Friday, January 20, 2012

How the Schools are Killing CREATIVITY!!!

(With apologies to Sir Ken Robinson, who shall not be referred to again in this piece)

It seems that Philip Hensher, one of those literary butterflies who seem to get an awful lot of press work without ever demonstrating a tremendous capacity for critical insight, has provoked what Private Eye might call a 'stir' with this rather scathing (and unpleasantly personal) review of the new UEA anthology. As assessments go, it's very much in the Christopher Hitchens tradition of using its subject predominantly as the occasion for a discussion of something to which it is linked only tenuously; this 'something', according to Giles Foden, is propelled by Hensher's bitterness over his failure to secure a chair in Creative Writing at UEA. Funnily enough, the review failed to mention this.

I spent a year as a faculty member in UEA's School of Literature and Creative Writing, and I suspect my suspicions about the merits of CW as a discipline were fairly obvious. During my interview for that position, I discussed what I saw as an increasing division between the critical and creative missions within the School, and argued that CW students and staff were endowed with a glamour that risked making the traditional activities of a Literature department look like donkey work. One of the main drawbacks of the proliferation of CW courses in UK universities has been to occlude the fact that criticism is in itself a creative discipline which draws on the same faculties of linguistic deftness and associative confidence that a poet or novelist requires to be successful. Indeed, coming to the work of close-readers like Christine Brooke-Rose, J. Hillis Miller, Maud Ellmann, or Margery Perloff (not to mention the scalpel-sharp analyses of poet-critics like J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland) is frequently more invigoratingly unsettling than going over the latest collection by a Bridport Prize hopeful whose verse allegedly 'reveals the magic of the everyday', or one more post-Sebaldian traipse through English marginalia.

The latter-day lionisation of creative practice as an academic discipline is also ideologically inflected in ways which strike me as not particularly subtle. By driving a wedge between 'criticism' and 'creativity', the academy implies that the critical thinker somehow lacks creative flair. In an age where every TV commercial seems to want to liberate our inner Picasso, and in which the inability to do that is portrayed as an ultimately limiting sense of self-doubt brought on by the critical superego (equated in Big Society's cultural logic, of course, with the alleged paternalism of big government), to 'lack creativity' is to suffer stigmatisation. What would be genuinely empowering, I think, would be a kind of left-Reithian approach to the teaching of literature which demanded that a large volume of reading be undertaken in order to bequeath a sturdy knowledge base from which further creative or critical (I'll repeat: the distinction isn't mine) projects could embark. Instead, there's an implicit message that degree courses which place a heavy emphasis on the creative can be flown through with only the briefest of dalliances with an extant body of work. The message of CW, on at least one level, is 'because you're worth it': there's a pandering to neoliberal subjectivity which nurtures a fantasy of the 'individual' whose experiences deserve to be expressed because they are more significant than social, collective experience. Personal experience is divorced from a social epistemology: I think György Lukács was wrong in his assessment of modernism, but his claims about its asociality could be transposed correctly for a study of the ideology of CW. (What I'm trying to say about the contemporary love of creativity is perhaps better expressed by Mark Fisher in this essay on psychotherapy.)

Returning to Hensher, then, I think his opening points make room for a broader discussion of the usefulness of CW courses in general, but don't pursue that path. UEA has, historically, probably done more than its competitors to ensure that transactions between the critical and creative maintain a certain fluidity - hence Angela Carter, Lorna Sage, Sebald, Vic Sage and a litany of others - and it seems to me that extra-institutional pressures are the predominant explanation for the increasing separation of the disciplines there. These forces have been generated by the determination of competing institutions to chase the quick buck with more straightforwardly 'creative' courses, something which Hensher clearly has no intention of acknowledging. What might have been an opportunity to have a serious conversation about the role of the market in undermining both components of the type of literary education being talked about is lost amidst snide claims about the merits of individual writers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rupert Thomson - Divided Kingdom (Pt 1)

I first read Thomson two years ago, when I finally picked up the copy of The Insult I bought on an Amazon recommendation while purchasing some Chris Paling novels right at the beginning of my PhD. Along with Paling, he's a novelist about whom I've been meaning to set down some thoughts about for some time, but never quite got round to it. Having just completed Divided Kingdom, now seems as good a time as any, although I'm still nowhere near sure that what I have to say is particularly coherent.

