Monthly Archives: May 2012

Are Writers Afraid of the Dark–Part II: Salman Rushdie’s contradictory views of censorship

A brief follow up on my post from earlier today responding to Tim Parks’s notion over at the New York Review of Books that literature is actually characterized by fear and withdrawal from life rather than engagement with us.  Later in the day I read Salman Rushdie’s post at the New Yorker on Censorship, a redaction of his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture delivered a few days ago.  Rushdie brings out the idea that, indeed, writers can be afraid, but it is a fear born from the fact of their writing rather than their writing being a compensation for it.  Censorship is a direct attack on the notion of the right to think and write and Rushdie brings out the idea that this can be paralyzing to the writers act.

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.

via Salman Rushdie’s PEN World Voices Lecture on Censorship : The New Yorker.

Rushdie goes on to chronicle the martyrs of writing, who have had a great deal to be afraid of because of their writing (a point made in responses to Parks’s blog as well).

You will even find people who will give you the argument that censorship is good for artists because it challenges their imagination. This is like arguing that if you cut a man’s arms off you can praise him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth. Censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves. The work of Ai Weiwei survives; the artist himself has an increasingly difficult life. The poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea by a displeased Augustus Caesar, and spent the rest of his life in a little hellhole called Tomis, but the poetry of Ovid has outlived the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam died in one of Stalin’s labor camps, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was murdered in Spain, by Generalissimo Franco’s goons, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived the fascistic Falange. So perhaps we can argue that art is stronger than the censor, and perhaps it often is. Artists, however, are vulnerable.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/on-censorship-salman-rushdie.html#ixzz1vMorpS00

This is powerful stuff, though I’ll admit I started feeling like there was an uncomfortable contradiction in Rushdie’s presentation.  Although Rushdie’s ostensible thesis is that “censorship is not good for art,” he goes on after this turn to celebrate the dangerousness of writing.  According to Rushdie, all great art challenges the status quo and unsettles convention:

Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/on-censorship-salman-rushdie.html#ixzz1vMpu97Bt

It remains unclear to me how Rushdie can have it both ways.  If Art is going to be revolutionary, it cannot possibly be safe and it cannot possibly but expect the efforts to censor.  If there is no resistance to art, then there is no need for revolution, everything will be the safe middle ground, and there will be no possibility of great art.

I am not sure of which way Rushdie wants it, and I wonder what my readers think.  Does great art exist apart from resistance and opposition?  If it does not, does it make sense to long for a world in which such opposition does not exist?  Does Rushdie want to be edgy and pushing boundaries, but to do so safely?  Is this a contradictory and impossible desire?

You can also listen to Rushdie’s lecture below:

Are writers afraid of the dark?

In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

(via Instapaper)

I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is.  In some sense literature is a coping mechanism.  I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside.  It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is?  Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do.  Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding.  There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!”  Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution.  Well.  The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.

Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects.  It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living.  Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life.  Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera.  Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps.  It would be better to ask what we would do without them.  The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves.  It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched.  It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.

Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter.  The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.

Celebrating the liberal arts in the marketplace (cautiously)

A new survey of 225 employers just out emphasizes the continuing value of the liberal arts in the employment market.

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

via Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts – Daily Brief – Portfolio.com.

I don’t particularly like the soft skills/hard skills dichotomy.  However, this fits my general sense, blogged on before, that the hysteria over liberal arts majors lack of employability is, well, hysteria.  Something manufactured by reporters needing something to talk about.

At the same time, I think the somewhat glib and easy tone of this particular article calls for some caution.  Digging in to the statistics provided even in the summary suggests that liberal arts majors need to be supplementing their education with concrete experiences and coursework that will provide a broad panoply of skills and abilities.  50% of employers, for instance, say they are looking for students who held leadership positions on campus, a stat before which even engineers and computer scientist but kneel in obeisance.  Similarly, nearly 69% say they are looking for coursework relevant to the position you are pursuing.  My general sense is you can sell you Shakespeare course to a lot of employers, but it might be helpful if you sold Shakespeare along side the website you built for the course or alongside the three courses you took in computer programming.

