Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Minimum Rock'n'Roll (Requirement)

A question that any reasonably obsessed music fan has presumably asked themselves about their own personal store of knowledge: "What do you do with all that crap?" (It's a particularly thorny question when your livelihood will depend, as ours will, on absorbing and doing something with a large load of other, marginally more culturally respectable crap.) Yet lately I get a strong sense that pop trivia is moving definitively away from silly life-encumbrance (as in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity) to a genuinely valuable, completely legitimate form of highbrow cultural capital. That is, knowledge of pop music, past and present (but especially past), works for people today the way knowledge of art, literature and politics customarily has: as a means of distinction and generator of standards and values. Which means it can also, not incidentally, make material for (other) art. I have two particular recent examples in mind: Todd Haynes' movie I'm Not There and Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll.

Dylanology is perhaps the most highly developed symptom of this trend, so it makes sense that Haynes' film "about" "Dylan" is one of the best examples of what I'm talking about. As you all probably know already, in I'm Not There six different actors portray aspects of the main character, a risky Bunuelian move that comes off in large part thanks to the amazing wealth of sources and references Haynes has to work with. So what in lesser hands might have been just another patina of mythology on Dylan's already heavily lacquered bust becomes, under Haynes' direction, a meditation on lore itself, on the propensity of any person — but especially celebrities — to generate their own personal information-cloud, which can be just as much an obstacle to interpretation as an aid. Sometimes I think I like people like Dylan less for their music than for the simple fact that there's so much stuff out there about them: music, films, books, bootlegs, record reviews, scholarly articles, anecdotes, cultural detritus of all kinds. Judging by I'm Not There, I'd say Todd Haynes feels the same way.

And of course, where there's detritus, there's discourse: Dylan is a perfect subject for a movie like this not just because of his "greatness" — or his protean Americanness or something impressive-sounding like that — but because of the fact that there's already been so much talk about him, so there needs to be further talk to organize the talk that's already occurred, to figure out what's worth preserving, to make distinctions and counterarguments. If you're recognizing an "academic disposition" in Haynes' film or its reception, it's because this is one way cultural legitimation is accomplished: by transforming a given figure, or genre, or form, from a mass of empirical data and consumption statistics into a "field." And where there are fields, there are experts.

What's interesting about Tom Stoppard's new play Rock'n'Roll — which spans the period from 1968 to 1990 — is that it not only recognizes but narrates this same transformation, which is arguably only now coming into its own. The historical background of the play is the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and ensuing twenty-two year occupation, paralleled with the family saga of a British Communist academic (based loosely, maybe, on Eric Hobsbawm). The title is, in a way, ironic: though several of the play's characters care passionately about rock'n'roll (especially Jan, the émigré Czech graduate student and sometime dissident who travels back and forth between his homeland and the Cambridge home of Max, his mentor) it is, in a world-historical sense, the least important part of the era depicted. (As usual with Stoppard, there are various big ideas and issues floating all over the place: censorship and political repression in the Eastern Bloc, the decline of British Socialism, the irresolvability of mind/body dualism, problems of translation in Sappho — you know, like that.)

But rock 'n' roll — and, maybe more importantly, intimate knowledge of rock 'n' roll — continues to assert a powerful presence all throughout the evening, never quite being bested by the more legitimate areas of erudition on display. The rock-besotted Jan — who, it should be stated, also has quite cogent intellectual and political views — is by far the most sympathetic character, and the moments when he reacts with joy to some new record or fact about a British or American rock group are some of the most real-feeling emotional moments in the play. In fact, after a while you start to wonder about Stoppard's own feelings on the matter: would he recognize a hierarchy of value that sees political philosophy and Greek poetry as more consequential than the Rolling Stones? In Stoppard's play, everyone considers it utterly ridiculous that Jan would gauge the cultural health of his nation, and even make important life decisions, based on something as trivial as music (consider his rationale for not accepting an academic post in Frankfurt: "You know… German rock bands.") But today, that same narrow aesthetic fixation appears as prescient, not only because Czech rock turned out to play a catalytic role in the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," but because a knowledge of late 60s progressive rock is, in all kinds of contexts, more effectual than a knowledge of Soviet Communism, or politics at all for that matter: more relevant and "usable" for our lives today. Thus a theatregoer who misses the finer points of Marxist theory and dissident realpolitik in Rock 'n' Roll might not feel so bad, as long as they're able to appreciate the ramifications of the perfectly-judged references to the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett; they might even feel that they ended up on the right side after all. I mean, Soviet Communism (a regime and ideology begun ninety and extinguished almost twenty years ago, that maybe was never effective or tenable or even worth attempting in the first place)? Czechoslovakia (a country that doesn't even exist any more, in a unified form)? What do you do with all that crap?

