Wednesday, September 02, 2009

New Critical Modes Part 2

by J J Cohen

Cary Howie and I recently posted excerpts from our interchanges about a special issue of postmedieval we're co-editing with the awkward, horrible, unpoetic, ghastly, barbaric and probably enduring title of New Critical Modes. The conversation we had and which I would like to continue today carries traces of these posts:
Each of these pieces concerns a tangle of related issues: jargon, clarity, communication, innovation, art, criticism, poetry, beauty, love, self-identity, difficulty, welcome, community, boundary.

From John Mandeville to Roger Caillois, I've been blogging over the past year my work-in-progress on stone as a kind of liquid or organism or matter-energy or artist or communication device. These posts have been accessed many times, by lightly commented upon. Compare them to the recent posts on lucidity and jargon, with their vigorous comment threads. To join a conversation about what academic writing can and should sound like is easier, it seems to me, than to reply to an essay in which a stone speaks. The stakes for the former are also higher and more self evident than for the latter. Right?

So I can't help asking: is there something within such a misfit critical mode that locks readers out? Are such modes inhospitable to the kind of convivial and nomadic medieval studies In the Middle is supposed to cultivate? Are they unwelcoming, ungracious? Is there a chasm between content and form? (Blog posts are, after all, their own genre).

In his comments to "[Oceanic] Critical Modes" a gifted poet/artist/medievalist named Dan Remein wrote:
I'd like to see critical work appears in language that does not register as in a critical mode, a truly new mode, one we do not yet know how to read ... I want to ask not so much about 'poetic' diction, abstract formulations, the logophilia Jeffrey recently blogged about, but also about the _poetics_ of the work in terms of what effect the language of the writing is having on language--what is the language itself doing and how--who or what does it 'speak' and what discourses does it register in, circulate, repeat, cite, etc. I want to urge you to include some things that are really really new, that break radically with old forms, take up a place in the tradition of work that resists being easily incorporated into or 'redeemed' as recognizable critical prose--prose trying to _do_ something poetically other than communicate scholarly information, prose (or verse!) whose function, rather than to communicate, must be understood to function in terms of its phenomenological capacities (outside of the 'correspondence theory of of truth,' for a philosophical reference point) is say, to name, to call, to break, to push, to open, to crack, to feel, to beckon, to cruise, to turn on or off, to....
Dan also connected some new critical modes to literary modernism -- an insight I'd endorse from personal experience. I realized long ago that a significant portion of the citational unconscious of my writing derives from Eliot, Stevens, Pound, H. D., and Stein -- along with some modernist-mediated Shakespeare and Glas-era Derrida (all of whom are intimately related, I think). Something about these artists' love of tradition in fragments, their ardor for the new, and their logophilia captured my own imagination long ago.

[illustration: rocky shore with invisible storm, Ogunquit, August 2009. By author]

But here is my hesitation. On the one hand, a part of me is drawn to Dan's injunction "not to change our 'methodologies' regarding 'scholarship' or the 'style' of our writing, but to build/construct our pieces of criticism from the perspective of what the language is capable of speaking/doing." Yes! is my first reaction. But another part of me wonders about (1) my actual ability to pull off such experimentation (Dan can accomplish such a task; I'd only be imitating bpNichol or Gertrude Stein, and not very well: so, the failure of my craft is what lurks here); and (2) the receptivity of any audience to such a mode.

Dan further argues that a new critical mode ought to "look different and not apologize for itself," ought to demand much of the reader without providing maps (introductions, conclusions, brackets that keep the experiment bounded and knowable). Again, a part of me is attracted to such vision of the art of medieval studies. But another voice inside me, concocted of ambivalence as I am, blocks me from my desired assent. This isn't the same voice that has prevented me from working with medieval mystics, or medieval labor rights activists -- the part of me that has ensured that the Middle Ages I write about is a weirdly and anachronistically secular one, a world largely without God or god-substitutes. But it is related, since I worry that such an art can seem the vatic guardian of a truth intentionally withheld.

Dan, of course, is urging nothing of the sort: hence his invocation of the "I" as multiple, his emphasis on collaborators. I believe he'd object that the kind of work he is envisioning shuts out only the lazy reader, the one who will not work alongside and through and into the text, the one who will not open to the encounter or collaboration. There are many readers of this sort.

So, what if such a new kind writing, such a new critical mode, existed -- but what if its ocean was so deep that its writer wholly lost sight of sand and shore, of readers and friends? Despite its joy in the new, modernism is underwritten, it seems to me, with despair. So what would happen if an oceanic mode were attempted (sea and stone became equally liquid), but only silence greeted the transubstantiation? Tidal indifference and a disappeared shore: who can write to that solitude?

Worse, what if a writer were to convince himself that he had journeyed deep into newly navigated waters, only to find the ocean that he thought surrounded him was never really all that deep?

26 comments:

Irina Dumitrescu said...

Oh, Jeffrey, thank you so much for this. I kept from commenting on the previous posts because I quite simply did not have the time to write the kind of lengthy responses they deserved. But your post today gives me an opportunity to address at least some of the issues I wanted to bring up then.

One of the things I love about the community this blog has created is its emphasis on generosity. Generosity means many things, of course. It's sometimes interpreted as wide acceptance of different approaches, theoretical agendas, ways of writing. But, that's generosity towards other scholars and writers. This post reminds us all that there is another kind of generosity: generosity towards readers.

