Critical sketches – II

Christopher Wood, Untitled (Helford), 1926
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By FÁBIO AKCELRUD DURÃO*

23 fragments about literature and contemporary life

Outline is a synonym for rough draft, a general outline drawing to be completed later. The sketch differs from the draft when it incorporates incompleteness. If it can be seen as lazy, it can also be seen as an invitation. Attempt to translate everyday experiences into a concept. Producing a type of writing that welcomes conversation, here thought of as a privileged form of intersubjectivity, a being-together.

 

1.

The more provincial the university, the more pompous the graduation of the students; the more inland, the greater the solemnity of the events organized. The disproportion between the pomp – master of ceremonies, national anthem (with hand on chest) – and what actually happened in the studies demonstrates an exteriority in the relationship with knowledge, which, absent, is seen as worthy of the greatest reverence. The opposite of this is extreme familiarity, which dispenses with the ritual not only because of its heteronomous relation to the object, but also because of the impatience it generates, the time it consumes, which could already be dedicated to the issue at hand. The problem here is the risk of blindness in relation to the position of knowledge in society, which, given the infantilizing empire of the cultural industry, would indeed be something worthy of the highest reverence.

 

2.

Any name, when seen up close, is comical. The inescapable haughtiness of what one wants to separate succumbs to the myriad of uncontrollable and incoherent phonemic and semantic associations. Nicknames are an attempt to anchor the sound to a tangible characteristic; although they are often an expression of affection, it is difficult to avoid structural violence, witness to the individual's weakness in the face of the environment: there will always be something flawed, nicknameable in the person. Lucky are those who manage to build with others a limited network of references, from which a name emerges. Love is a form of sedimentation.

 

3.

The consolidation of the cultural industry made literature a branch of business not so different from any other. With that, literary life largely took refuge in the public university, a space still free enough for the objectivity of the object to emerge as such, regardless of the person's opinion or taste, or the need to obtain profit. The bill, however, came with the obligation to treat literature as a vehicle of knowledge, which it undoubtedly is, but not uniquely and necessarily. It starts to be conceived under the aegis of research. The result is imposed as a horizon, which will always be there (it makes no sense to write an article to say that nothing has been discovered); reading is subjected to a dynamic of means and ends, which individualizes too much both at the beginning (in the idea of ​​the field that regulates the approach) and at the end (in the obligation to make clear the contribution of the study carried out). It would hardly be otherwise, as society would hesitate to support teachers who apparently give nothing in return, whose writings bear the mark of amateur universalism. Research is the institution's commitment to imagination: it is a workaround for culture.

 

4.

The implications of this for training are obvious. To an emphatic ideal of culture was associated the construction of a bibliographic baggage, an extensive set of works that, although expandable, would constitute the base from which the reflection would rise. This relationship of disinterest is absent in the research, for whom reading and use are almost synonymous (“it didn't do me any good” is a frequent comment by the researcher in the face of books that are often interesting). It is true that for the scholar the accumulation of texts generally took place within the normative horizon of high culture – which seems to us more artificial and inorganic now in its decline; there was, however, enough internal differentiation in the tradition for the scholar to construct a position of his own. As his repertoire is limited to what he writes about, the researcher has the soil of his imagination, whether living with the work of his peers (which is sterile), or the mass culture in which he grew up (which never ceases to be honest). The intellectual's challenge today is to become the Baron of Münchhausen, who rises by pulling his own hair: to graduate while reaping the fruits of training.

 

5.

Postcolonial Studies have as their fundamental assumption an incommunicability, an almost ontological incompatibility between developed countries and the Third World. Culture plays a central role in this distorted view, as it allows geographically dissimilar practices and manifestations to be interpreted as pointing to incommensurable ways of being.[I] This inflation of culture – in itself an interesting phenomenon, which displaces representations of culture as something fragile and that needs to be preserved – this swelling obscures the radical universality of the commodity form, which reigns supreme, in a more or less developed way, in São Paulo. Paulo, Arwal, Shijiazhuang or Hibberdene. However, I realized the partial truth of Postcolonial Studies when, at a barbecue, a friend told me, upon hearing something by Tchaikovsky, that the music reminded her of a Walt Disney cartoon. In this reduction of sound to moving image resided a profound lack of familiarity with the most basic grammar of the tonal system, such as, for example, that the high is more expressive, that dissonance is resolved in consonance. Suddenly I saw, with the disappearance of the possibility of music as a language, an abyss between me and her, a few centimeters away from each other.

 

6.

For a critique of the critique of productivism

The condemnation of academic productivism has become a banality, one of those attitudes with which everyone seems to agree, but which, precisely for this reason, does not lead anywhere. It is surprising to see how people, sometimes intelligent, are satisfied with simply enunciating this commonplace, how they are not frustrated with the superficiality of their criticism, with the fact that it does not generate anything. One of the reasons for this intellectual blindness is the presence of a specific affect, a feeling of oppression, which gives importance to the subject, heroizes him (after all, he fights against an unjust system), at the same time that it can help him to justify your failure.

The attack on productivism, if consequent, should take into account at least the following aspects:

(a) Often the complaints against productivism are enunciated by productivists, especially when they publish about it. A performative paradox thus arises in which the speech act contradicts the content of what is said. The complaint against productivism coexists very well with it.

(b) In the Brazilian context, the great villain of productivism is Capes, a government agency that recruits researchers from the scientific community to work in the evaluation processes. The disrepute of the institution necessarily affects the colleagues who composed the committees. More than that, those who indulge in jeremiads against productivism give Capes too much importance, very easily placing it in the position of a superego: instead of an evaluating body responsible for the allocation of resources, it appears as an instance capable of essentially judging what is done in the area. This guardianship position hinders the emergence of the new, which, unexpected, is by definition that which cannot be anticipated by any evaluation. The last stage of this mindset is the establishment of an identity between the contours of the evaluation and those of the Area, which stifles the thought once and for all.

(c) The critique of productivism is a kind of self-fulling prophecy, because it relinquishes, from the beginning, ownership of writing. The critic strips himself of power (and responsibility) over his texts, because on the horizon there is an Other, who lurks, who ends up becoming the owner of what was written. This is the opposite of the ideal of research, the immersion in the object that makes everything else disappear.

(d) Productivism does not occur by coercion. In Brazil, there is no authoritarian body that forces university professors to produce. With a little distance, it is possible to realize that what is at stake, in reality, is very little. There are very few cases of professors who have a salary loss for not writing, and for those who publish and (theoretically) progress more easily in their careers, the difference is small. From Adjunct Professor I to Full Professor (with CNPq productivity grant), the salary only triples. Compare with a company, the gulf between employee on the production line and the CEO, or with other institutions, from soldier to general, from priest to cardinal. The university is still an egalitarian space. Even the wildest productivism does not lead to significant monetary gains; its profit is primarily symbolic. While there are opportunities here and there to earn money from speaking engagements or, rarely, selling books, most of the time the production only adds prestige to the name.

(e) The condemnation of productivism in Brazil obscures the national peculiarities, which assume a particularly positive relevance when compared with the European or American and Canadian context. In these places, university administrative posts are generally held by bureaucrats with little or no academic ideals; as a cause and consequence of this, the participation of the teaching staff in decision-making areas has declined significantly.[ii] As an anticipation, the imaginary construction of an oppressive productivism prepares the way for the situation in which it would be true.

(f) Censorship of productivism is abstract and makes it difficult to discuss content. It would be necessary to establish objective criteria to determine the minimum reasonable amount of writing for an academic, below which he would not be performing his role. There are good reasons to believe that what Capes suggests as a criterion (since it does not requires nothing, has no power for that) is not exorbitant. Intellectuals have to write: it is part of their function, an obligation in view of the investment made by society, of the trust placed in them that, by having autonomy, they will generate benefits for the community. Furthermore, in the humanities, writing, like the lecture, is a means of discovery; perhaps it would be possible to say that it would be equivalent to the laboratory in the exact sciences: there are things that only by writing do we know that we know. Criticism of productivism is often made as an excuse for laziness.

(g) Productivism has an aspect, let's say, active, that of the intellectual who wants to “occupy spaces”, and a passive aspect, that of the one who accepts an endless number of invitations. This would be important to keep in mind: productivism is a direct result of the expansion of the university system, which now has more graduate students (and consequently more stalls), more events (from small meetings to international congresses), more publication vehicles ( greatly helped by the emergence of the internet). Undoubtedly, such growth has problematic aspects, but the attack on productivism always runs the risk of being seen as a symptom of a repressed elitism, of the old days when there was only a small medium in which everyone was known.

(h) Productivism cannot be a condemnation beforehand against those who write a lot. What is problematic and harmful is not quantity taken in the abstract, but intellectual pollution, the fruitless repetition of ideas, the recycling of arguments, the rehashing of themes, salami articles, and, more seriously, the academic policy of mutual favoritism, of exchange of favours, of cliques, of gossip. While volume may support all of these practices, it is not their root cause. Academic opportunism existed before the expansion of higher education and will survive if (or when) the tide turns and it collapses.

(i) In the background of disapproval of productivism, there is often a great work, the result of a long period of composition. It is, in itself, incontestable, the ultimate goal of reflection in the humanities; however, it is interesting to note how it often occupies an absent position, as what could be done if there were no productivism empire. Furthermore, underlying this idea of ​​work is a sense of silence and isolation that need not be true. The great monographic book need not appear ex nihilo; it can be preceded by smaller publications, which already give rise to the discussion.

(j) As a resentful complaint, the critique of productivism is already enunciatively impotent; as a simple production of words, it thus shares the essence of what it criticizes.

 

7.

After a conversation with FT: It is a revealing phenomenon of the current state of literary theory that the critical discourse claims for works a boldness and daring that are often imaginary. As what matters is to forge new concepts, with an avant-garde face, ignoring everything that links the texts to their time and place of origin, there is often a mismatch between the complexity cutting edge of the theorist and a lack of pretense of the artifact, which often just wants to be. One desires from the object what it cannot give. However, the same spirit of the times that disallows the criticism that wants too much is the one that allows the work to become autonomous in a different figure, as something that gives more than we can wish for.

 

8.

You go to a party and when you meet someone new, you are almost always faced with the question, asked in the first five minutes of the conversation: what do you work on? It took a while before I managed to unravel the compound of my bewilderment properly. Firstly, the verb is strange and I resist giving the study the connotation of suffering present in “work”, from the Latin tripalium, an instrument of torture. Then comes the slightly stifling nature of the question, with the assumption that you study something. This hints at the exclusionary aspect of the American university, the fact that there are only students at parties. From another angle, however, the question fails for its simplification, as if it were easy to say what the problem developed in the research is. Only the existence of clearly delimited fields allows the object to appear so obvious, so succinctly communicable. It's the opposite with me, and usually when I try to explain my doctorate to someone, I seem to be describing a dream. Finally, what bothers me about this question is its unnecessary redundancy, because from direct contact with a person it shouldn't be difficult to understand what your question is.

 

9.

Difficulty is a multifaceted phenomenon. The simple exposition of a complex object does not do it justice, what it gains in communicability is compromised by the degeneration of the thing. Bringing to writing what is intricate in a text, allowing a kind of mimesis between work and interpretation, represents an emphatic ideal of reading. There are, however, other motivations for the theoretical difficulty. When detached from the artifact, it invariably points to a problem with the subject. I was once wrestling with an essay by a well-known critic, and I was able to overcome my irritation only by shifting focus from trying to understand the sense to understanding the style. The coherence between one sentence and the next was not direct, but mediated by the projection of how it could be taken: not A is B, but A is what people will think of A is B. Needless to say, the intermediate step was not motivated by any kind of concern for others; its nature was overwhelming, and B functioned as both a defense and an attack. I felt sorry for the critic, who had such an overwhelming superego, but later it passed when I thought about how oppressive this type of writing is for many readers, who blame themselves for their inability to understand. Curious how superegos communicate.

 

10.

Lacanian tragedy

Giving your all to understand a complex thought, to end up hermetically imprisoned within it, no longer a minimum of yourself; striving to master an intricate system, only to finally be mastered by it.

 

11.

The anthropomorphic plot is an offense to cinema as a technique.

 

12.

The applause was not long because the lecture had been good, but because there is an enthusiasm proper to relief.

 

13.

It is common for philosophers to describe the becoming of the world as the history of metaphysics, which it would be necessary to overcome, although this is perhaps in fact impossible. The sociologist says: “My children really believe in ideas too much”.

 

14.

Often, what appears to be intelligence in the speech of someone from another area is simply the result of different protocols of reasoning, coming from the own modus operandi of the discipline and its object.

 

15.

If life were literature, I'd want to live in a really bad novel.

 

16.

The most important development in recent literary theory, the one that has largely helped to make it what it is today, occurred through an operation at first obvious, if not tautological: reading texts, not as a result of the author's intention, nor as a result of the author's intention. as entities that refer to reality, but as linguistic objects. This is the common thread that connects early structuralism, from Barthes and Genette, to Derrida's deconstruction, and to the postcolonial studies of Spivak and Bhabha. Today it is possible to notice that, far from being a truism or even a pleonasm, this conception contains a paradox. The proposition that literature is like language is taken literally and referentially; by not perceiving the syntactic-rhetorical functioning of how, it is blind to its metaphorical character. Language/linguistics is one among many other interpretive codes that can be superimposed on works – to tell you the truth, it is not even the most interesting.

 

17.

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18.

The saturation of messages that marks the present, the result of deepening the logic of the commodity in the most microscopic pores of social life, made the absence of meaning inconceivable. Those who simply don't care about clothes are seen as connoting inattention to dressing, which in turn can be interpreted as a sign of "detachment", of something "cool”, or, on the contrary, from arrogance. This disappearance of use value in the face of a being-for-the-other generates an incompetence in dealing with objects directly, in trying to approach them spontaneously. One of the most disconcerting experiences I had as a professor was to see a graduate student re-signify what I said about a poem as being a successful strategy on the part of the author. The logic was curious: the more I pointed to the elements of the artifact's construction, characteristics that made it something interesting, the greater the cunning and malice of the author appeared in his quest for fame and prestige, impulses that were morally questionable because they were hidden, and that as such they were to be unmasked. It didn't matter what I said, the text already foresaw it in its eagerness for celebrity, and what I said only corroborated that damnable intention. Against this total inability to conceive of disinterest there was nothing to do – in the end I remained silent.

 

19.

You don't need such a great familiarity with the world of Literature to quickly realize that everyone loves literature. nihil against, obviously; nothing more natural than having affection for what you study and work with, the source of your daily bread. The problem is not so much the possible inauthenticity of the feeling (does everyone really like it as they say?), but what it projects as normative, as if it were indispensable to express appreciation, conspicuously manifest esteem, which, moreover, can easily lead to affectionate competitions . However, what is most deleterious here is the universe of meaning that love brings to the literary experience: as a historically bankrupt idea, it turns works into something innocuous at best, and at worst, saccharine, honeyed and sticky. Love here designates an ideal of harmony and reciprocity, originated in the subject, which is false, which does not correspond to either the reading or the interpretation, which must confront an alterity that is sometimes irreducible. Thinking about it, I remembered a friend who told how he hated art, how, in museums, he made a great effort not to shatter and reduce to zero all those statues and paintings, not all at once, but one by one, as that every artifact looked at him and seemed to tell him something.

(Addendum: When I told this story to the SG in London, he gave me a lecture lasting more than half an hour about different iconoclastic contemporary artists, including naming some who had already been arrested for trying to destroy the works of others. Of course it was It was frustrating to realize that what would seem interesting in Brazil was already commonplace in England. But that didn't make me any less fond of the idea, whose freshness, despite everything, I could still feel.

Comment from a friend: “Loving literature is perhaps not so bad; the tricky thing is finding yourself corresponded.”

 

20.

Idea for a critical-literary contest: a great work is chosen and the participants must rewrite it in such a way as to spoil it. Whoever manages to destroy more, and in the most concise way, wins. There's a lot of room for imagination and talent here.

(On second thought, in this moment of acute crisis, criticism could take over what the avant-garde discovered more than a hundred years ago: that a way for art to advance is its self-annihilation. Of course, it would be a tour de force, because the emphatic liquidation would have to be distinguished from commonplace and recurrent, from day-to-day ignorance, which is still a type of devastation, to academic philistinism, which hates literature, sometimes with refined nose. Interesting to note how even in extinction the opposites coexist.)

 

21.

On the impossibility of realism today (idea stolen from TT)

Given the universal scope of the commodity form, the penetration of products and brands into the smallest pores of social and psychic life, including objective language there, as well as the representation of the subjects themselves, any literary description of things as they are would necessarily fall into another discursive genre: it would become propaganda.

 

22.

Curse.

In the congress presentations there was no negativity. Literary works were displayed in praise. The good level of the speeches, as well as the scintillating installations, prevented the idea of ​​a fair. "I'm stuck in a program shoptime", I thought.

 

23.

With the fragility of culture in Brazil – the precariousness of teaching, the weakness of the national intelligentsia, the commodification of symbolic forms – the persevering average writer, after all, ends up being welcomed into the bosom of literature. Which is nothing short of a compliment to insistence.

A friend tells me: “As usual, you are being too optimistic, Fabio. Stubbornness as a victory of the self in the face of a weakened culture is an idealization, because it ignores objective factors such as adherence to groups that dominate the high culture industry in the country. Without your blessing, we won't go this far.” Let us then add to perseverance the virtue of well-wanting.

* Fabio Akcelrud Durão He is a professor at the Department of Literary Theory at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of What is literary criticism? (Parable/Nankin).

To access the first batch of fragments click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/esbocos-de-critica/?doing_wp_cron=1639746960.8139789104461669921875

 

Notes


[I] See Vivek Chibber. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verse, 2013).

[ii] Cf. eg Donoghue, Frank. The Last Teacher (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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