Monday, December 17, 2007

A useful distinction

From Tom Lutz's book Cosmopolitian Vistas
"Instead of falling for what Fredrick Jameson called the 'false problem of value,' critics are now required either to disavow evaluative literary judgments or to cop to their own place of elite privilege, their own exclusionary biases. To engage in discriminations about literary value, even to declare, for instance, that Henry James is a better novelist than Zane Grey or Thomas Dixon, is simply 'leisure-class gossip,' and such 'debaucheries of judiciousness,' as Northrop Fry called them almost fifty years ago, are theoretically considered more appropriate at cocktail parties than in professional discourse. But I am going to argue that literary critics continue to make such discriminations and that the prime literary values that provided the ground for 19th century regionalism are very similar to those that are implicitly agreed on today across not only much of the academy but by the larger literary public--that public against which academics now find themselves pitted..."

"What we share is what I will call literary cosmopolitanism: briefly, an ethos of representational inclusiveness, of the widest possible affiliation, and concurrently one of aesthetic discrimination and therefore exclusivity. At the same time that it embraces the entire world, in other words, literary cosmopolitanism necessitates an evaluative stance, and it is this doubleness, this combination of egalitarianism and elitism, that has animated American literature since the Civil War. Literary cosmopolitanism is a way to describe literary taste and at the same time suggest that literary distinction and discrimination over the last 150 years has always been political, not just in the trivial sense in which all discourse is political or because of literature's class parameters, but precisely because, as I will explain, it has been tied so closely to an ethos of textual density and overdetermination."

Thought it was a nice coda to Evan's post and also interesting...What Lutz goes on to argue later is that the classic American Literary Text is always cosmopolitan and thus, "committed to representing the political issues of its day and committed to neutrality in relation to them". Even if the author's nonfiction is partisan, their 'canonical' works usually have an air of neutrality, meaning they aren't super didactic or allow a 'cosmopolitan vista' to exist with a stance with some room to breath.

Lutz argues his approach differs from New Critics in that for him and what he sees in the canon at large, a classic text achieves its 'ambiguous complexity' not from removing itself from the world of social and political reality as the New Critics argue, but by thoroughly immersing itself in that world.

"The 'bloody crossroads' was Lionel Trilling's nickname for the intersection of politics and aesthetics in literary culture: I want to suggest that instead of violence we have a kind of meld, that our politics, the politics for which we in academia have been pilloried of late even more than for our excesses of theoretical elaboration--and our aesthetics--which we have been discussing primarily as historical artifacts--together stem from the same cosmopolitan ethos. And this ethos of literary cosmopolitanism provides a common ground that unites the many disparate, warring factions of what continues to be a literary community--that group of readers whose work or leisure involves the reading of literary texts."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Koch Is It

An excellent, heartfelt tribute to Kenneth Koch from Ange Mlinko at Harriet.

Guest Star!

I hope she doesn't mind my doing this, but I'm going to go ahead and post the illustrious Sonya Posmentier's long and fascinating reply to my earlier writing on Gwendolyn Brooks (and to Evan's back-in-the-day comments about Claude McKay) as its own post, since I don't want it to get buried in the responses from November. I'll have something to say in reply, to this and to the comments on my original analysis, and I'd like to keep these discussions of race and form on the table. Take it away SP:

"Okay, so I’m going to take Greg’s bait and reply to Evan’s earlier post about Claude McKay. As I understood it, Evan had two questions: one about McKay’s status as “modern” and the other having to do with McKay’s apparent nostalgia for Jamaica, his bitterness toward American racism but not the effects of British colonialism. I’ve been reading Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism, which offers a certain argument at least in response to the first question, but hopefully I can go beyond that. Greg has also already suggested much of what I want to say… first by pointing (through Goldsby’s reading of Brooks) to modern “uses” of form (important since McKay’s formalism is certainly the characteristic that most often labels him as Romantic or un-modern, and he often gets lumped with Countee Cullen in this regard), and second, by suggesting that if lynching is a modern phenomenon, so too are artistic expressions of/responses to that violence. What I see Greg starting to say is not that the subject of lynching alone would constitute “modern” poetry (more on that in a minute), but that McKay’s formal treatment of it might.