Although Divided Kingdom's plot isn't particularly relevant to what interests me about it, which connects with these ideas about Adorno, Kafka, and Sara Kane, it's worth sketching in brief. In response to Britain's becoming 'a troubled place [...] obsessed with acquisition and celebrity [...] defined by envy, misery and greed', the government have implemented a 'rearrangement' in which the nation is quartered into red, yellow, blue, and green zones. These regions are populated according to temperament, with citizens of the old state being categorised after psychological assessment as choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, or sanguine. Thomson's narrator is removed from home as a young child and packed off for a new life in the red quarter, the peaceful and unquestioning realm of the sanguine. On becoming an adult, he begins to work for a government agency involved in reclassifying and transporting problem cases. After crossing into the phlegmatic blue quarter for a conference, he finds his way into a mysterious nightclub in which he finds he is capable of recalling his childhood prior to the reorganisation: the experiences he has in this place cause him to embark upon a quest around the four sectors, pursued by secret police, in which he attempts to assert his right to live outside the absurd classificatory system.

Critics attempting to pin down Thomson's weird, roving, oneiric prose latch upon all kinds of comparisons. There are elements of Nabokov in his ability to load sentences with intimations of an imminent, yet indiscernible, disaster; his scrupulously-drawn characters have shades of Dickens (and perhaps Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys) about them; there are marked traces of Chandler, Kafka, Ballard, and perhaps Swift. To an already heady and incongruous-seeming mix, I'd add that his narrative structures, in which individuals are deprived of social reassurances as they range desperately across wide geographic canvases, recall William Godwin's Caleb Williams, as well as the late-thirties political allegories of Rex Warner and Ruthven Todd. His contemporaries, for my money, would be Paling and, at a push, China Miéville, although his novels don't seem quite as committed to the logic of low fantasy as those of the latter.

It's not hard to make it through one of Thomson's novels, either. 'Compelling' is a word used frequently when he's under review, and one doesn't struggle to untangle his language, which is never anything but lucid. Nicholas Royle - I presume the novelist and critic, rather than the critic and novelist, although I'm happy to be corrected on this - summed up Divided Kingdom's accessibility (there's no other word for it) in an Independent review which also attempted to get at what its apparently allegorical element was trying to communicate:

On one level, Divided Kingdom is a fabulous romp, an epic adventure story of flight and threat, fear and wonder, shipwrecks, espionage and breathless chase-scenes. On another it's a meditation on what it means to cross borders, to be alien, to seek asylum. It's a sly recasting of the nature versus nurture debate and a compelling account of personal development, of an individual's search for his own true temperament and identity.

I don't necessarily have an issue with any of these claims: on some level, the novel is a simultaneously existential and political investigation of how one becomes and maintains a 'self'. Yet I feel that, in his attempt to translate allegorical content which is ultimately as accessible as the swashbuckling story which encodes it, Royle fails to demonstrate what the real challenge of Divided Kingdom, and indeed of everything I know of Thomson's work, is. The problem isn't to elucidate a meaning, but to describe an effect, to discuss what it is in the writing that, as Adorno said of Kafka's manipulation of toponyms, makes one 'shudder'. Like Warner and Todd, allegorists whose message was overwhelmingly clear, there's a surplus which doesn't seem to dovetail with any of the political or spiritual claims dispensed by the metaphorical structure, and this excess sets off a thrilling form of discomfort.

Everyone who was read to as a child is familiar with this feeling, and it often occurs to me that a desire to maintain it is what sets a certain kind of reader off along a trajectory which leads to (amongst others) Kafka, Beckett, Blanchot, and the nouveau roman. It's the experience one has when fiction peels away radically from the real world (or the world of literary realism) yet exerts a demand which prevents one from committing to a project of escapism. The ontological disjointedness suggests the legitimation of a demarcated fantasy world, a safe space in which postulations about truth and identity can be explored to their outer limits; the fact that the relentless rule-switching occurs, however, undermines one's sense of security because its refutation of real-world logic is imposed from the empirical world. Lewis Carroll's fiction, which, like Thomson's, sloughs off allegorical interpretation by dint of its excess of apparently translatable material, is exemplary of what I'm talking about here. I'll quote - experimentally - from Eric Rabkin's The Fantastic in Literature, if only to nominate a critic who I think is interested in emphasising the (perhaps embodied) experience and immediacy of reading over the intellectual activity of deciphering:

The fantastic is a direct reversal of ground rules, and therefore is in part determined by those ground rules. The truly irrelevant has nothing to do with ground rules, and therefore can no more be fantastic than it can be realistic. One may define the fantastic in part as 'conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination' only so long as we remember that all imaginations are restrained at least by the perspectives necessary to create a work of narrative art.
I need to go back to Rabkin to ascertain what he means by the 'truly irrelevant', but it's a term that lends itself to appropriation in this case. Thomson's writing is absolutely packed with events that gild themselves with the trappings of significance and yet are in no way recuperated into the narrative's structures of meaning. One way of describing this involves a bastardisation of Freud's notion of overdetermination, in which the proliferation of possible ideational content 'behind' or 'underneath' an image threatens to obliterate its capacity to signify. Another might be to say that the accumulation of the non-recuperable persists until it becomes structure, determined negatively.

This explanation works for Kafka and Beckett, and perhaps even for Harold Pinter, but when applied to writers who have something to say, either on a psychosocial level (like Henry Green, or Thomson) or a political one (like Warner, Todd, and Thomson again) it seems somewhat jarring. Why arrange an abyss which replicates in negative the coordinates of a determinate argument? Why undercut (what appears to be) a conviction with doubt? My sense for some time has been that Warner and Todd didn't do this on purpose: it was simply a happy accident that they lacked sufficient control as writers of fiction to keep on message, meaning that their readers are presented with texts presenting a challenge far more sophisticated than their authors envisaged. I can't lay the same charge of naivety at Green; Thomson, too, is far too erudite to be a structural savant.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Death of the Author... in the Gilbert Adair novel, rather than the Barthes essay, although the ramifications of Adair's title are exactly what you'd expect.

I picked this up with a couple of other second-hand books on January 2nd, when I was still pretending that everything was free and easy and that I wasn't worried about work. The motive behind buying something by Adair was that, with the author having recently passed away, I thought it fair to give him another go after having been so critical of The Holy Innocents, which I read a few years ago.

The Death of the Author tells the story of Leo Sfax, an emigré professor of literature (with specific interests in Romanticism and literary theory) at a fictitious New England university. Having survived the Occupation in France, he has developed a considerable critical reputation in the United States, initially with an ingenious essay on Mallarmé but more recently with The Theory, an idea which dictates - you're probably way ahead of my conceit now - that authors are not stable entities that can be relied upon as sources of literary significance, but textual constructs who represent only one more deferral of meaning. As the narrative progresses, Sfax's recollections become increasingly candid, albeit without shedding a self-justifying defensiveness familiar to anyone who has read Lolita, and we discover that his wartime activity was based upon the production of articles for a collaborationist newspaper. While none of these pieces were even vaguely intellectually admirable, several were outrightly anti-semitic. When one of Sfax's admiring former graduate students preparing a biography on the esteemed critic, murders begin to shake the previously peaceful academic community.

It would be impossible for this snarky novella to be any more transparent about who and what is being 'satirised'. Obviously, the affair is given a touch of morbidly comic hyperbole once the killings start, but what precedes the swerve into melodrama follows the contours of the de Man affair pretty faithfully. Now, I'm no longer as strict an adherent to The Theory - The Theory in the novel being fairly identical with a generalised version of the one proposed by de Man in Allegories of Reading, albeit with a twist of Barthes for the purposes of simplification - as I once was, but The Death of the Author made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. Its Amisian irony failed, to me, to conceal an enraged conviction that, due to the poor judgement of de Man (and, in the context, only de Man) during the Occupation, it is impossible to separate poststructuralist claims about undecidability from fascism. I'm sure that there are those who read the novel differently, perhaps as a more subtle critique of the potential implications of The Theory on our sense of political responsibility, but, if they existed, these nuances were lost on me.