Generosity becomes really interesting, I would argue, when we give something we only have a limited amount of. It's one thing to say, "I'm fine with so-and-so doing literature using Theory X," and quite another to take some limited and precious time to read so-and-so's article. That time could have been used to read other texts, to prepare for class, to cook a curry, to sleep, to make love. The choice to spend it reading a particular scholar's article (or a particular novelist's book) is a decision to sacrifice all the other wonderful activities one could have enjoyed in that time.

This is why I believe that respecting the reader's generosity, whether or not the reader is also a writer, means being generous in return: writing in a way that rewards this sacrifice of time. It also means not assuming that the reader is lazy, ill-willed, or stupid when she makes the decision not to spend their time deciphering opaque writing.

This doesn't necessarily mean that every writer should strive for lucid language, though frankly, more should. It does mean that a writer who has chosen to write in a difficult style needs to reward the reader's effort by making sure that each word is as carefully chosen as it would be in a good poem, and by being certain, in every sentence, that the difficult language being used is a necessary part of what is being communicated, and not a way of obfuscating a dearth of ideas.

I will add -- and I'm sure some will argue with me on this one -- that if a writer wishes to craft difficult prose and to have readers, she must win their trust. Readers have to be convinced, or seduced, into believing the effort will be worth it. Joyce seduced me with Dubliners, for example, and when I struggle through his more difficult work it's due to the fact that he has gained my trust. I think Melville achieves both seduction and difficulty in Moby Dick. This does not mean that I feel duty-bound to work through every example of modernist prose I come across, nor to read every 800-page novel there is. I, as a reader, have a relationship to particular authors, one based on the promise that my sacrifice of time will be rewarded.

In a sense, I think that a writer's decision about style is also a decision about the relationship she wants to have with her reader. Is the reader pictured as a student, an acolyte, a friend, a fellow member of an exclusive club, a colleague, a lover, or a patron?

Irina Dumitrescu said...

Oh, Jeffrey, thank you so much for this. I kept from commenting on the previous posts because I quite simply did not have the time to write the kind of lengthy responses they deserved. But your post today gives me an opportunity to address at least some of the issues I wanted to bring up then.

One of the things I love about the community this blog has created is its emphasis on generosity. Generosity means many things, of course. It's sometimes interpreted as wide acceptance of different approaches, theoretical agendas, ways of writing. But, that's generosity towards other scholars and writers. This post reminds us all that there is another kind of generosity: generosity towards readers.

Generosity becomes really interesting, I would argue, when we give something we only have a limited amount of. It's one thing to say, "I'm fine with so-and-so doing literature using Theory X," and quite another to take some limited and precious time to read so-and-so's article. That time could have been used to read other texts, to prepare for class, to cook a curry, to sleep, to make love. The choice to spend it reading a particular scholar's article (or a particular novelist's book) is a decision to sacrifice all the other wonderful activities one could have enjoyed in that time.

This is why I believe that respecting the reader's generosity, whether or not the reader is also a writer, means being generous in return: writing in a way that rewards this sacrifice of time. It also means not assuming that the reader is lazy, ill-willed, or stupid when she makes the decision not to spend their time deciphering opaque writing.

This doesn't necessarily mean that every writer should strive for lucid language, though frankly, more should. It does mean that a writer who has chosen to write in a difficult style needs to reward the reader's effort by making sure that each word is as carefully chosen as it would be in a good poem, and by being certain, in every sentence, that the difficult language being used is a necessary part of what is being communicated, and not a way of obfuscating a dearth of ideas.

I will add -- and I'm sure some will argue with me on this one -- that if a writer wishes to craft difficult prose and to have readers, she must win their trust. Readers have to be convinced, or seduced, into believing the effort will be worth it. Joyce seduced me with Dubliners, for example, and when I struggle through his more difficult work it's due to the fact that he has gained my trust. I think Melville achieves both seduction and difficulty in Moby Dick. This does not mean that I feel duty-bound to work through every example of modernist prose I come across, nor to read every 800-page novel there is. I, as a reader, have a relationship to particular authors, one based on the promise that my sacrifice of time will be rewarded.

In a sense, I think that a writer's decision about style is also a decision about the relationship she wants to have with her reader. Is the reader pictured as a student, an acolyte, a friend, a fellow member of an exclusive club, a colleague, a lover, or a patron?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I think this passage is relevant to the problem here posed/faced:

"[C]an there be any greater delight than to see, as it were, here and now before us a vast lake of bubbling pitch, and swimming about in it vast numbers of serpents, snakes, and lizards and many other kinds of fierce and fearsome animals, while from the lake comes a plaintive voice: 'You, O Knight, whosoever you may be, beholding this dread lake: if you wish to attain the good hidden beneath these black waters, you must show the resolve of your dauntless breast and cast yourself into the midst of the dark, burning liquid, else you will not be worthy to see the mighty marvels contained in the seven castles of the seven fairies that lie beneath its murky surface'? And what of our delight when the knight, almost before the fearful voice has ceased, without giving his situation a second thought, without stopping to consider the peril to which he is exposing himself, or even shedding the burden of his armour, comends himself to God and to his lady and hurls himself into the boiling lake and, all of a sudden when he least knows where he is bound, finds himself amidst flowery meadows, far finer than the Elysian fields themselves?'" (Don Quixote).

Holly Crocker said...

Hi Jeffrey (and Cary!),

I think it is really great that you raise these questions, which might provoke (or be designed to provoke?) some unsettling answers. Your willingness to think publicly about whether what you call a “misfit critical mode” actually “locks readers out” attests to your abiding and admirable curiosity. You are, as Irina says, quite generous to think so thoroughly about your audience, especially, I would add, what might provoke or excite your readers enough for them to engage beyond [mostly] quiet admiration.

