Tag Archives: popular culture

Looking for pop culture representations of the oil sands

frame from Avatar (2009)

frame from Avatar (2009)

I’m working on a research paper about pop culture representations of the oil industry; I’m especially interested in Canadian works, and in representations of the Alberta oil sands. I have found a few great leads so far: Corb Lund’s peak oil ballad “Gettin down on the mountain”; James Cameron’s film Avatar.

If you know of pop culture texts, especially Canadian works, that refer to the oil industry – especially the oil sands – please leave a comment here (or e-mail me).

I’d be particularly grateful for references to pop music, theatre, TV, and science fiction works.

The research in progress is tentatively titled “Monster mines and pipelines: Frankenstein figures of fossil fuel technology,” and will be presented on March 4 at #AthaU’s inaugural Alberta Studies symposium, and again in June at Congress.

How you know you’ve arrived as a popular culture scholar

When a reader likens your work to porn. (Favourably.)

The work in question is my chapter in the new collection Selves and Subjectivities: Reflections on Canadian Arts and Culture, edited by Manijeh Mannani and Veronica Thompson, out now from AU Press – in purchasable print and free, Open Access e-book formats.

“By examining how writers and performers have conceptualized and negotiated issues of personal identity in their work, the essays collected in Selves and Subjectivities investigate emerging representations of self and other in contemporary Canadian arts and culture.”

Romanticism versus repetitive beats: On Levitin’s This is your brain on music, part 2

If I was an old-school fifty-pound boombox
Would you hold me on your shoulder wherever you walk?
Would you turn my volume up in front of the cops
And crank it higher every time they told you to stop?
(Gym Class Heroes)

In my first post about Levitin’s book This is your brain on music, I described it as engaging and problematic; this post takes up the problematic part. Levitin’s study is problematic for a couple of reasons that both might be described as symptoms of Romanticism. In Levitin’s emphasis on emotion and his bias against automation, the discourse and ideology of Romanticism informs the premises and some of the specific arguments of this book.

A recurring claim in the book is the idea that music is primarily an emotional experience. “The essence of music performance is being able to convey emotion,” Levitin writes of musicianship (204); in the same chapter, he broadens the claim from the context of production to encompass reception as well: “What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience” (208). Levitin links this emphasis on emotion to a related emphasis on expression; reflecting on the research and teaching of music, he asks “at what point in the curriculum is [sic] emotion and expressivity taught?” (208): the question is ultimately rhetorical, in his finding that the teaching of music and the research of musicianship are not focused on “the emotional” but rather on “the technical” (209). The opposition here between the emotional and the technical relates to the contrasts and conjunctions that Levitin finds between music and language, in the context of evolution:

As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. (267)

I’m not disputing Levitin’s scientific point here about music, language, emotion, and cognition; I’m observing how the opposition between emotion and technique in the context of music production resonates with that between emotion and thought in the context of human evolution, reinforcing western culture’s long-standing division of the faculties – the affective and the cognitive, the expressive and the intellectual, the heart and the mind – in a way that music itself has taken a role in problematizing and critiquing, as documented in work on electronic dance music (EDM) by British scholars Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, and in work on black Atlantic music by Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy, among others. For Eshun, Afro-Futurist music is as much a practice of multimedia theorizing, narrating, and knowledge production as it is a practice of moving and being moved; for Gilroy, black diasporic music represents a complex articulation of class and racialization according to discourses of gender and sexuality – and, furthermore, bears witness to the continuing fallout of Atlantic slavery. Surveying such work, Angela McRobbie summarizes:

It has been up to black writers in Britain, such as Paul Gilroy, to demonstrate just how much thinking there is in black music. Such music can hardly contain the investment of artistry, politics, history, and literary voice, so that as an aesthetic it is, by definition, spilling out and overflowing, excessive, a first destination for social commentary, dialogue, and rap that leaves those of us still caught in the prison of language far behind. (43-4)

Eshun’s work, for its part, explores how Afro-Futurist music challenges and reconfigures the western division of the faculties, arguing that knowledge can be produced somatically and kinaesthetically, that theory can happen deep in the grooves of an acetate dubplate. That work like his does so with reference to music that is now largely if not exclusively electronic brings me to the second symptom of Romanticism in Levitin’s work: the bias against automation and the corresponding fetishization of “liveness” (as Philip Auslander calls it). This bias only crystallizes in one passage of Levitin’s book, but its implications resonate throughout his discussions of music production and reception, composition and expectation. In chapter six, Levitin turns to the subject of “groove”: “the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum … that quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent to a book you can’t put down” (170). Levitin’s example of great groove – and it’s indisputably a great example – is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (a track no DJ should be without). For Levitin, Wonder’s drumming in the opening bars of “Superstition” exemplify groove in terms of the musician’s exploitation of the listener’s expectations: how “he keeps us on our mental toes by changing aspects of the pattern every time he plays it, holding just enough of it the same to keep us grounded and oriented” (171). So far, so good. We know what groove is now, and we hear it, mentally, in his sampling of Wonder. But where Levitin takes the discussion of groove next is less to science than to Romanticism, in a passage reminiscent of Theodor Adorno’s hostility to “mechanical” music:

