Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers: Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements

Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers: Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements

by T. V. Reed

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T. V. Reed urges an affiliation between literary theory and political action—and between political action and literary theory. What can the "new literary theory" learn from "new social movements," and what can social activists learn from poststructuralism, new historicism, feminist theory, and neomarxism?
In striking interpretations of texts in four different genres—James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, and the ecofeminist Women's Pentagon Actions of the early 1980s—Reed shows how reading literary texts for their political strategies and reading political movements as texts can help us overcome certain rhetorical traps that have undermined American efforts to combat racism, sexism, and economic inequality.

This title is part of UC Press's Voices Revived program, which commemorates University of California Press’s mission to seek out and cultivate the brightest minds and give them voice, reach, and impact. Drawing on a backlist dating to 1893, Voices Revived makes high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship accessible once again using print-on-demand technology. This title was originally published in 1992.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520302334
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/08/2021
Series: The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics , #22
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x (d)

About the Author

T. V. Reed is Professor of American Studies and English at Washington State University.

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Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers

Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements
By T.V. Reed

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 T.V. Reed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07521-8

Chapter One

Literary Politics and the Poetics of Social Movements Reading Theory

The last several decades have witnessed numerous revolutions and counterrevolutions in literary, cultural, and social theory. The great upheavals of the neo-Marxist, feminist, structuralist/poststructuralist, postcolonialist era may not be over, but there is evidence that things are slowing down and that a new period is beginning. These theoretical revolutions have left in their wake a greater philosophical self-consciousness and rigor, a rich array of new tools of the trade, and a formidable body of work challenging existing systems of domination. They have also done important work in making it more difficult for conservatives to mask their political interpretations as neutral, commonsensical, transcendental, or purely aesthetic, and in making oppositional voices a part of the curriculum.

But one characteristic of a period of great theoretical energy is a tendency to be profligate in the "expenditure" of that energy. Looking back on my work and that of others who share my political concerns, I sense that amidst the excitement of high theorizing we have had a tendency to forget that, as Stuart Hall puts it, the point is not to produce theory but to produce change. There can be no question of being "against theory" or "beyond theory" since even the most putatively "close" reading is thoroughly shaped by theoretical considerations (which have simply been hidden from the critic or which the critic has hidden from the reader), but there are good reasons to move against and beyond a certain fetishizing of Theory for Theory's sake. One characteristic of the new period we are entering is likely to be greater care in understanding what theory can and should do, greater care in choosing which deconstruction and reconstruction projects are of abiding importance.

Reading theory in recent years, I have sometimes been reminded of a story told about surrealist Marcel Duchamp who at one point gave up painting to devote himself to chess. It is said that Duchamp, a superb player, would sometimes lose a match because he chose a "beautiful move" over one that would have been more effective. Such a stance is admirable in the world of games, but in the world of politics the choice of theoretical moves can be a matter of life and death, and I can't help feeling at times that some elegant moves have been purchased at too great a human cost. I sense a growing restlessness in the ranks of academic theorists these days, a growing desire to make the work count for more in the wider world where it is still possible for an American president to improve his job rating by "deploying" orientalist and nationalist tropes to justify deploying 500,000 (disproportionately nonwhite and working class) troops to slaughter 100,000 "others" halfway across the globe. The complacent grins of Reagan and Bush continue to remind us of the relative ineffectuality of our efforts to counter militarism, racism, sexism, colonialism, heterosexism, environmental devastation, economic exploitation, and a host of other injustices. Even "beautiful theory," theory practiced primarily for its aesthetic pleasure, has its place, but the tendency of theory to autonomize itself, to lead off in directions further and further removed from specific political struggles, is a vexing one for those of us who believe theory should illuminate our attempts to make the world a more just and decent place. At a certain point, however pragmatically grounded it may be initially, the twists of rhetoric lead theory to generate its own questions, its own logics, ones that produce certain pleasures, but that can make it more difficult to "rise to the level of the concrete," to the level of possible wide-scale political interventions. Recent theory has been quite persuasive in showing the ways in which language is power, but we have been less successful in finding those points where such knowledge converges with larger forces of resistance and liberation. In this chapter I want to sketch the political and critical assumptions that inform my work and to explore some emerging lines of inquiry that may help forge stronger links between literary theory and radically democratic "new social movements." Literary-Textual-Cultural Studies: A Genealogy

