Empire Burlesque: The Fate of Critical Culture in Global America

Empire Burlesque: The Fate of Critical Culture in Global America

by Daniel T. O'Hara

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Empire Burlesque traces the emergence of the contemporary global context within which American critical identity is formed. Daniel T. O’Hara argues that globalization has had a markedly negative impact on American cultural criticism, circumscribing both its material and imaginative potential, reducing much of it to absurdity. By highlighting the spectacle


Empire Burlesque traces the emergence of the contemporary global context within which American critical identity is formed. Daniel T. O’Hara argues that globalization has had a markedly negative impact on American cultural criticism, circumscribing both its material and imaginative potential, reducing much of it to absurdity. By highlighting the spectacle of its own self-parody, O’Hara aims to shock U.S. cultural criticism back into a sense of ethical responsibility.

Empire Burlesque presents several interrelated analyses through readings of a range of writers and cultural figures including Henry James, Freud, Said, De Man, Derrida, and Cordwainer Smith (an academic, spy, and classic 1950s and 1960s science fiction writer). It describes the debilitating effects of globalization on the university in general and the field of literary studies in particular, it critiques literary studies’ embrace of globalization theory in the name of a blind and vacant modernization, and it meditates on the ways critical reading and writing can facilitate an imaginative alternative to institutionalized practices of modernization. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytical theory, it diagnoses contemporary American Studies as typically driven by the mindless abjection and transference of professional identities.

A provocative commentary on contemporary cultural criticism, Empire Burlesque will inform debates on the American university across the humanities, particularly among those in literary criticism, cultural studies, and American studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In the spirit of Yeats, his tutelary figure, Daniel T. O'Hara gauges the state of America's imperial anarchy and puts forth an imaginative response, compounded from Foucault, Lacan, and Henry James. This is a defense of literature like no other.”—Jonathan Arac, Columbia University

Empire Burlesque provides a unique perspective on how much the globalism that, properly, should be ‘post-American' is actually another (re)production of America. It is impressive work.”—Patrick O'Donnell, author of Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative

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Duke University Press
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Empire burlesque

The fate of critical culture in global America
By Daniel T. O'Hara

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3019-9

Chapter One

Edward W. Said and the Fate of Critical Culture

I have read Edward W. Said's Reflections on Exile and Other Essays with mixed emotions. The essays collected in the volume cover thirty-five years and are, to a large extent, the summation of a career, and not just any career. Said's career, from the mid-1960s until the present moment, has been enormously influential. In fact, it has been formative of the intellectual and imaginative lives of many critics, particularly of my generation, in literary and cultural studies. Moreover, before his recent severe illness, during the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, Said had become a media figure, speaking eloquently, with reasonableness and passion, on behalf of political positions at the time representative of millions of people around the world. With the collection of these essays, it seems not only has a book been assembled but also one has been closed. No doubt Said's chronic leukemia makes this sense of closure more poignantly urgent than does his simply being a sixty-six-year-old public critic. In short, my sense of grateful indebtedness to Said's work and example is tainted with the sense of imminent loss, a loss both of the man and, even more selfishly, of the figure as it has performed its role in the critical culture of my generation. American criticism,to put it starkly, does not currently possess any comparable figure of intelligence, achievement, passion, or genius. Admittedly, this mixture of feelings on my part betrays a human, all-too-human, perspective, a selfish sorrow. I just cannot envision any literary or cultural critic in the future achieving a similar professional and public stature.

Beyond these self-involved considerations, another cause of my mixed feelings is the historical sense associated with these essays. By this I mean not their critical approach but their strangely dated quality, especially and paradoxically the two newest, previously unpublished ones: the book's introduction, "Criticism and Exile," and its final chapter, "The Clash of Definitions: On Samuel Huntington." This last essay serves as the book's de facto conclusion. Together, these two new pieces aspire to cover professional and geopolitical history from the Cold War to the new millennium, even as they frame a volume composed entirely of old work, none of which has been significantly updated. To be fair, several of these critical essays have become classics in literary and cultural studies and have received prestigious awards. Nonetheless, added to my personal ambivalence, is an intellectual conflict of a more impersonal sort.

I find "Criticism and Exile," the new introduction to the volume, anachronistic. As it outlines the current scene in criticism, it presents that scene as still being haunted by what things were like in 1978 when Said's third book, Orientalism, appeared. (His first two books, of course, were Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography [1966] and Beginnings: Intention and Method [1975].) That is, Said sees criticism today as still a contest between an emerging discourse of historical critique and political liberation performed by feminists, African Americanists, ethnic studies critics, postcolonialists, and so on, all of whom, at the margins of the profession, stand in opposition to the orthodoxy and hegemony of what he terms "the formalist consensus" (xx), which consists in New Criticism aligned to, and revised or refined by, deconstruction. Naturally, Said takes note of some of the progress of the multicultural critics in their challenge to the formalist consensus, but nowhere does he reflect on the obvious fact that he and his allies have won the contest, have in fact been ensconced for some time at the center of the profession. Said himself is a recent past president of the Modern Language Association. Instead, he suggests that the grip of the formalist consensus on the levers of institutional power is still tight: "Signs [of a strikingly different approach to formalism] emerging in the study of literature are strongly evident" in the various critical movements previously mentioned (xx), all of which, Said contends, base their approach, unlike their opponents, on the primacy and priority of experience over form. The historical irony of Said's remark, the featured contributor to the special issue of PMLA entitled "Globalizing Literary Studies" (January 2001) discussed in the introduction, strikes one like a truck. What it testifies to is the need, the drive, on Said's part to continue the rebellions of his critical youth long past the time when that response is decently appropriate.

Beginning in 1970 with Geoffrey Hartman's famous collection Beyond Formalism, American literary study has repeatedly been staging a radical break with formalism under the aegis of one newer criticism or other. And long ago this break was effected. Between traditional thematic approaches and the New Historicist approaches of identity politics, formalism has been swept away. To his immense credit, Said is often at his best when decoding the formal structures of literary and other texts, but he has nevertheless always argued for a contrapuntal reading of texts that submits formal analysis to the standard of historical experience as the final arbiter of critical judgment. As he discusses at length in "The Politics of Knowledge" (372-85) and demonstrates brilliantly in his essay on Moby Dick (356-71), however, contrapuntal criticism of a subtle and effective kind is a hard act for critical disciples to follow. The wavering balance in the interval between critical modes is an impossible place to occupy for very long.

The contemporary critical scene is dominated by an antiformalist, antitheoretical, and antiaesthetic orthodoxy, an institutional hegemony, every bit as repressive and exclusionary as any political regime or ideological state apparatus. By saying this, I don't mean to suggest that I think hegemony in any situation is ever completely uncontested. What I do mean to suggest is that within the profession of literary and cultural studies, the levers of power are in the hands of people who at most pay only lip service to the lessons of theory and the realities of form on their hasty ways to the simulacra of political critique or utopian vision that they believe they ought to embrace and promote. And Said's less-than-adequate performance here in facing this development helps to allow such hegemony to continue unchallenged by a voice that could have made an important difference. Admittedly, no one in literary and cultural studies today in America is executed for a devotion to, say, Paul de Man's work. But the ironic title of a recent publication, Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory, tells the whole sad tale. To make de Man acceptable now, he must appear to be at least vaguely "materialistic," even as he is recognized as a rather pathetic ghost persisting in the fading twilight of theory's heyday.

Nearly a third of the essays collected in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which contains forty-seven chapters, rehearse this story of theory's demise. Essays such as "Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community" (1982), "Michel Foucault, 1927-1984" (1984), "Michel Foucault and the Imagination of Power" (1986), "The Politics of Knowledge" (1991), "Identity, Authority, and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveler" (1991), "On Lost Causes" (1997), and the celebrated title essay, "Reflections on Exile" (1984), among others, track at once the supreme achievement of a critical career and the unmaking of any critical culture based intellectually on the principles of formalism and theory. What Said proposes as the highest principle of criticism is the existential foundation of experience-an admittedly problematic foundation indeed. The earliest essay in the collection, "Labyrinths of Incarnations: The Essays of Maurice Merleau-Ponty," originally published in a 1967 issue of The Kenyon Review, uncannily foretells Said's selection of critical foundations. I choose a passage as a case in point, virtually at random, from his introduction "Criticism and Exile":

The study of literature is not abstract but is set irrecusably and unarguably within a culture whose history influences, if it does not determine, a great deal of what we say and do. I have been using the phrase "historical experience" throughout because the words are neither technical nor esoteric but suggest an opening away from the formal and technical toward the lived, the contested, and the immediate, which in these essays I keep returning to again and again.... The point here, however, is that at present the study of literature has gone in two opposed and in my opinion ridiculously tendentious directions: one, into a professionalized and technical jargon that bristles with strategies, techniques, privileges, and valorizations, many of them simply verbal or "postmodern" and hence lacking in engagement with the world, or two, into a lackluster, ostrich-like, and unreflective pseudo-healthiness that calls itself "traditional scholarship." Historical experience, and in particular the experience of dislocation, exile, migration,

and empire, therefore opens both of these approaches to the invigorating presence of a banished or forgotten reality which in the past two hundred years has dominated human existence in an enormous variety of ways. It is this general and particular experience that my own kind of criticism and scholarship in this book are trying to reclaim, understand, and situate. (xxxi-xxxii)

This is not the occasion to elaborate on the problematic nature of experience as a basis for criticism, especially as Said puts it here. Suffice it to say, experience in an individual or a collective sense is as much the playing field of fantasy as it is the theater of historical reality. But this portrait of the current scene in American criticism-the simple opposition between tepid traditionalism and terroristic theory-caricatures the situation in 1978 much better than it describes that of today. Could it be that Said is out of touch with the fact that his side in the struggle for hegemony in the profession has won? Can he not know that his legions-the partisans of experience, particularly when the experience is of dislocation, alienation, and the exile occasioned by differences in identity and the politics derived therefrom-are in power? The critical establishment is Said's, certainly not Paul de Man's, not really ever R. P. Blackmur's, even if here Said treats de Man in passing with respect and Blackmur at some length with reverence and critical discrimination (246-67). How could this situation not in large part be the result of Said's own work? But any contest between theory and experience, formalism and history, is never a real contest at all, when these are the terms of the contest. Who would willingly embrace the skeleton of theory with pleasure when the body of experience so seductively beckons, as does the partially veiled face and bulging figure of "Dante in Exile" on the cover of Said's volume? (Said's name obscures Dante's eyes and thus the gaze they would form.) And yet, do we ever teach experience? In literary and cultural studies, don't we teach the linguistic, rhetorical, and cultural codes that constitute the historical schemata of our experience in the discourses that we use to speak to ourselves and to each other? And these schemata are never immediately given to our perception or to our critical reflection; rather, they must always be formally deduced, conceptualized by theory, so as then to be critically analyzed in speculative acts of reading that break up and mediate, for better or worse, the so-called natural flow of experience.

A critical culture that espouses Said and company's viewpoint on the foundational nature of experience is bound to lose its object of analysis, the symbolic order, as it dissolves into the endless mirages of the ersatz archives of imaginary experiences. This loss of its object of study may explain why criticism today, especially of Said's avowedly "secular" sort, cannot deal with the global resurgence of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise, which for the peoples and classes largely concerned could justifiably be seen as "the greatest single fact" of the last quarter of a century (xiv), and not as Said one-dimensionally puts it, "the migration and displacement" of millions of people as a consequence of global capital's policies. In fact, the resurgence of religion has been the most effective political reaction to the "development" projects of global capital during this period. Perhaps, for reasons of class identification and professional advancement, matters of religion and class are just too difficult for the partisans of experience to experience and so critically reflect on. One of the purposes of my argument in this book is precisely to produce a critical language and approach better able to register the realities of class and religion for the critic than that of New Historicist identity politics.

