Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Still more on criticism

Steven Fama, in a comment on one of my posts on criticism, suggests that I should have mentioned Olson's Call Me Ishmael. Consider it an addition to my list, and heartily endorsed, along with Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare and Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore.

There are, of course, countless other books (and essays) that I could add. Fama points out an apparent blindness in my list to anything more than thirty years old; it stems not from a deliberate project or agenda on my part, but from the non-systematic and off-the-cuff manner in which I approached the task. And his observation calls other omissions to mind as well, particularly of art and film criticism. Certainly Arthur Danto's Art After the End of Art merits inclusion, along with P. Adams Sitney's Modernist Montage and much of Cahiers du cinema.

Of course, there's more that could be added — as before, I remain stubborn in my refusal to stand up and have my memory triggered by even the most basic "research" of looking at my bookshelf.

But instead, I'm curious what other books you would include on your own list(s). Comment in the appropriate space, if you're so inclined.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Something else occurs to me, with regards to a couple of texts listed in my last post. Though I included, without caveat or hesitation, Fliegelman's Declaring Independence, it might more properly be considered a work of cultural and/or social criticism, as opposed to literary criticism, which was the ostensible purpose of the post, at least considered in the context of the discussion that prompted it. Nonetheless, it's inclusion is merited, inasmuch as Fliegelman's discussion of Revolutionary-era rhetoric is relevant to an understanding not only of the non-literary texts (where "literary" is bounded according to traditional dictates) that fall within his scope, but also to an understanding of the literature contemporary with, and immediately following, the era in question. Furthermore, his study of evolving notions of authorship are, by virtue of the potential for their extension, relevant to present-day literary issues, particularly with regards to copyright, which I take to be the legal codification of both authorship and ownership of a text, where "text" is defined in its broadest sense, and where authorship and ownership may not always be coterminous.

The same post-facto qualification applies as well to my inclusion of Ruttenburg's book. Though she does discuss a range of literary texts, her focus is on cultural and social notions, rather than on the texts as text, at least according to traditional and/or conservative considerations of the term's limits. Furthermore, the chapter of her study that is most interesting (to my mind, of course) has virtually nothing to do with literary writing, per se, as it deals with the Salem witch trials, and the social upheaval and spontaneous reorganization thereof that attended that moment. Like Fliegelman, she is interested in rhetoric and text as manifestations of, and as a force operating within, the socio-cultural sphere, rather than with text as "pure art," or some such...

All of which is to point to a fourth question I should have raised earlier:
4. Given historical criticism, the boundary between literary criticism and certain forms of cultural criticism is, at least in cases where cultural criticism deal explicitly with concerns at the heart of notions of textuality / literature, often indistinct. The cases of overlap are certainly less common than in the other instances of overlap or indistinct boundary than I mentioned earlier, but they nonetheless do exist, and pose a relevant question (if not outright "concern") to a discussion of literary criticism that might seek to define the latter rigidly, or according to traditional definitions. That is, it's not possible to make a statement — at least not without breaching good faith — that all cultural criticism involves literary criticism in the way we might, in good faith, make such a claim about poetry always involving a critical act. Nonethless, certain instances do demonstrably trouble a simple identification...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Critical texts

In response to, and as an extension of, a discussion I recently had about the "art of criticism," I've present an unranked list of a baker's dozen critical works I consider to be important. I'm not going to provide extensive commentary at the moment (other than a few notes by way of conclusion), but may do so in the near future, if the mood so strikes; nonetheless, a general and unqualified endorsement applies in each case.

Patricia Crain. The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter.

Ulla Dydo. Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises: 1923-1934.

Umberto Eco. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts.

Jay Fliegelman. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, & the Culture of Performance.

Susan Howe. The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history.

Michelle Leggott. Reading Zukofsky's "80 Flowers".

Nathaniel Mackey. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing.

Sianne Ngai. "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust."

Marjorie Perloff. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage.

Jerome McGann. Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism.

Nancy Ruttenburg. Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship.

Juliana Spahr. Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity.

Jalal Toufic. (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film.
— - — - —

A couple of quick thoughts, each deserving of more attention than I've allowed for at the moment:
1. I've omitted from this list texts that might more properly be considered either/both statements of personal poetics or/and manifestoes. Thus, essays akin to (and including) Lyn Hejinian's "The Rejection of Closure" have been deliberately omitted. At the same time, drawing such a line reminds me that this is a difficult distinction to make, especially given the number of poets who work as critics, and the necessary act of criticism that accompanies, and is implied by, any creative act (in writing or any other art) or product thereof. In fact, some works on the list — those by Howe, Mackey, Ngai, Spahr, etc. — might be omitted along with Hejinian's; or hers might be included.

2. Given the extent to which aesthetic production constitutes a criticism (both negative, referring to that which is rejected, and positive, referring to that which is projected, by the text) of the work's precedents and contemporaries, the case could be made for including poetry itself. At the same time, a list so inclusive would risk meaninglessness, inasmuch as it would be distinguished from a list of important poetry only via the presence of works that cannot be considered poetry.

3. Another line that cannot be placed precisely and unproblematically: the distinction between ("pure") criticism and ("pure" — or "impure," if you're so inclined) theory. The thrust of Eco's career as a whole might suggest we consider the above work an example of theory, or of philosophy, even; the same may also be said of Toufic. Furthermore, a number of writers I reflexively describe as theorists are in fact engaged in criticism: Blanchot's reviews, certainly, and perhaps The Space of Literature, even if Writing of the Disaster might more readily be called "pure" theory (or philosophy — this distinction is similarly fraught). Similarly, it's worth recalling that Derrida's key essays, by and large, emerge from attentive readings of particular texts. In the end, a statement from note one might also be applied here: any act of criticism necessarily relies upon — whether explicitly stated or not — theories of criticism, of meaning, etc.