Chris Witter

Contemporary Fiction and Criticism in the Academy: further towards a manifesto

Following up his talk for us back in October 2013, Chris Witter contributes a discussion of the contemporary in relation to the possibilities open to critical academics. It is a line of thought he is developing from his doctoral work, which he intends to publish as The American Short Story in the 1960s: The Politics of Experiment. 

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I’ve just finished reading Robert Eaglestone’s intervention in Textual Practice, ‘Contemporary fiction in the academy: towards a manifesto’ (Dec, 2013). In it, Eaglestone sets out a series of provocative questions about ‘what it means to research contemporary fiction’. Eaglestone summarises his argument, by way of conclusion:

I suggested that disciplines are shaped by questions, and that they reach maturity when they question their own questions. However, the study of contemporary fiction does not even know what its questions are despite the unique complications it faces in relation to periodisation, the archive, authorship, the ‘business’ of fiction, globalisation, genre, value judgements, and form. The risks of not facing up to these issues in the study of contemporary fiction are that we become ‘modern antiquarians’, picking oddities that pique our interest to display to the public, or ‘generic critics’, showing off our honed senses with no focus on the nature of the contemporary. (Eaglestone, 1100)

These are indeed questions worth pursuing. But there was something missing here, for me, which is worth locating.

1. Criticism

What strikes me first of all about Eaglestone’s sub-manifesto is that it is ordered by the desire to shore up a role for the academic critic as entrepreneurial subject. Eaglestone asks: How do we compete with new formal and informal networks of online debate, publication, education? How do we assert a place for criticism in an economy in which publishers can market directly to audiences, and where reading has not only become decoupled from the educative project of ‘cultivation’ (with its many hierarchies and gatekeepers) but increasingly bound up with that particularly spectacular commodity, the ‘blockbuster’? All of this is coded in his opening gambit: ‘what makes a geek [read fan] different from an academic?’

This problem comes more clearly into focus in relation to Eaglestone’s argument, later in the essay, that academics should make their value judgements explicit. For how futile does the figure of the academic look, trying, like a modern Canute, to pronounce upon the mass trash spectacle of the Twilight series, or its prodigious offspring, Fifty Shades of Grey? This futility indicates a broader malaise within literary studies: its marginalisation within society. Literary studies once had a project — however paternalistic and bourgeois — in encouraging cultivation and the development of sensibility. Now there is no project underpinning literary studies, and no place for it in society. ‘Keeping up with the new’ is not sufficient in itself; to imagine that it is is merely to allow research to be subsumed by commodity production.

Either way, we should ask whether literary studies has a social role. If it does, is it one we are consciously creating, or one we’re  acting out despite ourselves? Already it seems we’re seeing ‘fields’, ‘disciplines’ and ‘specialisms’ becoming ways of framing bids for research grants, or else a strategy of pre-emptive marketing. Disciplines are dissolved into the discipline of the market and specialisms into one’s strategic ability to compete in this ‘weak’ market. In this situation, only monotony is nourished by the new; we are increasingly bored by literary criticism because we do not know what we are writing for.

2. Commitment

In a different conjuncture, literary critics and scholars furiously debated the relation of literature to the proletariat, and wrote out prescriptions for ‘revolutionary literature’. At other moments, the relation of literature to emancipation has been at the forefront of writing and its criticism, leading to politically committed magazines and journals, and courses designed to tell histories of struggle in and through literature. In many ways, it was these struggles that opened the way for a more ‘critical’ and ‘open’ form of literary studies.

Yet politics is peculiarly absent from Eaglestone’s provocation. The ‘established categories’ of ‘sex/class/race/empire’ are said to be ‘vital’, but they are by no means placed at the heart of Eaglestone’s discussion, despite weak gestures towards criticality, such as framing the discussion in terms of Rancière’s concept of ‘dissensus’ (Eaglestone, 1093). Instead, the essay considers substitutive political struggles — for example, as to whether ‘open/closed’ operates as a better descriptive binary than ‘literary/genre’.

This is not simply a fault of Eaglestone’s piece. It is a broader symptom of the destruction of left-wing institutions in the UK, and the consequent weakness and marginalisation of a fragmented and disorganised Left. As much as one wishes to be a ‘good soldier’, the possibility of constituting and participating in a left-wing ‘critical’ project looks shaky — if not impossible. It becomes more tenuous as higher education takes on an increasingly reactionary character; the conditions of production of academic work increasingly limit the possibilities of research and teaching being underpinned by a radical project.

