I don’t think I have an obligation to engage with such people.

Or there are people who do care about the ideas and issues involved, but because they are so adamantly hostile to your ideas at a fundamental level their whole strategy is to try to tie you up with Infinite Regression questions. In other words, no matter what you answer, they’ll just move another step back or draw another line in the sand. “Well, what do you mean by Art? You haven’t defined your terms!” The whole point is to get you to stop first in disgust so that they can claim victory: “See, he’s running away!” Yes, from a pointless Infinite Regression debate.

Then there’s the question of time and priorities. This blog is not my main gig; there are things I have to do, and things I want to do, that claim more of my time and thought, so I have to be selective about how much time I spend on it. Most of that time will necessarily be spent on the posts themselves, which – whatever you may think – I am conscientious about within the confines of the time I can allot to it.

Within those time constraints, there’s the question of interest. Not all questions are equal. I’ll be quite blunt, since you have been so persistent. Your questions are so basic, and filled with odd or skewed assumptions, that they don’t promise much of interest or engagement for me.

You write, for example, that I should “take the time to explicitly state and defend [my] assumption, that the proper role of art — especially literary art — is to challenge state power and private concentration of wealth.” That’s not my assumption, that’s your assumption about me. I think nothing of the kind. But the fact that you state that, and in that particular way, dissuades me from wanting to engage in a discussion with you. In an earlier post you said I must be a conspiracy theorist. I’m not, but I’m not terribly interested in explaining why to someone whose (mis)understanding of my analytical approach is as remedial as that. You write that I’m “in the sad domain of what literature has become. An insipid socialized, politicized battleground for -isms.” That’s fine if you think that, and I went ahead and posted that comment. But that doesn’t somehow obligate me to try to talk you out of it – and it’s frankly a little weird that you think it does. You sound like you could be a potential Infinite Regression type, for whom there will always be another question and another, until we’re there discussing whether or not the book is “really there” or just “inside our heads” or something like that. I’m not prepared to engage in that kind of discussion with someone who isn’t prepared to give me a case of good scotch and a blowjob in return. Are you up for that?

If I’m wrong about you, I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Maybe you’ll have better luck on other blogs. Or maybe it's time to turn off the computer, go outside, and get a little fresh air?

Lethe said...

"Your argument would gain some respectability if you would take the time to explicitly state and defend your assumption, that the proper role of art — especially literary art — is to challenge state power and private concentration of wealth."

This was Kevin's response, not mine.

Edmond Caldwell said...

To which you gave the following full-throated endorsement:

"This statement elucidates what no other statement has, and the writer of it demonstrates that he is far more intelligent by his cogent responses and rational, level-headed approach to the issues at hand."

I.e., its assumptions were your assumptions. The point is the same; you're quibbling. See, this is what I mean, you are exactly the type.