Tag Archives: criticism

Forthcoming articles and reviews

I’m excited to announce a bunch of newly written (and co-written) articles and reviews have been accepted for publication and are forthcoming soon:

  • McCutcheon, Mark A. “Reading poetry and its paratexts for evidence of fair dealing.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, in press.
  • —-. “Paratextual and ‘sampladelic’ techniques for ‘committing centonism’ in contemporary poetry published in Canada.” Cento-Texts in the Making: Aesthetics and Poetics of Cento-Techniques from Homer to Zong!, edited by Manuel Baumbach, Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium series, in press.
  • —. “Frankenstein meets the FAANG five: figures of monstrous technology in digital media discourse.” Beyond Modern Science: Essays on Frankenstein and STEAM for Charles E. Robinson, edited by Robin Hammerman. Delaware UP, in press.
  • Clitheroe, Heather and Mark A. McCutcheon. Review of The Expanse [TV series]. SFRA Review, in press.
  • McCutcheon, Mark A. Review of The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, U of Minnesota P, 2020. Extrapolation, in press.

The Main Thing Students in Literary Studies Need to Understand: “Talk About the Writing”

In this post I want to try to explain, as clearly as I can, two things: 1) the proper focus of academic essays on literature (or other cultural texts, like plays or songs); and 2) how to achieve that focus in essays of comparison and contrast among two or more texts.

1. In your essays, talk about the writing.

The proper subject of an essay in literary criticism (here meaning criticism of any textual form) is the writing: the text as a composition of significant elements of form and style. (The analysis of how these elements work together to achieve artistic effects and cultural functions is what we call close reading, and it’s the core methodology, the critical practice of literary studies.) It’s a common mistake for students new to English studies to treat a text like a “window” rather than a “painting,” as U Penn’s Prof Jack Lynch puts it, in his excellent, short guide to Getting an A on an English Paper – a guide that I would advise as an absolute must-read for every student in English literary studies.

in an English paper, don’t talk about the “real world.” Talk about the writing … don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world — it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it. … this doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the real world behind the text. … Just remember that you don’t have any direct access to that real world, only representations of it. Never lose sight of that fact.

If an English paper is about these representations, then its thesis is the reader’s interpretation – that is, your interpretation – of how a given play constructs these representations, using dramatic techniques, literary devices, and other elements of form. Lynch describes some of these elements at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/EngPaper/close.html – for instance, diction, word order, metaphors. The seven-point list of categories of dramatic form posted for Athabasca University’s Engl 303 world drama course assignment in scene analysis assignment is another useful catalogue of dramatic techniques; I’ve also posted a similar list of Categories for Textual Analysis of works in various media, including drama.

2. Compare texts, then, on grounds of common elements of form.

The key to writing effective English essays of comparison and contrast lies in identifying which such dramatic techniques or elements of literary form furnish the most interesting or distinctive grounds on which to compare two plays, and thereby to argue your own distinctive interpretation of these plays.

As well as “writing about the ‘real world’,” another error common among students new to comparative criticism in particular is not comparing plays directly with each other, but rather discussing how each addresses the student’s chosen theme or thesis. So an essay making that kind of error might argue something to the effect that two plays both represent an identified theme, and discuss how each one does so separately from the other, without considering what elements of form they might have in common. (Essays like this also tend to stay focused on “real world” type content – characters’ actions and events, as though they’re things that happen, not scripted constructions composed to convey specific artistic and cultural effects.) Instead, a stronger essay of comparison and contrast might argue that two given plays compare or contrast in their representation of a given theme – through the uses of two or three different dramatic techniques and/or elements of literary form that each uses in a way that’s significantly similar to or different from how the other does.

Further reference

More about integrating the grounds of comparison for an essay of comparison and contrast is at this page I’ve created in the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network.

And if you’re still unsure about the whole “talk about the writing” thing, I’ve blogged more extensively about it.

And, lastly, in another blog post, I detail four specific steps to practice the close reading of texts, in order to focus on how they’re written and the implications of that writing.

Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —‘s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.

So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:

    Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.

    Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.

    Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.

    Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.

The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.

If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

A must-read blog post: “Just shut up.”

A brilliant, blunt defense of the need to read critically, even if doing so “ruins” a favourite movie or book:

http://gyzym.tumblr.com/post/39004853136/just-shut-up

This post tackles a common problem in teaching literary and cultural studies: the problem of students resisting critical reading because it “ruins” a cherished favourite text by “over-analyzing” it or “taking it too seriously.”

I get that it feels like things are being ruined, like people are looking for things to hate, like people are taking things too seriously. I even get that, as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, it can feel like a personal attack to see a piece of media we’re attached to get put through the wringer…But consuming media critically is a skill, and in an age where media is more prevalent than ever before, it’s a skill worth having.

