There are many reasons for the current lack of consensus over who should be admitted to the pantheon of great authors. American lives in an eternal but shallow present; there is little progress, among members of the public, in the formulation of enduring opinions of any kind, especially opinions about books. The past is mostly a place where American seeks to be reassured by its nostalgia; it's not a place to exercise judgment and criticism. One year, in his State of the Union speech, the President declares we will be traveling to Mars. The next year, neither he nor the federal budget provide any mention or support for an expedition to Mars. The discontinuity goes mostly unnoticed. Last year has already disappeared. We live amid the mass-production of hyper-kinetic episodes of amnesia.So far, so elitistbut it smacks of truth. All righty. The next section, "Describe the Hive Accurately," is a nearly inspiring paean to the power, and the task, of "the accurate description of society" that Fenza deems to be the primary responsibility of the writera responsibility that both aesthetically and morally requires the deferment of the politics of the present: "We are social animals, and as such we can't help but to be political, though politics must remain subordinate to a writer's efforts to describe our society accurately. An accurate description may have political efficacy that surpasses the politics of the day." Yeah, but it's not necessarily not effective in the present, is it? So far, so quietisticbut I'm inclined to give Fenza the benefit of the doubt for his rewriting of a Yeats quotation that reads as follows: "All literature created out of a conscious political aim in the long run creates weakness by creating a habit of unthinking obedience. Literature created for its own sake, for some eternal spiritual need, can be used for politics. Dante is said to have unified Italy. The more unconscious the creation, the more powerful." There's some sense and a lot of malarkey there. Here's how Fenza follows it up:
But liberty, certainly, may be understood to be "some eternal spiritual need." I would reformulate Yeats's pronouncement slightly: The more accurate a writer's creation, the more beautifully subversive it may become. Dante's description of Florence was accurate and comprehensive; its people, its Church, its corruption, its charity, its malevolence, and its idealism are all rendered there in The Divine Comedy. It is one of the books that made the Reformation inevitable. What America is now, the Holy Roman Catholic Church was then; yet Dante put the Church in its place. Now, that's real political subversion. That's beauty and power attained through accuracy and the sonic virtues of language.There's much here that I find seductive, even though I mistrust the deferral of the present once again implied here. Plus maybe I don't fully understand it: is Fenza saying that Dante's Catholic catalogue damned what it meant to praise? It's a counter-intuitive understanding of epic, that's for sure. Still, though I'm hardly willing to endorse Yeats' "unconscious creation" (except as the kind of dodge that writers sometimes need to employ in order to preserve the autonomy of their workI screened a documentary on Susan Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog with my students on Monday and Parks played just that sort of dodgem game, claiming that the play had no particular allegorical meaningmore malarkey, but necessary at times to prevent one's own writing from being drowned by one's own overdtermining remarks), I'm taken by the notion of "liberty" as the kind of spiritual need that can drive writing without over political content toward one or more political functions. Why, it's a downright theoretical approach, which made me very surprised to read part 3, "Beware the Ichneumonids." Say what?
Ichneumonids are parasites with peculiar habits of breeding. An ichneumonid wasp, for instance, uses her ovipositor to inject her egg into the back of a caterpillar. The poor caterpillar goes off to spin a cocoon; meanwhile, the larva of the wasp devours the caterpillar from the inside out. What will emerge from the cocoon will not be the lovely flutter of colorful wings, but the rasping escape of a newborn wasp.Ichneumonid section 3 is as long as the other six sections put togetherlonger if you count the number of footnotes it produces. And who are the ichneumonids in this scenario, you may well ask? Who are the parasites injecting hapless literary caterpillars with their rasping progeny? Why, literary theorists, of course:
Since the 1970s, academe has become home to a new breed of literary specialists. Literary theorists and cultural critics will happily use a novel as fodder to feed and propagate their own kind. They inject strange new messages into stories and poems to affirm revolutionary ideasprofoundly important ideas that, nonetheless, the theorists are always erasing, obscuring, and leaving in dissassembled heaps for newer ideas. They would tell you that accuracy in writing is a naive delusion. At the expense of storytellers and poets, theorists sustain a parasitic lifestyle with baffling extremes of sophistication. Of course, many departments of English are staffed with wonderful people who work generously to keep expertise alive inn various epochs in literature's long history; many cultural critics have provided us with startling re-readings of the Bible, myths, and neglected works of literature; many have helped to open the canon to many new voices; but a few theorists have dedicated themselves and their departments to the systematic humiliation of literature.Note the unconvincing gesture toward the ecumenicalunconvincing, because if we're only talking about "a few theorists," why