What forces now at work can take the best elements from the theoretical revolutions of the recent past and direct them more effectively toward sites of resistance in and beyond the university? One way to answer this question is to posit a theoretical trajectory over the last several decades that moves from "literary" to "textual/rhetorical" to "cultural" studies. In tracing such a genealogy, however, the task must not be to chart a simple progress but rather to show how even as each of these terms denotes a widening terrain that seems to contain the earlier one, the previous terms act upon, question, disrupt attempts by the latter ones to subsume them. I want to argue, for example, that within the terrain currently labeled "cultural studies" there remains a place for a semiautonomous "literary" realm and that "culture" itself must constantly be brought under "textual" scrutiny even as the term culture is used to expand theory and method beyond the narrowly textual.

Literary studies started its transformation into textual studies through various efforts in the 1970s to at once dissolve and broaden the category of "literature." These efforts arose from a rebirth of rhetorical analysis that entailed a twofold erasure of boundaries. On the one hand, the great critical "discovery" of the twentieth century, that language uses people more fully than people use language, means that even many scientists and social scientists are being forced to recognize that their discourse is not transparently realistic but constructed by and subject to historicallinguistic determinations and contingencies. This "discovery," which many still resist, has cast the shadow of ficticity over all supposedly factual or objective discourse by arguing that an unavoidably figurative (literary) dimension exists all along the continuum of linguistic expression in whatever domain. Much recent theoretical activity labeled poststructuralist involves the use of variants of rhetorical analysis to uncover a fictive, figural dimension in discourses and disciplines previously based in nonfictive claims (i.e., Derrida shifting the concerns of philosophy from the plane of semantics to that of semiotics, or Foucault shifting the question of history from facts and figures to the figuration of facts via discursive practices). Initially literary studies enabled these new theoretical practices by providing key tools for these rhetorical analyses and by offering up avant-garde literary texts that provided models for the alternative writing practices needed for these theories to achieve distance from the realism they criticized.

But even as this process was at work bringing the natural and the social sciences closer to the interpretive realm of fictional or literary discourse, a related process was "deconstructing" the putative purity of the aesthetic realm. Indeed, critics as diverse as E.D. Hirsch, Tzvetan Todorov, Terry Eagleton, and Rita Felski have concluded that literature as such does not exist, that there is no clear boundary between literary and nonliterary language. This leads to the argument that literary texts should no longer be fetishized as autonomous art but rather should be analyzed as part of a rhetorical continuum where different kinds of writing (literary, historical, ethnographic, political, and so forth) are shown to produce differing kinds of textual/political power. In place of literature, some critics, following the Russian formalists, adopted the term "literariness" to describe the quality of works that draw attention to themselves as language, rather than presenting themselves as transparent reflections of reality. But since not all works labeled as literature are constructed in this way and some works not thought of as fiction do draw attention to themselves as language, the quality of literariness spills out into nonfiction realms. (This transgressing or blurring of fact/fiction boundaries is one key element of the texts I examine below.) In place of the poles objective/subjective or factual/fictional, one could lay out a continuum of works that acknowledge more or less of their inventive, fictive, or rhetorical nature. At one pole would be realist works of fiction and most natural science and empirical social science, as well as most traditional journalism, while at the other pole one would place most avant-garde literature, experimental writing in ethnography, history, sociology, and the "new journalism," as well as, of course, some forms of literary and cultural criticism.