I’ve been a quiet admirer of your work on stone for some time. But I was just a passive admirer, really. That changed not too long ago. When I read the post describing the work you are doing with lapidaries, you made me think differently about the dynamic, poetic possibilities that stones held in the MA. Before that, I have to say, I’d never really gotten the whole stone thing (and I sat in on a few of John Sallis’s classes when he was writing his stone book, so I know the excitement surrounding the topic). But the project seemed so big to me, so weighty, that I had no way to see my way around it. Indeed, it seemed so monumental that I was filled with wonder, but not fascination. I admired your work, but it didn’t engage me as urgent to what I might think about the MA. Indeed, it could sit undisturbed, quiet, and uneroded by much of anything. I thought of it as beautiful, but distant. And that might be your point. If so, stop reading now. My response to your stonework all changed when I read your post on the lapidary. There I could really see the aesthetic possibilities of the materials you were engaging, probably (and this is admittedly just me) because I could see the nuances of representation at work in the renderings of stone in the MA. I loved that. The dynamism became vibrantly available, as did the power relations that might be at stake. Even though I’m no expert on medieval lapidaries (and so unable to engage the matter in ways it deserves), your post made me want to know more, and made me want you to write more about stone as “an agent…that conveys conventional histories and received traditions beyond any border that they would ordinarily cross.”

On a somewhat related note: when I was reading the thread on clarity of writing here, I was also reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed with some of my graduate students (why? well that’s a long story). There’s this funny little turn at the beginning of the second chapter that always (and deeply) surprises me. He claims that traditional teachers focus on “the sonority of words, not their transforming power.” If I take that phrase out of context, I can say that I sometimes feel like that reading posts/comments here. I can admire those words, but they rarely transform me. So there it is, as square and unhip an opinion as you can find...

cheers, and keep writing on stone, h

dan remein said...

JJC: thanks for your generosity with and regarding my comments. I love all the questions you ask about them. Exactly the spirit I am trying to get at.

Irinia, your problematic of generosity is really great. I like seeing generosity in part, as not assuming your reader will not understand--of giving the reader some benefit of the doubt.

Jeffrey, and Irina, and perhaps Holly (since you brought up JjC's concern for how much a new mode can lock others out)--I am interested as however in how being generous means being willing to risk not being 'understood,' risk being 'opaque,' and risk locking someone out. I mean, I understand how a new mode can appear as literary-cliqueish, etc., or even produce I kind of priesthood or secret gnostic heresy within what could otherwise be a radically secular task (and believe me, I am the last to want to either spiritualize or produce a priesthood in the process of producing a new critical mode) but I think that critics will benefit from considering their inheritances as critics (in terms of the modes available to them) in terms more similar to that of literary movements--especially the experimental literary movements of the 20th century which were able and are still able to viably work to enliven language and provoke alternatives of imagination (alternatives to the totalitarian regimes of thought so prevalent in the language which dominates, which Heidegger would call pejoratively 'idle talk'--good poets are able to tend to language so that it can be uncovered again as 'discourse' or potentially historical language (part 1, being and time etc etc)). In such situations, headway is often made by an advance guard (i admit extreme discomfort with the military language) who are willing to risk not being understood, or being understood only by friends. This is one reason of course that literary movement often spread at first so effectively by more grass roosty and friendship networks rather than by mainline journals [and regarding all of the above, i would refer to the early movements of the Journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, or further back the Black Mountain Review, the storm of new poetry made available by black mountain and beat poets taking advantage of the 'mimeograph revolution' which made them able to publish what was not otherwise recognizable as a poem (not until the late 80's was Olson ever anthologized in main poetry textbooks).

There are, of course, generous things you can do to make sure a new movement or mode (literary/critical--and this is the line I want to blur--as if each were parasitical off the other in a Derridean manner, such that really what concerns us is not either but the differing principle operating in the non-space between them] Irinia notes. Such as: alluring or seducing a reader. At the same time, I love Samuel Beckett's prose because it is boring, hopeless, and so radiantly hopeless and boring that is is totally repulsive to certain sensibilities. I love Mei Mei Berssenburgge's poems because her super long lines exhaust me--really beat me up. To truly allow alternatives of imagination or thought or language, there is going to be the risk of being totally misunderstood, or totally unnoticed or forgotten, being mistaken for 'not scholarship' or not even as writing, of being odious.

dan remein said...

JJC, as a token critic-poet or whatever in this discussion, I wonder if for me the worry is much more that I think I'm in the OCean but its really one of the fingerlakes in western NY--or worse, some tiny dammed up river in southern ohio or something. For this reason, I tend to err on the side of pushing too far into the unreadable--as if, there will always be people who will being drying to desalinate and dry up the sea. And, as far as the project seeming dreary or hopeless--I delight in the work itself, and even a very small group of a few friends can suffice for a audience sometimes--at least for a time. And there is at some point something unaccountable in such devotion, I'm sure.

So finally, to return to this idea that critics might think about the history of critical writing a bit more like we think about literary history, I would submit for reading:

_Critical Genealogies_ by Jonathan Arac (Columbia UP, 1988 I think). I think that if we can see how criticism operates like a literary genre, and literary genres do the work of criticism, we will have more rigorous poetry and more expansive criticism that will do more work, that we want more.

Eileen Joy said...

