Sean McCann “‘Down to the people’: Pynchon and Schlesinger ‘after the imperial presidency’”
Ever wonder what might happen if novels could be presidents? Sean McCann wants us to – or at least to consider how novelistic form and argument might resonate with resilient fantasies about executive political office in the United States. McCann’s analysis pivots around Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 coruscation of fascist imperialism in its international but also pointedly American incarnations. McCann begins by noting a “relatively obvious” yet “rarely noted” aspect of the novel: that it “is organized by its evident disappointment in presidential leadership” – a disappointment signaled or indeed epitomized by the figure of Richard Nixon. Such disappointment, we see, textures political culture in modern America more generally, where expansive desire for presidential leadership and intensive dismay at the failure of that leadership have tended to pulse together. McCann reads Gravity’s Rainbow alongside Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s The Imperial Presidency (from the same year) in order to track the intimate if also dissonant ways these two texts reckon the dangers of presidential power in the tendencies of the imperial ‘warfare state.’ The genealogies of New Frontier liberalism and New Left radicalism loom large in McCann’s account – antagonistic movements nonetheless conjoined, as McCann shows, by a shared sense of “the constraints of bureaucratic government and the revitalizing potential of charismatic leadership.” What makes Gravity’s Rainbow so striking in this context is not just its withering view of the “inevitable mutual corruption” of leaders alongside bureaucracies, but also, and more so, its “rhetorical or therapeutic ambitions toward its readers.” Thus for McCann the novel constitutes aesthetic artifact as executive agent: “Pynchon casts his novel in something much like the role of charismatic leader invoked by New Frontier liberals and New Leftists alike,” precisely so as “to exhort us all to develop the admirable capacities of leaders.”
Led by the novels we read? Given the state of executive power in so many places today, we could do – because we have done – much worse.
Aaron Kunin “Facial Composure and Management in Behn’s Novels”
Is the truth of a person on the inside or the outside? Is the purpose of fiction to reveal such truth? Is a discrepancy between inside and outside a character flaw or an aesthetic flaw? Aaron Kunin finds historically peculiar answers to these questions in the amatory fiction of seventeenth-century writer Aphra Behn. Positing cosmology rather than psychology as the governing trope for personality, Kunin argues that the cosmology produced by Behn’s the Fair Jilt (1688) inheres “at the outermost surface of the person”—it is here where both truth and value are located. Behn is exploring the “powerlessness of internalized subjectivity” and the impossibility of externalizing intention as action. The essay’s reading hinges on the distinction between chance and management. It argues that Behn locates personal identity in the management of surfaces, and a cosmology of superficially connected persons and universes flows from this. In an ingenuous analysis of Behn’s penchant for “or,” the essay argues that Behn presents a series of alternate parallel universes, but these universes are all surface, and none of them are privileged. Behn’s idea of “management”—which seems to be a precursor to modern notions of the word—suggests that human experiences and other “modes of communication between two worlds” happen as a result of surface-level management. Neither chance nor a deity governs this cosmology–religious experience, like everything else, happens on the surface, and facial composure alone brings meaning to surfaces and facilitates communication between surfaces. This is why, Kunin suggests, Behn prefers chance to management, and why we might too.
Kenneth Warren – What Was African American Literature
In What Was African American Literature? Kenneth Warren claims that African American literature, at least as a period in literary history, is over. He argues that what we have called African American literature was produced in response to Jim Crow America, and while he readily admits that institutionalized racism persists, he also suggests that our age’s lingering emphasis on proportionality as a sign of racial justice has actually further entrenched the inequalities that we’d like to think we’ve been overcoming. He even goes so far as to contend that, as a discourse, African American literature itself seems to hold to a sense of racial disparity that ultimately does more to serve a black (and white) elite than it does to attain the racial equality it believes itself to be seeking. Provocatively concluding that it may be more productive to leave some racial history aside — because a politics of anti-racism may, in fact, do less to alleviate inequality, racial or economic, than a politics of race that understands its more complex entanglement with issues of class and economics — Warren has us looking towards his next book, You Can’t Get There From Here, for a lengthier explication of the neoliberal forces that intersect with, and inform, the contemporary politics of race in America.
Jennifer Ashton “Labor and the Lyric: The Politics of Self-Expression in Contemporary American Poetry”
Ashton’s essay is an examination of “the persistence of the lyric in the last half century” (217). She is quick to signal the shifting conditions of academic work in the age of the neoliberal university when she asserts that at stake in lyric’s persistence is nothing less than “the political economy of the poem in our time” (217). While critics have declared lyric a “distorting lens,” Ashton deliberately performs lyric reading that “see[s] lyric self-expression everywhere” in order to reveal obscured material social relations (218). Her interest in the relation between labor and the lyric leads her to consider the narrowing gap between self-expression and human capital. She demonstrates how contemporary poetry, even that which is expressly antilyric, is “committed to the liberal (and now neoliberal) value of self-expression” (219). In recent years, there has been an influx of poetry volumes underscoring the precarity of their own production (225). In response to this trend, Ashton asks: “what does an art unsubsumed by capital look like?” (226). She turns to Tao Lin, whose work seems to offer “a revelation of the collusion between lyric and capital” (226). Through the deployment of both lyric expressivity and “a highly controlled manipulation” of the commodity form itself, Lin’s poetry delineates the distinction between “the intentions of the artist and the desires of the consumer” and so also “insists on the difference between its form and the commodity form” (226 – 227). Ashton calls for more poems like Lin’s, poems that “resist the human capital model” and with it lyric expressivity (229).