Review of Fringe Festival Forum on risk in theatre (and risk in reviewing theatre)

On Wednesday I went to the third of the Edmonton Fringe Festival’s three free forums: “A Fringe Too Far? What Risks Do We Really Take?” The panel consisted of four playwrights – Marty Chan, Kristen Finlay, Nicole Shafenacker, and Mark Stubbings – and was moderated by playwright and theatre administrator Eric Rice. The panelists spoke to the topic with reference to their own work and their experiences with the Fringe Festival, and the moderator accommodated lots of questions and comments from the audience, which seemed largely comprised of other theatre professionals.

Fringe Festival playbills. (Detail of “Village of the Fringed” by mastermaq, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)

The discussion of risk tended to address three areas of risk in particular: artistic risk, commercial risk, and political risk. I was most interested in the latter, but it occupied the least discussion of these three areas. The discussion of artistic risk focused on the playwrights’ process in writing about (and performing) personally, psychologically, and politically daunting subjects: what subjects is the playwright willing or unwilling to explore? The discussion of commercial risk seemed to predominate the panel discussion: it encompassed considerations of commercial failure, commercial success, and – interestingly – the role of reviews in making or breaking fringe shows. To the point that the panel almost became a session on reviews, and how playwrights respond to them. Playwrights reflected on good and bad reviews, on the changing culture of reviewing in the wake of social media (when a tweet-sized review can travel faster and farther than traditional word of mouth), and on the difference between journalistic theatre reviews and critical reviews. Many playwrights and audience members shared the sense that journalistic reviews (i.e. those in newspapers) aren’t so much about the artistic success of the play as they are about telling a personal story about the theatre-going experience that the reader can relate to – and that the reader can use to decide how best to spend one’s entertainment money.

In light of the perceived prevalence of this kind of review, and the corresponding perceived dearth of critique, a very interesting suggestion arose: for the festival to consider hosting a workshop for would-be theatre reviewers. Festival program director Thomas Scott mentioned previous workshops in which theatre practitioners reviewed reviews, and then subjected their meta-reviews in turn to further meta-meta-review by others. This kind of workshop caught my imagination; it’s the sort of thing I myself teach in an introductory graduate course on literary studies, in which the students are tasked to critique selected critiques of major literary works (rather than critique the works themselves). Such a workshop could encompass a range of different forms and media, for instance: how to review not only for newspapers, but, say, for blogs, or even for Twitter. It might also consider not only the forms but also the content of theatre reviews: is this an envelope that can be pushed, say, in the manner of Vice magazine’s record reviews, or the avant garde restaurant reviewing dramatized to great comic effect in Russell Smith’s novel Noise?

James hung up and typed,

A wine-list of compassion, generosity and near-Proustian comprehensiveness – but a toothache-sweet intra-course sherbet shrivels the more ethereal choices. A gregarious duck in blood orange sauce consorts freely with wild rice, raisins, almonds and vinegary cabbage – a precarious success, arranged with the zest of fauvist painting. Marrakech Tuna steak on soya-sake butter of chocolatey richness (both rice and salt only distant notes, perfectly balanced), plus amusingly proletarian tempura onions. (14)

Despite commanding relatively little comment, the discussion of political risk yielded some important insights. I asked specifically about the potential intervention of our notoriously anti-arts and culture government in the festival: would it or has it ever threatened to pull funding over a controversial production? Not this festival – given its un-juried structure, what Chan called its “free-market, grassroots” character, as a kind of scene for enabling rather than preprogramming specific productions. (Though arts funding was apparently pulled from Summerworks in Toronto once; that event is juried, hence the organizers assume more responsibility for the staged material.) The political risk, then, falls on the individual artist, not the collective event. In terms of the festival itself, the panel and audience seemed to share the impression that politically risky material is less prohibited than promoted; less taboo than tonic for an audience necessarily predisposed (unlike the federal government) to be interested in the arts. “Preaching to the choir,” as one of the panelists put it. While the playwrights spoke frankly and bravely about the political risks they have taken, I think the clearest delineation of the non-negotiable threshold for political – and legal – risk in fringe theatre was starkly and concisely expressed by program director Scott:

No sex on stage.

So that’s the threshold of acceptable political risk for the festival, the line beyond which the cops would get called in. Good to know (in the non-biblical sense).

Defining the governing trend in governance today

A shrewd colleague at another institution recently offered, via Facebook (hence I’m not naming names), this concise definition of the way supposedly democratic governments work today (with a nod to the policies that pointed the way back in 1980):

“Reaganomics: spend the country into a deficit then slash social programs to ‘cut’ the very deficit you just artificially created in order to suit your ideological belief that ordinary people deserve nothing in the way of health care, education or other services.”