Generally speaking, then, I think these statistics confirm the ideas propounded by the Rethinking Success conference in suggesting that students really need to be developing themselves as T-shaped candidates for positions, broad and deep, with a variety of skills and experiences to draw on and some level of expertise that has been, preferably, demonstrated through experiences like internships or project-based creativity.

Speaking of Rethinking Success, the entire website is now up with all the relevant videos.  The session with Philip Gardner from Michigan State is embedded below.  It was Gardner who impressed me by his emphasis that students need to realize that they either need to be liberal arts students with technical skills or technical students with liberal arts skills if they are going to have a chance in the current job market.

Dreaming of Heaven? Connection and Disconnection in Cathy Davidson’s Commencement address at UNC

Cathy Davidson and I crossed paths very briefly at Duke what now seems ages ago, she one of the second wave of important hires during Duke’s heyday in the late 80s and 90s, me a graduate student nearly finished and regretting that I didn’t have a chance to have what the graduate student scuttlebutt told me was a great professor.  I was sorry to miss the connection.  And its one of the ironies of our current information age that I am more “connected” to her now in some respects than I ever was during the single year we were in physical proximity at Duke:  following her tweets, following her blog at HASTAC, checking in on this or that review or interview as it pops up on my twitter feed or in this or that electronic medium.

I’m sure, of course, that she has no idea who I am.

In the past several years, of course, Davidson has become one of the great intellectual cheerleaders for the ways our current digital immersion is changing us as human beings, much for the better in Davidson’s understanding.  Recently Davidson gave the commencement address at the UNC school of Information and Library Science and emphasized the the ways in which our information age is changing even our understanding of post-collegiate adulthood in the ways it enables or seems to enable the possibility of permanent connection.

How do you become an adult?   My students and I spent our last class together talking about the many issues at the heart of this complex, unanswerable question, the one none of us ever stops asking.  One young woman in my class noted that, while being a student meant being constantly together—in dorms, at parties, in class—life on the other side of graduation seemed dauntingly “individual.”  Someone else piped up that at least that problem could be solved with a list serv or a Facebook page.  From the occasional email I receive from one or another of them, I know the students in that class came up with a way to still stay in touch with one another. 

 In the fourth great Information Age,  distance doesn’t have to mean loss in the same way it once did.  If Modernity—the third Industrial Age of Information—was characterized by alienation, how can we use the conditions of our connected Information Age to lessen human alienation, disruption of community, separation, loss?  I’m talking about the deep  “social life of information,” as John Seely Brown would say, not just its technological affordances.  How can we make sure that we use the communication technologies of our Age to help one another, even as our lives take us to different destinations?  How can we make sure our social networks are also our human and humane safety net?  

via Connection in the Age of Information: Commencement Address, School of Information and Library Science, UNC | HASTAC.

At the end of her address Davidson asked the graduates from UNC–ILS to stand and address one another:

And now make your colleague a promise. The words are simple, but powerful, and I know you won’t forget them:  Please say to one another, “I promise we will stay connected.” 

There’s something powerful and affecting about this, but I’ll admit that it gave me some pause, both in the fact that I think it is a promise that is fundamentally impossible to keep, even amidst the powers of our social networks, and in the fact that I’m not sure it would be an absolutely positive thing if we were able to keep it faithfully.

