Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Ngugi's "On the Abolition of the English Department"; or, Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)

Here's something Shelley wrote a few weeks ago... we haven't posted it because it's a huge subject that deserves a whole book, but here you are. Or, as Shelley would put it, thou art there!


Since Cleveland lost game 7 of the T-Ball ALCS (erroneously, I might add--Kenny Lofton was clearly safe at 2nd, and would have scored, which clearly would have changed the entire dynamic of the game... Manny, for instance, would have been bummed out and not actually run after that ball in left--he would have walked to it, as he did in Cleveland, and begun listening to his iPod for the rest of the game), I've had a lot of extra time to read. And in two of these books I've noticed that I--I, the swirling collection of atoms our habits of language deem Shelley--was quoted in the first couple of pages. In his Falling Man Don Delillo discusses a postcard from Rome that someone sent him with the title of my Revolt of Islam. The character gets this postcard and naturally associates it with 9/11 (since you Americans associate everything with that day), ignoring that my title refers more to Islam qua "submission" (i.e., a revolt of submission--along with Thoreau, this poem was an inspiration Gandhi's non-violent revolutions) than Islam qua religion. Delillo clearly hadn't read it, and was making reference to it solely for a cheap intellectual gag. And it worked--I totally gagged when I read it.

The other book is Kim Stanley Robinson's Sixty Days and Counting, the final volume of his trilogy about ecological disaster... but more about that in the near future. I'm about a third of the way through, and will write a whole review of it once I finish. (In any case, let's just say that Robinson quotes me correctly, and has been quoting poems as obscure as Epipsychidion since his early works).

So what else have I been reading? The incomparable Ngugi, for one. This, over and over, in particular:

"On the Abolition of the English Department"

Here's Ngugi, from the manifesto he and his colleagues used to restructure the "English" department at his university in Kenya in the sixties, when all that was taught was Kipling and H. Rider Haggard and Shakespeare and Milton and my own dear co-opted lyric poems that I wrote when I was drunk in Italy--nothing directly relevant to lived experience in Kenya (except from the point of view of the colonizers); nothing in any way liberating (again, they weren't reading my political poetry, which let-me-tell-you is liberating as heck); nothing African:

The primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement.
As far as I can tell, English departments today, in the U.S., tend not to do this. They sometimes even darken and dampen that spirit.

One thing that shocks me about the scene of Contemporary American Literature is that the people who are by definition the best trained to evaluate and discuss and analyze the literature being produced today are in many ways the furthest removed from it. Yes, removed because they--and by They I mean professors and graduate students in literature departments--are stored away in universities like chickens laying eggs, but even more because all they do all day is lay eggs. Detailed historical eggs discussing the influence of fashionable top hats on Anthony Trollope's early fiction, or complicated and wordy theoretical eggs explaining that Wordsworth could not possibly have read Spinoza's political philosophy (this is actually true--from what I knew of him, Wordsworth spent most of his time eating porridge and trimming his side-whiskers). They don't, in other words, have time to read the books that are being written today. Go to your nearest university and take a poll about how many books from the last decade they've read.

Sure, there are some who read a lot, but let's just say that I can't count how many graduate students and professors have told me, while rolling their eyes: "I haven't read a book--I mean a real book, a non-work book--in years." And why? Because (leaving aside the question of the quality or vitality of today's work) in order to get a job in academia, or to hang on to one, you don't have time to read today's fiction. Thus what calls itself the left's vanguard is cowed by brute capitalism into reading about the influence of the New Deal on the marginalia of Theodor Dreiser, or the influence of New Porridge on Wordsworth's late poetry (hint: it was very influential). In order to create and secure jobs, English departments need "slots," and have invented only two rubrics for organizing these slots: one is historical (we need a Medievalist and a Victorianist and a Modernist etc.), and the other is multicultural (we need someone to teach Asian-American lit, and someone else to do Afro-Caribbean, etc.). And the second is always drastically subordinated to the first, and is made in many ways simply auxiliary to the historical regimen of the first.

[There is a third, called Critical Theory, but, for better or worse (probably worse--seriously--just check out some contemporary historical criticism), Critical Theory is all but defunct now. It's complicated. How about let's just not go there.]

Although each of these, particularly the second (the multicultural rubric), makes some sort of sense, the dominance of the first (the rubric historical specialization) is a shame for at least two reasons. First, it makes any sort of political or social engagement they want to enact immediately distanced from the thing they're critiquing. A critique of Bush's imperialism becomes, in articles and in the classroom, an investigation of how naughty Rudyard Kipling was for writing about India in that way. An exploration of Palestinian suicide bombings becomes a close reading of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, written a hundred years ago.

