A Quick Note on Critique

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Academia can be tough to crack. Too frequently, faded ideas are articulated in fading tones that reverberate off only slightly-less faded classroom walls, stacked atop each other in austere buildings that resemble psychiatric hospitals. Some campuses, like my town’s Windward Community College, actually are converted asylums, proving that you can have your metaphor and critique it, too.

It was within such an environment that I overheard the following conversation between two graduate students, recently, neither of whom, I assume, is in a satisfying relationship:

“You’re wrong. You’re totally wrong,” said the first graduate student, examining his colleague’s abstract.

“No, I’m just taking a different approach,” countered the second student.

“Yes, you are. You clearly haven’t read Patton’s take on political deterritorialization, which contravenes your thesis,” argued grad uno, growing agitated.

“No, I haven’t, but that’s not relevant to my point,” said grad dos. “If you want to argue against me, fine, but that doesn’t devalue the validity of what I’ve said based on the line of thinking I cite.”

“Your line of thinking discounts Paul Patton. You can’t cite someone out of context.”

“I’m citing Deleuze, not Patton, and I can do the former without having read the latter.”

“Yes, you absolutely do need to be familiar with the relevant secondary literature before formulating an argument in that vein.”

“I don’t even need to familiar with all of Deleuze’s own works, if what I am familiar with helps me think through the problem I’m working on.”

“But that could lead to a complete bastardization of his thought,” shouted the initial objector, slamming the abstract on the table where he and his classmate were sitting.

“The only bastard here is you,” his classmate screamed back, before storming off toward a nearby parking lot, leaving behind both his abstract and peace of mind.

#MeToo?

While the preceding tiff may be childish, it’s not uncommon in higher education circles, where a premium is placed on original scholarship. And by “original,” I mean textually dependent. By emphasizing the semiotic structure of scholarly discourse–a structure reaffirmed through the almost entirely textual medium of peer reviewed scholarship–the pressure to publish reduces ideation to pseudo-intellectual vexation, an endless cleansing of analytical stains from prior signification. Accordingly, genuine exchanges often devolve into disingenuous, disruptive disputes about perceptions of expertise, whereby one party is said to be “inexpert” because of a lack of familiarity with a specific specialization or subsection of an author’s work. Not only do such disagreements reify disciplinary parameters that arrest investigations of coevally constituted knowledge formations, they partition critique into compartmentalized fragments, ensuring that reality remains an inaccessible fiction beyond the boundaries of book deals.

In other words, thanks to the textualization of the ivory-tower, problematization is only permissible if and when epistemological claims are exhaustive, which they can never be. And we wonder why professors are so easily programmed to accept indentured servitude.

Here’s an academic resolution for 2018: let’s couple our critiques with corresponding efforts to build a more just and equal world.

A Novel Resolution

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One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2018 is to read at least one candidate for the title of “Great American Novel” (GAN) each week. I recognize, of course, that the notion of “the”–a single, distinct, totalizing–Great American Novel is an impossibility. Americans are too disparate and difference-inducing to be subsumed within a single text. Nonetheless, novels can speak to elements of the American experience in ways to which many Americans can relate. Novels, too, like all great art, can capture the events and moods of a moment, shaping our dreams and inviting us to reexamine our social condition. Laurence Buell, author of The Dream of the Great American Novel, argues that GANs follow four scripts:

One, illustrated by The Scarlet Letter, is the adaptation of the novel’s story-line by later writers, often in ways that are contrary to the original author’s own design. Other aspirants, including The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man, engage the American Dream of remarkable transformation from humble origins. A third script, seen in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved, is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions. Finally, mega-novels from Moby-Dick to Gravity’s Rainbow feature assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.

While I’m not sure that I agree with Buell’s typology or even that GAN prospects can be so neatly categorized, I’ve come up with a reading list for 2015 that includes many of Buell’s suggestions. Newer works are also included, since canon ≠ GAN. I’ve managed to select a novel for every decade from 1850 to the 2010s, making this one of the more temporally representative GAN lists you’re likely to find. Here’s hoping the depth of the narratives matches the breadth of the books I’ve chosen. What do you think of the idea of the GAN? Am I missing a novel that you feel encapsulates America, or aspects thereof, in a way that shouldn’t be missed?

GAN Books

1. Moby Dick – Herman Melville (1851)
2. Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain (1885)
3. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
4. American Pastoral – Philip Roth (1997)
5. Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner (1929)
6. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen (2010)
7. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen (2001)
8. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1960)
9. On the Road – Jack Kerouac (1957)
10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey (1962)
11. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2004)
12. A Thousand Acres – Jane Smiley (1991)
13. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)
14. Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)
15. The Scarlett Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
16. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (1939)
17. Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann (2009)
18. Rabbit, Run – John Updike (1960)
19. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
20. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
21. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon (1973)
22. Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)
23. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (1996)
24. Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon (1997)
25. Light In August – William Faulkner (1932)
26. Underworld – Don Delillo (1997)
27. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (2000)
28. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy (1985)
29. Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (1951)
30. J R – William Gaddis (1975)
31. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry (1985)
32. Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow (1953)
33. Absalom, Absalom – William Faulkner (1936)
34. Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell (1936)
35. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller (1961)
36. Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson (2007)
37. Humboldt’s Gift – Saul Bellow (1975)
38. Them – Joyce Carol Oates (1969)
39. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)
40. Empire Falls – Richard Russo (2001)
41. A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (2010)
42. Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien (1978)
43. The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane (1895)
44. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote (1966)
45. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (1868)
46. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton (1905)
47. My Antonia – Willa Cather (1918)
48. Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser (1905)
49. Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko (1977)
50. The Round House – Louise Erdrich (2012)
51. Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich (1984/2009)
52. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

GAN Books – 25 More (If Time Permits)

1. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole (1980)
2. The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1985)
3. USA – John Dos Passos (1930-1936)
4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz (2007)
5. Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971)
6. Rabbit Is Rich – John Updike (1981)
7. Continental Drift – Russell Banks (1985)
8. Independence Day – Richard Ford (1995)
9. The Known World – Edward P. Jones (2003)
10. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (2013)
11. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout (2008)
12. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
13. Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (2012)
14. The Echo Maker – Richard Powers (2006)
15. All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy (1992)
16. The Counterlife – Philip Roth (1986)
17. Rabbit at Rest – John Updike (1990)
18. An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser (1925)
19. Main Street – Sinclair Lewis (1920)
20. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain (2012)
21. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
22. Bluebeard – Kurt Vonnegut (1987)
23. Swamplandia – Karen Russell (2011)
24. The Human Stain – Philip Roth (2000)
25. Sabbath’s Theater – Philip Roth (1995)