Letters from “The Contemporary”: Christopher Patrick Miller, Letter 1

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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.  

An essay by the organizers was published earlier on Contemporaries; further information on the conference’s program and participants can be found at contemporary.princeton.edu.

Perhaps the one truth universally acknowledged among those who study “the contemporary” is that one always feels like an interloper. When trying to phrase a sense of contemporaneity, grammatical dodges as the numerical pronoun of “one” seem more ethical, even if the goal is to get to speak about the contemporary in terms of what Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) called the tragic question of “us.”[1] But anachronistic ghosts, like Jane Austen, helpfully call "us" back to the hierarchal affiliations, contracts, and networks of privilege that put a writer or critic in a position to declare here, now, I am, or this is what we mean.

The same goes, as Richard Jean So, Juliana Spahr, and Stephanie Young have pointed out, about the racial composition of who gets published and on what terms. Their recent work and others remind “us” that there is a long, embodied, and often tragic history of what Robin Blaser (in regards to Jack Spicer's queer magic) called “practicing the outside” from the inside of the present.[2] This nesting is complicated, too, when we think of how to situate an "us" within transnational notions of political sovereignty and universalizing discourse of "human" rights. In his talk largely about an performance art collective, Ex-Territory Project, who projected video on the sail of a boat sailing between Israel and Cyprus, Matthew Hart asked how the condition of “extra-territoriality,” an outside within a territory, changes the way we encounter “unstable images.”[3] Any report on the contemporary would seem to require acknowledging the different roles we ask insides or outsides to play, stable or unstable, within the confines of our contemporaries. This includes "indeterminacies" literary critics have long described as formal potentials of texts or signifying systems rather than painful actualities of living across concepts, spatial boundaries, or temporalities.

In terms of academic conversations, particularly those housed at elite institutions like Princeton, one could attribute these patterns of empowerment and estrangement to the consistent patterns of which voices make up “the conversation” but also to the intellectual background of many papers and their respondents. I, for one, was struck by the hegemony of two thinkers in particularWalter Benn Michaels and Fredric Jamesonthrough which questions of materialisms, form, autonomy, and the relationship between art, social life, and politics were filtered. More prevalent, too, were staged oppositions between surface and symptomatic reading methodologies and references to relational aesthetics than a breadth of engagements with postcoloniality, queer theory, or critical race theory. That critical methods for “the contemporary” would reflect the intellectual backgrounds and research tendencies of those who attended is not surprising, of course. What was surprising to me, however, was how these forms of consensus, acknowledged or not, can make certain disciplinary objects function self-evidently, like “autonomy” or “neo-liberalism.” I was curious, too, about how these self-evidences might also shape the way we encounter such pedagogical phenomenon discussed by Merve Emre in which business schools teach literary texts as case studies and role-playing scenarios for diffusing tensions or managing behavior (while refusing symptomatic readings for politics, ideology, gender, etc.). These courses seem to practice, as Emre pointed out, a willfully surface “reading for action,” though the very term, “action,” would seem to beg the question of how such an evacuated version of agency became a meaningful or even plausible goal. As humanities departments try to define their institutional functions amidst austerity measures, the expansion of the managerial class in universities, the increased precarity of instructors, and the creation of new educational profit centers, it seems worth asking, too, how a seminars can confront the poverty of discourses (to borrow E. P. Thompson’s phrase) while also practicing a certain currency in the lingua franca of professional life, whether that be in or outside the academy.[4]

And perhaps my sense of being an interloper is related, as many papers claimed, to a fundamental epistemological problem of how any “present” is made into an object for a subject to interpret. In his paper, Ted Martin thematized this problem in terms of continuous critical struggles to situate “the contemporary” distantly. Such distances, over time, not only facilitate a critical self-consciousness but produce discursive fashions, institutional priorities, and consumer trends. Other presentations noted how terms once used by modernist critics to mark the ceding of agencyformlessness, passivity, self-objectification, or willful subjection to generic abstractionsare repurposed by contemporary novelists or performance artists to establish more mediated or relational senses of being in the world. But formlessness might meet its limit, for example, in a hyper self-conscious text like Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (2015)by far the most discussed (and maligned) novel of the conferenceprecisely because it seems incapable of doing critical work with its narrative conceit of “corporate anthropology” and endless metabolization of contemporary theory. Of course, books deemed qualitatively “terrible” so often prove critically useful. The incessant thematization of contemporary life in terms largely familiar to criticsBen Lerner’s 10:04 is another example, the novel most frequently mentioned among total paper proposals[5]provide occasions for reflecting on how “we,” that tragically interpolated body of readers, might call for different relations between the formation of artworks and whatever aspects of “the contemporary” these works position themselves for, against, or in complicity with. And if there was a consistent aspect to the assessments of contemporary novels, it was that performing a recursive self-consciousnessI know, that you know, that I know, that you knowno longer seems sufficient, though the larger question of how self-consciousness or longing for a more “authentic” experience smuggles in broader assumptions about the kinds of subjects or objects worthy of such fretful narration seemed largely unexplored. So too was another simple question: why build a discourse around contemporary texts that so often reproduce existing critical languages?