First, Jeffrey, thanks for calling us back to the "[Oceanic] Critical Modes" post, on which I, like Irina, have been meaning to comment. As the editor of "postmedieval," I am extremely excited about this issue that you and Cary will be editing, while I also feel, quite deeply [and personally, related to what I myself want to do in my own work], some of the anxieties and concerns that obviously fret and pace around the idea [and possible forms] of "new" critical modes that might fashion, in Dan Remein's words,

"a truly new mode, one we do not yet know how to read."

Being myself someone who was trained in the fine arts [fiction and poetry writing, but also filmmaking] and then moved on to pursue a PhD in medieval studies, I have been concerned for a long time now to bring my creative energies and scholarly projects into closer contact with one another, but in ways that might hopefully escape the situation that Dan R. also outlines in his earlier comments [on "[Oceanic] Critical Modes"] whereby the more experimental/creative voice or "move" is bracketed [safely] within conventional/traditional approaches and styles of writing. I have briefly considered [especially this past summer] escaping into fiction/poetry altogether and leaving scholarship behind [so to speak] as the project of something more "new" [scholarship-wise] often seems too strenuous, and perhaps is even doomed from the start. After all, as a pretty serious, even technical discipline of literary-historical study, can we really expect medieval studies to become, somehow, something else? Isn't this a case, on some level, where traditions [of scholarship] really matter and where clarity of communication and research/style methods held in common count for something important [especially vis-a-vis our place within an increasingly imperiled humanities where, more and more, we have to make the case for our practical relevance, etc.]?

I find myself, nevertheless, drifting, as if on a tide, back to these comments of Cary's in the earlier post [and which I also think links nicely with some of what Dan is hoping for and is even willing to *settle* for--although I would say to Dan it isn't "settling" at all, actually],

". . . part of what intrigues me about this project--perhaps the main thing--is its potential to embody the fact that scholarly misfits (those who are felt, by themselves or others, to be not rigorous enough, not period-specific enough, not academic enough; who are felt under the sign of lack) are not lacking but, in fact, overflowing. To me, one of the best things we can do with this issue is to give voice to that excess and to try to convince others that there are worse things in the world than letting oneself get swept away."

I want to pause, and linger, perhaps forever, on this idea of overflowing and letting oneself get swept away. To say there are worse things is such an understatement, really. This hits at Irina's comments regarding generosity [a generosity, moreover, that Irina thankfully makes clear moves in more than one direction between writers and readers] and also connects with something that I have been advocating for on this weblog for a long time now: that there is room [more than most people think] for *more* forms of scholarship, more subjects, more modes of delivery, etc. than we are usually willing to allow. Don't we have to at least *try*? We can fail [if by failure we mean we did not gain an audience, or a job, etc.] but if it means anything to us [our "new modes," whatever they might be], there is always a risk and we must be willing to take it [although I am also going to maintain that the risks are often not as scary as some will maintain they are and that, in effect, we might meander, get lost, and even become incomprehensible, and there will be a place for us, even if it is only with our friends, as Dan R. indicates here; we can also be two and three and four people at once--Jeffrey's career demonstrates this well, and I would say, beautifully].

[to be continued below]

Eileen Joy said...

But let's return to Cary's idea of excess and overflowing, the idea that we have *too much* to say, too many scholarly desires, an excess of ideas and forms for expressing those ideas, and more than anything, the need to let these things spill out of us, in whatever fashion [but also with the time and purposeful care for re-fashioning and careful crafting of these "things," with an eye toward sense *and* beauty]. Irina mentions time and its inherent *limits* [there is only so much of it and at some point, of course we will have to pick and choose what we can work on, or not work on, what we can read, or not read, etc.], and of course we will never be able to do *everything*, but don't you think we can do *more*, especially given our current capabilities to communicate our work in more forums with fewer intermediary obstructions and production time-lags [such as in weblogs and e-journals, etc.]? I will always argue that more is better than less, and if some of that "more" that is produced somehow doesn't "work," falls down in a heap, is too ephemeral and/or almost completely misunderstood, we can still have some hope, as Dan R. again points out [I think], of personal happiness, or of the type of satisfaction that might obtain in the completion of what can be called personal life-projects. As to overflowing, again, this always brings me back, again and again, to Ivan Illich's call to always "maximize," wherever we can,

“the enjoyment of the one resource that is almost equally distributed among all people: personal energy under personal control.”

Dan mentions that a "small audience of friends" might have to suffice for the kind of newer, or more experimental, work we might want to do, but this is altogether too modest a wish [or settlement] in my mind, and I honestly think we can do better, and without having to dismantle even one plank in the edifice of what "counts" as the foundations of our traditional discipline. "Discipline" is a key term here and refers [for my purposes just now, anyway] to a specific set of training manuals relative to "how we do things around here, how we've been doing them, and how we plan to keep doing them." The idea that there is either that or something more "new" [and which "new" thing supposedly always aims at dismantling the discipline's key paradigms and methodologies] is simply a false choice, a mock set-up.

[continued below]

Eileen Joy said...

As always, I'm asking for pluralism, even, integrated pluralisms. After all, as Cary also hints at in the previous post, can't one be "new" in the sense of taking up contemporary critical discourses [i.e., theory] while also inflecting those discourses with the voices of medieval writers [such as Bonaventure] that typically are not *found* there? And aren't even the most experimental "new modes," no matter what you are willing to risk for them in terms of "easy" [or not] comprehensibility, if they are situated in medieval studies, do not leave those medieval studies *behind*, but rather, seek new ways to assist certain medieval texts, authors, etc. to speak to us in different voices, different registers? By which I mean, my most hopeful vision [still a bit hazy, to be sure] for "new critical modes" in medieval studies is that they would *extend* the Middle Ages in time and space, and not diminish them.