It’s useful to have critical definitions like this on hand, for teaching situations; put this way, such a definition captures not only the context but the contradiction of late capital. A similarly concise and incisive comment on a governance ethos that is close but not identical to Reaganomic social conservatism – libertarianism – occurs in an article on distance postsecondary education by UK researcher Greville Rumble (who in turn is summarizing the arguments of Ted Honderich):

The problem with the libertarian argument is that it allows for a perfectly just society within which there are people who have no food, no healthcare and no education (Honderich, 2002, pp. 43–44). So ‘in this [formulation of a] perfectly just society [there are people who] have no claim to food, no moral right to it. No one and nothing does wrong in letting them starve to death’ (Honderich, 2002, p. 44). ‘This’, says Honderich, ‘is vicious’ (2002, p. 44). (171)

For the full discussion – which is excellent and worthwhile whether or not you’re interested in distance PSE – see:
Rumble, Greville. “Social Justice, Economics and Distance Education.” Open Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76. Web.

Thirteen ways of looking at Surrealism

Not a manifesto, more like a mosaic of notes for praxis…a praxicento?

1. Form your eyes by closing them.
Give to the dreams you have forgotten the value of what you do not know.

2. Surrealism is the living negation of the commodity society and its culture. When dream and waking life are no longer at war, poetry and imagination become visible, and everyday life is lived under the sign of mad and reciprocal love, the generous beauty of play, and the always new adventure of chance, beyond linear time and administered space.

3. Dear dreams,
You are the only thing that matters. You are my hope and I live for you and in you. You are rawness and wildness, the colours, the scents, passion, events appearing. You are the things I live for. Please take me over.
Dreams cause the vision world to break loose our consciousness …
Once we have gotten a glimpse of the vision world, we must be careful not to think the vision world is us. We must go farther and become crazier.

4. To articulate a dream in conscious mode, describing it not just to others but to yourself, is a second-order remaking of the dream, a confabulation that distorts the dream by forcing it into a linear mode alien to its nature. It is as if a time-wind blows out of our eyes and into the dream, displacing the fragile relations of dream components as a gust of autumn wind disturbs the fallen leaves.

5. You didn’t sleep last night.
No, I couldn’t. I tried and tried, but I felt … I don’t know, locked out of it.
Yes, that was me.
What do you mean?
I slept your sleep last night.
You needn’t look so smug about it.
Don’t be so protective. I think you’ll like what I’ve done with it.

6. The surrealists were launched on a much more adventurous investigation than Freud; theirs was not an observation or interpretation of the subconscious world but a colonization.

7. Sometimes on a stormy night while legions of winged squids (at a distance resembling crows) float above the clouds and scud stiffly towards the cities of the humans, their mission to warn men to change their ways – the gloomy-eyed pebble perceives amid flashes of lightning two beings pass by, one behind the other, and, wiping away a furtive tear of compassion that trickles from its frozen eye, cries: “Certainly he deserves it; it’s only justice.” Having spoken thus it reverts to its timid pose and trembling nervously, continues to watch the manhunt and the vast lips of the vagina of darkness whence flow incessantly, like a river, immense shadowy spermatozoa that take flight into the dismal æther, the vast spread of their bats wings obscuring the whole of nature and the lonely legions of squids – grown downcast viewing these ineffable and muffled fulgurations.

8. One hundred years after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, transgressive murmurs still and always will cross the spheres into broad daylight. The surrealist horizon, in the eyes of the spawn of Maldoror, is there for the taking.

9. Punish the eyes looking at that which passes in the sky and cunningly accept that its name is cloud, its answer catalogued in the mind. Don’t believe that the telephone is going to give you the numbers you try to call, why should it? The only thing that will come is what you have already prepared and decided, the gloomy reflection of your expectations, that monkey, who scratches himself on the table and trembles with cold. Break that monkey’s head, take a run from the middle of the room to the wall and break through it. Oh, how they sing upstairs!

10. The idea of evil, in certain cases, exerts a strong attraction on me: above all, in the case of evil striking at the authors of evil – i.e., the architects of imperialist politics and their hirelings. In this case I nurture even sadistic dreams, but they remain dreams.

11. “Doctor, please let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!” For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in.

12. To win the energies of intoxication for the revolution – this is the project about which Surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises. … The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention the most terrible drug – ourselves – which we take in solitude.

13. … & crash
through painted arcadias,
fragments of bliss & roses
decorating your fists.