My mixed emotions, then, include not only admiration, respect, gratitude, and identification but also an anticipation of grief and an immediate sense of disappointment. Edward W. Said knows better than he writes here and has performed criticism better than what this book's introduction mounts for initial display. Many of the other essays here set a standard for criticism that indicts the introduction for its obvious blind spots and distortions. One wonders what he was thinking when he wrote it, or what he is thinking as he announces "a forthcoming book on humanism in America," in which he plans "to affirm the continued relevance of humanism for our time" (xxxi). Such humanism, as we have seen, would have to be nontechnical, jargon free, even antiprofessional, worldly or secular, and politically engaged, based on the overwhelming historical experience of the last century and a half, "the vast migration" of peoples into exile because of the emergence of a global economy and culture, with all the accompanying imperialistic realities and revolutionary prospects for resistance, liberation, and reconciliation, except those, of course, which are founded on popular revivals of religious visions. The ultimate goal of such critical humanism, as Said anticipates it here, would be the appropriate inclusion of all the world's peoples "within the same universe of discourse inhabited by Western culture" (xxvii). And so, what do I find wrong with this humanistic vision?

It has already come about. Through the telecommunications industry, virtually the entire world has been included "within the same universe of discourse inhabited by Western culture." And more and more, as the world's economy becomes a global consumer economy in ways increasingly appropriate to the avowed representations, the identity politics, of the world's peoples, such inclusion is becoming progressively more humanistic and secular, worldly. This is precisely why peoples not of the global class, nor of its faith in Enlightenment rationality, have turned in massive numbers to the religions of their ancestors for a vision of life outside "the same universe of discourse inhabited by Western culture." One of the reasons that many within the profession of literary and cultural studies have been turning to spokespeople for "the third culture," all those scientist-intellectuals such as Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, and Stephen Jay Gould who discuss the intellectual and spiritual questions of life, is because they at least do not shy away from confronting such ultimate metaphysical questions, however they choose to answer them. My point is that writing an essay entitled "Jungle Calling" in homage to the veritable pagan mystique of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan, as Said does here (327-36), is clearly not going to do the trick of satisfying the demand that a critic look candidly at his own present class status or religious bias. This piece, by the way, appears as creditable an enthusiastic performance as Adrian Leverkuhn singing with Harry Carrey "Take Me Out to the Old Ball Game." As Seamus Deane puts it in his review of Said's 1999 memoir Out of Place, "one of the strange effects of colonialism is often to defer an individual's recognition of natal culture and set in its place a simulacrum of both the natal and the imperial cultures that thereafter remains foundational, no matter how much it is exposed to a later critique." Coming to terms, in some depth, with the rich spiritual (as opposed to purely intellectual) legacies of Islam is not something that Said, originally a Christian Arab, has ever thought to do in public: too much of the people, too much risk of otherworldly thinking, perhaps? Or just too intimate?


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What People are saying about this

Peter O'Donnell
Empire Burlesque provides a unique perspective on how much the globalism that, properly, should be 'post-American' is actually another (re)production of America. It is impressive work. Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative
Jonathan Arac
In the spirit of Yeats, his tutelary figure, Daniel T. O'Hara gauges the state of America's imperial anarchy and puts forth an imaginative response, compounded from Foucault, Lacan, and Henry James. This is a defense of literature like no other.

Meet the Author

Daniel T. O’Hara is Professor of English at Temple University. He has written and edited a number of books including Radical Parody: American Culture and Critical Agency after Foucault and Lionel Trilling: The Work of Liberation. He is review editor of the journal Boundary 2.

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