As to difficulty, which both Dan R. and Nicola point to here--yes, Jeffrey, as you say, most of us are not Gertrude Stein [nor want to be] and most of us likely don't want to be viewed as swimming in shallow waters [and perhaps, narcissistically-generated shallow waters at that], but I also wish we could all somehow agree, too, that the best work *takes* work [on the part of readers *and* writers] and that there really are pleasures and enjoyments in difficulty. There is also the issue [this is for me, I guess] of sensuality. I'm not so much interested in new modes that might pride themselves, in Dan R.'s formulation, on their initial unreadability, so much as I am [personally] interested in developing scholarly writing modes that are beautiful and even sensual-poetical. But I am also, as I keep saying, for clearing room for as many voices [and modes] as possible. It just simply isn't as hard as some people claim it is and I would even go so far as to say it is more ethically imperative that we help to clear room for this work than we might have previously thought . . . .

to make room for the misfits, or as Borge might have put it,

"In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
are too high and my years do not reach them.
Leagues of desert and dream besiege the tower.
Why deceive myself?
The truth is I've never known how to read,
But I comfort myself thinking
That the imagined and the past are one and the same."

["El guardian de los libros"]

Anonymous said...

eileen, can you, do you really believe in a world of such infinity, such unlimitedness? it seems to me a world of fantasy, and not necessarily a desirable one. as one of the readers that irina so eloquently describes as needing "generosity" for reasons that i believe are good but that i will keep to myself, this desire for ever-overflowing, ever-proliferating new discourses seems overwhelming. do you really not care if your (this is not personal to you, i just mean those who would camp with you on this point!) ideas cannot be understood by any but who have the supreme dedication to following the arcane poetry of your "scholarship"? why such disdain for the rest of us who would be interested but who face so many many-syllabled and (i believe) largely unnecessary barriers! help us!

Eileen Joy said...

Anonymous: thanks for your provocations to further thought. One of the points I *thought* I was making, but perhaps not clearly enough, is that working toward "new critical modes" does not have to mean forsaking clear communication nor traditional forms of writing and scholarly methodologies with long histories within medieval studies. But I am also a pluralist who does not believe any great harm will come from promoting as diverse an array of scholarly modes as possible for the widest array of readers. I am not advocating, nor would ever advocate for purposefully obscurantist modes of scholarly writing and my own published scholarship, as anyone who has read it [I hope] knows, I don't traffic in such, and that is partly why I said I was for new sensualities of language over, say, language so new one has to learn how to read it while reading it [for the first time, even--which is partly, I think, what Dan R. is advocating for here]. To say I want more poetry does not mean I want to craft a scholarly style that is, somehow, not "clear" [but as to "clarity" of communication, and my thoughts on that, see my earlier post, "As If It Were the Writer's Duty . . . ."], but rather, that is beautiful [and granted, beauty is a vexed term/state of affairs].

At the same time, I would defend Dan's right to go his own way, as I go mine, with the [hopefully held-in-common] assumption that both of us care about the study and understanding of the texts and history of the Middle Ages which we do not believe only ever has to be just "one way." Taste will play a part in this, as it always has, and readers will choose what they like, and what they don't like, or don't want to read. I might turn the question around and ask, what is the harm? What is the possible harm in this world-view?

As to the question of disdain, I despair. Anyone who knows me [again: I can only hope] knows that I do not practice or evince disdain toward anyone who shares this field with me or who works in other fields with whom I would like to communicate through my scholarship. Over and over again, I ask for pluralism and a catholic *generosity* toward all of the singular others and the personal vision they may hold for their work and career, upholding as much as I can the right of the person who wants to pore over and *only* catalogue pottery shards alongside the right of a Dan Remien [or myself] to invent new critical modes. Dan mentions circles of friends, and it strikes me here that while, of course, we all depend on these intimate circles, that we also need to enlarge our sense of friendship might mean within our field. Let's be better friends to each other, to enlarge this so called "intimate" circle to include those whose scholarly ethos we might not entirely embrace [or love] while we embrace the right of each of us to do the work that, to be frank, makes us each, in our own singular way, happy.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh, and one other thing, yes, crazy or not, Anonymous, I really do believe in a certain limitless infinitude of this world, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I might ass. There will always be naysayers and in every possible shape and color. Someone has to say yes all the time. I'm up for it.

Eileen Joy said...

ass = add

Boy oh boy am I tired.

Eileen Joy said...

And finally: accuse me of foolishness and naivete any time. I possess these qualities in spades. But not disdain. I have only ever expressed disdain [on this blog]--but really, felt and articulated as despair and not as disdain--for those who articulate disdain for certain types of scholarship [typically described as postmodern] that others supposedly do, or don't do well, and with allegedly bad motives or false faith. Disdain is just not in my nature. Unless we're talking bluegrass. I just really don't like bluegrass.

tenthmedieval said...

Talking point: if a critical mode is such that its audience don't know how to read it, it will itself need criticising, or at least mediating, by those who grok it to those who don't.

So, then, isn't that writing literature, not criticism? If criticism isn't explanatory, expository or some other function of streamlining the message and the point and its worth for an audience... I question whether it can be called criticism. Which is absolutely not to say: don't write it. Write whatever you want to write! If people didn't do that, there'd be no art (and nothing to criticise :-) )

Sarah Rees Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I want to thank everyone for these energetic comments. Today I have a big faculty meeting and other commitments that prevent me from spending the time with them that I would like, so I'll post a more substantial response tomorrow. In the meanwhile, keep the conversation going!

