Criticism, Alive! refers to something I've been calling my Critical Mission. It all starts with wanting to get published as a graduate student. No wait, that's not true. It starts even before that. It starts with wanting to write papers for grad courses in my own voice. I was recently subjected to a ten minute tirade on why I shouldn't write (argue with celebrity critics, be irreverent, etc.) the way I do, how my antics will squelch my career while I'm still a "junior scholar," and how I may never be allowed into the right circles if my offending paper makes its way to a conference reading within earshot of the intended offendee. Plus, it won't get published. I say fuck all that. And some of my colleagues are on board.
What's happening now, because of all this angst, and what we think is talent that needs to have a venue, to take criticism back to what it used to be, that is, something readable in its own right, something interesting for God's sake, is we are developing a journal for graduate work. Writerly, intelligent, interesting, fuck the system graduate work. Whatcha got?
I will post more here soon as the emails and notes of idea developments are burgeoning. We're still stuck for a name, but the mission is taking a beautiful shape.
This paper (below) is a silly book review I wrote for an assignment last month. It's not something that would make it right into our journal, with the too-specific topic and the needing of revision, but this is the kind of thing I write for a short paper where I can be conversational (with the prof, with myself, with the subject of the paper...) and just let loose. It's like a blog entry you'd read here. And why the hell not? You're reading this aren't you? Do you really want to read PMLA?
26 September 2012
Story: A Book Encounter
Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.
Postmodern Narrative Theory. That’s all that’s left on the shelf. Postmodern. Ugh. Gorman will hate that. Maybe if I hadn’t misremembered the call number and spent half an hour browsing PR 200, studies of English-Norse Literary exchanges (what a felicitous accidental medieval find!) , I would’ve beat the other students to this stack. I take a look at the postmodern book anyway. Maybe it’s a handbook? Or maybe it’s some painfully applied theories. “Death and Afterlife of Narratology.” Hmm., “Voice, distance, judgment.” Okay, great. “Time-Space Compression.” Good. “Terminologisation.” Huh? Jeez! Well, it has all the bits and pieces of an introduction to narrative theory, I guess. It almost doesn’t fit the bill, because it looks back on the first generation of narratologists rather than including them in the meat of the book, the part about what narratology became, or what it is, in the “postclassical” phase. Or in 1998, anyway. It’ll do.
I find a good tree, some good grass, and sit. Curiosity makes me flip to the library due date stamps (is that a paratext?) before I even look at the text. This baby gets checked out about once a year. No takers in 2004. Seems like a pretty busy life for a book of this kind though. What does it do all day when it’s not in some grad student’s pile? It waits. Here I am, Postmodern Narrative Theory. I’ve come for you. We might not like each other once the exchanges begin (for what student doesn’t mentally or marginally complain at books?) but I’ve brought you out for a holiday. You should thank me. Here we go.
I begin at the beginning, which begins in the past (as most stories do). Currie’s introduction (Currie is the author, for books have authors as much as we might like to think of them as their own autonomous entities) covers the “death” of narratology in the 1980s, and its rebirth in the 1990s. To mix his metaphors up all nice and muddy-like, Currie suggests maybe narratology left behind its youth of excess and grew into, after a midlife crisis, its current mature self. I don’t think I buy that – death and rebirth works better. I don’t think there is anything less excessive about today’s narratology (not that that’s an all bad thing, but narratives of toothpaste tubes and the like are pretty damn excessive). What we agree on so far, Currie and I, is that narrative theory now encompasses something much broader than in the days when it simply looked at narrative structures and contraptions (Gorman’s word!) in the great works of Anglo, French, and Russian literature.
Currie makes a better argument for the validity and value of the ubiquitous narrative than most postmodernists would or could. And he should, if he plans to spend this whole book on just that. He cites those common examples of paintings, commercials, mainstream movies, and other more cringe-worthy narratives as evidence of plurality. (And “This,” says the conservative professor of literature, “is a slippery slope! Next it will be the narrative of the tot crashing his Hot Wheels cars together! Then fictive discourses of peanut butter jars! Bah!” And the slipping here is not so much a logical fallacy but what really seems to be happening on the narratological slope.) But Currie goes beyond this to more literature-friendly territory, citing philosophy (for don’t we read The Symposium as a story?), political tracts, psychoanalyses, etc., and he points out that storytelling is what we do. Narrative, then, is not everywhere just because postmodernists want to believe it must be there, but because we can’t help ourselves, we homo-fabulans – we put it there. Okay I’m listening, book. I mean Currie.
Currie then launches into a critique of practically everyone’s thinking on how we (literary folk) historicize criticisms and theories as they move into the past (Gorman will like this!). He tears the “fashion” model asunder, with its superficial take on what theories and schools of thought have to offer the discipline. He moves to the “paradigm shift” model, which is borrowed from the sciences. This gives past schools and theories more respect and “gravitas,” as Currie puts it, but still views them as obsolete. Like Newtonian physics. (But hey, apples still fall, right?)