References
1. Breton, André and Paul Éluard. The Immaculate Conception (1930). Trans. Jon Graham. London: Atlas P, 1990.
2. Rosemont, Penelope. “Response to ‘Inquiry: Surrealist Subversion in Everyday Life’.” Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 211-12. 211.
3. Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. New York: Grove P, 1989. 36-37.
4. Dewdney, Christopher. The Secular Grail: Paradigms of Perception. Toronto: Somerville House, 1993. 78.
5. Glennon, Paul. How Did You Sleep? Erin: Porcupine’s Quill, 2000. 25.
6. Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 76.
7. Lautréamont, Comte de [Isidore Ducasse]. Maldoror. Trans. Alexis Lykiard. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1994. 101-2.
8. Romano. “Response to ‘Inquiry: Surrealist Subversion in Everyday Life’.” Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 208.
9. Cortázar, Julio. “The Instruction Manual.” Cronopios and Famas (1962). Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York: New Directions, 1999. 3-5.
10. Marcuse, Herbert. “Interview with the Surrealist Journal ‘L’Archibras’” (1966). Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 149-50. 150.
11. Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye (1928). San Francisco: City Lights, 1987. 95.
12. Benjamin, Walter. “Surrealism: Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929). One-Way Street and Other Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: NLB, 1979. 225-39. 236-37.
13. Thesen, Sharon. “Praxis.” Canadian Poetry Now. Ed. Ken Norris. Toronto: Anansi, 1984. 252.

All images: details from Bosch, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1500).

New media to old (and vice versa): Om nom nom

The “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content.” The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech. (31)

This passage occurs towards the end of the first chapter of McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) – the chapter that details his most famous statement: “The medium is the message.” In the context of explicating that statement (explication that, for McLuhan, entails both explanation and further encryption), he makes the above comment about content – or message – as both a distraction from the real issue, form – or medium – and, at the same time, a kind of palimpsest or accretion of legacy media.

McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” became famous as a well-worded, soundbite-friendly wake-up call to pay attention not to the “content” of cultural production but to its “form.” In addition, the way it’s worded suggests that form and content, medium and message, can’t be easily distinguished from each other – they are mutually entangled, mutually constitutive of each other. Treating form and content as separate and opposed tends to oversimplify how cultural production works.

Other scholars and artists have made this point too. As Slavoj Žižek puts it: “form is not the neutral frame of particular contents, but the very principle of concretion” (190). “We need to do more than explain what our texts are saying,” says Romantic literary scholar Jerome McGann; “we need to understand what they are doing in saying what they say” (viii). Henry James, in a personal letter from 1912, anticipates McLuhan’s own statement: “Form is substance,” he writes. “Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance” (235).

Understanding this admittedly complicated statement of McLuhan’s is a priority for the student who would succeed in literary, cultural, or media studies. Rutgers U English professor Jack Lynch translates the idea into practical terms: “in an English paper, don’t talk about the ‘real world.’ Talk about writing.”

Don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world – it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it.

Or as I’ve put it, in my own discussions with students, the focus in literary study shouldn’t be on what the text says, but rather on how it says it. Write about the literary work not as though it’s a “window” you can ignore while you watch the scene through it, but instead as though it’s a tapestry: a dense network of textual threads that have as much interest – or more – for their intricate interweaving and connections, as for the scene they show.

So one way McLuhan suggests the mutual constitution of medium and message, as well as the socially determining power of the former, is by giving examples of how new media interact with old. To call old media the content of new media is, first, to describe cultural production as more of a practice of adaptation. While we are accustomed to thinking of art-making as “creation” (according to traditions inherited from Romanticism and the reproduced in the rhetoric of the entertainment industry) – as, instead, more accurately understood as a practice of appropriating and transformatively re-working existing texts, genres, and discourses. As McLuhan’s colleague at the U of Toronto also observed, “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels” (97). Hence, Linda Hutcheon appropriates this very passage from McLuhan as a fitting epigraph for A Theory of Adaptation (2006).

“The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.” Any text you can think of – and by “text” I mean any kind of cultural production (movie, novel, play, opera, etc.) – is to a greater or lesser extent an adaptation of other existing texts and conventions; nothing gets created out of nothing. Even William Wordsworth, exemplar of Romantic originality, wrote his celebrated poetry by responding to and reworking an extensive repertoire of earlier literature (Hayden 215).

Here’s an example from one of Western culture’s most adapted – and adaptive – playwrights, Shakespeare. His play King Lear – itself an adaptation of a story from medieval Anglo-Celtic folklore – provides source material adapted by Japanese director Akiro Kurasawa, for the feudal epic Ran; or by Margaret Atwood, for the novel Cat’s Eye, whose beleaguered protagonist is named after Lear’s dutiful but persecuted daughter Cordelia. And every production of a dramatic script is is own adaptation. The 1993 staging of Lear by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company presented a postmodern historical pastiche, with characters starting out in period costume but then appearing in progressively more modern garb. By the ultraviolent finale, characters looked like they had arrived onstage from the killing fields of Serbia and Croatia. The production’s ironic costuming and prop strategies thus turned Shakespeare’s play into a critique of ethnic nationalism, and even of modernity’s master narrative, progress.

Now, McLuhan, for his part, isn’t interested so much in adaptations of texts and genres but in adaptations of media, as institutions, to one another. The point of observing that the content of a movie is a play is to illustrate how new media adapt, interact with, and – as he tends to see it – integrate and assimilate older media. The content of commercial radio in its early days was a compbination of drama adapted from stage, journalism adapted from print, performed music, and recorded music. The tiny iPod has eaten the giant jukebox. The tablet screen I’m typing these words on is also the typewriter. The desktop computer is often cited as the apotheosis of media convergence (I’ll get back to the example pictured here).

20111117-144930.jpg

From left: tube amp, iMac, scanner, printer on speaker

McLuhan, deeply engaged with issues of modernity, tended to see media change and development in terms of epochs and revolutions, as though they succeed one another and make each other obsolete: video killed the radio star. He was surrounded by kids who took to television in a way that books seemed unable to compete with. McLuhan’s comment aout old media as the content of new implies something of this sense of turnover and perennila obsolescence: if a play is the content of a movie, then plays are on the way out. This is patently false, of course, and more recent scholarship has both critiqued this premise of McLuhan’s work (among others) and extended McLuhan’s investigatons of how new and old media interact, suggesting instead that emergent media negotiate and make accommodations with existing media. Bolter and Grusin suggest the term “remediation” to describe how new media both incorporate old media and strive to seem “immediate,” or transparent. Henry Jenkins’ term for the interaction of new and old media, and the consequent blurring of distinctions between producers and consumers, is convergence culture.

To give a few examples: The novel’s conventions changed after the advent of film, plays as easily incorporate video as video adapts drama, and video games and movies are constantly turning into each other. A decade’s worth of file-sharing has also been a decade of growing and sometimes record profits for big entertainment industries. The popularization of computing has entailed not the paperless office or ubiquitous telecommuting, but more paperwork (literally) and new laws to regulate computing while commuting. My family computer functions as a radio, a CD player, a DVD player, a TV, a game console, a photo album, and a film studio. It also, sometimes, serves as a computer. But this is a two-way street: as far as my big old vacuum-tube amplifier is concerned, the computer is just one input channel, no different than the cassette deck also hooked up to it. serves as just one input for my big old vacuum-tube amplifier and vegetable-crate sized speakers.

McLuhan himself later “discovered a better way of saying the medium is the message,” as follows: “Each technology creates a new environment” (qtd. in Gordon 175). He thought this wording better addresses how media strive for “immediacy,” how they become taken for granted, invisible, and natural in their social implementation – and thus how they effect their most profound transformations on subjectivity and society, time and space.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gordon, W. Terrence. Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997.

Hayden, John O. “The Road to Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth Circle 12.4 (1981): 211-16.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

James, Henry. Letter to Hugh Walpole (19 May 1912). Rpt. in Novelists on the Novel. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ca. 1959. 235.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.

Lynch, Jack. “Writing about the Real World.” Getting an A on an English Paper. Rutgers U, n.d.

McGann, Jerome. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Corte Madera: Gingko P, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Afterword,” in Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London: Verso, 2002.

“Precious conceits and wild experiments”: _Orlando_’s critique of the patriarchal critical tradition

[An expanded revision of an undergrad essay I wrote, this has aged more gracefully than most of the other undergrad essays I wrote.]

One of the most humorous and telling threads in the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is one that is alternately picked up and dropped over the course of Orlando’s unnaturally long lifespan. This thread is the story of literary criticism, and it makes two main appearances in the text, in tandem with Nick Greene, one of Orlando’s select ageless acquaintances. A survey of the genre and institution of literary criticism, as Woolf theorizes it, and a close reading of the scenes in Orlando wherein Green parodies this institution will argue that Woolf’s shrewd critique of literary criticism identifies it as an ideological apparatus to recuperate literature, to defuse its “powers and dangers” (Foucault 52) by securing it for the patriarchal epistemological monopolies on humanism and “common sense.”

In A Room of One’s Own (1928), Woolf describes the “stridently sex-conscious” (97) literary critical discourse that prevails in her day as

[…] that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone […] dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable. (75)

Citing from contemporary critical journals, Woolf portrays and indicts the literary critical establishment as a masculinist institution that propagates and reproduces prejudices against women in the process of delivering learned commentary on literary texts and problems. From the New Criterion, she quotes that “women rarely possess men’s healthy love of rhetoric”; from Life and Letters, “that female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex” (75). Having thus identified the guarded patriarchal order in an ostensibly disinterested critical establishment, Woolf goes on to critique criticism as a masculinist genre that is emotionally retarded (according to a familiar, essentialist grammar of gender traits):

It is the power of suggestion that one most misses, I thought, taking Mr B the critic in my hand and reading, very carefully and dutifully, his remarks upon the art of poetry. Very able they were, acute and full of learning; but the trouble was that his feelings no longer communicated […] a woman cannot find in [living writers] that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible. (100)

Woolf also muses on the way in which the critical establishment deals oppressively, even violently, with the raising of self-asserting female voices: “Perhaps some great lady would take advantage of her comparative freedom and comfort to publish something with her name to it and risk being thought a monster” (59). That potential monster, the woman writer (more recently articulated in the “cyborg manifesto” of Donna Haraway), becomes the bane of an establishment whose function, as Woolf argues, is as much to police the gender-coded order of literary discourse and production as it is to “know the best that is known and thought in the world,” in the famous words of Victorian arch-critic Matthew Arnold (597).

