Thursday, July 10, 2003

Home from our little Kant discussion group and thinking not so much about Kant as about self-definition, which with all the "What kind of ______ are you?" quizzes floating around (and the continuing debate about self-positioning vis a vis quietude/negativity—see the very interesting and useful exchange between Jeffrey Jullich and Kasey Mohammed on lime tree) seems to be topic A this week. The Kant group is small and intimate, consisting of myself; Tracy McNulty, a Romance Studies prof. who has studied with Derrida and Lyotard; and Rob and Audrey, a couple who came here from a masters program in Florida (not sure which Florida). They are both disappointed in the fragmentation of the Cornell English Department (everyone keeps their heads down and does their own thing) and in the lack of interest among their peers in doing theory. I think most of my fellow grad students know theory, at least bits and pieces of it, but doing it is something else—the phrase that came up was that there are lots of critics and few theorists, at least among the grad students. Of course I immediately began to wonder what sort of animal was I, and I had to conclude almost immediately that I was, or will be, a critic. I wonder if I would feel Rob and Audrey's drive to do pure theory—to come up with my own original methodology—if I didn't identify primarily as a poet. Probably. The energy that might otherwise go into extensive conceptualization goes into my poetry, which shows tendencies toward becoming more conceptual but is for the most part still positivistically concerned with actual words and actual experiences and the chemical reactions they make when shoved into each other (words into words, words into experiences... colliding experiences directly seems much harder, maybe impossible).

I do get a difficult, nubbly pleasure out of reading Kant and Lyotard and Lacan and all those bad boys. Their texts are literally sublime: reason and imagination struggle to the brink of death as I read, with my capacity for abstract thought strengthened and toughened by the workout far beyond anything I would have thought possible when I was an undergraduate. And as dangerous as it might ultimately be to my sense of intellectual integrity, the principle of analogical thinking that is promoted by reading theorists alongside one another—parataxically, so to speak—is often exhilirating: how it's possible, for example, for me to overlay Lacan's notion of the pastoral over Kant's notion of the beautiful as he is read by Lyotard. And I have attempted at least one paper, which I presented at our department's grad conference this past spring, which "did" theory insofar as it was a reading of theorists like Barthes and Heidegger and Levinas with only a token gesture toward criticism (a reinterpretation of Kafka's "Before the Law") at the very end. Although really a close reading of theory still only deserves the name of criticism and cannot be compared with actual theorizing—the closest I came to doing that was in choosing to read a certain style of theoretical writing as Diasporic/nomadic, as opposed to Zionist/reterritorializing, and then finding through Levinas a glimmer of Zionism in Kafka's Diasporic "minor literature." Damn, criticism again.

But what's wrong with criticism? If I didn't feel that my most "original" work weren't destined to happen in poetry (though the "original," like "the great," is part of a value system I've come to question) then perhaps I'd be more anxious about being a reader and only a reader insofar as all my writing is about reading. (Though some of the most interesting writing I've encountered foregrounds itself as an act of reading, as I argued about Robin Caton's book a while back.) There's something really satisfying about good critical writing—Doug Mao's book takes a lot of the ideas that have been floating around in my head attached to various names (Kant, Jameson, Sartre, etc.) and applies them with wonderful concreteness (without losing a certain speculative headiness) to the work of Virginia Woolf (that's the first chapter—where I'm up to he's just quoted the same bit from Orlando that Catherine did last week). There's plenty of "original" seeing that happens in a book like this, and it has this additional value: by showing how a "creative" writer has thought and explored urgent ideas in her particular metier I realize hope for doing the same in my own work.

Still, identifying as a critic makes me feel a bit of a fuddy-dud next to hardcore theoryheads like Rob and Audrey and Tracy. I'm genuinely interested in theory, I love to read it—but there's a lingering Anglo-American skepticism about the French stuff (I'm more comfortable, it seems, with the Germans—that's the tragedy of European Jewry in a nutshell) that makes me feel, er, conservative on Kant night. It's ooky.

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