This depended on two things. First, the humour lacked gradation. The structure of the joke demanded a knowing recognition of the 'fact' that there were/ are only ever two kinds of theorist, namely the high-handed sophisticates like Sfax/ de Man and Anglophone camp followers converted in the wake of a collective cultural cringe: J. Hillis Miller, Frank Lentricchia, and Frank Kermode are all, I think, implicated in the depictions of the latter. These two caricatures - the nihilistic theoretical libertine and the elbow-patched bandwagon jumper - continue to act as bogeymen in journalistic discussions of theory, which have frequently pandered to (and propagated) chattering class anxieties about its (lack of) 'intelligibility'. Adair's writing plays to the gallery; given the depth of the author's understanding of French literature and culture (he translated Perec's La Disparition) this is rather sad, and for him to have played the satire this way indicates a genuine belief that the radical critique of literary meaning owed a debt to some form of totalitarian sentiment.

The other thing which caused me to doubt that Adair was willing to give theory the benefit of the doubt on any level was the novel's comprehensive failure to discuss the ethical concerns which dogged poststructuralism from the off. There's a Derrida figure lurking in its pages, but it's a version based entirely on several passages from 'Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' rather than on the Levinas-influenced philosopher of friendship, responsibility, and hospitality that emerged long before this text was written. In other words, the whole 'project' of theory is reduced to just that: radical thought is elided with right-wing political violence.

That's where the question arises. Did Adair alight on this interpretation via a consideration of de Man's biography or through an unpleasant encounter with the difficulty of his writing? Much of the hostility to theory begins with an insecurity about its impenetrability and then latches onto political, or pseudo-political, justifications. The critiques made by, say, Frederic Jameson of the essentialising relativism that poststructuralism appeared to justify are inspired efforts to resist the reification and commodification of continental theory, but one can't help but feel that the people who laughed hardest and most connivingly with this novel would regard Jameson, or Zizek, or Badiou as latter-day 'totalitarians' of complexity. Even though I share some of Adair's manifest reservations about the openness of The Theory to some shabby uses - after all, it has permitted a certain amount of 'it means what you want it to mean'-type answers in academic essays, the motor of The Death of the Author seemed to be, at root, a semi-populist, moderately anti-intellectual one.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Could Have Been a Dog

why do a PhD/ when you could be a dog?

Julian Stannard

It occurred to me during last night's bout of my not-infrequent insomnia that it's now over three years since I passed my PhD viva and that, moreover, since getting through this exam my CV has developed in ways which I wouldn't have expected it to while I was writing my thesis. In fact, it makes me look rather Humbert Humbert-ish: TEFL teacher, postdoctoral fellow, associate/ adjunct tutor, FE tutor, proofreader, ghostwriter, study skills co-ordinator, copywriter, journalist. That's less than a third of a decade's worth of work, although those who know me will be aware about the extent to which these roles have overlapped (the last four items on the list are more or less current). Having had this thought, it further struck me that, in relation to many of my doctoral peers, I've been lucky: I haven't been totally unemployed for longer than a month or so, I've held a faculty-level position, and I've been privileged in that all of the work I've done has been gratifying on some level. Yet a certain discomfort prevails, and I've been racking my brains trying to work it out.

To all extents and purposes, my lack of secure academic employment seems to be caused by my rather problematic relationship with research publication. It isn't that I keep on trying and getting rejected - it's that I'm extremely unmotivated by trying in the first place. I have one paper coming out soon and a book chapter in the pipeline (I think); beyond that, I've submitted absolutely nothing to journals, nor have I attempted to publish my (increasingly motheaten) PhD thesis. While in academic employment, I've tended to con myself into thinking that teaching well is enough - and, given the Bartleby-like attitude to research 'obligations' held by some of the more venerable members of Lit departments, it clearly once was - and, while otherwise employed, I've been liable to wonder what the point is of this form of publication altogether.

It probably hasn't helped my cause that my political attitude towards my work has altered fundamentally since I completed. When I submitted my PhD proposal in 2003, I was a bushy-tailed advocate of what I now recognise as the worst kind of reterritorialising, American postmodernism. What I saw as 'the political' in literature seemed grey and limiting; I partook instead in an entirely clichéd celebration of lacunae and aporias, a celebration which failed on every level to identify what might be political about non-meaning. I think the fantasy that each text has the capacity to eradicate its own political implications as a facet of its own (highly desirable) quality of infiniteness was a common one among starter postgraduates even as late as the early 2000s; I can only offer as a defence the fact that I briefly discussed an anxiety about this inverted idealism at the beginning of my Introduction. As this detail suggests, it was only during my final year of study - with the Credit Crunch and Cameron looming - that third-hand de Manisms began to look rather unattractive. Since then, I've been carrying a fair old weight of doubt about the general worthwhileness of a project that still carries the traces of these ideas (a project, furthermore, that, in order to lay claim to critical honesty, must incorporate an analysis of what was attractive about third-hand de Manisms in the first place).