We find parodic echoes of Arnold in Orlando, and it becomes clear that here too, Woolf is interrogating “disinterested criticism” as a patriarchal discourse. In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), Arnold writes, “the epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare make us feel their preeminence. In an epoch like those is, no doubt, the true life of literature” (603). Central to Arnold’s vision of criticism as a social mission is his sense of present degeneracy and crisis, a modern malaise (594). It is this particular sensibility that Orlando parodies in the character of the critic Nick Greene:

No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan age was inferior in every respect to the Greek. […] Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell. Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty. Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment. (69)

Taking place during Orlando’s first encounter with Greene in Elizabethan England, this passage mimics the sense of degeneracy, determined by the temporal ontology of modernity, that Arnold naturalizes as the condition that makes effective criticism possible: the sense of the present as a time in critical condition, as it were. As Walter Benjamin notes of this prevalent practice of temporal naturalization, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (257). This “tradition of the oppressed” — a tradition perennially, perniciously appropriated on behalf of patriarchal oppressors (as seen, for example, in the 1990s furor over “political correctness,” or in the self-positioning of far-right journalism as the speaking of a supposedly marginalized truth to a chimerical progressive power) — is exposed in Orlando as a tradition of venerable standing and lasting purchase, as well as a practice of hegemony, in its compulsion to convince, to be insistently stated and re-stated. Greene’s articulation of this tradition in the age of England’s first celebrated queen is conspicuously repeated when Orlando meets Greene again, during the age of her second, Victoria:

“Ah! My dear lady, the great days of literature are over. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson–those were the giants. […] all our young writers are in the pay of the booksellers. They turn out any trash that serves to pay their tailor’s bills. It is an age,” he said […] “marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–none of which the Elizabethans would have tolerated for an instant. (212)

Note the verbatim repetitions between Greene’s Elizabethan and Victorian pronouncements; note also the substitution of Elizabethans for Greeks as the apogee of ancient aesthetics; and note the corresponding promotion of Shakespeare from “chief offender” in the former pronouncement to a “giant” in the latter. This conversion from vilifying Shakespeare to valorizing him maps, in miniature, the historical rehabilitation and canonization of “the Bard,” his makeover as Britain’s “national poet” (see Dobson). As Orlando herself critically reflects on Greene’s words: “the names were different, of course, but the spirit was the same” (213).

By “spirit,” Orlando in fact refers to a kind of letter, that is, to a particular and readily recognizable discourse of authenticity, a discourse of “art versus commerce” (see Weinstein), that has long served to mystify cultural production in gender-coded terms. This discourse (which is now virtually endemic to popular forms of cultural criticism) posits an established masculine authority, legitimized by its “disinterested” spirit and devotion to artistic authenticity, as threatened, or even usurped, by an emerging feminine competitor, illegitimate in its venal materialism and abandonment or ignorance of taste. This patriarchal critical tradition–a discursive structure that privileges ancient (or at least pre-modern) aesthetic authenticity–reifies (and for Arnold, to an extent, deifies) its disciplinary regulation of literary value in that body of work we call “the canon.” As the recurring references to Arnold here suggest, this tradition also reifies a mode of speech–the commentary–by reproducing unto canonicity the male voices and positions that have grounded and entrenched the literary critical establishment’s authority. That is to say, the literary critical establishment has legitimized its cultural authority by speaking not truth to power, but power to itself, closing that power into a loop of self-validation (or self-pleasuring, if we figure this loop as an onanistic Ourobouros).

From neoclassical anxieties over professional authorship as prostitution, to rock criticism’s valorization of “blues legends” at the expense of “pop divas,” to Big Media’s increasingly draconian campaigns against the unruly and excessive circulations of digital media, the patriarchal critical tradition enables a heterogeneous array of critical articulations and materializations. Catherine Gallagher has historicized the image, derived from antiquity, of the writer as prostitute, an image “related to anxieties about the ‘unnatural’ proliferation of signs” that stands in stark, gender-coded contrast, as Mark Rose notes, to the equally common paternal image of the “author as begetter and the book as child” (38).