So about this time, about page 12 that is, something dawns on me. He’s doing a narrative of narratology! So cool! (Wait, maybe I can write this paper into a story? I’m stealing it, Currie. We may get along after all.) So Currie, in good form, suggests a view different from those models that do not accurately describe narrative theory’s staying power, its contributions to and lasting impact on, and continuing impact on, the study of literature. The new narratology recognizes the pluralism of stories in the world, and does not seek to codify the stories or prescribe how they should be made. But Currie notes also the paradox that comes along with narratology and any theoretical approach claiming to be all-inclusive and ever-adaptive – the narratologists (ugh, still sounds like science!) need some standards, some “shared descriptive vocabulary” (14), and this will always work against the new narratology’s postmodern pluralistic self-image – narratology’s methodology “threatens to homogenize the heterogeneity it advances.” Deep, Currie. That’s a good one.
There ends the beginning, or the introduction, since as story-like as this part of the book is, the rest is actually a handbook. I’m spending too much time here on the introduction because it is so interesting, and should maybe take up half my space here because it covers the first chronological half of narrative theory. For the other half, I’m going to have to deal in summary and cursory reactions. Because I don’t like what I see coming.
The book is laid out in three parts, each part dealing with some major category of the objects of narrative theory. Part II and III look standard enough. The former: “Narrative Time and Space,” with all its expected subcategories – the aforementioned time-space compression, big and little narratives, accelerated recontextualization (which looks insane but made sense once I read it). These things I know as narrative things, having discussed them in class when we read Jane Austen. They make perfect sense, and Currie gives a good account of them. The latter: “Narrative Subjects,” again covers things I expect like self-conciousness, writing and seeing, inner distance, etc. While the categories of narrative theory here have a postmodern stench to them, their olfactory fruits also contain a bit of the barely-recognizable roses of first generation narrative theory (and now I’m guilty of thinking of that stuff nostalgically, as if I was there and as if it’s any “better” than what narrative theory is today). So what I’m getting at, then, is Currie’s categories have fancy names, and he doesn’t always look to great literature for examples, but he’s still doing a pretty darn good survey of what narrative theory entails and encompasses. To use simpler terms, how are time, inner dialog, distance, and focus constructed in narratives? These are questions narratologists asked in the 80s and still ask today.
A skim of Part II did give me one big question about what Currie is doing here. While ostensibly putting together a handbook, he nevertheless goes off on a tangent about narrative theory and politics. He discusses the arguments in the universities between two extreme views: professors who believe we should all be protesting in the streets and those who completely divorce literature from social context. This is some nice information, Currie, and what synchronicity considering Professor Gorman’s comments on politics at the university! But he takes a weird turn I don’t get. He says narrative theory should be, nay, must always be political. If I had to choose one kind of theory that I think could remain as apolitical as applesauce, I think it would be narrative theory. It’s story structures for God’s sake! What the hell is political about structures? The mechanisms? How stories are put together? You could make it political, no doubt. But by no means does it have to be that way. Currie, I’m starting to doubt you again, man! (I could write another paper on this idea, and I’ve put forth no great argument here, but back to the review thingy.)
My hopes not quite dashed but a little confused by Currie’s asides in Part II, I head back to Part I to begin the chapter I didn’t want to begin. The Part is titled “Lost Objects.” Oh dear. The first section is titled “The Manufacture of Identities.” Double dear. The sub-sections of this part don’t look so bad – I can see that it’s about the bits of narrative that didn’t come up in II and III. Voice, point of view, ideology (discussed similarly to Schmid’s discussion of the linguistic plane of narrative). These are all good things that I understand. So I start to read. “Is our identity inside us, like the kernel of a nut?” Currie asks cutely. I’m betting he’s about to say no! Sure enough. “[P]ersonal identity is not inside us” (17). And so begins the discussion of the constructed identity, constructed by everything but a human being. You’ve lost me Currie! And you almost had me! This part of the book contains some of the most seemingly recognizable features of narrative theorizing, and you have to take care about how much stock you put in those titles upon titles that belie all that. Curries discussion of points of view for instance, uses an old (Booth, 1961) analysis of Emma to make its claims. This I can understand, but the manufactured selves I’m not sure I’m ready for.
A subsection of Part I worth praising is the (also) unfortunately titled “Terminologisation.” Currie discusses how terms are coined, and has a laugh at how jargony literary study has become. Literary scholars, he observes, “have the ugliest private language in the world” (33). I think business-speak is far fouler, but point taken Currie! He also talks about what kind of weight and authority we should give to terms, and covers discussions of language creating reality, affecting our reason, etc. Upon my cursory and resistant skim-reading of Postmodern Narrative Theory, I’ve decided this is the best section of the book. For narratology, and for any method of making discoveries in literature, we do need that “shared descriptive vocabulary” Currie mentions in the introduction-story. And also, like Currie demonstrates, we need to have a good sense of humor. (I’ll give him that.)
This thing is going back to the library tomorrow.