Tuesday, February 01, 2005

When I grow up, I want to be a Feuilletonist

John Holbo's latest complex (theoretical!) playful polemic against literary Theory is pretty formidable. I'm not quite sure I get how it all comes together, but I enjoyed learning about the plague of "feuilletonists" in 19th century print culture, the Glass Bead Game, and some beautiful quotes about unbelievable triviality, like this one:

The members of the audience at these lectures remained purely passive, and although some relationship between audience and content, some previous knowledge, preparation, and receptivity were tacitly assumed in most cases nothing of the sort was present. There were entertaining, impassioned, or witty lectures ... in all of them a number of fashionable phrases were shaken up like dice in a cup and everyone was delighted if he dimly recognized one or two catchwords. People heard lectures on writers whose works they had never read and never meant to, sometimes accompanied by pictures projected on a screen. At these lectures, as in the feature articles in the newspapers, they struggled through a deluge of isolated cultural facts and fragments of knowledge robbed of all meaning.

Holbo also makes a throwaway comment a little before dropping the above gem, which I take to be a metaphor for his take on the current culture of Literary Theory:

What follows sounds very much like one of those NYT MLA-bashing pieces. (But also like a description of the blogosphere, no? And much that is printed in the NY Times.)

MLA-bashing, yes. The blogosphere, quite likely. But what stopped me here was the extension of the feuilletonist franchise all the way to the NYT, which I read in quite a different way from the way I read the others.

Now, the NYT has its problems, but I'm troubled by an argument that frames the failings of literary theory, the blog world, and the mainstream print-media via the same metaphor. Holbo seems to say that we're all essentially playing the same game -- throwing around a bit of fluff, and calling it intelligence -- albeit at different registers.

I would argue that these spheres are structurally pretty different. Theory's problem, if it has just one problem, has something more to do with its strange vacuum-like quality; we spend a great deal of time worrying over the epigrammatic phrases found in a half-dozen books. Theory at its worst sucks language into a vortex of paranoid reasoning ("paranoid" in Eve Sedgwick's sense). The problems of the established and the 'informal' electronic media (blogs) are somewhat the opposite -- one sees a flood of low-level chatter, summarial generalizations, speculations, "information," and semi-rigorous argument. Theory is vertical and so forbiddingly structured that everyone in it is a kind of imposter. The print-media, in contrast, is (again, only at its worst) utterly structureless, a kind of protoplasmic soup.

Aren't there alternatives? Literary theory, for instance, could be a little less "high," a little less steep -- lower case "t." And as for the newspaper, I think there already is a fair amount of serious journalism out there (think: Sy Hersh vs. Tom Friedman). Perhaps it's just a matter of knowing how to filter out the bad kind of feuilletonist chatter...


John Holbo said...

Hi, Amardeep. Thanks for the link. I think the scope of some of my claims in the post wasn't really clear. (I slapped it together in a frenzy. That has costs.) I didn't mean to suggest that the bit you quote sounds like the NY Times. Certainly not. I meant only that some of the stuff - cute juxtapositions of high and low topics - could be analogs to funky pieces in the NY Times Sunday Magazine. Also, there is a sense in which, say, a Maureen Dowd column, or David Brooks wandering all innocently amongst the Bobos, is classically this way. A few bright isolated bits, but totally impoverished contextually and intellectually, yet with a veneer of intellectualism, which is really just intrusive personality. The feuilleton was a newspaper thing. Anyway, I was mostly trying to bend over backwards to make the point that although it is fun to make fun of the MLA by saying they are feuilletonists who dream of being Game plays - which I think is a funny point - they aren't the only folks playing some form of the game.

Mostly the long passages were the point. Such fun passages. Glad you liked them.

John Holbo,
Freelance Feuilletonist

8:17 AM  
eb said...

Incidentally, Rochelle Gurstein at the The New Republic is self-consciously trying to revive, or at least emulate, the "feuilletonists" of the 19th century.

Most of her earlier articles seem to be restricted to subscribers only, but you should still be able to read her one-paragraph description of what she's doing here.

3:17 AM  

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