The second reason that it is a shame that English departments aren't vitally engaged with the literature of our (well, your) times is that it makes today's literature worse. In my times, if you wrote a poem or a novel you had to worry about reviews of it from Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Leigh Hunt or the wankers over at the Edinburgh Review--they were wankers, but they were smart wankers. Boy were they wankers... But anyways who do you have to worry about today? Oprah? Michio Kakutani and the people at the NY Times? Have you actually read the NYT Books Section lately? It makes me want to drown all over again.

I would say that even more than MFA programs, one reason that today's fiction is so pallid and thin and--dare I say it--anti-intellectual is that criticism has been disengaged from fiction. In a certain sense. I think you could argue that contemporary fiction is operating according to an outmoded notion of criticism--one which values craft far more highly than ideas, particularly big ones. The motto being Big Ideas (Don't Get Any), and the result being perfect little self-contained $14.00 books that risk nothing.

And as a precursor to my conclusion: think about the American Left's current state in those terms.

At its core Contemporary American Fiction is far more closely aligned with journalism than with anything like literature or a history of ideas, and values the representation of experience more highly than the creation of experience and the presentation of thought. It values, I (Shelley, ahem) would argue, the representation and transcription of an agreed-upon reality more highly than it does creation or risk or creativity. This is problematic.

Let's look again at Ngugi's definition of what a literature department should do:
The primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement.
Clearly, our departments in the U.S. don't do this--they don't even come close. But what if we turn it around, and try to figure out what literature itself should do according to Ngugi. Shouldn't literature, under this idea, present the spirit animating a people? Does today's fiction do this? Does it have within it something resembling an animating spirit?

Where's the spirit!

Doesn't today's fiction more often than not present us with the spirit disanimating or oppressing a people without giving us the other half--the resistance? Maybe it's worth thinking about William Faulkner's definition of the artist:
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.
Is it life and spirit that today's writers are arresting, or simply an agreed upon image of life? Are they conveying spirit to us, or are they conveying the experience of experience to us? It's not that one (vital vital vital) aspect of literature shouldn't be the representation of our lived and perhaps agreed upon reality. It should, obviously and like journalism (which is also vital vital vital), do that. Fiction should shine its light upon the darkened corners of our society (e.g. the modes of life of the disenfranchized), but it should also do more than that--it should urge the reader, while the light's still there, to walk into that corner and do something. Literature that merely represents and transcribes that reality can't do that--it lacks the spirit and energy to impel anyone to do anything. It is not, in other words, creative.

Here's a thought experiment. I just went to a lecture on the philosopher Immanuel Kant's anti-war thought and writing and rhetoric. It was great--it showed how Kant grappled with the beaten down spirit of his times (Prussia had been at war for roughly 150 years) and tried to awaken a new spirit of Enlightenment and progress. It showed how Kant wrestled with the question of whether violence is justifiable in the name of a Greater Good, and whether something like the French Revolution could really free anyone from anything. It was fascinating.

But here's the thought experiment: how many contemporary American authors could you imagine actually going to that lecture? Any? And keep in mind that Kant isn't just some philosopher, but is arguably a) the most influential philosopher in the past 250 years; b) the ur-thinker of Romanticism, which gave us the form of the nation state that we live in today; and c) really fucking smart. What author would go to a lecture on Kant? (A lecture given, by the way, by someone called perhaps the smartest living commentator on Kant--it wasn't totally high brow and snooty. It was something anyone with a little philosophy under their belts, as in Philosophy 101, could handle). Would David Foster Wallace? Paul Auster? Jane Smiley... maybe? The people from McSweeney's would be fleeing. Aimee Bender would be heading for the hills. Steve Almond would be tearing his hair out--and by hair, I mean his Lush Thicket of Chest Fro, which would be incredibly painful: I guarantee that's how much he hates thinking about Kant.

And why not? Should they go to a lecture on Kant? Is it important? Why is it so hard to imagine a contemporary writer making it a priority to think about modernity's most influential philosopher? Isn't this a weird question? Is it one we should be asking? Is it, in any manner, pressing?

