Monday, May 02, 2005

How the other half lives

In an unexpected show of ALSC magnanimity, Jonathan Goodwin, a blogger at the Literary Organ, asks us to suspend our prejudices—“our”?—and read the Winter 2004 edition of Social Text, on the theme “Global Cities of the South.”

I’m not able to read along—I can’t follow the link to Social Text at Project MUSE, since I’m not connected to a university that pays for the service—but Goodwin’s glosses on the articles are intriguing (if maybe a bit condescending). His preview of one I’d like to read:
Teleopoiesis, “reaching toward the distant other by the patient power of the imagination, a curious kind of identity politics, where one crosses identity, as a result of migration or exile,” is described in Gayatri Spivak’s “Harlem”.
Now, I’m a big fan of blog posts that summarize articles found elsewhere—Jodi at i cite, for example, has shown that the synopsis can be a fun and lively form of post—but something about Goodwin’s essay strikes me as strange. (Extra credit for anyone who can say what.)

Consider Goodwin’s conclusion:
Social Text is, because of the controversy I alluded to earlier, frequently used as an unread example of what must be wrong with today’s cultural/literary studies. The next time you feel the urge to do so, I counsel you to read an issue of what you’re about to condemn. See what you can use.
See what you can use—a noble Emersonian thesis, though maybe less so if it is deployed in an advertisement for a text that asks us to reach “toward the distant other by the patient power of the imagination.”

Emerson teaches that “the one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul,” but the activity of whose soul ought we to be interested in here? The literary-organic reader’s? Or, as Spivak suggests, the soul of the other? It would seem superficially that reading with “the patient power of the imagination” is pretty much incompatible with mining a text for something to use. (John—do your New Labour and show me that a third way is possible here!) (If I were to launch my own ideologically driven literary website, I might think it wiser to reverse the literary-organic formula and take the value of Spivak for granted while asking you to check out William Empson to “see what you can use.”)

See what you can use—what resonance does this have here? See what you can buy up cheap and repackage? See what slums you can gentrify? See whom you can cram into the galley of your ship? Quaeritur.

And what is the shape of the chamber whose acoustics ring so suspiciously? To sound out the dimensions of the space in which these literary-organic echoes take form, let us consider one blogger’s response to an article discussed in Goodwin’s post:
What then explains the tortured phenomenological phraseologies? The desire to possess a technical vocabulary, I’d contend, and it’s the impulse to piggy-back on fields literary scholars (present editors excluded) aren’t trained in that bothers me about much of what’s published by English professors in Social Text. Anthropologists writing about anthropology with a recognizably anthropological idiom I can handle. English professors variously adopting the technical idioms of whatever discipline informs this, that or the other particular claim drives me to, up and around the walls.
Again, extra credit to any reader who can say what’s wrong with this.

A provisional answer: riffing on material from fields you aren’t trained in—(“Stay on message: training confers legitimacy”)—belongs to English studies because using language figuratively belongs to language. Criticism, like literature, lives through the production of metaphor, and the specialized vocabularies of other disciplines—(“Stay on message: mental life divides into disciplines”)—provide an endlessly rich source of new figures. There I go—I guess I'm saying “see what you can use!”

But it might matter what or whom you’re using, and to what end.


Anonymous Jodi said...

I won't get the extra credit--your explanations are good and interesting.I think the guy is just plain dissing social text, is a way to distance himself from 'theory' and mark his authority and expertise. Some might call this the move of a 'prick' but I try to avoid this sort of behavior and see past it, gleaning the actual insight that can, on occassion, be found within such comments.

5/03/2005 9:09 AM  
Blogger Alphonse van Worden said...

I applaud your patience. I feel if all the posts at the Valve were train stations, readers would soon realize the line was no longer in service.

5/03/2005 1:49 PM  
Blogger Alphonse van Worden said...

(Sorry, that wasn't nice. I take it back.)

"Use" I would say means specifically "use to make a blog."

5/03/2005 1:58 PM  
Blogger Alphonse van Worden said...

The style of writing in Social Text creates a little surplus extraction opporunity, textually, as inviting many renderings "into other words." Which noramlly amount to "Oh, I think there's much less to it than that."

5/03/2005 2:02 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Extra credit all around--a check plus for Jodi for the wise advice that one might do better to stand back and watch the performance, and a check plus for Alphonse for the lovely railway analogy.

I must enter a check minus for myself, for I snapped at the literary-organic bait, and in a fashion most uncharitable to Mr. Goodwin, to whom I hereby apologize.

5/04/2005 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I am not affiliated with the ALSC in any way, first of all.

