Jan 15, 2010

Notes in American Studies

Note Book Monsters: Ralph
Note Book Monster

1. In Ralph Ellison's short stories, Flying Home, the characters all have a narrative they can appeal to. It's a narrative about being black. Something about being black in American. When the characters are young, they feel the edges of it, hear it and start to assimilate it, and when they're older it's there and they can use it, make recourse to it. It explains something -- even when it doesn't quite, when it's only very awkwardly applicable. But whenever the characters are confronted by confusion and their own powerlessness, by the world's hostility, they have this narrative. One of the peculiarities of white American experience in the 20th century, particularly with poor whites and with those were shocked to discover their disempowerment, has been the lack of any natural narrative to appeal to. Marxism might make sense here, but there's an inoculation against it. This gives rise, I think, to a fleet of unnatural narratives, strange and unsettled stories of conspiracy, populism, and lot of different, ill-formed end times meta-narratives.

2. Look at the worlds we construct. In David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, in the very last story, there's a couple of characters who are very lower class and very Midwestern. They are also a joke and kind of a crass one -- the kind of joke that gets titters, not laughs. What was interesting about this, though, is that it was the first time any characters didn't have a college degree, didn't have careers, weren't white, upper class professionals. The book is brilliant, and Wallace is great, but it strikes me as very strange that this world, Wallace's world of Oblivion, has no garbage men, no tow truck drivers, no cops or yard guys. It does have a lot of people in therapy. It does have a lot of people who are good at math and/or some type of high-level analysis. There's nothing wrong with this -- this is Wallace's world -- but it's still worth noting and there are, I think oddly, an awful lot of white-collar-only worlds in literature. How many working men are there in Updike, Roth, Bellow? In Jonathan Franzen's The Twenty-Seventh City, which I'm reading right now, there's a minor character from the lower classes who kind of infringes on the narrative. He's an old high school friend who works at Sears. I'm not really sure what he's doing in the story, and he's not described very well. One character says, "I thought he'd fallen by the wayside." The limitations of worlds are not always about class, either. No one in Raymond Carver's stories ever seems to go to church. Think about that: no one.

3. When I hear Hegel thought Napoleon was the manifestation of the ideal, or something like that, that he adored him and went, breathlessly, to see him, I think that's odd and wonder why he thought that. When I hear Adorno disliked jazz and thought it was an example of everything he didn't like in music, I automatically distrust everything else he says. I can't really explain the difference in my reactions.

4. There seems to me to be a change in how literary theories are evaluated. In how their worth is measured. As we're going through the class I notice that some literary theories stand out as interesting to me -- some Marxisms, some structuralisms, some parts of work of Russian Formalists -- but that I find them interesting for very different reasons than they themselves would hold as the standard for measuring the accomplishment of a theory. Up until a certain point every theory, conservative or radical, sets for itself a standard of comprehensiveness. The idea is that, like a scientific theory, it should explain everything, account for everything, and give a complete answer. Each of the theories want this sense of finality, as if they would end the need to read literature. Once we get to post-structuralism, though, the value shifts from finality to fecundity. A theory that valued finality would attempt to take in and read very broadly in order to bring everything into it's oneness, it's conclusion, where a theory with the ideal of fecundity would accept a breadth, be interested in that width and range, and delight in that multiplicity, that diversity. A good theory, now, is one that opens up a multitude of readings, leads to more and interesting interpretations. This makes theory worthwhile. It is, for me, even retroactively, even obliquely, interestedness that makes a theory interesting.

5. There are two serious criticisms of deconstructionism1. First, obscruantism, that all the ways of talking, all the jargon and phrases and everything are a deliberate darkening, a dumb game of making things harder to make deconstructionists seem smarter. Second, supervenient reading, so that all deconstruction does is reduce everything into deconstructionism, so every reading turns every text into a plot that is always about deconstructionism, and every text repeats the point again. Both of these are definitely true in cases. I can't figure out, though, why it would be necessarily true. The critiques seem to be about how it is practiced, not about the practice itself.


1An ever-present, not-serious critique being the boogeyman "nihilism." One, this seems to only come out of misunderstanding of the idea, the sort of misunderstanding that usually involves not having read any primary material. Two, nihilism is poorly defined, and acts more as a phobia. When it is defined, the definition is normally equal to not believing in some particular idea, which is not, in fact, a meaningful definition. I'm not sure what they think they're talking about actually exists. Third, the only time I've ever seen nihilism (as characterized by those who abhor it (possible different characterization: the nihilism of speculative realism?)) embraced, has been by people who came out of those anti-nihilist groups and accepted the idea that nihilism was the only alternative to whatever it was they believed before.