Glass Houses: A Reply to Loren Glass's "Getting With the Program"

Glass Houses: A Reply to Loren Glass's "Getting With the Program"

2010-01-02

Brian Lennon weighs in on developing conversation about Mark McGurl’s Program Era; Lennon’s response to Loren Glass’s riposte argues that Bourdieu’s work is invoked by Glass as an answer, not a question, “without any effort to mark…why or how Bourdieu might be right - and without leaving any sense of the debates that generated and refined Bourdieu’s positions.”

I

No thinking reader of my “Gaming the System” could imagine that Bourdieu’s conclusions are acceptable to me - or that to school me with Homo Academicus, as though it had been published yesterday, is in any substantive way to engage my positions. Loren Glass’s “Getting with the Program” makes several both valid and valuable points, for which I thank him, and which only slightly more than half of me is inclined to resist. Still, it invokes Bourdieu’s work as an answer, not a question, without any effort to mark, for the as yet unpersuaded, why or how Bourdieu might be right - and without leaving any sense of the debates that generated and refined Bourdieu’s positions (not to mention their transposition into a U.S. American critical scene). Buttressed by hints that my essay is too long and too tortured, such compression suggests that Glass regards the argument with me, at least, as already won (or lost). I wonder what is at stake in his conspicuous disinterest in Golumbia’s half of this conversation.

More often than not, literarist appropriations of work in the physical and social sciences proceed as though the value of such appropriation were self-evident - since the prestige of what is appropriated is presumably also self-evident. But the explanatory power of Bourdieu’s French sociology for homo academicus americanus is in fact no more automatically guaranteed than that of systems theory for the production of U.S. American literature. To perform such gestures with no real attempt at justification - Why Bourdieu? Why systems theory? - is, at the very least, a critical oversight. At worst, it is a reliance on either the novelty or the mystical authority of science to make the case.

As my own essay makes clear, I do not think that’s what drives McGurl’s The Program Era, in the least. Glass wants to persuade us that the book is admirable for its modesty and precision, first of all, and the punctuation he gives it decisively slights the range of its four hundred sixty-six pages. Nowhere, within his own endless essay, does McGurl ever really stop to explain what a “system” is, from within the etymological and intellectual history of any language or discipline, in a manner that would satisfy Glass’s quotidian imputations - and it is precisely in this differential deferral that McGurl really does trade on the capital-S System, just as Glass himself writes, equally inspecifically, of “institutions” and “anti-institutional moods,” believing he has rendered these concepts concrete by typing the words with lower-case letters. As a prose stylist and essayist, McGurl makes quite canny use, in The Program Era, of the range of cultural and political reference that gathers on “system” in U.S. English and its discourses. As my own essay also makes clear, I do not object to that - for me, it is a mark of McGurl’s critical persona’s own sometimes embraced, and sometimes disavowed (but either way, commendable) investment in itself as a writer, as well as a critic and scholar. My own self-conscious reification of The System is in this respect merely a rhetorical echo and intensification of McGurl’s own. That Glass is unable to read the irony in my phrases “road to redemption” and “sets us free,” meanwhile, means he isn’t quite keeping up with either of us.

One might in any case take Glass’s version of Bourdieu’s critical mode as transcendent, not my own - which is transcendental at best, concerned with the conditions of possibility of power and knowledge, not their immediate self-evidence (in the institution, the system, Barack Obama, Mark McGurl, Pierre Bourdieu, or Loren Glass). Or, better than transcendental, demarcative. See Judith Butler, “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity,” Critical Inquiry 35.4 (Summer 2009), 786ff. - part of a debate with Robert Post that might profitably be read alongside the present conversation. It is Bourdieu, in Glass’s response, who plays the role Glass impulsively cedes to Marx, in his reading of my essay. And the dynamic of incorporation read from Bourdieu’s work is perhaps most attractive to U.S. academics, today, in the justification for withdrawal into monastic autocriticism it appears to offer them, in a national culture of contempt for what they do. This is precisely what I marked, in “Gaming the System,” with the phrase “mourning for the legacy of 1968.” In his sheer determination to correct me, here - as though nothing I have to say could breach his belief - Glass is as much a victim of its melancholia as any of us.