This tradition also enables a similarly broad spectrum of projects in critical revision and recuperation. Michel Foucault’s observations on the function of commentary are relevant here: “Commentary exorcises the chance element of discourse by giving it its due; it allows us to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is this text itself which is said […] The new thing here lies not in what is said but in the event or its return” (58)–which would be not only the return of the text, in how criticism reproduces it with a difference (a difference that nevertheless turns the critical reproduction more often into recuperation than into radicalization–more “exorcism” than possession), but also the return of criticism itself to its traditional field of power, to be recharged by each new reproductive iteration it issues.

Certain texts (and the social norms and cultural politics that accompany their authoritative installation) are thus reproduced, canonized, in two ways: in the commentaries that repeat and supplement them, reinforcing their centrality; and in their material reproduction, which escalates as the commentaries on them proliferate, promoting the texts to and ensconcing them in specific (and traditionally privileged) sites of reading and reception.

The complementary function of this “spirit” of modern cultural malaise is to dismiss and marginalize new, popular, or other contemporary texts and productions, in gender-coded terms. In devaluing contemporary texts as “precious conceits and wild experiments,” the patriarchal critical tradition maintains control, including censorial control, over cultural productions by mystifying its own aversions and anxieties to them in the guise of a defence of culture, or even of civilization. What is at stake here is the need to manage or neutralize cultural productions that interrogate the foundations and premises of critical discourse, interrogations that would expose its investments in gender and genre, and its protection of said investments by way of appeals to culture, authenticity, and temporality, as in the idealization of pre-modern productions over degenerate contemporary ones. Although the patriarchal critical tradition depends, even thrives on a certain possibility of dissent and debate, debate over the foundations, forms, and modes of criticism itself poses a threat that, as Woolf demonstrates (and as numerous scholars have since investigated), issues from female voices, historically disenfranchised as they have been from the critical tradition. The hypothetical woman writer in Woolf’s Room threatens the critical establishment not just by gaining access to the means of critical production, but by asking why and how those means have been assembled in this way and not another, hence disrupting their smooth operation.

Orlando’s puzzled response to Greene’s Victorian re-statement of the patriarchal critical tradition shows how alien this tradition can be to women readers and writers. That Orlando almost finishes Greene’s sentence for him, after a separation of some three hundred years, suggests her grasp of the ideological form of his utterance above and beyond its specific content. Orlando thus accentuates the absurd obviousness of an ideological formation apparent to those marginalized or excluded by it. A similar accentuation occurs when Orlando converses with “giants” like Alexander Pope, whose words are pointedly withheld from the text, since “the biographers” assume that “these sayings are too well-known to require repetition” (155). This ironic appeal to the presumed knowledge of canonical literature on behalf of the implied reader also represents a sly erasure of that literature. And it is followed by Orlando’s archly patronizing, subtly feminized descriptions of “the company of men of genius” as “fond of tea,” and fond, too, of “collect[ing] little bits of coloured glass” (159). Such descriptions enact an alienating and alienated woman’s perspective of the patriarchal critical establishment, a view from the outside that plays with and against literary norms and cultural standards. Woolf suggests that the alien alterity that women writers bring to critical practice is an excess, a “monstrosity” from which the patriarchal critical tradition recoils. As Sandra Gilbert writes:

Feminist connections between the personal and the political, the theoretical and the practical, renew those bonds of feeling and thought that T.S. Eliot, the paradigmatic patriarchal critic, regarded as irrevocably severed. In fact, the feminist classroom, as anybody who has entered on will tell you, is the home of undissociated sensibilities. (40)

In this way, Nick Greene’s repeated–and revised–representations of ancient excellence versus modern degeneracy parodies one of the ideological linchpins of the patriarchal critical tradition. And as parody, it both exemplifies Foucault’s idea of commentary and subverts its rarefying, restricting function. Woolf supplies precisely that commentary on commentary–a secondary, “critical” form ironically embedded in a primary, “creative” form–which strips literary criticism of its gender-coded ideological veil. Greene’s commentary, about which the critic character is (somewhat ambiguously) either insistent or oblivious, is not to be taken at face value as a corrective revision, signalling a critical or pedagogical progression or graduation from early modern ignorance of correct taste to its enlightened, high modern apprehension. In its mixture of verbatim repetition and substitution of names, it instantiates Foucault’s theory of commentary as both reproduction and explication; Greene’s second statement comments not only on its purported subject, modern literature, but also as meta-commentary on his first: as a comment, that is, on his own prior comment. Greene’s patronizing, patriarchal pronouncement on the perennially fallen state of literature (and by extension culture) echoes itself, occults itself, and necessarily forgets itself, demonstrating a kind of doubly meta-critical and non-critical manoeuvre: a gesture of deference to historical authenticity that camouflages the revisionism and oppression required to make such a gesture. It’s a manoeuvre still very much with us, all too prevalent in criticism today, as promiscuous in the strident, canon-defending campaigns of Harold Bloom, as in the back-in-the-day one-upmanship of fanboy pop-culture scenes (whose masculinist discourse of “subcultural capital” has been authoritatively analyzed in Sarah Thornton’s book Club Cultures).