The dream of permanent and universal connection, of course, is a dream of heaven, an infinite and unending reconciliation whereby the living and the dead speak one to another in love without ceasing.  But there are many reasons why this remains a dream of heaven rather than fact of life, not least being our finite capacity for connection.  According to some cognitive theorists, human beings have the capacity for maintaining stable relationships with at most about 200 to 250 people, with many putting the number much lower.  I am not a cognitive scientist, so I won’t argue for the accuracy of a number, and I cant really remember at the moment whether Davidson addresses this idea in her recent work, but to me the general principle seems convincing.  While the internet might offer the allure of infinite connection, and while we might always be able to add more computing power to our servers, and while the human brain is no doubt not yet tapped out in its capacities, it remains the case that we are finite, limited, and….human.  This means that while I value the 600 friends I have on Facebook and the much smaller congregation that visits my blog and those who follow me or whom I follow on Twitter, and a number with whom I have old-fashioned and boring face to face relationships in the flesh, I am meaningfully and continuously connected to only a very few of them comparative to the number of connections I have in the abstract.  This leads to the well-known phenomenon of the joyous and thrilling reconnection with high school friends on Facebook, followed by long fallow periods punctuated only by the thumbs up “like” button for the occasional post about  new grandchildren. We are connected, but we are mostly still disconnected.

And, I would say, a good thing too.

That is, it seems to me that there can be significant values to becoming disconnected, whether intentionally or not.  For one thing, disconnection gives space for the experience of the different and unfamiliar.  One concern we’ve had in our study abroad programs is that students will sometimes stay so connected to the folks back home–i.e. their online comfort zone–that they will not fully immerse in or connect with the cultures that they are visiting.  In other words, they miss an opportunity for new growth and engagement with difference because they are unwilling to let go of the connections they already have and are working, sometimes feverishly, to maintain.

Stretched through time, we might say that something very similar occurs if it becomes imperative that we maintain connections with communities, with the relational self, of our past to the extent that we cannot engage with the relational possibilities of our present.  In order to be fully present to those connections that are actually significant to me–even those relationships that are maintained primarily online–I have to let hordes and hordes of relationships die or lie fallow, maintained only through the fiction of connection that my Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds happen to allow.

Of course, I don’t think saying any of this is necessarily earth shattering.  I am very sure that the vast majority of my Facebook connections are not pining away about the fact that I am not working hard at maintaining strong connections with every single one of them.  Indeed, I doubt the vast majority of them will even know I wrote this blog since they will miss it on their Newsfeed.  Indeed a good many of them are probably secretly annoyed that I write a daily blog that appears on their newsfeed, but for the sake of our connection they graciously overlook the annoyance.

On the other hand, I do think there is a broad principle about what it means to be human that’s at stake.  Connection isn’t the only value.  Losing connection, separation, dying to some things and people and selves so some new selves can live.  These are values that our age doesn’t talk much about, caught up as we are in our dreams of a heaven of infinite connection. They are, however, facts and even values that make any kind of living at all possible.

Writers whom we should only take as seriously as they took themselves

Yesterday in my comments on Carmen McCain’s post, I quoted Susan Sontag in all seriousness.  I might have thought better of doing so if I had bothered first to take in this image:

Susan Sontag Thinking Deep Thoughts

This from a collection of photos at Flavorwire of writers in various stage of un-work.  Mostly these folks do not look inebriated, but with Hunter S. Thompson, Papa Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut in the mix, I would remain none to sure. It is comforting to know that writers are people too, just like you and me.  Though I will say that unlike Hunter S. Thompson, I have never driven down the Vegas strip with a naked blow up doll sitting in my lap.  No doubt it is this kind of self-repression that is keeping me from being the writer I was meant to be.

Side Note:  A personal favorite is of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo working in the bathtub.  Which leads to a writerly twist on the drunken parlor game question:  Most unusual place you’ve ever done it?  Your writing, I mean?

Carmen McCain on the Politics of the Happy African Story

Messiah College had commencement today and it is always wonderful to see so many talented young people beginning their own journey in the world, making it, I am very sure, a better place than it would be without them.  I was glad in that context to get the latest blog from Carmen McCain, and to be directed to her latest article on African literature and culture at The Weekly Trust.  Carmen has a really strong meditation on the difficulties of writing about suffering in Africa, when suffering has been taken by so many in the West as being the only representative sign of African experience.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John wrote in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), “When I am told to tell a happy African story, I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

via The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.