A second, also political, rationale for failing to make headway with my research lay, or lies, in my unease about the wider project with which I was involved. I'd been encouraged to submit my thesis proposal as part of an exciting effort to get a 'neglected' set of authors 'recognised', a mission statement which, to twenty-two year-old ears, sounded noble if not completely radical. In retrospect, the critical reinvestigation of late modernism in Britain has been, by and large, rather disappointing. On one hand, it has constantly strived to 'rescue' figures from the allegedly tainted grasp of experimental modernism, delivering people as different as Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Sutherland to the safe, tea-and-biscuits world of Englishness Studies. Jed Esty's A Shrinking Island was a core work for this rather dubious movement, which seems to have garnered some extracurricular impact through Alexandra Harris' Romantic Moderns, a text which seems to me to offer a striking embodiment of the cultural logic of Big Society. On the other hand, the work of 'rediscovery' seems ultimately to have served in the creation of new markets for publishers, who relish the opportunity to give us 'Vintage Hamilton' or 'Vintage Taylor' with some atrocious parody of Vanessa Bell splashed across the cover. In short, it feels at the moment as if the only way to participate in my field at the moment is as a scorn-pouring naysayer, churlishly refusing such self-regarding 'redefinitions of the canon'.

All of the above probably gives the impression that I'm rather uneasy with participating at all in Literary Studies in the form it currently takes in UK HE institutions. This is, on some levels, a reasonable assumption; nevertheless, there's still a sense that something rather fundamental is missing as long as I'm not participating. I wonder about the extent to which this is to do with the experience at the core of the PhD process, which is a form of training which - I believe actively - seeks to introduce an epistemological break into one's life. The first year of a PhD seems more or less designed to fill the candidate with the conviction that they will be incapable of completing the thesis: thanks to supervisory eyebrow-raising and the occasional glimpse of the exhausted final-year student, the finished article becomes inflected with the sublime qualities of Everest or Mars (the annoying PhD Comics contributes to this mythology). To compensate for this, one either quits or sets about an obsessive redressing of their 'ignorance', a process which entails not only learning everything there is to learn about the research topic in question but subjecting every notion - literally incorporating everything from John Berger's views on Picasso to what to have to supper - to critical assault. By the end, you probably have a PhD, but you've also become rather distanced from people who (understandably) want to be able to drink a cup of tea without going through some abstract intellectualisation of the china industry.

I want to be critically rigorous: I've accepted it as a kind of double-edged outcome of the initial - not too well thought-out - decision to do a PhD. But, once you encounter any situation in which the ability to slice and splice ideas isn't making money, you're perpetually haunted by the sense that someone is going to turn around and say 'and look where it got you!' I try and explain to my family that I say what I say about Downton Abbey because I've been trained to do it, just as an electrician is trained to spot faulty wiring; however, the instant I lose a financial justification for having had this training is the moment at which I open myself to allegations that my points are entirely 'subjective', that we're 'all entitled to our opinions', and other such commonplaces of essentialised relativism. There's been plenty of discussion about the financially-precarious positions PhD students find themselves in after completing theses; I'd venture that there is a direct correlation between this and a genuinely-precarious sense of identity. I can't find the exact links, but K-Punk has written some fine posts over the last few years on the anxiety many feel about performing intellectual work in a society which audits itself on purely financial terms. It's probably this I'm trying to get at: in this climate, how do you rid yourself of doubts about the value of writing critically if the activity is not being financialised in some way? How much good work is strangled by the sludge of 'subjectivity'?

Most likely this is all a pep talk to persuade myself to properly pursue a project - not necessarily, or not entirely, academic - this year which goes beyond the short bits of journalism I wrote for the TLS and The Quietus in 2011. Blogging regularly would be a start: I disappointed myself repeatedly by my inarticulacy in the face of subjects that would once have triggered a kind of writing reflex (this Quietus piece was a last-minute attempt to redress this). No promises, though, either to myself or others.