One quick note, though. Language, exclusion, and community form a nexus that has always haunted me; hence my perpetual returns to their convergence here at ITM. I was trained into a medieval studies that (in general) loved its own arcaneness, that enjoyed being set apart from the "easier", less rigorous later time periods. This exclusionary model of the field and its Chosen always bothered me, and so I determined that I'd never do work that intentionally set itself apart, that loved being by and for a self-limited audience.

Don't get me wrong: coterie-directed work can be great, and can become something much bigger (as research, for example, on Elizabethan literary coteries shows; or think of the work of the Surrealists, or Coll├Ęge de Sociologie). But my own endeavors have been based on a principle of capacious outreach. It is a principle that can be glimpsed in the tagline we use for GW MEMSI events ("GW MEMSI events are free and welcome all who would like to attend") -- and, in a bigger way, was an impetus for starting this blog. Now I know there are real limits to such a broadly imagined community; I know there will always be a circumscriptive boundary built into any work set free in the world. But some work has more inbuilt generosity than others, and I am inclined towards the pleasure of open welcome (even while I recognize that engaging with a difficult text can be extraordinarily pleasurable).

Anonymous said...

i commented anonymously last night: eileen, sorry for using the word disdain, that's not what i meant, really, and i should have been more careful with my words, you deserved better.

i meant something more like "failure to duly consider the claims/interests of," and you've addressed the point thoughtfully.

dan remein said...

tenthmedieval:

I like this question, but I disagree with the fundamental divide. No criticism can be transparent. All criticism needs criticism. This is why we have work which reads other scholarly work and closely follows its assumptions, structures, tropes, and attempts to understand how and why it works. So, criticism always has needed criticism, I think. Derrida is of course a perfect example of how this works. His work consists of readings mostly not of 'literary' but of critical and philosophical texts, and in turn his work has given rise to many readings of his own work--just as if his work were a book of poems or something (although the attitude people take with this is usually as if its stakes were higher than that of critiquing a new book of poems, as if Derrida were a 'serious' philosopher and more important to read than a new book of poems--a distinction JD worked to dismantle his whole life--that of serious/nonserious writing, literary/philosophical writing).

Anyways, I hope that makes sense. That is in part what I think the lit/crit distinction cannot be fully policed, should be made messier, and calls attention to a situation in which criticism is never transparent. I wonder if it is easier to think this if we use a frame other than 'mediation' in which lit needs to be mediated and crit is the medium. Who needs it mediated? I think moreso that literary writing gives rise to literary writing, as part of how it functions as literature, and that crit is another genre of literary writing with its own conventions etc. Or, at least that it helps this debate to realize that criticism does function as a literary form and that we are trying to think about what can happen, what is allowed to happen, within this literary form.

dan remein said...

Eileen and JJC:

I don't want to give the impression by any means that I want or prefer a small circle of old-style (as opposed to Eileen's formulation of infinitely extendable friendship intimacy) friends. I think I'm just trying to recognize what risks *might* come along with the most radical or extreme possibilities of experimentation in new critical modes--which is obviously my interest here and not everyone's--and this goes along with Eileen's observation that not everyone should have to do this, or simply, that its crazy to think that medieval studies would become something 'else.' Agreed, on all counts.

But re: audience and exclusion. I think sometimes to me a small audience sounds acceptable. Other times it does bother me, and I want a more expansive sense of where the work could go, for what it might be used, and who might read it. In fact, it can still be heartbreaking to be stuck with 'only' a 'small circle' of readers. But I think of purveyors of new critical modes, like Walter Benjamin, who remained so largely unknown during his life. Its heartbreaking. But if he had 'compromised' and wrote a book less incomprehensible than his trauerspiel book, then he never would have written that total gem of a piece of criticism. So wouldn't advocate shooting for a small circle only by any means--nor do I think, thanks to blogs etc. type medias, that we have to 'settle' for that necessarily anymore. I'm just trying to be aware of the various historical possibilities, things to be aware of as possible outcomes of taking really radical risks with the form of writing. I often think--not always, but on certain occasions--that in the last analysis more knowledge given clearly cannot be defended as a critical practice in our current world unless it challenges the reader's ability to read it, unless it exposes by dramatizing it, totalitarian regimes of thought and language and their possible alternatives. For me, my work is not about information, but about teaching and learning to read (taking reading in the most expansive way) as one of the few key capacities of human still available as potentially productive in a really messed up epoch. I'm glad you have, E and J, pointed out how if we do that we don't have to settle or expect just a small audience. But I still fear that sometimes it might be inevitable, and want to be aware of that possibility to (cynically?) guard myself from heartbreak.

shannon said...