3. Contemporaneity

The above points have a bearing on the problem Eaglestone raises of defining the ‘contemporary’. For Eaglestone this has several dimensions. On the one hand it is a temporal problem: when is the ‘contemporary’ period? On the other it is spatial: in a globalised world, how do we address the problem of differing temporalities and multiple modernities? Eaglestone then moves from these temporal-spatial dimensions to discuss the contemporary in relation to production and consumption. On the one hand, the subject is swamped by the flood of the contemporary:

We have in our sub-field not only an open archive but also an archive that is continually proliferating and expanding. […] The issue here is not simply the size of the archive: most disciplines, and most sub-fields within disciplines, have archives too enormous to be processed in a life time. The issue here is that the archive of contemporary fiction is, by definition, continually growing at a phenomenal rate. (Eaglestone, 1091)

Here, history and commodity production become identical, whilst the contemporary becomes a mere ‘snapchat’ shot of this endless flow of commodities, obsolete even as it is produced. Against the flood of history-as-production, the academic appears powerless, their critical gestures becoming as provisional as their critical objects are disposable.

In a not unfamiliar manoeuver, Eaglestone then reverses this, to move from the macro totality of production to the micro level of the dividuated subject:

Put very crudely: what seems ‘of the past’ for a graduate student of 25 seems oddly ‘contemporary’ for an academic of 50 (a question of ‘duration’, perhaps, or of the difference between ‘academic’ and ‘living’ history). (Eaglestone, 1095)

As such, the ‘contemporary’ is understood not in terms of a canon, nor as a specific historical formation, but as a pluralistic modulation of commodity preferences, which is the inverse of the contemporary as the endless flow of production. [1]

If Eaglestone accedes too much to the logic of late capitalism, a more productive discussion of contemporaneity is to be found in Claire Bishop’s Radical Museology (2013). In this short but thought-provoking pamphlet, Bishop offers a resonant critique of ‘presentism’, as:

The conditions of taking our current moment as the horizon and destination of our thinking. This is the dominant usage of the term ‘contemporary’ in art today; it is underpinned by an inability to grasp our moment in its global entirety, and an acceptance of this incomprehension as a constitutive condition of the present historical era. (Bishop, 6)

Against this ‘presentism’, Bishop draws on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history [2] to sketch out a dialectical approach to contemporaneity, which interrogates how the present relates to the past and the future, explicitly politicising these temporal relations:

What I call a dialectical contemporary seeks to navigate multiple temporalities within a more political horizon. Rather than simply claim that many or all times are present in each historical object, we need to ask why certain temporalities appear in particular works of art at specific historical moments. Furthermore, this analysis is motivated by a desire to understand our present condition and how to change it. Lest this method be interpreted as yet another form of presentism with the now masquerading as historical inquiry, it should be stressed that sightlines are always focused on the future: the ultimate aim is to disrupt the relativist pluralism of the current moment, in which all styles and beliefs are considered equally valid, and to move towards a more sharply politicized understanding of where we can and should be heading. (Bishop, 23)

Temporality, rather than being a ‘mundane’ technical problem (Eaglestone, 1093), becomes a vital source of political energy. For temporality is a social relation — a way of organising past, present, and future. As such, the contemporary is a site of struggle.

Following Bishop’s arguments about contemporary visual art, an alternative conception of contemporary literary criticism emerges to that of the entrepreneur or antiquarian, who offers up fashionable categories and concepts in order to corner emerging markets. Rather than conceding our power to shape the present to the market, we might articulate conceptions of the contemporary that search out and construct explicitly politicised constellations of textual and critical practices, in order to explode the ‘eternal present’ of neoliberal capitalism.

Chris Witter

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1. See: Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, 59 (Winter, 1992), pp. 3-7.

2. Benjamin’s dialectical conception of history critiques the bourgeois concept of ‘progress’, but remains oriented by a conception of authentic historical progress (emancipation). In the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940) and the Arcades Project (1927-1940; 1982; 1999) he thus constructs a dialectical conception of history and social progress.

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Chris Witter is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of English & Creative Writing, at Lancaster University. His research focuses on postwar US culture and society, particularly experimental literature. In 2012 he won the Raymond Williams Society Postgraduate Essay Prize, with an article titled ‘Grace Paley and the Tenement Pastoral’. This was subsequently published in Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, 11 (2013). He is currently working on a monograph titled, The American Short Story in the 1960s: The Politics of Experiment, and a book chapter titled ‘Tillie Olsen: Subaltern Modernism in the Postwar US’, for the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Experimental Women Writers (1900 – Present). He can be contacted via email: c.witter1 at lancaster.ac.uk

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