The Hermit Poet

March 31, 2005

Contemporary Literary Criticism as Cocktail Party

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:33 pm

It seems to me that the current state of literary criticism is like being at a very large cocktail party. Everyone is engaged in their own conversations, largely motivated by the need to seem intellectual, witty, and different. No one is really paying attention. Sometimes you might catch a word or two from someone else’s conversation and incorporate into your own, completely oblivious of the actual context of that reference. As the night wears on, participants get more drunk and wilder with their rantings. The worst ones are either completely shunned or raised up instead as the new focus of discussion. In the end, no one remembers what the party was about and little is taken away besides a brutal headache and the occasional meaningless liason.

The Postmodernist Problem

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:12 pm

After a week and a half of reading postmodern decontructivist and postcolonial literary criticism I am now completely convinced that postmodern literary critics must fall into one of two camps:

1) Willfully ignorant – eg. They deliberately ignore the fact that maintaining a postmodern deconstructivist stance means that their entire discouse is meaningless by the very nature of that stance. This makes them in some sense hypocritical — they really can’t believe this in its entirety if they still engage in the act of producing new criticism. Unless, of course, that act is mere “play” — merely the act of creating nonsensical texts for other willfully and/or truly ignorant readers.

Why bother writing criticism is the language and concepts are acknowledged as being completely arbitrary? If, as the postmodern stance maintains, there are only signifiers and no signifieds — how in the world do they intend to make sense? Or do they? Are they simply reveling in the production of nonsensical texts? Is the production of literary criticism the new “erotic” text — the act of creating it and re-creating it in reading a form of pleasure for a very select few initiates.

2) Truly ignorant - They really don’t understand what they are saying — which may actually be a self-fullfilling actualization of the postmodern stance.

In either case, why move towards obsfucation? Why muddy the waters further? I have seen so many terms which, rather than elucidate, eradicate meaning. The very blandness of the terms point to their arbitrary nature. The concepts behind them might be useful in understanding the various ways we as readers encounter the text, but if they are buried in obtuse definitions, who can actually understand them?

It seems as well that even other literary critics have difficulty understanding or apprehending the intended meanings behind these terms. On several occasions I have found the originator of a term harshly condemning the misuse and/or misappropriation of the term. And, as misapplications of that term increase, the term itself becomes less and less useful.

Even coining terms to develop a “common” language among critics is a little more than a modernist pipe dream. Isn’t the effort to unify the fragmented discourse a modernist impulse as opposed to a postmodernist one?

As a producer of texts (ie. a poet), I view the project of modern and postmodern literary critics as largely a failure. If, at its root, good criticism should facilitate a better understanding and/or appreciation of a text, how does the critic’s act of obscuring the machinery of his approach through complicated and ill-defined terms serve the producer of the text or the general readers of the text. Criticism as it stands today, largely privileges other critics — it seems a rather rooted in old school nepotism and cronyism.

Counterpoint - It might be argued that the creation of a new lexicon / jargon of technical terms is necessary to facilitate conversation. This might be true in the case of the sciences where there is a concrete and clearly understood signified. In literary and social theory this fails. So long as critics will argue on one hand of the arbitrary assignment of signifiers to often non-existent signifieds, and on the other hand demand that their discourse utilize a specific trade jargon, that there will always be a sense that they want both to have their cake and to eat it too.

March 25, 2005

CRATE: Spring 2005

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:52 am

The premiere issue of UC Riverside’s new graduate literary journal, CRATE, has just returned from the printers in all its shiny glory. All my many hours of doing layout and design work on it have finally come to an end (for this issue at least)

Here’s the front and back cover. The painting on the back is by Jill Giegerich.

CRATE (front cover)

CRATE (back cover)

March 21, 2005

Fault, Fragmentation, and Formations – Introduction

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:57 pm

Brenda Hillman’s Cascadia can be read as an enactment of the post-feminist idea of intertextuality — a term used by Kristeva to designate “the transposition of one or more systems of signs on to another which is accompanied by a new enunciative and denotative position” (Kelsey 1). In this case, Hillman transposes the semiotics of geology onto the field of poetics to create a textual space where ideas of post-feminism, alchemy, and cultural materialism can interact. This space is a textual representation of California. The poems that comprise Cascadia become representative not only of California in content, but also in form and dynamic. And as with California, the most prominent feature in these poems is the concept of the fault line, the transform boundary between shifting tectonic plates.


Of course, it’s actually hard to know if any reading of this text
is correct or even close, given my limited familiarity
with post-feminism and geology. Should the critic’s gender matter?
Should extended research be necessary in order to access or
appreciate what is happening in any poem? Are these poems written
for an ideal reader who possesses an extensive knowledge
of both post-feminist thought and geology? In grappling with the text
and trying to understand the source materials that Hillman hints at,
I have had to throw away more phallogocentric methods and
have tried instead to examine instead how these material touch
and retouch this discourse. So perhaps this is successful. Perhaps not.

Kelsey, Alice. “Introduction to Kristeva.” Writing Across the Curriculum. Northern Illinois University. 5 August 1996. 9 March 2005

Fault, Fragmentation, and Formations

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:53 pm

I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a rather involved paper exploring the composition and structure of Brenda Hillman’s Cascadia — a book of poetry that draws on California geology, post-feminist theory, and the ideas of alchemy. Any of these might have been sufficient to deal with, but what I wished to explore was the intersection of these things — the synnergy of their collisions and separations. In writing the paper I elected to follow Hillman’s use of geology as the main path while still looking at the other aspects (post-feminism and alchemy) as additional streams which feed the flow of the text.

I also realized that many of the ideas that were coming up had application to writing in general and so I thought it might be nice to include some excerpts of the paper for public consideration. I’ll offer these in short installments over the next few days.

As I wrote the paper, I also incorporated my own thoughts, misgivings, and doubts as a critic in right-aligned blocks — these are represented in the blog entries as block-quoted sections. It seemed to me that any linear approach to looking at Cascadia would ultimately undermine the post-feminist ideas of intertextuality and multiplicity — in order to better reflect the multiple possible readings of the text, I felt that as a critic I would also have to acknowledge my own guesswork and assumptions, proposing other reads as they occurred.