Recent varieties of critical realismscapitalist realism, peripheral realismmany of which were on display at the conference, have moved these reflexive conversations beyond the mere unmasking of ideology to more complex analyses about the ways symbols, forms, and modes of production interact. But given the prevalence of “terrible” objects, an interloper might ask how the work of assessing “the contemporary” through literary objects might be different if critics engaged narratives or poetic series that were not explicitly “about,” say, neoliberal finance, either thematically or formally, or that present more obstinately difficult, opaque, or, to use Sara Ahmed’s recent phrase, willfully resistant subjects?[6] Do we read the opacities of the legal records that make up M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!, to give a poetic example, as a realism of a history of the slave trade? Even if we understand both the book and our responses to it as necessary to the contemporary work of addressing persistent racial violence, what do we risk by giving these specific aporias a positive interpretive content, content that is often relative to our own critical projects? I realize I am moving, here, in the direction of a negative dialectics of form, which is probably more revealing about my own modernist tendencies and intellectual background.

So, for me, a thinker obsessed with the grammar of social life, the questioning of the contemporary always wraps back to the question of “us,” as in how and where and to whom do we say it. Perhaps it is merely another dodge to end a “report” with more questions, but so be it. To echo Baraka’s point to Robert Duncan, why does it seem “tragic,” both literally and figuratively, for some speakers to enunciate their contemporaneity as opposed to others? To put the same question in literary theoretical terms, when is indeterminacy not just a signifying potential but a mortal risk? And how do we differentiate between these tragic contemporaries and others that seem to settle off into a recursive, and ultimately, insulating, self-consciousness? And if critical thinking is ultimately about formulating present tenses of agency, as I think it is, what kind of actions do we take to be necessary now?

– Christopher


Mande, Letter 2

Aku, Letter 3

Mande, Letter 4

Christopher, Letter 5

Aku, Letter 6

[1] In a letter to Robert Duncan that is uncannily reflective of the kinds of racial divisions in contemporary poetry, then Leroi Jones wrote: ” I want to give the whole social bust of . . . ‘the history of the black men in the West’ a ground in local mystery. And the social (as those racist conflicts, &c.) i itself an occasion, perhaps the most powerful . . . because of the potential tragedy involved. What that play of mine, The Toilet is about (in Kulchur 9). As there, e.g., the question of ‘us’ becomes the heart of the tragic.” (Letter to Robert Duncan, April 24, 1963, Robert Duncan Papers, Box 1, Series I.1-II.1, Folder 1, Washington University Special Collections.)

[2] See Robin Blaser’s introductory essay, “The Practice of the Outside,” in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

[3] For information about the Ex-Territory group of artists and their “events,” see: https://exterritory.wordpress.com/.

[4] For a good overview of these structural changes to American universities, with a particular focus on public universities and the implications of these changes for research, see Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the The Middle Class (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). See also the special issue of Representations on “The Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University” published in Fall, 2011 and edited by Colleen Lye and James Vernon.

[5] For a discussion of the statistical tendencies among conference submissions put together by the organizers, see Sarah Chihaya, Joshua Kotin, and Kinohi Nishikawa, “‘The Contemporary'” by the Numbers,” Post45 (February 2016). Accessed at: http://post45.research.yale.edu/2016/02/the-contemporary-by-the-numbers/.

[6] See Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).


Christopher Patrick Miller is a Townsend Center for the Humanities Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and co-editor of the journal FLOOR.  His current project, Public Enemies: Transience and Lyric in American Poetry, tracks the complicated legacy of transience in American poets from Walt Whitman to Amiri Baraka.