The statements with which Woolf fills Greene’s mouth pose a subtle, shrewd critique of how the patriarchal critical tradition continues to patrol its territory and protect its members. (Pun intended.) But if this tradition has enjoyed a long career thanks to its complex forms of repetition, at least Woolf’s ironic and parodic kind of response to it has engendered repetitions of its own. In Tania Glyde’s 1998 short story, “Pavlovs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000,” the narrator (“Pavlovs Bitch”) argues with a male character in a scene that resonates with Orlando, a passage of meta-commentary, embedded in fiction, which plays fittingly feminist havoc with the patriarchal critical tradition, its revisionist manoeuvring, and the rather more ominous cultural politics that it indexes–a politics broached in the last line of the quotation below, to which I’ll leave the last word:

Luke barely acknowledges us before launching into a tirade.
     Oh my God you wouldn’t believe it! I went to this club last night and the DJs were awful I mean the people there were all so bloody young, they don’t know anything about what’s going on. Fuckin’ dingy tunes, it was all really manky, all kind of housey techno-ey trancey drum ‘n’ bassy–O mean they just weren’t there, were they? Oooh, halls of residence are gonna be swinging to that derivative crap. It’s not like the old days I can tell you. I can’t believe all these people are trying to enjoy themselves to that shit when they weren’t even there at the beginning.
     Beginning of what? I hiss. Tip when chatting about musical trends of the last twenty years to someone like Luike Roadkill: Think of what style you’re on about, take the year you think it “all started”, and then go back a couple more, just to be safe, e.g. “but Afrika Bambaataa was doing that in ’78, surely?” etc.
     Luke responds.
     Well, they weren’t there. When it all started.
     How could someone who’s seventeen years old in 1999 have “been there” in 1986, at the age of four? I mean, even if they were actually in Ibiza that year, they’d have been making sandcastles, wouldn’t they?
     Club fascists are a race all their own. (277)

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864). Rpt. in Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Dobson, Michael. The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse” (1970). Rpt. in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 48-78.

Gallagher, Catherine. “George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question.” Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Ed. Ruth Berbard Yeazell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra. “What do feminist critics want? A postcard from the volcano.” Rpt. in The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 29-45.

Glyde, Tania. “Pavolvs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000.” Disco 2000. Ed. Sarah Champion. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998. 273-89.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181. Rpt. in Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Stanford U, 2 Dec. 1997 http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Weinstein, Donna. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 57-69.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 1928.

—. Orlando. London: Hogarth P, 1928.

 

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

The stakes of literary criticism

The stakes of literary criticism sometimes turn out to be higher than prevailing preconceptions about it would suggest (you know, the preconceptions involving elbow patches, overpaid obscurantism, and social irrelevance). For instance, earlier this year a New York law professor faced criminal libel charges in France for publishing a critical book review. Around the same time, a Kuwaiti blogger got sued for posting a bad restaurant review.

The counter-discourse about literary criticism as a matter of life or death has roots in the pamphlet and periodical hostilities that marked (and marred) print culture in the Romantic period. The most famous example is the poet Keats, famously sensitive to critical reviews. “Who killed John Keats?” asked Byron in 1821, promptly answering on behalf of one particularly persecuting periodical: “‘I,’ says the Quarterly…”

But Keats’ case is still figurative, not literal, after all: it wasn’t bad reviews that actually killed Keats — it was tuberculosis, whose close reading skills apply only to deconstructing the ambiguities and aporias of the body’s immune system. Rather, the real life-or-death stakes of literary criticism surface in the fact that most negative reviews themselves were published anonymously — as were numerous now-famous novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Walter Scott’s Waverley series, to Austen’s oeuvre. As William St Clair argues in his endlessly absorbing study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “anonymity protected publishers and printers from the law of libel” (174).

Perhaps that’s a protection that some of the aforementioned present-day critics wish they had, just as, perhaps, it’s a protection that explains the death of netiquette and the ubiquity of commentating trolls. But anonymity warded against more than just libel in the romantic period:

Anonymity also reduced the risk of being called out to fight in a duel, a form of literary criticism which killed more than one writer of the romantic period. (175)

Such wryly observed literary history puts in perspective “the death of the author,” reminding us of a time when an act of reading represented a kind of re-writing that was radically and literally tantamount to murder (not even murder most foul, but murder socially sanctioned, at that). Let’s hope that, amidst increasingly extremist, neoliberal forms of deregulation, IP law enforcement, and extreme sports (like ultimate fighting or chessboxing), the current spate of libel actions against critics doesn’t augur a return to the good old bad old days when running an unfavourable critique could risk catching a bullet.


Cross-blogged from the AU Landing