Jodi's comment puzzles me quite a bit, for I read Social Text with considerable interest and was trying to point out to what might be a negatively predisposed audience what I find interesting about it.

5/08/2005 6:56 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for joining the discussion--I'm sorry if we've been proceeding as if we were discussing a text whose author was for some reason permanently elsewhere.

My post seems to treat you as a mouthpiece of the ALSC, rather than as an independent mind, and I appreciate your clarification--I am guilty of a crass reduction. Or is the reduction performed by The Valve itself, and not only by its announcement of its political affiliations? Maybe I would appear less uncharitable and dogmatic if I had taken as my topic not an essay by Jonathan Goodwin, but the appearance of certain forms of words in a space marked out by the inscription "ALSC"; if I had framed my investigation within the question, "Situated as it is within the larger text of The Valve, whose ideological commitments are pretty clearly enunciated, what gesture of openness to inspiration, to others, to difference, can this component text make that is not instantly reinterpreted and put in the service of the ideological aims of the larger text?" I might ask: is The Valve a text that allows its contributors to maintain a voice independent from its own? When does the larger text silence its parts, speak for them, or speak over them?

As for Jodi's comment, I thought it was directed not at you, but at the writer of the comment that accuses English Studies professionals of discipline envy. I might be wrong. Given the context of your piece, I guess it might be plausible to read it as claiming authority--for The Valve seems to claim for itself the authority to decide what does and doesn't properly belong to literary study, and its initial stance at least appears to be pretty reactionary--and using that authority to readmit elements of a previously excluded pariah text. This move is ambiguous; does it grant autonomy to its subject, thereby lessening its own claim to authority, or with the gesture of welcoming, does it only reinscribe its own autonomy, reassert its own right to judge, reenforce its own power to include or exclude?

I must mention that I'm not a regular reader of The Valve, so I don't know how I'd answer the questions above. I guess the vibe I got from what I have read was something like, "Get your culture war on," but a blog's commitments, like those of any on-going text, are defined not primarily by what it declares at the outset, but by the unfolding performances that constitute it. (And it should be clear enough to any student of literature that the commitments that textual performances embody aren't always those explicitly endorsed by the performer.)


5/08/2005 10:18 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

But to reverse Platonism means to make the simulacra rise and to affirm their rights among icons and copies. Your totalizing moves strikes me as Bachelardian ascensional psychism.

5/09/2005 12:13 AM  
Blogger Carl said...


I guess I'm confused by your comment. Maybe if I read the Valve more I'd know which type of ambiguity you were using! :)

More seriously, do you mean to suggest--wittily--that I said something arcane? Because I think the sense of what I wrote is clear enough. I'm happy to paraphrase. The basic idea is this: the Valve--on the face of it--seems to frame itself to its readers as having a quite particular academic/political agenda. Given this fact--if it is one--it is prima facie a reasonable interpretive stragegy to read individual posts in the light of the Valve's stated commitments. I recognize that this account might be controversial, but I don't think I'm relying too heavily on theory in articulating it. The big words are "interpretation" and "reading"--not that these concepts are 100% theoretically neutral, but most 9th graders (I work with a lot of 9th graders) can handle them OK.

Or do you really think I'm a reverse Platonist? I've never been called this, but, you know, it actually feels pretty good. And I wouldn't have thought of reverse Platonism as a totalizing doctrine, but maybe you're right--I guess I've always considered classical empiricism to be pretty totalizing, as far as metaphysics and epistemology are concerned, and empiricism's not too different from simulacra-theory--both have trouble accounting for concepts like +difference in kind+. "Ascensional psychism," though--what's that? I don't know, but it certainly is pleasant to imagine to oneself the ascension of the psyche through, e.g., world history. (For the record: Benjamin yea, Bachelard nay.) (Oh man, did I just fall for a mini-Social Text-esque hoax? Was that just a bunch of fake theory (no pun on simulacra intended)?)

Maybe you're parodying my style? Did you miss my post on Emerson and Hawthorne? Man, that one was straight-up reading comprehension--against interpretation, indeed! I even thought about sending it to the Valve as an anonymous submission!

Or are you just telling me--again, wittily--to take a hike? If so, I guess I'm a little disappointed; I had hoped for something more like a conversation. See, I believe that conversation is possible, and desireable. Forgive me if I've been naive--I guess I'm just starting to learn the worst truths about the engine.

Well, my occult powers of interpretation are failing me. I'd be interested in reading a more direct statement of what you mean, if you'd care to write one.


5/09/2005 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I was just blogged-out at the moment and resorted to, as I often do, quoting from The Logic of Sense.

With luck, that'll be my next discussion item over at the Valve.

5/09/2005 7:01 PM  

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