Alternate thought experiment: what non-American authors would go to the Kant lecture? And before you answer, look at that picture of the huge stack of books sculpture in the middle of Berlin: KANT, BRECHT, MARX, GOETHE, and even friggin' HEGEL. Could you imagine that sort of thing in America?

friggin' DAN BROWN

And why not? Lisa Simpson spotting a copy of Gravity's Rainbow in somebody's backpack in an obscure episode of the Simpsons isn't quite the same thing as stacking up a huge pile of books in the middle of your city. If you go to a bookstore in a lot of other countries, even something like the equivalent of a Borders of Barnes and Noble, you'll find a very different dynamic at work from what you find in the U.S. On the tables in Cuspide, a chain in Buenos Aires (where Tamilda and myself passed most of last year), you'll find that the display tables have yes, Harry Potter and Dan Brown, but also: Borges and Cortázar and José Donoso; and Spinoza and Foucault and friggin' Hegel; and poetry; and Marx; and other really smart authors. There're whole tables devoted to philosophy, and poetry, and literary fiction. Why do you have to go to an independent bookstore in the U.S. to find anything resembling what you find in the generic bookstore-next-to-the-megaplex-movie-theater in BsAs? Is this a problem? Is asking this sort of question simply elitism, or is it something else? Does having something like Amazon where you can order any book in the world make up for the communal (well, capitalist) display of new translations of Kant?

It seems to me that the problem comes from both sides: English Departments are stuck in the past, and can launch their progressive attacks on The Powers That Be only indirectly, from trenches dug several hundred years back; and contemporary fiction writers by and large, to put it bluntly, lack depth and creativity and, above all, curiosity. Both need to be reworked--in tandem. And don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that Michael Chabon should be going to more lectures on Kant or reading more Karl Marx. What I'm saying is that those sorts of Big Ideas can provide a model for today's Big Ideas, but there can be others that are less securely tied to "the Canon" or Snooty Intellectual History--take, for example, Ngugi's most recent book, the Wizard of the Crow. Or his other books, like the Devil on the Cross. These are books designed to be read by Kenyan peasants and intellectuals both--they're simultaneously very readable and hilarious and sophisticated and politically and intellectually daring. Hell, he went to jail for those ideas.

And of course, there are exceptions in the U.S.: look at someone like the late Edward Said; or someone like David Foster Wallace, who tricks people into thinking. Or the poet Tom Sleigh, who knows more about ancient Greece and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze than almost anyone I've ever met. Or Denis Johnson's ambitious rethinking of Vietnam qua allegory for American imperialism. But still, aren't these people the exception rather than the rule? And aren't they all over the age of 45?

And isn't this problem (or crisis?) in Contemporary American Fiction somehow merely a subset of the crisis facing Contemporary American Left? That is, that all of the Big Ideas come from the Right? Invading Iraq; Obliterating Our Public Education System and Turning it into a Private One; Ruining Medicare and Privatizing All Health Care; Invading Iran--these are F******* Huge Ideas! It's as if any sort of Political Will on the Left has undermined itself and taken its task to be one of defense. John Kerry, for example, is only just now fighting back against the Swftboaters who helped ruin his 2004 campaign! And how was he attacked: for taking a principled stance against Vietnam (by the Swiftboaters), and for being an East Coast "Liberal" "Intellectual" by Bush. Is it wrong to associate Bush's anti-intellectualism with the implicitly anti-intellectual (if anti-Bush) nature of today's fiction? Is it utterly elitist to ask this question?

Glimmer of Hope: I can, actually, imagine some contemporary writers attending a lecture on Kant, or thinking seriously about something like the French Revolution, and they're far more influential than anyone I've named so far: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Just read their books, and watch their shows. But isn't it weird that it's people on TV carrying the torch of something resembling the Enlightenment, or a popular intellectual movement, rather than literature? And are they, really?

Wow, how snooty and polemical was that! Here is my dog.


Susanne said...

Dear Shelley,
Thanks for this post! I definitely think that you're on the right track here, as usual. Bravo.

I just have one question: did someone actually grab your heart out of your funeral pyre? And, if so, did Mary Shelley keep it for the rest of her life? And if so, where and how did she keep and display a charred human heart?!? I think answering these questions might go a long way in revealing the differences between your time and our own.

Go Gently,

Andrew Warren said...

Dear Susanne,

Thank you for your inquiry about my heart. Funny story. It was actually Byron who leapt in and recover'd that fading coal from the pyre, and then transplanted it into the breast of the Greek rebellion against the occupation by the Ottoman Empire! And then after their victory they transplanted it into the chest of the 1848 proletariat revolutions! And then the students in May '68 had it for a while! And then season 3 of the Simpsons got it!

But recently I've heard that my heart and will are beating within the chest of one Dick Cheney--the spirit of revolution and equality has been turned inside out. We live in awful times.

Heartless in Leghorn,

Alexandra said...

Hi, Shelley.