Michael North in The Dialect of Modernism notes that defenders of McKay’s modernism often pointed to his “racial” subject matter, as if the “racial” is inherently modern, regardless of style/formal strategy. North demonstrates how McKay must resist “the indiscriminate association of race and modernism,” because of the bind that modernist primitivism puts black writers in. According to North, “there is no real conflict between the defiant subject matter and the conventional form of McKay’s American poems , as is so often supposed” because the form itself is defiant (toward modernism’s “naturalizing” of blacks as “primitive”) (115). This would seem to underscore Evan’s sense that McKay is not so modern—it would seem to suggest that, in fact he can’t be. But North argues, quite convincingly, that in the course of McKay’s career he challenges the various dichotomies that place him in this trap in the first place. North’s focus is onMcKay’s history with dialect—from his first two books, written in Jamaican dialect with the encouragement of his English mentor Walter Jekyll, through the “American poems” written in standard English traditional forms, through the expatriate novels. Because white writers (including Eliot and Pound) use black dialect simultaneously to claim a rebellious aesthetic freedom, and to reinscribe dehumanizing cultural stereotypes of “the black”--that is, to delineate their own propriety—dialect and standard English are already implicated in one another. The tools that make white writers modern (including dialect, free verse), McKay fears, would make him “primitive.” However, having begun his poetic career writing in Jamaican dialect (more on this later), McKay is always in dialogue with dialect. Thus, to North what makes McKay modern is his thematization of this very problem, his bringing “to the surface the subterranean connections between dialect and the standard.” McKay is like Eliot and Pound and other expatriate modernists in his “realization of the malleability of language in general, and of the arbitrariness and relativity of particular languages” (123).

I’m pretty much convinced by North’s argument (although I’m not sure I’ve done it justice here), but he achieves it, finally, by recourse to the novels, which raises my hackles. North ultimately depicts poetry as a dead end for McKay, the bind I’ve tried to describe above, inescapable. While it’s true that McKay more or less stops writing poetry once he leaves America, I think North gives the sonnets short shrift. First of all, while I see the importance of challenging the equation between “racial” subject matter and modernity, the “racial” quality of McKay’s American lyrics takes many forms—not only the nostalgia of “Tropics in New York” (the one “American” poem North discusses in depth) but also, as Greg has already begun to suggest, the rage of the radical protest poems—“If We Must Die,” “The White House,” “The Lynching,” etc. A critic I read a long, long time ago (and thus, embarrassingly, can’t remember who it is), describes McKay’s couplets as enacting the “lynching.”

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

McKay forces together the suspended existence (of lynchers and lynched alike.) and “glee” in these two lines. The description of the corpse as a “dreadful thing” underscores the dehumanizing, indeed deadening, effects of this coupling (an end formally charged with the eros of the “thronging” women). The sonnet form—to me at least—starts to seem complicit in the dance (at least partially the effect of the circularity of the rhyme scheme in the quatrains). I could say a lot more about this, but this post is too long, so…. If McKay is using the sonnet to resist the reductive primitivism of white modernism, I think he’s also using the sonnet to resist the sonnet.

Which brings me, finally, to Evan’s second question, about McKay’s attitude toward Jamaica. Evan, I think you’re right that a lot of the poems in Harlem Shadows seem purely nostalgic toward Jamaica. One simple response re: McKay’s attitude toward colonialism is that there’s a LOT more bitterness/ambivalence in the Jamaican poems. North does a great reading of “Quashie to Buccra” (the first poem in “Jamaican Songs”) that captures both its potential for resistance and its ultimate capitulation to “nostalgic romanticism” (and herein, perhaps, lies the relationship BETWEEN the question of McKay’s modernism and the question of his relationship to colonialism). But another point I’d make (and I said something like this in my presentation for Jeremy’s class) is that McKay’s use of the sonnet (an English form) in “Harlem Shadows” inevitably defines a triangular relationship between American racism, British colonialism, and the black subject (a triangle further outlined by the treatment of commodity/trade in “Tropics of New York.”) The form “penned” (“If We Must Die”) McKay’s speakers in—at once giving them expression and binding them. Is it possible that to use that form against itself is not only to “fight back” in the context of American racism, but also to engage in an anti-colonial struggle (people like Fanon and Derek Walcott would pick up on this kind of practice later, though many, like Kamau Brathwaite, would suggest that this is a losing battle as long as McKay was writing in pentameter)? I’m not sure what I think about this, but I think at the very least it’s a question we need to consider in the case of a double-expatriate Black Jamaican writer (with a British passport) writing sonnets in the 1920s…."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I knew most of these, but


