Unnatural Acts

Unnatural Acts

I received so much material in the last few days for my project that its hard to keep track of. I keep getting lost in the minutiae of it all, along with several new software packages to try to help me keep things straight. Merry Xmas to me, and all that. Strange confluences keep popping up so fast that I’ve got to at least note the web related ones so I can come back to them later.

Steve Himmer noted something about Henry Wallace a few days ago and then today I encountered another article about the presidential race of 1948 which continued the theme. I was doing some research on the Southern Agrarians and then of course, the next day, Wood s Lot provided links to a bio of John Crowe Ransom and some poems. It’s nice when things work out this way. I haven’t really begun to process that part of things yet, but I’ve been reading a lot about it and eventually I’ll have to spit it out. But another link from there lead me to at least to try to sketch something I was thinking about regarding “the resistance to theory.”

Silence of the Critics was strangely appalling to me. David Herman laments the loss of critics like F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot, “the golden age of criticism.” I read a lot from those guys a few years ago, when I was working more with the Romantics. I hated them. They used flip rhetoric to dismiss and denigrate anything that wasn’t either 17th century or high modernist. They had goggles on so thick that it seemed incredible to me that they could function in the real world, where literature actually thrives on and depends on context. I’ve learned to get over that chip on my shoulder a little bit, and thinking of those guys again brought something into focus. It made me think of the relationship of critical schools to speech-act theory [bear with me on this].

The fundamental why behind any communicative act is to provoke an effect. Speech-act theory splits this into three phases— locution, illocution, and perlocution. Locution is the utterance itself; the ground in which the “new critics” like Empson, Leavis, etc., staked out their ground. It’s actually a lot like hard-core scientific linguistics— useful, but rather dry and boring. New critics refused to deal with any concept of intention on the part of the speaker/author. That is in the realm of the illocutionary act. Of course, New Historicism, and later schools attempted to add back in context and usually infer a motive for why the speaker would craft an utterance— a guess at what the intention might be based on genre, etc. Oddly enough, many postmodern critical strains have much in common with the New Critics in that they want to remove individual intention from the equation— communicative acts are rooted in the social and market forces that created them, rather than any motive on the part of the author (Benjamin anticipates much of this). What is important to most postmodern accounts is not what was intended, but what actually happens as the result of a text— the perlocutionary sequel.

To twist this observation mercilessly, what is going on in the locutionary and perlocutionary level does not involve an “author” in the slightest— in other words, no “agent” for the action. One level is linguistic, and the other level is sociological. No one wants to confront the concept of agency much. In writing, a sentence which has no agent for its action is called passive voice. It’s discouraged, except in cases where you want the utterance to recede from the rest of the text. The “silence of the critics” that Herman laments is not silence at all, but a passive drone of a life free from the presence of people. That’s why both the New Critics he loves— and the Postmodernists he hates— are, to me at least, just flat out boring. Don’t get me wrong— I find both approaches to be useful in many circumstances, but it just doesn’t generate “edge of the seat thrills” for reading.

Writing without people is an unnatural act.

2 thoughts on “Unnatural Acts”

  1. I’ve been thinking, too, about the way in which postmodernists mirror the New Critics. As you say, they both remove the person of ‘author’ from the equation, but I may find the removal of ‘reader’ more disturbing. The manner in which the New Critics (esp. Leavis) reduced the reader to a chain of physiological events, and comprehension to, ultimately, canonical indoctrination isn’t such a far cry from the postmodernists’ contention that reader are little but chains of prior signs and mythologies triggered by the always already familiar (re)event. I tried to address this recently writing about Flann O’Brien. While, like you, I find much of use in postmodernism and (occassionally, though I almost hate to admit it) in Leavis or Eliot, I know that I would be paralyzed and muted if I listened to either group more than is necessary.

  2. Nice link to info on the 1948 Presidential election, Jeff … specifically the bits on candidate Wallace, detailing how the leftist agenda suffered setbacks where it was linked to communism, and even to the perception of being so linked.
    The Southern Agrarians are a case in point, as you must know.
    In some research of my own about a year or so ago, I discovered that the federal move in the late 1940s to create a housing program, and what became HUD, was decried by some as an affront to states rights and an insidious communist plot … it was a good socialist program, of course. The anti-housing folks coincidentally happened to be racists, segregationists. Apparently they viewed even segregated federal housing projects (they weren’t called projects then, however) to be too much for their lily white consciences (and taxes) to have to bear. The distance from segregated federal housing projects to integrated to all kinds of inclusivity for people regardless of race, sex, etc. was too slippery a slope for these folks.
    I found this out from reading in the archives of several Arkansas newspapers of the period. (One of the first HUD programs was in Arkansas, and big federal bucks, matching grants, flowed this way.)
    Other people came to suspect the housing program was a means of displacing poor people, especially African Americans, and destablizing black communities — this was in fact, sadly, ironically, exactly what happened. One of the first things that the state and local housing authority boards did after being chartered was not to erect new housing but to institute “slum clearance” and “urban renewal.” The idea apparently was to raze substandard areas before building new housing. Hundreds of houses inhabited by poor blacks in Little Rock were torn down and many black-owned businesses in a centralized area were “relocated.” Temporary housing for displaced people was not capable of accommodating the vast numbers of uprooted poor people (again, mostly blacks). Slum clearance broke the back of African American business community and it uprooted neighborhoods, in Little Rock as throughout other cities across the country.
    (The number of housing “units” erected after razing substandard dwellings was never able to accommodate all the displaced — i.e. homeless — people.)
    I’m not a history scholar & I haven’t refreshed my memory since doing this research a year ago (actually two years ago), so I must apologize for rather fuzzy info. But my own summation of what I found out is that there was an opportunity missed, or derailed, for urban blacks to have joined the rural unionists and leftists in one very powerful bloc — because urban blacks were destablized and distracted by the immediate problems presented by “urban renewal.”
    Meanwhile, the rural leftists were accused of being communists (and in some cases, they were). They soon went the way of the dodo bird, in the “open shop” environment of Arkansas at any rate.
    This is a possible backdrop, or context, for O. Faubus in 1950s moving away from what were seen as communist sympathies to an overt & now-infamous racist agenda, in order to save his political ass.
    So, speaking of perlocutionary force, it’s interesting to look at a little history of the coded language of an oppressor group trying to hang onto its privilege and power (aka, whites) … could the Cold War and its rhetoric have had anything to do with cloaking a war on civil rights on the home front? (cf Paul Robeson and James Baldwin and others)
    To return to Trent Lott: racist people such as Lott have gotten a lot of mileage in the USA out of playing the good patriot game — i.e., being anti-communist, and now that the Cold War is over, simply anti-left, I suppose. (See Paul Greenberg’s anti-left editorial in Sunday’s 12/22 issue of The ArkansasDemozette for further example.) The full story of the 1948 election now makes me understand Sen. Lott’s resignation notice was, when he spoke of doing what was best for the country, not just vague hokey white Southern gentleman claptrap. It was specifically “loaded” with the specifically “coded.” Good patriot, indeed.

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