In March 2016, a group of scholars gathered for “The Contemporary,” a conference on twenty-first century literature and culture, hosted by Princeton University. This series of responses by participants Aku Ammah-Tagoe, Christopher Patrick Miller, and Mande Zecca takes up questions raised there.
"The contemporary is exhausting," remarked Keston Sutherland near the end of the conference. That's been stuck in my head for the past few months. This was an intensive conference, covering lots of ground in a short amount of time—a single stream, with 18 talks, six responses, one roundtable, and one keynote over two days. But it was also just intense, in the sense of being full of forceful arguments about literature, art, and culture in the 21st century. I'm frankly still sorting through it all. I'm surprised, Christopher and Mande, to hear you say that the feeling of being an interloper characterizes your experiences with the contemporary. I left with a strong sense that we're all practitioners of the contemporary, or at the very least a participants in it. (Although, disclaimer, that might be because this quarter I'm teaching an undergraduate seminar on contemporary fiction and taking a graduate seminar on the contemporary. It occupies a large section of my daily thoughts.) In any case, I wonder what that sense of distance or outsider-ness does for our criticism, and why we place it there.
That was one of the through-lines of this conference, and it might be helpful to reflect on it at length. During the first panel, Theodore Martin gave a brief, excellent history of the relationship between English departments and contemporary literature. He pointed out that critical distance—or the perception of having it, anyway—has been prioritized in academic contexts since the Enlightenment. Contemporary literature, by asking the critic to evaluate history and culture while simultaneously participating in them, throws this into crisis. In that way, contemporary literature is "the literature department's bad conscience": too close, too vividly felt, and not fully knowable.
Martin directed us to Satin Island—one of the group's novelistic touchstones—as a contemporary novel that earns the label by embracing formlessness. The argument, for him, is that the literary and artistic structures we call "form" amount to critical distance by another name. If that's true, then abandoning them is one way to be contemporary. I always want to resist claims that mainstream artworks are formless, or that the contemporary is formless. The playfulness of Tom McCarthy's avant-gardism still relies on a reader's desire for the traditional novel form, and our contemporary world is highly structured, even when it appears that people and information are moving more freely than ever before. But overall I think that Martin's point is a good one; it leads us to look for modes of criticism that resist uncritical historicism, and that don't rely on distance to establish credibility.
So what does this close criticism look like, in practice? Claudia Rankine came up a few times as a writer who embraces the power that her work has to inform and respond to the present. I saw a similar methodology take shape in a few papers that joyously indulged in the critic's nearness to their subject. Namwali Serpell captivated us all with her talk on emoji, which for her are key markers of contemporary communication. Emoji are paradigmatic digital faces, promising precise, immediate meaning but often obscuring our intentions instead. They disrupt the ordinary temporality of reading and meaning-making by staggering our understanding of what is being said, or by heaping symbol upon symbol. And for a scholar of the contemporary, they're literally close at hand. Serpell's talk moved between a historical frame (tracing the lineage of today's emoji, from 1881 to present) and personal analysis (drawing on text conversations with her young nephew). Rather than attempting to abandon history or succumbing to it, I think Serpell elegantly and productively staged the tension between consciousness and distance that constitutes the contemporary. It's telling, I think, that the room laughed often during her talk. It provoked happy recognition of the ways in which we—as critics and also as people—engage and play with digital communication, its new languages, and its forms.
In fact, I'm beginning to think there's a connection between critical closeness and a certain kind of laughter. There were examples of this throughout the weekend: in Damon Young's reading of James Deen and Lindsay Lohan's performances in The Canyons as site for the evacuation of the private self and psychological verisimilitude, for instance, and in Merve Emre's serious and generous but still wry look at business school ethics classes that study literary texts. We can even find it in the very first paper of the very first day. Rachel Greenwald Smith teased out the relationship between authoritarianism and contemporary literary form by tracing the development of television characters played by Keri Russell: first the title character in Felicity, and more recently Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans. She also sprinted through a series of cultural homologies, laying out an argument that drew as much from Beyoncé's "Formation" video as from Walter Benn Michaels's The Beauty of a Social Problem. When I laughed during these talks, especially Greenwald Smith's, it was because of the sudden recognition that an example—Felicity Porter, now embodying contemporary authoritarianism!—was unexpectedly close to home, but still precise and seemingly correct.
To examine this a bit more: I'm part of the audience for much of the pop culture that Greenwald Smith referenced. It's created for and marketed to young, college-educated women like me, and I can't quite claim to have critical distance from it. Paradoxically, it still provides the same kind of framework for thinking about neoliberalism and form that we might otherwise gain from historical or cultural distance. Struck by the unexpected aptness of the example, I could only laugh at the mild absurdity of the situation I was in. In other words, I experienced what Kant is describing when he points out that "in everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd." My laughter was a sign, perhaps, that the critic had achieved the exact, absurd paradox that makes close criticism powerful and illuminating.
During the discussion after this panel, Emre asked Greenwald Smith and Sarah Wasserman about the role that homological argument, rather than causal argument, had played in their papers. Greenwald Smith admitted that she has an ambivalent relationship to homology, but Wasserman added that sometimes the object of analysis just asks to be compared rather than causally explained. I think that's true, and I'd go so far as to posit that homology is an ideal mode of analysis for the contemporary. Looking for similarities between objects moves critics away from the rational, totalizing explanations that causal arguments can offer. Homology allows us to make claims that are serious, but still conditional—it seems as though Beyoncé is relevant here, perhaps Elizabeth Jennings can tell us something about a type of political subject. Even as we make strong arguments, it allows us to preserve a sense of doubt about our ability to provide a full account of the contemporary. Making room for doubt within criticism also has other effects. Most importantly, for me, it destabilizes some of the hierarchies that I think stultify humanities research. The positioning of rational knowledge over other knowledge forms, for instance, or the superiority of the more-experienced tenure-track professor to the less-experienced adjunct, postdoc, or student.
So at its best, this conference was a site for exploring methodologies that use closeness, rather than distance, to open up new facets of cultural studies. That's exciting and encouraging. But it also brings me to something else I've been wondering about. The conference periodically turned to questions of race, class, and gender. Many of the individual presenters adroitly explored the perception and treatment of marginalized subjects in literature, popular culture, and academic institutions. But as a group, it was difficult for our conversations about marginalization to gain momentum. And I wonder if that's because marginalization, particularly in its racist forms, is both too close for comfort and too far to reach. It is deeply embedded in our institutions, our artworks, and (as Richard Jean So's presentation suggested) our use of language. We live with it every day, and despite our best intentions we don't always even notice how our actions perpetuate marginalization. At the same time, when we try to think about marginalized subjects and our relationships with them, we almost instinctively create distance, in order to make the imaginative work more manageable. As Johanna Drucker reminded us in her keynote, it is extremely difficult to think of identity and related topics without relying on the self-other dichotomy. Then, the critical distance we've established stymies both our individual identification with marginalized subjects and our ability to act directly on their behalf. I wonder if even the structure of an academic conference makes it harder to effectively address these questions. When we gather together as professional critics, we avoid talking about personal experience. And yet, our personal observations, experiences, and actions are precisely the territory we need to explore in order to address real-life inequities: the number of POC in our mainly white rooms, the ways in which we mentor students and colleagues, the cultural objects we study and what we say about them. Is there a good way to do this?
I don't have a ready solution for this set of paradoxes, other than to say that we all probably need to spend more time thinking about the critical distance we place between ourselves and questions of marginalization or exclusion. And perhaps that's the most exhausting thing about the contemporary. It's constantly challenging us to think through new relationships with the world. I'm not yet sure how to practice what Drucker calls "amongness," or, an understanding of otherness that does not rely on a dichotomy with the self. But I think it's key to understanding how to practice critical closeness. I'll leave it to you two, if you'd like, to suggest what it might look like.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
Aku Ammah-Tagoe is a PhD candidate in English at Stanford University. She studies urban forms in 20th- and 21st-century American literature.