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machinelike. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” for example), the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.” (171-72)

In the space of two sentences, Levitin invokes Romantic assumptions – expressivity, spontaneity, organicism, and liveness (embodied presence, “being there”) – to amplify the mystique of traditional, non-technologically mediated musicianship, and all at the expense of the most globally popular and aesthetically significant music forms since the 1970s: dub and dancehall reggae, rap, disco, and its EDM successors, from Chicago house to dubstep. From the perspective of popular music studies, the concession that “some danceable songs have been made with drum machines” has got to be the understatement of the century.

This is as live as it gets

This is not at all to suggest anything as simplistic as the notion that drumming musicianship is obsolete; it is, rather, to show that the idea of drumming evoked here makes a specific and very narrow assumption about musicianship, an assumption that is reminiscent of the interwar Musicians’ Union lobbying against recorded music on behalf of “live” bands (Thornton 38-39). And the assumption becomes all the stranger in its contrast to Levitin’s arguments, elsewhere in the book, against rarefied professional specialization and for democratized participation as the more natural milieu for human music-making. Some drum machines and digital music software require specialized expertise, but the prevailing trend in their use has been to open up and democratize music-making and song recording.

What Levitin overlooks in this brief but revealing statement is, broadly speaking, nothing less than the globally transformative contribution of black Atlantic culture to popular music since roughly the postwar period; and what he overlooks more specifically is this culture’s creative adaptation of recording technologies and music automations – turntablism, tape splicing, synthesizers, digital sampling, timestretching, and so on – in the service of breathing new life into rhythm tracks and finding new ways for rhythm tracks to breathe: both expanding the total lung capacity of music – and giving it gills too. Black Atlantic music-makers, more than any others, have amply succeeded in redefining groove not against mechanical regularity but through it, from Afrika Bambaaata’s bass-quaking electro remix of Kraftwerk in “Planet Rock” and the dystopian drumscapes of Detroit techno, to the digital dicing of old funk breaks and splicing of drum machine patterns in the funky-frenetic rinse-outs of drum & bass, and the baleful bass drops of its dubstep progeny.

Derrick May has famously compared the sound of Detroit techno to the city itself as “a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator” (qtd. in Sicko, 26). What black Atlantic music-makers before and after May have repeatedly demonstrated, though, is that you can clear everybody out of that elevator and sample and sequence its machine sounds, metronome sounds, unmusical sounds to make music that will fill a dancefloor, will leave the crowd breathless. In the kyriarchically related context of black diasporic music, Ben Williams argues that “becoming robots was, for African American musicians, a subliminally political act […] a form of self-empowerment” (“Black Secret Technology” 161). In the kyriarchically and subculturally related context of queer dance, Walter Hughes calls it a kind of liberatory, “technological identification”:

The fearful paradox of the technological age, that machines created as artificial slaves will somehow enslave and even mechanize human beings, is ritually enacted at the discotheque. (151-2)

“Music is organized sound,” Levitin continues (citing Edgard Varèse’s definition), “but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that on one wants to listen to” (173). As an elaboration of the previously quoted statement and its explicit Romantic organicism, this latter passage forecloses on the ways in which Afro-Futurist music and EDM amplify rather than mute a “robotic” and “emotionally flat” aesthetic to exploit listener expectation and anticipation, and to reconfigure music’s effects beyond just affect. In its very early days, Chicago house music was widely dismissed by music critics for being too robotic and too repetitious – for some (according to telling associations of taste and bigotry), it was also too gay and too black. For house music’s initially queer, minoritized audience, its robotic and repetitious characteristics of the music were a big part of the music’s attraction: they made it a potent dancefloor analogue and accompaniment to sexual practices, and – just as importantly – they produced a sound alien and abrasive enough to function as a gatekeeper, keeping out wider audiences and thus keeping spaces like the Warehouse and the Paradise Garage safe for queer night life.

Come on let’s work it to the bone
Let’s work it to the bone bone bone
Let’s work
To the bone bone bone

Following the massive popularization of techno and raves in the 1990s, the criticism that the music was too robotic and repetitious came from a much more insidious source: the British government itself, whose 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act criminalized raves by expressly prohibiting gatherings of ten or more people in scenes featuring dance music, which the Act notoriously defines as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (qtd. in McKay 164). Since then, despite further regulatory pressures and moral panics, the culture of EDM has gone from strength to strength in entrenching its global popularity and influencing the direction and aesthetics of popular music. For Levitin’s popular science book to reinscribe the bias against robotic and repetitive music on behalf of Romantic investments in authenticity and aura is to lend a dangerous veneer of scientific authority to the wider-reaching socio-political beatdowns that have historically met music scenes characterized by a succession of repetitive beats.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991. 26-52.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998.

Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine. “Stereo Hearts.” Warner Bros., 2011.

Hughes, Walter. “In the Empire of the Beat.” Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture. Ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose. New York: Routledge, 1994. 147-57.

Levitin, Daniel. This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Penguin Plume, 2007.

LNR. “Work it to the bone.” House Jam, 1987.

McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso, 1996.

McRobbie, Angela. “Thinking with Music.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 37-49.

Reynolds, Simon. “How Rave Music Conquered America.” The Guardian 2 Aug. 2012.

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

Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age.” Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Ed. Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu. New York: New York UP, 2001. 154-76.

Operation Black March: Boycott Big Content

In which Anonymous acts on Public Enemy’s culture industry thesis

A couple of weeks after I blogged about boycotting Big Content to protest copyright-censorship bills like SOPA, Anonymous has launched “Operation Black March” – precisely such a boycott – via a Youtube video that is viralizing nicely. As the video explains:

March 2012 is the end of the 1st quarter in economic reports worldwide.
Do not buy a single record. Do not download a single song, legally or illegally. Do not go to see a single film in cinemas, or download a copy, Do not buy a DVD in the stores. Do not buy a videogame. Do not buy a single book or magazine.
Wait the 4 weeks to buy them in April: see the film later, etc. Holding out for just 4 weeks, maximum, will leave a gaping hole in media and entertainment companies’ profits for the 1st quarter, an economic hit which will in turn be observed by governments worldwide…

I’m not claiming any credit; I’m just digging the coincidence. If we want to give credit where credit is due for a Big Content boycott (never mind one dubbed “Black March”), we should take a fresh listen to Public Enemy’s scathing critique of the culture industry: “Burn Hollywood burn,” from their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet.

The line, the skyline, between then and now

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. – Walter Benjamin

NYC skyline (from the ferry), Feb. 2001

In a hugely absorbing (but disappointingly under-attended) session on Imperialism and Culture at the 2008 Socialist Studies conference, I suggested that the attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a line between past and present that feels uncannily like the kind of line described in science fiction, a line that sharply divides one’s lived and felt experience of time in its unfolding. (Think of Lionel Verney’s reflections on life before and after the plague in The Last Man, or Offred’s reflections on life before and under Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale…or Cayce’s reflections on life after September 11 in Pattern Recognition.) The session presenters suggested (and rightly so, I think) that to represent the attacks of September 11, 2001, in this way is to reproduce the kind of cultural imperialist ideology that has driven not only a lot of popular culture since, but also a lot of dubious-to-disastrous foreign policy decisions.

Point taken, and a fair enough one at that.

Lines of tragedy and trauma divide and sometimes dismember everyone’s lives, whether on the personal scale or the sociopolitical. Walter Benjamin observed that the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule. As witnessed by the helpless and horrified hindsight of Benjamin’s hypothetical angel, history is illuminated as a grim palimpsest of such lines, like a whip-scarred back: West African nations after slavery, the First Nations after colonization, Japan after August 1945, Rwanda after 1994. (This isn’t to homogenize different traumas and tragedies, only to suggest how they mar and mark time.)

Memorial mural, NYC, Apr. 2002

So it is perhaps not despite but because of this knowledge — knowledge of history’s lacerated hide, and of the military-entertainment complex that feeds greedily on it –that one still feels so keenly this line, this skyline, cut down through the lived experience of time in its unfolding.

Or its collapsing.

Such a strong storm buffets the angel of history, it’s impossible to tell which.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations (1940). Trans. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. Rpt. in Simon Fraser U http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html

Forsyth, Scott and John McCullough. “Imperialism and Culture.” Society for Socialist Studies annual conference, U of British Columbia, 4 Jun. 2008.

For Labour Day: diagnoses of neoliberalism

To observe Labour Day at a time when labour is being aggressively demonized by business and its political enablers, I’ll share this shrewd and concise diagnosis of neoliberalism, and its core contradiction, by David Harvey:

To guard against their greatest fears––fascism, communism, socialism, authoritarian populism, and even majority rule––the neoliberals have to put strong limits on democratic governance, relying instead upon undemocratic and unaccountable institutions (such as the Federal Reserve or the IMF) to make key decisions. This creates the paradox of intense state interventions and government by elites and ‘experts’ in a world where the state is supposed not to be interventionist. […] Faced with social movements that seek collective interventions, therefore, the neoliberal state is itself forced to intervene, sometimes repressively, thus denying the very freedoms it is supposed to uphold. (A Brief History of Neoliberalism [2007], 69-70)

While I’m at it, I’ll share Roseanne’s diagnosis too:

I’m pleased to say I’m indebted to student work for directing me to these instructive illuminations.

“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