From this perspective, the almost banished concept "literature" or "the aesthetic" returns but without its sense of absoluteness, since, as Eagleton puts it, "Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and still others have literariness thrust upon them." What is occurring is a displacement of the aesthetic from an ontological category to a historically contingent epistemological one, a recognition that to view something aesthetically is to enter into a mode of reading that is often, though not always, encouraged but never fully determined by the object being read. That "literature" is a historically variable, unstable category does not mean that literature or the aesthetic disappears, but only that it is displaced to a matching of historically specific and changing sets of conventions between author/text and reader, or, in the case of those texts that only become literary, to a process or mode of apprehension imposed on a different set of conventions (i.e., an aesthetic hermeneutic replacing a religious one in reading the Bible as literature). This means, however, that all attempts simply to reduce or translate the literary into some other mode (i.e., the sociological) are doomed to failure. While aesthetic texts are always serving ideological purposes, it is a mistake to reduce them to other, general ideological processes because this mystifies the specific ideological work they do. Literature is subject to historically contingent but nonetheless real aesthetic laws or logics that have particular effects in the world on particular groups of readers. Even sophisticated versions of the notion of "literature as symbolic action"-a notion that views literary acts as symbolic resolutions of some putatively external social conditions or contradictions (as in Fredric Jameson's system)-are inadequate if they do not attend to the text's specifically literary actions, to attempts by the author/text to elaborate certain formal possibilities or solve certain formal problems that are exorbitant vis-à-vis the text's ideational content but that form part of the reader's experience to the extent that she or he comprehends the text's aesthetic conventions.

These formal elements never exist in total isolation from sociopolitical determinations shaping a given text (and the very notion of "the aesthetic" as a play with forms has historically variable political implications), but in the context of "modern," "Western" literature we can never leap over the play of form in search of some putatively more basic social truth. Against those orthodox radicals who still dismiss literary texts as "bourgeois," as well as against those radical formalists who search for inherently revolutionary texts, I work from the position that the meaning of texts lies primarily in their use, in their appropriation in particular circumstances, rather than in any essential content or form. Most existing "reader-response" and "reception" theories, however, have tended to blunt the political implications of this argument by falling back on the insular, bourgeois individual as reader or by recontaining the community of readers within a narrow realm of experts. The kind of textual or rhetorical criticism that emerges from this problematic maintains the best insights of various critical formalisms, from the Russian formalists to the American New Critics to deconstruction, while recognizing that since no text can impose fully its mode of reading on a reader, forms exist ultimately as social relations created in specific contexts of reception (indeed, with "reception" better conceived as a kind of [re]production of the text). This kind of rhetorical criticism is always situational, always about the triangulation of author (as social site of initial production), text (as ongoing verbal archive), and reader (as socially situated inheritor/producer of meaning in particular moments of articulation). Form does not exist in texts or in readers but in a social relationship between the two-form is the name we give to the rhetorical relation between the text/world and political readers/actors.

Radical "literary" criticism needs to acknowledge a variety of "aesthetic" ideologies existing historically and in contemporary usage, with varying degrees of closeness to or distance from everyday linguistic practices. This means that no single aesthetic theory can encompass the range of objects called literature. Some forms of literature, or some parts of a given literary text, may be quite close to and thus largely amenable to sociological analysis (both Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, to mention but two examples, are deeply indebted in particular works to specific schools of sociology whose insights they self-consciously fictionalized), while others (Gertrude Stein or Donald Barthelme, for example) may be far more interested in the play of form as form. No literary work is either purely formalist or purely sociopolitical in orientation, but it is reductive and misleading to ignore the fact that varying degrees of interest in questions of form animate various works labeled literature because those degrees often mark specific political possibilities and limits.

Moreover, no political hierarchy should be presumed to exist across this range. Each kind of aesthetic can be politically conservative or progressive depending on specific reading formations surrounding it at a given moment. The most extreme form of defamiliarization, for example, is neither inherently liberatory (as the Frankfurt school believed) nor inherently reactionary (as proponents of one or another form of social realism propose). Rather it is a specific, historically contingent achievement of distance from everyday communicative practice that produces specific pleasures but ambiguous meanings. Whether that pleasure is turned toward "escape" or toward re-evaluation of everyday ideological practices will depend on those with the power to shape reception at a given moment.


Excerpted from Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers by T.V. Reed Copyright © 1992 by T.V. Reed. Excerpted by permission.
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