Like it or not, the French statism and the French critical public sphere that shaped Bourdieu’s work and activity, both within and without the French university system, is a world apart from ours in the U.S.A. This is certainly a debate for another day, and to go any further, here, I’d have to relinquish this riposte, for a dialogue aimed at figuring out just why Bourdieu holds the keys, here. It’s quite possible that if I did that, I’d be converted to Glass’s own practice. But I don’t see anything in his brief response marking the possibility of reciprocity, in that respect. And from where I stand, a re-examination of the reception of Bourdieu in U.S. literary studies, propelled as it was by the theory wars of an era of economic stabilization, is now overdue. To some extent, the verdict will turn on whether we in the U.S.A. retain the resources, going forward, to maintain the scale of our own incorporation. I can’t see how we can - but if I am wrong, I will face the folly of my conservatism on this point.

In the meantime, Glass knows perfectly well that the “we” in his phrase “we’re in here now” - voiced so confidently, in his response, by one safely tenured scholar on behalf of another - does not encompass all the parties to conversation, here. Not yet; perhaps not ever. If only Marxism had something to say to that! (Glass does realize, does he not, that Marxism has always been an adamantly modernist secular institution, no matter what his cherry-picked fragment of Jameson is made to say?)

As for rapprochement between scholars and creative writers on Bourdieu’s terms - let me know how that goes! If that is all that McGurl imagines, for or against himself, then I am certainly giving him too much credit. Let Glass sit down and work through The Program Era with a seminar group of ten M.F.A. candidates in creative writing, for two weeks - then tell me again about its non-reductive and ideology-free use of systems theory, in rendering critical illustration.

II

For me, Glass’s “Getting with the Program” confirms that McGurl’s and Golumbia’s perspectives map a productively sustained conflict in the discipline, which not one of us is yet genius enough to dissolve. In the dialectic of contemporary criticism, McGurl’s book needs Golumbia’s, and Golumbia’s book needs McGurl’s: and both of them need to take a look over the Euro-Atlantic horizon, to what none of us yet know we know. “Creative writing” is one of our intrasystemic figures for that. As a nonelected (but tenured) nonblack non-president free to argue whatever kind of book he likes (and with only Lindsay Waters and a few peer reviewers to stand or not stand in its way), McGurl would be wise to reject Glass’s collation of him with Barack Obama, who is constrained in ways that demand active compromise from the left. That is a point on which Glass is correct - but the analogy with McGurl’s place in a profession structurally remote from electoral politics is more than strained. If The Program Era, in addition to breaking new ground in its field (if not through a discovery of the unprecedented, but an animation of the obvious), will be read and discussed across the productive field of contemporary literature and its criticism, that is because the book’s very grandiosity gauges the repression driving Glass to try to corral its effects. Glass welcomes the opportunities The Program Era offers the scholarly corps (his own), but his critical persona seems not to want creative writers to get their mitts on it, since their burdens of affective investment and fantasy distort and exaggerate the stakes at hand.

Too late! Anyone working in a department housing so large an M.F.A. program as Glass’s own (that which, as it happens, granted me my own creative writing degree) should be able to see that creative writers ambitious of criticism pose a threat, to control of the discipline, that tenured scholars secretly writing their campus novels can neither abet nor match - and that the provocation of Glass’s type of anticharismatic asceticism is designed to stabilize the writer in her romantically sanctioned ignorance, through compulsive reaction. But when she becomes the critical master, and dares to wipe the expression of intellectual indigence from her face, the creative writer upsets the university’s order of things. McGurl sees this, and welcomes it (as Glass does not), even as he takes up Glass’s position, at the same time, in both marking it as a normal function, and limiting its implications. McGurl’s vibrant hostility to what he calls “unreconstructed romanticism” - a hostility entirely elected, and unnecessary - marks a profound private wobbling on his own critical ground, and is more than balanced, in any case, by his generosity in entertaining (at moments I’ve quoted in full, in “Gaming the System”) the thought that he might be wrong. Glass earns himself nothing of that, here.

It is not unfair to thus pit McGurl’s gigantic book against Glass’s tactically truncated response, if we accept that the dialectical prose Glass marks as overwrought, in my essay, is a device for thinking through such problems, rather than solving them. (In the end, perhaps, little is said in The Program Era that isn’t said just as well in McGurl’s “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction,” published in Critical Inquiry in 2005 - which is not at all to complain about articles on steroids, but merely to observe that brevity need not preclude ambition.) Each of us, already, thinks differently than she or he did yesterday; there is not much any of us can do to stop that, even when we try - as we all do, all the time. But if there is anything in the life of criticism I find incomprehensible, it is that some of its operators, upon being gently offered a plain and uncontroversial truth - that we scholars know next to nothing about what lives outside these walls (be they taken as disciplinary, geocultural, or epistemo-ontic), and that that ignorance necessarily both limits and, in the form of curiosity, drives our work - cannot find it in themselves simply to assent to an accusation that damages all of us, even those who level it with the deluded pretense to high ground. How hard is it really to say, Yes, I am - finite, limited, ignorant, “guilty” of the perpetration of a thousand cuts of injustice, but far from alone, in that? How much work, by contrast, to spin out elaborate bluffs and ruses, to deflect such assent - determined to suggest, in the end, that one is somehow inculpable (but what crime was ever accused?), or that conscience itself is merely some burden of affect, because the puny enclosure in which one lives and works - the bureaucratic culture of the university and the state, the corporate modernity of the U.S. American and Euro-Atlantic “West” - really is in fact the entire world? That for all correct intents and purposes, it has no “outside”?

And that she or he who dares to suggest otherwise is fatally puerile, in her refusal to get with the program?

III

This is what Mills called “inactionary”: a profoundly defensive disciplinary posture which, more (or less) than “merely” reacting, declares the unpleasant stimulus phenomenally illegitimate, in the first place. C. Wright Mills, “Grand Theory,” The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), 41. Glass’s critical persona would have us believe that the “anti-institutional mood” marks the orthodox, in an institutional common sense for which McGurl’s “dare to agree” (as he reads it) is illuminating counterintuition. But that - if I may respond with absurdity in kind, to Glass’s baptism of McGurl as academic literary studies’ Barack Obama - is political sophism of the highest order, like the yelling that Obama is Hitler. McGurl’s deployment of the word “traitor” leaves no doubt where the law lies, and what is to be marked as the rogue position, here - even if any reader less determined than Glass simply to win cannot avoid overhearing its doubled voice.

At the very same time (and with Glass in somewhat hotter pursuit), McGurl’s persona coolly offers, as new and refreshing, precisely that generative statism that has always been, and always will be, dominant in academic literary studies (unless the creative writers really do take over the asylum!), no matter how strongly or successfully we see its anarchistic counter-tendencies having challenged it at times. As Foucault put it, in one of his very most fatuously self-congratulatory texts, “The work in question has its generality, its systematicity, its homogeneity, and its stakes [son enjeu].” As the titular subject of a paragraph on the “relations of capacity and power,” those “stakes” name a profoundly self-regarding wager, of Foucault’s own, on what he calls the “singular historical destiny” of the West - “such a peculiar destiny, so different from the others in its trajectory and so universalizing, so dominant with respect to the others” - and on the inexhaustibility of modernity as an ethos, its promise of lifetime after lifetime of critical self-absorption. Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 47; “Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?,” Dits et écrits 1976-1988 (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 1394.

It is on this wager, which performs the very non-functionalizable functionalization of ideology on which Foucault’s entire project depends, that the profoundly circumscribed work of studying “practical systems” (“ensembles pratiques”), and the freedom of action within them through which one may modify the rules of the game (“les règles du jeu”) “up to a certain point,” is grounded. That such gaming the system is conceived, in the French way, as functionally fated is itself still nothing less than axiomatic, today - as Glass’s “Getting with the Program” makes amply clear. Only in his consensually misguided and uncritical enthusiasm for the transformation of Iran - an episode with which U.S. literary criticism and theory is no better able to deal, thirty years later, than its public culture - did Foucault ever attempt to place such a critical bet elsewhere, on the profoundly resistant materiality of what in “Gaming the System” I termed “multiple and epistemically distributed terms for debate.”

Joe Amato:

Lennon’s panoramic review-essay might have been more lucid – despite its obvious commitment to theoretical divagation as right and proper method – so part of the problem here might be less Glass’s casual invocation of Bourdieu (and I’m tired of hearing Bourdieu’s name myself) than (in this case) understandable, if unproductive, misreading (of irony etc). Perhaps, then, a cooler rhetoric would incite more productive polemic? But Lennon’s response to Glass is at any rate unambiguous on most counts.

2010-02-14