Top 10 Bizarre Literary Deaths


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Some Versions of Subversion

Re: the subversion question, here's a choice little nugget from Carl Wilson's new Céline Dion book, which I've been treating myself to this weekend:

"Even in the ostensibly more serious realm of academia, notably Cultural Studies, the idea of 'resistant' reading — that audiences make self-empowering, anti-establishment reinterpretations of mainstream culture — can be merely a reverse justification of personal taste. An academic who likes Kelly Clarkson will find cause to claim she offers more recoupably resistant material than Britney Spears. It may be that, as Bourdieu believed, aesthetics are mostly a disguise for political relationships. But to then use politics as a further disguise for your aesthetics is to build a hall of mirrors." (126)

This is a pithier way of saying what I was trying to say about Gavin Jones' book in our dissertation seminar and on the blog: that the exact political terms we use to criticize or defend artworks (e.g., "subversive," "radical") tend to get smuggled in for rhetorical reasons rather than strictly political ones, and are perhaps closer to subjective aesthetic valuations than we want to admit. Seen this way, Jones' predicament seems like an all-too-common one: he likes dialect literature, or at least thinks it's interesting enough to write a book about; dialect literature has a bad name because an earlier generation of leftist critics have convincingly attacked it; so the only way to claim it again is to say yes, there was some hegemony going on, but some of the dialect literature (the "better" examples?) resisted it. All this does is weaken the original political point ("well, the hegemony must not have been all that totalizing if so many literary texts were able to resist or subvert it"), devalue the work of individuals who actually are working for radical change of some kind, and set you a difficult artificial problem which will often involve bringing anachronistic criteria to bear on a text you respond to for other reasons. But why wouldn't it be interesting to write a book about dialect literature that made no apologies for its repressive political effects, but considered them alongside other elements that make the texts interesting to you? By arguing a priori that what you happen to like is "subversive," you've taken your aesthetic tastes and put them into a "political disguise" in a way roughly coeval with how repressive political doctrines don an "aesthetic disguise" in the bad cases of ideology and hegemony we're talking about.

This does not mean we shouldn't be talking about politics at all, or should be treating art as an autonomous zone of values, or what have you. That really is reactionary, really does throw out the twentieth-century critical baby with the bathwater, and leads ultimately to a very sterile kind of formalism. The important point is this: if you think that society exerts a dominating, hegemonic influence on the products of culture — and certainly it's not outlandish, or radical, or "academic" to think so — you do not necessarily owe an account of your favorite artworks' resistance to that hegemony. "Since power is a dynamic that permeates even the most microscopic interactions," Wilson rightly says, "you can find submission or resistance in any cultural figure or artifact if you look; but it can be misleading to do so selectively, and break pop culture down into quiescent versus subversive blocs" (126-127). The not-breaking-down part is crucial, to my mind. If we're serious about the notion that politics has very important effects on all literary works, then we shouldn't valorize the works that subvert or rebel against political domination, still less those that secretly subvert or rebel (because then the credit redounds to us as critics for illuminating the subversion in the text — a subversion now at two removes from the hypothesized political situation). To do so may even reveal a latent desire for the political character of art to be neutralized, as if once we've established that the work we like takes the right position — the anti-hegemonic position — then its general aesthetic character is safeguarded, "it checks out," and we can enjoy it, guilt- and politics-free, at last.

(For another, no doubt clearer formulation of this distinction I'm trying to preserve, see Raymond Williams on the "rebel," the "subject" and the "servant" in his 1961 essay "Individuals and Societies," about which I realize I've already mouthed off here.)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Another good name from Graff: "Charles Hall Grandgent" (125).

Better late than never

Stephen Burt drops science.

Update: And politics!

Practical question

Hey guys. I'm wondering what, in a perfect world, your preferred day of reading is like, what the ratio of primary literature to theory to non-theoretical criticism would be. I'm reading kind of a lot of critical writing at the moment — an occupational hazard if you're writing a thesis on poet-critics, I guess — and I'm a bit worried about getting burnt out. I feel as though the argument-assessment part of my brain is getting hypertrophied while the aesthetic-assessment part starts to wither.

Anyway, thoughts welcome.