I don't see what your big fat point is. Just the other day I went to a Kant lecture and Dan Brown was the speaker. Audrey Tatou gave the introduction.

Andrew Warren said...

Dear Ale,

If you're looking for a big fat point, you won't find one. My points are tall and slender, with graceful movements, wild eyes, and long poetic hair. (Far more poetic than Tom Hank's hair in La Coda da Vinci).

I also attended that Dan Brown lecture, and though I did find his argument concerning Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative being an encryption of the results for Superbowl XXXIII quite compelling, I found his translations from the German lacked rigor.

Audrey Tatou lacks nothing, except faults. Sigh.

Sincerely sighing,

Mia said...

PB & S,

I suggest you quit reading and start dancing. I am at this moment watching an interview with a choreographer who reads Veblen. (Of course, because she's being interviewed on television, I'm being complicit with imperialist culture. I'm pretty sure I'm ok with that.)

Minh Le said...

Quit reading and start dancing?!

Having known Tamilda for some time now, I know for a fact that 75% of the time she is reading, she is also dancing.

But you probably do have a point. Maybe it would do her some good to modernize her dances... relying on antiquated dance moves like "waltzing" and "electric sliding" probably prevents her from truly testing the boundaries of cutting edge literary criticism.

As our old acquaintance used to say "Theses are fueled Techno. Feces are fueled by Classical."

(He didn't actually say this... but I'm assuming that's what he meant by bopping around my living room to a duet of Dave Seaman and David Foster Wallace.)

Andrew Warren said...

Yes, it is true that while reading I tend to waltz and electric slide and do the robot... but that's not because I'm outdated. It's simply because you'll find that those dances are the most conducive to reading. Just try to drop it like it's hot or do the salmon while reading the Waste Land and you'll quickly a) find yourself disoriented and upside in a potted plant (and we all know what sorts of things you can find incubating in potted plants, say, along storefronts in New Hampshire) or b) you'll find your meticulous reading of TS Eliot scattered all over the sidewalk like an upturned bowl of M&M's.

Or think about the case of critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin, who once attempted to read Franz Kafka while doing the then-radical "Schoenberg Stomp." Sure, he woke up to find that he'd written the best essay on Kafka of this century--but where was his mustache? His mustache ended up in Prague, on the face of a very confused and barrel-chested sheep.

Although I do not have a mustache, this is the sort of thing I am worried about. If that's the price of cutting edge literary criticism, count me out.

I would watch Dancing with the Stars, but that would be supporting Imperial Culture. Because, as we all know, that's what Stephen Colbert and Lisa Simpson and Gobo Fraggle are all about: Ruthless Imperialism.

Alexandra said...

Today I did a little tap danced on the commuter train while reading Robertson Davies.

The other riders: Not Fans

Minh Le said...

They probably assumed it was a "pee pee dance", which would explain the skeptical glances and gradual inching away to the other side of the train.

Wah00kid said...

Yeah we need more ways of creeping things in their like in that Into the Wild movie Sean Penn puts at least two points when Bush I is speaking about Kuwait and Iraq and it sounds just eerily similar to Bush II despite this not really being in the book. We know McCandless is angry with the world and wrote some articles for his college newspaper with some rather lefty ideas but for Penn to represent it with perhaps 2.1 seconds of on screen time we can get by with feeling rebellious and in touch while eating popcorn. Yum I Love popcorn. It makes my tummy sing. Literature as Bataille would have it is excess and poetry is the worst offender so let's stop it's all pointless. ERR but hmm Bataille wrote, what a f------ hypocrite. Oh well! Go Cleve-burg

Andrew Warren said...

Agreed: literature is fundamentally excessive, and I find limiting that excessiveness, or trying to hide it under the guise of something like a contemporary "naturalism," simply drains the life out of it and the reader both. It's bizarre to live in a culture as excessive as our own and then feel guilty about crossing a certain unnamed in literature... where the prime excess, generally speaking, is the sheer *quantity* of fiction produced.

It's a box of Chips Ahoy! versus four forkfuls of chocolate soufflé. I think Nietzsche would say that what our contemporary existence lacks above all is style. Badiou would call it grace. I would call it non-horrible-ness.

McCandless, by the bye, is the name of the old horrible guy in William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic... huh.

Dejected in Naples,

plainy said...

Dear Tamilda,

Shelley's been silent for too long. Pick up the slack.



mewmewmew said...

To say that this blog brought me to do an orange juice spit-take in the privacy of my own home would be, unfortunately for my computer's keyboard, the truth. A trenchant commentary.

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