Archive for January, 2013

Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton (1996)

Are there two drearier words in English than “literary theory”? Heavens, I hope not. They strike me rather like “rainbow bleaching” and “orchid mashing”, and though film theory and the writing it inspires are often even worse, film theory doesn’t irritate or depress me a tenth as much. Film is a fatuous, trivial medium invented very recently and flourishing best in America, so it’s entirely appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians. Literature is not a fatuous or trivial medium. It’s existed for thousands of years in literally written form and far, far longer in speech and song. It is not appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians.

But even writers I greatly admire, like C.S. Lewis and Lytton Strachey, seem to become lifeless and uninspired when they turn to literary criticism. And the skeletal hand of lit-crit has only tightened its grip on the throat of literature since their day. If you closed every department of maths and physics and shot every maths and physics graduate, those subjects would be very seriously harmed and take decades to recover. If you closed every arts department and shot every arts graduate, literature and the other arts could very well undergo a new renaissance, with the great bonus that The Guardian and BBC would have to close down too. As it is, maths and physics are struggling to survive in British universities, while “study” of the arts flourishes as never before, achieving less and less with more and more self-importance.

For an example of that self-importance, try this from Terry Eagleton’s introduction:

Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different?

To see how fatuous and ignorant that question is, compare “literary studies” with mathematics. Both have existed as serious subjects for thousands of years, but while all reasonably intelligent educated adults could still understand the literary criticism of the ancient Greeks, far fewer could understand their mathematics. And mathematics, apart from the stagnation that accompanied the triumph of Christianity, has only become more difficult with every century that has passed since the ancient Greeks. Literary criticism did not become more difficult: for more than two millennia it could be read and understood by all reasonably intelligent educated adults. Unlike mathematics, it did not advance because it was tied to something that is already fully developed in human beings: the faculty of language.

Then the clouds of ink squirted by cuttlefish like Marx and Freud began to drift into “literary studies” from sociology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, and by the 1960s literary criticism had become something it had never been before: opaque and obscurantist. Compare A.E. Housman’s study of Swinburne, from the beginning of the twentieth century, with the semi-literate maunderings of countless literary critics and cultural “commentators” today. Here’s Eagleton himself about to engage with issues around “Structuralism and Semiotics”:

We left American literary criticism at the end of the Introduction in the grip of New Criticism, honing its increasingly sophisticated techniques and fighting a rearguard action against modern science and industrialism. (ch. 3, pg. 79)

How exactly does one simultaneously “hone increasingly sophisticated techniques” and “fight a rearguard action”, let alone do both while one is “in the grip” of something? The shallowness of Eagleton’s intellect and insight is apparent in the carelessness and self-contradiction of his own prose. And his is by no means the worst you can find today. Housman’s prose, by contrast, is both highly literate and highly readable, but then Housman had serious literary achievements in his own right and took no notice of metaphysics or speculative psychology. Given his prose, the “seminal” figures Eagleton discusses here are exactly the ones you’d expect: Heidegger, Lacan, Barthes, Freud, Bakhtin, Derrida, Saussure. All of them are maggots in the corpse of Christianity or Judaism, wriggling merrily in the metaphysical European tradition. You’ll look in the index of this book in vain for representatives of Anglophone empiricism like John Locke and David Hume, and Charles Darwin appears only as an example of what-literature-is-not. In short, there’s nothing solid, just glittering vapor and colored smoke, rather like a traditional Catholic mass.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Priestly religions are designed to keep priests housed and fed, which is why their claims are not tested against reality. But priestly religions can exist in disguised forms. Accordingly, as the vast parasitic cult of overt priests and theologians has declined in the West, so a vast parasitic cult of academics has risen to take its place in the humanities departments of our universities. This new cult has its own sacred scriptures, prophets, and saints. Like priests and theologians, the academics produce nothing valuable either materially or immaterially, and unlike priests and theologians they don’t inspire (or at least preside) great work by others.

And unlike the old priestly and theological cult, the modern academic cult is much more “gender-balanced”. My formula for the intellectual worth and rigor of a modern subject is simple: they’re inversely proportional to the number of women involved. True, that’s also the formula for the threat posed by a subject, because literary studies, unlike hard science, has no potential to cause very serious harm to the wider world. Fortunately, the serious harm caused by hard science will include its destruction of literary studies and the rebarbative remainder of the modern humanities. Neurology and evolutionary biology will sooner or later destroy their narcissistic obfuscations and mendacities. And unlike the scientific undermining of religion, we won’t lose anything valuable in the process.

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Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction, Andy Medhurst and Sally R. Munt (1997)

Is there anyone so spiritually dead as to fail to be overcome by a sense of almost transcendent, macro-cosmic awe when standing in the “Studies” section of a university library surrounded by hundreds of metres of shelving filled with books expensively produced from trees whose usefulness would have been infinitely greater and dignity far less insulted had they been turned into lavatory paper? I hope not. This is one of the books you might pull off those hundreds of metres of shelving. It should of course have been called Queer Studies: A Post-Critical Introduction, but the editors say in their introduction that they have difficulties around issues vis à vis this particularized discourse, or some such rubbish.

And by talking rubbish the introduction sets the stage perfectly for what is to come: pages and pages and pages of self-obsessed, semi-literate jargon and duckspeak, trivial where it isn’t meaningless and meaningless where it isn’t trivial:

Extract 1: The hybrid formations imagined by Deleuze and Guattari – not just the pre-oedipal mouth to the breast, but the pollen-seeking bee to the orchid – mean that sexual orientation has no script. There is, in a philosophy influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, no “homosexual” as such. But there is “homosexual production”, which, as Guy Hocquenghem writes, “takes place according to a mode of non-liminative horizontal relations” (Hocquenghem, 1978, pg. 95). Reading male homosexuality “against Oedipus”, as Deleuze and Guattari have taught him to do, the maverick French psychoanalyst Hocquenghem explains that the very idea of homosexual desire is meaningless: “Properly speaking, desire is no more homosexual than heterosexual. Desire exists in a multiple form, whose components are only divisible a posteriori [sic], according to how we manipulate it. Just like heterosexual desire, homosexual desire is an arbitrarily frozen frame in an unbroken and polyvocal flux.” (Hocquenghem, 1978, pg. 36)

Extract 2: In terms of the theoretical formations presently constructed against normative notions of a trans/gendered dichotomy of desire, we find Mangemerde writing (Mangemerde 1992, pg. 392) of a reconceptualized “centre” of selfhood, springing from a rhizomatic program of self re/definition. The obvious asymmetries of the “hydraulic” aspects of this proposal were challenged by Ledrosse and Pedobouche (Ledrosse and Pedobouche, 1974, pp. 456-8), who proposed that foundational aspects of queer identity be grounded instead in a centrifugal meta/narrative defined in terms of its oppositional reality…

But no, I’ve just got bored with making up that second extract. Like books – sorry, “texts” – in the rest of the studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies: A Critical Introduction is written in the stalest and most bourgeois of stale bourgeois dialects: Franco-American academese. Its only conceivable purpose is to justify the existence of Franco-American academics to other Franco-American academics and it has to be admitted that it serves that purpose well: there are many thousands of them all over the world now producing more and more of this. In fact there are computer programs able to produce it to order, but that, like all the other attempts to mock or undermine it, has merely demonstrated again its hydra-like vitality. The Emperors – and Empresses – have no clothes but snug inside their seminar rooms and queer-identity workshops they never notice.

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Front cover of Hitch-22 by Christopher HitchensHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

The true extent of Christopher Hitchens’ literary achievement is apparent only when one reflects that two of his favourite authors were Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. With those shining examples before him, he contrived for decades to produce some of the world’s most pompous and constipated prose. The caption to one photograph in this autobiography runs: “Blockading a racist hairdresser, 1968.” I won’t call that the funniest line in the book, because as far as I could discover it was the only funny line in the book. And the humour was not intentional. Racism is not, after all, a joking matter. One question occurred to me again and again as I toiled through Hitch-22 and the dull story of Hitch’s short journey from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism: what is his mother tongue? Because it certainly isn’t English. Yes, if Waugh is a swallow and Wodehouse a hummingbird, then Hitchens has all the aerial grace and acrobatic skill of the Guggenheim Museum. If you’d like to feel your synapses shrivel, read on:

Let us go, then, you and I [sic], to a dingy and rather poorly lit union hall in Haringay, North London. The time: the mid-1970s. The place: a run-down but resilient district, with a high level of Irish and other immigrant population. I am the invited speaker and the subject is Cyprus, the former British colony in the Mediterranean which has recently been attacked and invaded by both Greek and Turkish armies. Many refugees from this cruel bombardment and occupation have arrived in London to join the staunchly working-class and left-wing Cypriot community that has been here since the 1930s. My articles on the ongoing imperial crime have won me a certain audience. The brothers and sisters in Haringay aren’t easily impressed by visiting talent, and it’s unlikely that I’ll even get the taciturn treasurer of the local branch to refund my “tube” fare from downtown, but I’m used to this no-nonsense style and have even trained myself to approve of it. Before being exposed to my scintillating rhetoric, the audience will be subject to a steady series of quotidian preliminaries… (“The Fenton Factor”, pg. 137 of the Atlantic Books paperback)

Hitchens is further proof of the connexion between left-wing politics and bad prose. We aren’t in need of further proof while Noam Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould remain in print, but I can recommend this book if you’d like to see Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie brought into disrepute. Hitch retails toe-curling stories about his two most famous literary chums. The Schadenfreude truly is terrific. If Hitch’s fellow theophobe Richard Dawkins wrote as badly as Hitch does, I’d abandon all my religious doubts and join the Society of Pius V. Alas for theists everywhere, Dawkins doesn’t, but the “Argument from Hitch” should still join the five classic proofs of God’s existence. Could anyone produce prose of this quality without divine assistance? Even the most militant atheist might feel a tremor of doubt.

Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (2012)

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