I have been particularly interested by the call to “reflect…novelty itself” AND to consider “new affective modes” of criticism. I have been reading a lot of Elizabeth Grosz this summer so forgive me for my frequent references to her work (and for the reiteration of what is likely very familiar to you) as I think she has a lot to say on both subjects. In her most recent work: “Chaos, Territory, Art”(2008), she claims that while science, philosophy and art all address the same provocations, they do so in very different ways and result in different products. She argues that art neither represents, reflects nor reproduces, rather it *produces* and its products are affects, precepts, sensations and intensities. Philosophy on the other hand produces concepts. I am not entirely convinced by this distinction but in light of the above discussion I think such broad categorizations do offer inroads to new critical work, particularly new AFFECTIVE critical modes which would seem to be located at a place in between art and philosophy (and I have a penchant for the liminal and the creative!) thus would have the potential to produce concepts as well as affects, precepts, intensities and sensations. Truly, a mode of abundance, of excess which can be quite wonderful and can lead to something new: the “unknowable future” in Grosz’s terms:

“Time functions ‘simultaneously’ as present ad the past of that present. The future, which has no existence in the present, is generated through the untimely reactivation of the virtuality of the past which has been unactualized in the present.” (Grosz: 2005, 3)

A future-oriented medievalism would be one that would generate texts that take what they need from the inheritance of the past and move beyond them toward “an indeterminable direction, beyond planning and control in the present…beyond current comprehension and control, to becoming unrecognizable, becoming other, becoming artistic” (Grosz: 2005, 5). Dan, you have a reader right here! Write those texts and get them out there. (PS. I’d love to read your work on “Wulf and Eadwacer” if you’re willing to share it.) This is one of many possible branches that could fit under the rubric of “New Affective Critical Modes”, not all need be so experimental. But it is hardly possible to deny experiment and claim novelty.

If we are willing to learn dead languages in order to read-love works written for people long vanished then why does there seem to be such resistance to learning language anew as offered to us by our coevals? A lot of what we read in our medieval cannon has come to us by fluke or by suppressing the vast majority of voices (women in most cases, the poor). I am not suggesting that we abandon the traditional modes of scholarship or even that we chose camps as writers. Depending on the questions one is working on, one may chose a more conservative or a more experimental mode. Shouldn’t it be the questions themselves that determine the form? I’m with Eileen: many texts and approaches can cohabit the field. As one just starting out on this path, that is what I am counting on. I am firmly on the side of excess as a means to an unrecognizable future. One that may have more room for the queer, the other, the hybrid.

The wonderful thing about a textual ecology is that it need not be limited in the same sense that a biological ecology is. Granted, there are material considerations governing the production of texts and I would love someone to comment on infrastructure and funding changes needed to move forward particularly on new media projects.

Jeffery, your image of the liquidity of rock suggests magma which is the stuff of new geographies. A wonderful image for just such work!

Dan-- just read your new comments and think they're right on. Judith Butler is another good example.

tenthmedieval said...

Dan, that's quite possibly all the answer my point needs, wow.

Meanwhile, Professor Cohen, if it's any comfort your old critical modes appear to still be popular: as I was coming out of the Cambridge University Library this evening, the guy in front of me in the queue was borrowing Medieval Identity Machines and by the look of the issue slip he wasn't the first or even the twenty-first. You appear to be read in Cambridge; it may even be happening right now...

Eileen Joy said...

This conversation is really wonderful.

Dan: I did not mean to imply that I thought you were encouraging new forms of writing/scholarship that would only ever be for small, coterie-type audiences, nor do I think such an audience, when it *is* the type of audience we have, necessarily an impoverished state of affairs. In other words, I am not sure I [personally] despair over the idea that my work might only ever have a small audience, because I think we have to embrace the pleasures, also, of enjoying our work as we are literally *working* on it, before it even goes anywhere at all. Of course there are always risks, as you point out, with experimentation, but I also think that there should always be some kind of risk in our scholarship--conventional or not--in the sense that something ought to be at stake for us and this should be a something we wouldn't just shuck out the window if we thought it wasn't career-advantageous and the like. This gets to your point about what would have happened if Walter Benjamin had "compromised"--thank god he didn't. And we should remember, too, that what seems incomprehensible in one era is often beyond lucid in the next [this is what we call avant-garde, or ahead of its time, so to speak]. although sure, Gertrude Stein will *always* be hard to read [she did not, in a sense, change the way most of us read].

As to possibly [and cynically] guarding yourself against heartbreak, Dan . . . don't bother, and for the reason you already cite here: the internet, blogs, etc. have already given you a far wider readership than you might have expected ten or so years ago as a beginning PhD student, and along with other publications you already have in the works [for both traditional print journals and scholarly books but also for more unconventional and "new" scholarly and creative platforms, like "Whiskey & Fox" but also "postmedieval"], you are already *not* consigned/doomed to Benjamin's solitude. Indeed, since internet ventures such as academic blogs allow us to share so much thought and writing that is always in flux, nascent, tentative, rambling, trying to feel/make its structure and point[s] as it goes, we are in such a lucky position right now, I really believe, as regards the expansion of new scholarly textual communities, which also serve as sites for us to explore what Shannon calls here *affective* critical modes, and which I know you have also written about on your own weblog. And when we consider also the cfp for the 1-day conference on the "erotics of reception" at the University of Bristol [where C. Dinshaw will be the plenary speaker] that Suzanne Conklin Akbari pointed out for us in the comment thread to an earlier post, the time is obviously more than ripe for "serious" scholarly consideration and theoretical elaborations of what we think we mean when we talk about affective scholarly modes, or affective historiographies.

Shannon: thanks for bringing in the quotations from E. Grosz's new book, which has been sitting on my desk all summer, yet I have only just begun to peruse it.

And with Dan I have to say that I am definitely of the mind that criticism is itself a literary genre, and we might benefit from thinking about that further here. I wonder, too, if some think "scholarship" and "literary criticism" are separate entities sometimes, and in what ways, in particular, and why might the distinction matter?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

More when it is not 6 AM and I have already taken the kids to school and run and packed for a trip ... BUT I do want to second what Dan and Eileen have said: that literature is criticism (didn't Karl prove that with his post on Marie de France?), so why does criticism have to separate itself so keenly from literature?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Again, thanks to everyone who has contributed so far. The conversation has been so very productive. Irina wrote about scholarly generosity. I see a massive amount of generosity in the comments that have been so carefully composed.