I’m reminded in this exchange of the tensions that surrounded and still surrounds the literature of African Americans.  During the Harlem Renaissance, the period that I’ve focused on the most in my scholarly work, there were profound debates between those who felt it was the responsibility of artists to present positive and uplifting stories of AFrican American experience and those who wanted to represent the lives of average African Americans that were not always that uplifting.  This was partially the nub of the debate between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston proclaiming that she was not tragically colored and Wright accusing Hurston or more or less writing minstrel shows for white people.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to define what an appropriate answer to this dilemma is.  I’m not sure the representation of suffering necessarily provokes people to change.  I think it was Susan Sontag who argued that the representation of suffering in war photography inured our sensibilities to that suffering and made us more likely to ignore the war that was going on.  Nor am I sure that presenting positive and happy tales of uplift wins friends and influences countrymen.  It may do as much to invite boredom.  Carmen’s own response is as follows, focusing on truth-telling of whatever kind, and on the ways that literature, even and perhaps especially the literature of suffering, can give people equipment for living, can model for people ways to live their lives:

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Eloquent

(For any interested, Carmen blogs at A Tunanina)

Do all Canadian Professors wear funny robes and require a moderator? The Book Is Not Dead [jenterysayers.com]

Jentery Sayers at the University of Victoria posted a really interesting video set from a debate the humanities faculty put on about the book or the death thereof.  Couldn’t help being interested since it’s what’s absorbed me generally for the past several years, and since we here at Messiah had out own symposium on the book this past February.

I embedded one video below with part of Jentery’s speech–unfortunately split between two videos, and Jentery’s head is cut off some of the time, a talking body instead of a talking head.  The whole set is on Jentery’s website and apparently somewhere on the University of Victoria and of course on YouTube.  Worth my time this evening, though perhaps it says something about me that I am spending my time on a Friday night watching Canadian professors dressed in robes and addressing one another as “Madame Prime Minister” and “Leader of the Opposition”. Better than Monty Python.

The event is described as follows:

 As independent bookstores close their doors, newspapers declare bankruptcy and young people are more familiar with negotiating digitized data, it seems that the era of the printed word may be on it’s way out. Indeed, the emergency of digital humanities research seems to imply that, even in the most book-centric fields, the written word may be obsolete. Join us for a good-humoured look at whether the book is dead or if rumours of its demise are premature.

via The Book Is Not Dead [jenterysayers.com].

Takeaway line from Jentery:  “New Media Remediates Old Media”.  I’m still unpacking that, but I like Jentery’s general sense of the commerce between the traditional Gutenberg book and New Media.  It does seem to me that in a lot of ways this interaction between media forms is really what’s happening right now.  Every book published has a web site, a Facebook page, and the authors interact with readers via twitter and personal blogs.  A lot of what goes on in new media is repackaging and mashups of old media.  I do think though that its also the case that old media repackages new media as well.  Movies end up as books, and blogs become books that become movies.

It seems to me that our divisions between English and Film/communication/digital media might make less and less sense.  Would it make more sense to imagine books as such as “media” and simply have media studies, rather than imagining these things separately.

Other memorable line was someone quoting McLuhan.  “Old technologies become new art forms.”  Or words to that effect. I think this is right, and in the long haul I keep thinking this may be the destiny of the traditional book, though i could be proven wrong. I think book binders could be a growth industry, as well as publishers that specialize in high end book products.  I’ve mulled over the question of the book becoming an art object several times before, so I won’t bother to do it again here.

Side note:  Jentery Sayers was extremely generous with his time, attention, and intelligence in engaging with a number of faculty and students at Messiah College last week.  A lot of good ideas and great energy even if the computer hook up was less than desirable. Much appreciated.  The clip of Jentery’s speech is below: