centers of gravity

a review of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC

The basic idea behind Harbach’s essay – and of the book after which it is named – is that American fiction now has ‘two centers of gravity: “MFA”, which is dispersed throughout our university towns, and “NYC”, which hews close to Manhattan’s trade publishing industry’. The collection takes stock of this split from the standpoints of various actors – authors, teachers, and other links in writing’s supply chain. And while it sometimes slips into banal self-involvement (e.g., bourgeois Brooklynites exaggerating their money worries) it also achieves, at a composite level, both a distinctive documentary value and a degree of critical reflexivity. Nor does the book reify its ‘two cultures’ into entirely separate spheres. Instead, several essays illustrate how ‘writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds’, blurring both their cultures and their economies (note, for instance, that NYC agents routinely ‘scout’ MFA cohorts, and MFA teachers get jobs on the back of book deals). While these articles are always partial, perhaps the volume surpasses the sum of its parts: cover to cover, MFA vs NYC implicitly demonstrates the inadequacies of divisive thinking.

read the rest in Critical Quarterly, 57:1

loving literature

a review of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History


Sometimes it’s expressed; sometimes it’s repressed: either way, emotion is deeply embedded in literary criticism. As I. A. Richards reflected in 1929, critics are constantly torn between instinctive “feelings” and standardized “doctrines” – between “deciding we are too hot or too cold” and “hanging up a thermometer”. Our thermometers have grown increasingly technical since Richards’s day, augmented both by the post-1960s “theory” boom, and by newer developments in brain science and big data. But even when we aspire to scientific dispassion, it is widely assumed that we do what we do because, at bottom, we simply “love literature”. Why else would we do it? Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature provides a fascinating history of this presupposition. Lynch begins by clearing away the old cliché that literary scholars are cold-bloodedly loveless – the image, to quote Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society, of “armies of academics measuring poetry” without allowing it into their hearts. Instead, Lynch observes, an English professor’s emotional life “is supposed to slop over onto her job; it’s all in a day’s work when it does.” In this sense, literary studies is an “oddly intimate profession”, whose practitioners are routinely expected to love their work – and, indeed, to transmit that love to their students. Lynch’s book excavates this expectation, uncovering its historical origins. At the same time, she emphasizes that love isn’t always a healthy emotion. As she points out, those who love literature sometimes forget “what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities”. With novels and poems, much like with people, love can be confusing and painful.

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 March 2015

an imagining of an image

the second of my yearly essays on contemporary theory

‘Theory on theory’ is not in itself a project or program. Rather, work in this register represents something less explicitly thematised, yet more pervasive—call it an attitude, or a preoccupation. The seemingly vague psychologism of such terms may be the very source of their value: as John Guillory has observed, the notion of so-called ‘theory’ (understood as a singular noun) belongs less to the determinate reality of theoretical schools and approaches than to ‘the pedagogical imaginary’. When we commonly talk about, say, the ‘theory wars’, or about being for or against (or nowadays ‘after’) something called ‘theory’, we are playing a distinctive kind of language-game—one in which the word ‘theory’ points at an aspect of academia’s psychic life; its tacit self-understanding. As an umbrella term, ‘theory’ resembles what the intellectual historian Peter Gordon calls a ‘normative image’—an implicit mental picture, which constitutes ‘a precondition for concept-formation, although it is not in itself conceptual in form’. Later on, I will look more closely at these non-conceptual and ‘imaginary’ qualities that inhere in our ideas about theory. For now, I will simply note the curious sense in which ‘theory on theory’ connotes an orientation toward an orientation; an imagining of an image.

read the rest in The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

patterns of anticipation

a review of Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel

The novel’s knowledge of the connection between the seen and the unseen—between what O’Connor calls “the concrete world” and its invisible outside or underside—is best captured by a description of classical statues. “Their gaze was collective,” Unrue writes, “trained upon a destination too distant, formless, timeless for the living person even to envisage.” The passage recalls both the disturbingly “eyeless” taxi driver who transports the narrator to the couple’s estate, and her encounter with a portrait whose “eyes appeared to gaze into the eyes of someone something just behind the painter.” Each of these sights could be said to express what she calls “patterns of anticipation”—where anticipation, much like desire, is largely defined by the absence of information. Of course, describing this absence gets us no closer to an account of what Unrue’s mysterious book is “about.” But maybe it helps us to formulate what it feels like to read it. So, here goes: reading Love Hotel feels like tracing someone’s gaze as they stare at something you can’t see. Or like feeling someone or something moving behind you, and turning to find nothing there. That tracing, that turning, that feeling marks the way art draws us into its mystery: the clocks stop, the world falls away, and suddenly, somehow, something appears.

read the review in The Brooklyn Rail

parallels and recurrences

a review of Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism

Pressman’s historical picture is one of subtle parallels and recurrences, rather than dramatic ruptures. This nuanced approach yields numerous insights. Most notably, it helps to deflate the rhetoric of division that has often dominated both academic and public discussions of the digital. As Pressman argues, such debates have been beset by a simplistic tendency to “see difference wherever there’s digitality”, whether in the case of doom-mongering declarations of the death of print (her preferred example is Robert Coover’s 1992 article “The End of Books,” but there are many more) or overstatements of the radical “newness” of new technologies. In this regard, her reading of Ulysses is especially suggestive. Building on Hugh Kenner’s earlier observations, Pressman posits the novel’s “Ithaca” section as a pre-digital instance of a “database aesthetic”. In so doing, she develops a deft critique of the idea that “narrative and database” are necessarily separate entities. As she reminds us, questions about “the relationship between interpretation and information, between reading and data” are among the most pressing issues facing “the humanities in a digital age”.

read the review in Modernism/Modernity

vanishing acts

a review of Cathy Caruth’s Literature in the Ashes of History

Trauma conveys a kind of philosophical force: it puts pressure on the epistemological status—and the evidential value—of recollected and recounted memories. Crucially, for Caruth this pressure is not only epistemological; it is also necessarily ethical. This is because trauma cuts across the personal and the historical. Indeed, Caruth contends that trauma is “not so much a symptom of the unconscious as a symptom of history,” such that “the traumatized carry an impossible history within them.” For her, it follows that this “impossible” quality must be preserved—particularly if we wish to bear “witness” to the histories that our traumas transmit. It is easy to see this idea’s deconstructive colouring. Recalling Derrida’s similar style of ethical thought, Caruth argues that trauma’s aporia ought to be retained; that impossible histories call for appropriately unresolved types of testimony. In short, if we are ever to take stock of trauma, we must remain faithful to its “affront to understanding.”

read the review in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 Nov 2014

metamorphosis of colours

a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days

In Erpenbeck’s world, everything is connected. Stylistically, this is conveyed through tiny parallels and repetitions—elusive leitmotifs that echo across the protagonist’s alternate lives. Indeed, the book’s basic theme of birth and death indirectly recurs in the minutiae of its imagery. In this way, Erpenbeck deploys the smallest details to recapitulate her ideas. One character considers how the bruises on corpses “change colour in the coffin,” and speculates that “this metamorphosis of colours” might stand in for “the sorts of development of which the person was no longer capable”—the other lives they might have lived.

read the review in The Literary Review, November 2014