Holly, thanks for sharing that personal account of encounter. It's funny, for me, too moving to the actual lapidaries was where I felt I could dig in and compose something less ethereal. I have much more work to do on the genre and am looking forward to it. And that brings me to the point that Dan and Eileen made about delight in the work itself: that pleasure needs to be included as well, since we (or at least I) sometimes write to no specific interlocutor or for an audience that cannot be imagined fully in advance. I write -- in a way -- to the works themselves. I love what I do, and feel fortunate indeed to have a life that gives me easy access to paper and pens or a laptop and the internet.

I need to write as much as I need to read and to eat.

So sometimes that futurity we've been talking about -- the new critical mode that "we do not yet know how to read" -- begins in relative solitude, in a study,or by one of the Finger Lakes, or by the sea. Unless what is being composed is a diary, writing never stays in place very long: even if the first audience is oneself, every text also has an inbuilt community (and therein an inbuilt futurity). It's just that some texts are inherently open, welcoming: they yearn for capacious interaction. Others are more difficult, even diffident: they demand more of those who want to embrace them, be changed by them. We all know, too, that it is often the texts at which we labor hardest to which we bond most intensely. Difficulty has affective power.

I believe in risking heartbreak and failure. I wouldn't want a life without those companions, and I believe that if some of the writing we attempt isn't completely miscalculated and a big embarrassing flop, we did something wrong, we played too safely. Nicola cited that great passage from Don Qixote: sometimes you leap into the mud and find an Other World on the far side. Sometimes you just get kind of messy and have to go home and shower it off.

Or take a swim in an ocean, one of the Finer Lakes, a salt bed, the Gravelly Sea.

To go back to the coterie comment: small circles of readers are sustaining. I would never argue that we should not write to those who sustain us. Sometimes such an audience is our only available survival mechanism. Such coterie work is never inherently inferior; it just takes more labor for an outsider to enter. So let's have a multitude not only of writers within each writer, but a multitude of audiences. Those who read this blog will overlap with those who read postmedieval and so on, but different genres desire different modes of writing. It's good work, I think, to attempt to be adept at as many modes as possible ... especially in the hope of doing some work that collapses the distinctions among these modes without becoming unreadable.

Cary said...

I'm sorry to arrive so late to this conversation, especially since I played a part in provoking it. A few affirmations, to start with: yes to the idea that literature and criticism need not be absolutely distinct (even as I recognize that the professional rootedness of the latter may make its compromises different from those of literature in the strict sense); yes to Eileen's desire for more beauty; yes to Dan's sense that difficulty is sometimes a good thing (and the implicit corollary of this, namely, that vigilance against impatience is perhaps one of the few forms of asceticism I can wholeheartedly endorse). I can't say any of these things better than they've already been said. I will, however, try to say a couple of them differently.

Like this: I love how modernism finds its way, again and again, into the discussion. A few years ago--or ten, or twenty--it seemed as though everyone, or nearly everyone, was busy showing how the disciplines of literary criticism owed their form (and their institutional situation) to the competing nationalisms of the nineteenth century. Now that style matters--finally, thank God--it looks like it's the twentieth century's turn. I'm intrigued by the afterlives of certain big modernist questions, and distinctions, within our critical poetics. After all, I'm always going to pick up William Carlos Williams (or Elizabeth Bishop) before T. S. Eliot; Antonia Pozzi before Eugenio Montale; and I will probably never pick up modern French poetry of any kind unless I absolutely have to. I assume that similar calculations (or merely intuitive affinities) inform the critics we read and the critics (or let's just say it: the writers) we want to be. My sentences, still frequently so long, are getting shorter with time.

These differences matter. Part of what many of you have called generosity—although it could also, and as easily, be called capacity—is the admission that something might be worth praising even when I don’t feel like praising it. There are ways of taking the world seriously that do not look so serious after all, just as there are profoundly unserious ways of looking seriously at the world. In a 1920 essay on the grotesque, Pirandello tells a beautiful story about two adjacent trees, initially bare and seemingly dead, in early March. One blooms overnight with flowers; the other blooms the next day, after a storm has torn the flowers from the first one. On closer inspection, the second tree’s blossoms turn out to be thousands of little white slugs. That slug-adorned tree seems, Pirandello admits, to be affirming something. “Fiorisco come posso”: I blossom as I’m able.

What I love about your responses so far is their commitment to flowers and slugs, to the fact of flowering. That is to say, I want to emphasize that there is, even when Dan speaks of heartbreak, something fundamentally comic, in the best and strongest sense, about the work of criticism. It’s important, for me at least, to underscore that this is not universally the case. Many of us have witnessed in our immediate professional lives (or in the stories of others) the ascent of so many bare trees at the expense of those covered in blossoms or bugs. Mediocrity pays; technocracy triumphs; so often what we see is not comic or tragic so much as merely managerial, conservative in the worst possible way: another—forgive me—Louis Vuitton bag punched out on the assembly line because someone somewhere is convinced not that these bags are beautiful but that they have value. We all work with these bags.

Which is to say: that the question of critical novelty, of the kinds of things we may be capable of saying or permitting others to say, never quite leaves behind the work of differentiation from the world of dead wood. And so I’ll end this with a sentiment stolen from Scooby-Doo, among others: this is one of the reasons why we have to stick together.