spend fourteen paragraphs warning the callow young graduates against their depredations? Now, it's not that Fenza's claims are entirely without accuracy: there are fashions in academe as there are in most other areas of human endeavor, and the discarding of last year's theory in favor of this year's model is no more edifying a spectacle than America's Top Model, and less colorful. But what working literary critic or theorist today seriously claims that "accuracy in writing is a naive delusion"? I've certainly been held to rigorous standards of evidence in my own scholarly writing. I'm guessing Fenza eagerly devoured David Lehman's excoriation of DeMania, Signs of the Times, but has never bothered to read any Derrida or DeMan himselfnor, what is more to the point in 2006, considered the work being done by those who have digested and critiqued DeMan as opposed to simply holding their noses. It's the last sentence that shows us where blood has been drawn: is it credible to say that "literature" is being systematically humiliated by theory? Moby Dick and company are doing just fineit's not literature, not even contemporary literature, that's being humiliated by theory, but litterateursspecifically, writers in the academy who are terrified at seeing their anti-intellectual prerogatives (established mostly I think in the 70s, in the heyday of deep image Blyviating) worn away by a new generation of writer-scholars who are as comfortable in the Adorno seminar as they are in the writing workshop. This is I think confirmed by the fourth and fifth paragraphs of Fenza's screed-within-a-speech:
Theorists perform these castigations of literary works in order to quicken the dawn of a revolution for social, political, and economic equity. If there ever was to be a revolution, however, the literary theorists have failed it. While the disparity between rich and poor in the US grew wider and more abysmal, while France and the rest of Europe created an underclass of Muslim immigrants, while the US became an empire and exported its industrial jobs to its de facto colonies, while the Christian right demonized homosexuals, while English departments grew yet more exploitative of its adjunct workerswile all this happened, the tenured class studied Wittgenstein, Marx, Foucault, hooks, Fanon, Lacan, Spivak, Lyotard, Kristeva, Poulet, Butler, and Gertrude Stein and felt subversive.Fenza's attack here fails to demonstrate how the anti-theoretical purehearted devotees of literature that represents have not also failed the revolution, if they were not in fact wholly indifferent to it; but that's not the real issue. This may look like a substantive critique, but the "Norton anthologies" line is a dead giveaway: it's precisely the seizure of cultural capital by left theorists that Fenza is choking on, not their failure to live up to their own ideals. If there's a Holy Roman Catholic Church being subverted by a writerly practice here, then Fenza is the Pope and the theorists are the Dantes, renovating and remaking the house of literature which has grown top-heavy with writer-teachers who hysterically reject not just Theory (aka French Theory, aka Antediluvian Marxism, et alc.f. the "roll of honor" that ends the first paragraph above) but theoretical reflection in general: who refuse utterly the task of reflection except in the musty vocabularies of the biographical. We can see this in Fenza's fantasy about putting criticismnote his use of that word here rather than "theorists," it shows his handback in its place: "My little survey of literary politics here is only the view of a solitary reader, who believes an author's work should be of primary value, while criticism remains of third or fourth importance, after textual scholarship that seeks to preserve the author's best intentions, and after biographical and historical scholarship that animates an author's life, influences, times, and sensibility." Yes, it's definitely literary politics that most preoccupy Fenza herewhatever's legitimate in his criticisms of the theoretical left (pun intended) is obscured by the mounting hysteria of a man whose hegemonic cultural position is slippingmay have already slippedinto the residual rear-guard. Check out the William F. Buckley-ish locutions that take possession of Fenza's speech a little later in the same paragraph, when he starts addressing the most dangerous traitors to literature of all: "The Language poets would argue that theory, criticism, and poems all complement one another in an endlessly efflorescent and pomiferous symbiosis (and [sic] ecology that, to me, resembles the horror of a never-ending seminar in a PhD program that aims to incarcerate poetry in academentia forever." Phew! "Pomiferous" is actually kind of a neat word: it means "bearing pomes," and what are poems, according to Dictionary.com? "A fleshy fruit, such as an apple, pear, or quince, having several seed chambers and an outer fleshy part largely derived from the hypanthium. Also called false fruit." But honestly, I don't know what to make of this combination of ten-dollar words and blatant anti-intellectualism, especially from a man who's the executive director of an academic organization. I can only conclude that Fenza feels directly and personally threatened by this newfangled "ecology" of theory-criticism-poetry that is actually at least as old as Pope's Essay on Criticism:
While intellectuals of the right engineered the conservative control of the House, Senate, White House, federal budget, tax codes, state courts, federal courts, news media, public opinion, and a few foreign nations, intellectuals of the left seized the Norton anthologies. Never before in the history of liberalism have so many words been spilled to accomplish so little.
A few of the Language poets and critics, such as Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, ooze with condescension, unless you talk their kind of theory-infused talk, which, of course, must interrogate the whole notion of talk and problematize the materiality of the text, as our lingua franca has been tainted by the commodifications of consumerismfrancs, marks, yen, and dollarsdevalued by capitalism, clouded over by the hormonal brainstorms of gender, and trivialized by "official verse culture," or any other culture that has not yet been disassembled by Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, and their peers, who will point out that "talking turkey" betrays the compromised origins of American vernacular as it was crushed under Plymouth Rock and then served up by the Puritans for subsequent Thanksgiving dinners (please pass the cranberry bog) because poetry may not aspire towards simple represenation or a puritanical accuracy of depiction, poetry must not be a productno, no, nobut a PROCESS, liberated by the upheavals of its perpetual making and re-making and by the exhaustive extrapolations of trained specialists with PhDs in "radical" poetics.Poets with PhDs! The sky is falling! Seriously, this is embarrassing: as a parody of the positions taken by Perloff and Bernstein it is woefully, utterly inaccurate (the man can't even grasp that the franc and mark have gone the way of the dodo). At least he cops to his own Puritanical leanings: to paraphrase the famous definition, Fenza is someone who is desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time thinking about writing. It's downright weird to lump Bernstein and Perloff together the way Fenza has done here, especially if he's as exercised as he claims to be about the ineffectiveness of the theoretical left (Perloff's politics are center-right, as closely as I can determine them; Bernstein's a Marxist but probably more Groucho than Karl), and then to attack them for launching "a critique that would throw a sack over each of the heads of so many authors to make them indistinguishable from one another in group denigration." Uh, pot? The kettle wants its black back. Anyway, it becomes clear once again that what really works Fenza into a lather is the academic success of Language poets and theorists and all their fellow travelers: "The Language poets have established a current of poetry that is now one of the main currents in the pluralism of American poetries, although the Language poets wear their badges of martyrdom, misrepresentation, outsider status, rebellion, and bleeding hearts (for bravery in the French campaigns) more ostentatiously than most poets." You mean they're whiners, D.W.? Fenza then grudgingly concedes that "Many theorists and postmodernist poets have opened possibilities for literature; they have elevated readers to the status of co-collaboration with authors. A few theorists have, by a few small increments, facilitated the great social changes of our time. They have made a new kind of beauty and its appreciation possible" Sorry, Mr. Fenza, but your ass is not covered: you've been tossing around the phrase "a few theorists" and "a few Language poets" for pages now without naming any names except for Bernstein and Perloff, and there you showed yourself to be woefully ignorant of what it is these writers actually have to say. (I would have been more persuaded, actually, by the denigration-of-a-group accusation if instead of Bernstein's name he had written Ron Silliman.) Why should we believe you now that you're suddenly willing to concede that some of these good-for-nothing theorists have in fact delivered on the social potential of their work? No, you'd better just put the broken record back on: "But other theorists and a few postcoherent poets stand among the greatest pretenders, hypocrites, and ineffectual advocates of liberalism, the humane virtues of literature, and aesthetic renewal. They have abused books and authors. They have tortured our poor mother tongue. And perhaps their abuse has contributed to the decline of the English major and audiences for literature." Poor Mother English! How WILL she survive those nasty poets and theorists and their language gamesbut it seems to me the real torture, of English and human beings, comes from the mouths of politicians and not from the academics who criticize hegemonic ways of speech (I am tempted here to call Fenza's generalized calumny an "extraordinary rendition" of the literary scene). The one claim we might take seriously comes in the final sentence, which is footnoted with a claim that the number of English majors has fallen "from 7% in the 1970s to slightly less that [sic] 4% today," and that "The decline of the English major coincides with the ascendancy of literary theory as well as higher education's growing specialization in vocational training for politics, law, public administration, communications, business, engineering, etc." This sounds a little like the kind of theorizing about the role of socioeconomic forces in the cultural field that you'd expect Fenza to be leery of, but in any case if you think about it for ten seconds you can't blame theory (much less "a few postcoherent poets") for the tendency of late capitalism to push its labor force toward ever-more refined modes of specialization. Which suggests that the crisis in reading leads us directly back to the crisis in our workplaces, our voting booths, our familiesthe continuum the postcoherent recognize as constituting our aesthetic, quotidian, and political life. But I forgot: only "a few theorists have, by a few small increments, facilitated the great social changes of our time." Gosh, that DOES sound badthat's nothing I'd ever want to be a part of.
I don't think Pope Fenza will be launching any Counter-Reformations with this speech, nor will the other six parts of his advice (brief and exhausted exhortations for new MFAs to write reviews and essays, write a little each day, cultivate a sense of wonder, leave enough space between projects, read dead writers, and break away from the community of the MFA program [this last implying the rejection of literary community as such in favor of "your own separate enterprise"community is for sissies, I mean for students]). But I do worry that this kind of thing will reinforce the estrangement of writers and intellectuals in the academy (the target audience of this strangely anti-academic speech). Not every writer need read literary theory or Language poetry; not every writer should or can be an intellectual. But to come down this hard, before a relatively young audience, on the frutiful cross-pollination of writing and theory in the academy will I think only contribute further to the decline of the prestige of the MFA degree as providing insufficient training in the habits of critical reflection that a university ought to demand from its faculty. We don't necessarily need more poets with PhDs, though I for one welcome the proliferation of such (and maybe that's what's got Fenza mad at Perloff: though the subtitle of a 1999 article she wrote in Boston Review suggests that they ought to be natural allies, calling as it does to put the literature back in literary studies, it also suggests that the academic future belongs to poets with PhDsnot because we're soldiers for theory but because we tend to be literary scholars with a real interest in literature). But we do need MFA students, and MFA programs, that don't take pride in know-nothingism, and who are willing to stretch their comfort zones, and who criticize what needs criticizing from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance and fear of the new.