Saturday, March 27, 2010

Charles Bernstein's Academic Anxiety

A Short and Easy Commonplace Book

So there I was, gently noodling my way around the internet in search of nothing in particular, when I ran across the site of Gerald Bruns, one of my old profs in graduate school. I haven't really kept up with him personally, though I do tend to read his work when it comes out, and since he's always got something interesting to say, I thought I'd poke around a bit and see what he's been up to. One page on the site struck me, since it offered a small selection of quotations that seemed to serve as Gerry's personal credo. Here's the first quote from the little collection, which Gerry called "A Short and Easy Commonplace Book":

The world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world: radicle-chaosmos rather than root-cosmos. A strange mystification: a book all the more total for being fragmented. At any rate, what a vapid idea, the book as the image of the world. In truth, it is not enough to say, "Long live the multiple," difficult as it is to raise that cry. No typographical, lexical, or even syntactical cleverness is enough to make it heard. The multiple must be made , not by always adding a higher dimension, but rather in the simplest of ways, by dint of sobriety, with the number of dimensions one already has available--always n -1 (the only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted). Subtract the unique from the multiplicity to be constituted; write at n -1 dimensions. A system of this kind could be called a rhizome. A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. Plants with roots or radicles may be rhizomorphic in other respects altogether: the question is whether plant life in its specificity is not entirely rhizomatic. Even some animals are, in their pack form. Rats are rhizomes. Burrows are too, in all of their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout. The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers. When rats swarm over each other. The rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and crabgrass, or the weed. Animal and plant, couchgrass is crabgrass.

Good stuff! From Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, which I'd just taught a few weeks ago. "So," I thought, "Gerry's made the heterogeneity of rhizomatic thinking his credo!" I felt confirmed in this thought when I saw the next quote, from an essay by Charles Bernstein:

Within the academic environment, thought tends to be rationalized--subject to examination, paraphrase, repetition, mechanization, reduction. It is treated: contained and stabilized. And what is lost in this treatment is the irregular, the nonquantifiable, the nonstandard or nonstandardizable, the erratic, the inchoate.

Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that's what I want from it, what I want to say about it just here, just now (and maybe not in some other context). It leaves things unsettled, unresolved--leaves you knowing less than you did when you started.

There is a fear of the inchoate processes of turbulent thought (poetic or philosophic) that takes the form of resistance and paranoia. A wall (part symbolic, part imaginary) is constructed against the sheer surplus of interpretable aspects of any subject. You fix upon one among many possible frames, screens, screams, and stay fixed on that mode monomaniacally. Such frame fixation is intensified by the fetishizing of dispassionate evaluation not as a critical method but as a marker of professional competence and a means of enforcing a system of ranking.

That's from "What's Art Got To Do With It?" — Bernstein's plenary address to the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) conference back in 1992. And it certainly seems to affirm the notion that Bruns is waving the banner of interpretive and evaluative irresolution.

The third quote, while much briefer, and considerably more cryptic, further affirmed the sense that Bruns wants to support thought that does not seek resolution. It was a single, uncharacteristically short sentence from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: "Only what does not fit into this world is true." Here we have a gesture toward the idea of negative dialectics — toward, that is, the idea that any whole or totalizing system of thought leaves something out, that (in Adorno's famous inversion of Hegel) "the whole is the false." Truth, in this view, can't appear whole in this world — it is something evasive, excessive, and ultimately beyond representation. It can't be reduced to formulae, or made manifest in any final way.

So there I sat, people, a bit too pleased with myself for having found the string that binds those three gems together. But it wasn't long — about the time it takes to take two sips of coffee from a travel mug— before an incongruity struck me.

On the one hand, we had Bernstein, contrasting the "turbulent thought" of an open-ended poetry against the kind of thought we get in "the academic environment," thought which fears irresolution and multiplicity in favor of " paraphrase, repetition, mechanization, reduction." For Bernstein, academic thought is devoted to the quantifiable and the standard, and it walks in fear of the inchoate. This is odd, in that all of Bruns' quotes on the value of the irresolvable and the inchoate come at least in part from academics: Deleuze had taught at the Sorbonne, and later at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes/St. Denis), where he wrote the book from which Bruns' quote is drawn. Guattari spent most of his career at the La Borde Clinic, which was both a functioning clinic and a para-academic institute, where research was conducted and where training took place in philosophy, psychology, ethnology and social work. When Adorno wrote the book that would be published after his death as Aesthetic Theory he was a professor at Frankfurt. And Charles Bernstein had been the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at SUNY — Buffalo for two or three years when he skewered academic thinking as devoted to reductive standardization.

Here's one problem: if Bernstein is right about academic thinking, then we have to see him as a non-academic. This might be plausible: he'd only been a professor for a few years when he made his statement, and we might plausibly see him as in-but-not-of academe. But here's another problem: Deleuze and Adorno aren't marginal academic figures. In their own lifetimes, and certainly by the time Bernstein made his NEMLA plenary address in 1992, Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari had become some of the most influential figures in academe, making a huge impact on multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences in many nations. And they didn't just speak of the kind of thinking that exploded reductive, standardizing, paraphrasable interpretations: like Bernstein, they wrote in styles that set out to frustrate attempts at reduction, standardization, and paraphrase.

I think Bruns' point in bringing the three quotations together was simply to emphasize, and advocate, the kind of thinking they liked. But the juxtaposition (perhaps fittingly) doesn't allow us to settle easily into approval of all three statements. We are faced with a choice: either Bernstein is wrong about the nature of academic thinking, or Bernstein, Deleuze, Guattari, and Adorno have to be defined as non-academic figures.

It may just be possible to take a figure like Bernstein and argue that he's not really an academic, despite the fact that he's held very swank academic appointments for more than twenty years. In the article "Charles Bernstein and the Professional Avant-Garde," for example, Alan Golding has made an argument for Bernstein as having a "non-normative status" in academe, largely on the basis of Bernstein reflecting critically on his own academic status in his poetry and critical writing. I find Golding's article provocative, and his readings of Bernstein both subtle and insightful, and I'm glad he takes issue with those who would sneer at Bernstein for becoming a professor. But I just can't buy the notion that Bernstein is somehow not quite academic because he parodies, and is critical of, academe in his writing — if I bought that line of argument, I'd have to say that David Lodge isn't really academic because he writes satirical campus novels like Trading Places and Small World. But even if we can make the argument that Bernstein and his "turbulent thought" aren't representative of academe, we'd have a far more difficult argument to make in putting Adorno, Deleuze, and Guattari outside academe. In addition to their training and (with the partial exception of Guattari) their careers, there's the matter of their influence. They are among the most cited figures in several fields, and those citations do not in any significant portion consist of dismissals and attacks.

To understand just what's going on when Bernstein sets academe up as something it does not seem to be, we need to take a closer look at the piece from which Bruns drew his quotation.

Bernstein Tells the Northeast Modern Language Association All About Academe

Despite a few glaring self-contradictions (such as the competing claims that academe values "principles of critical self-evaluation" and that academic thinking is "unable to confront its own inevitable positionality"), the lines of battle are pretty clearly drawn in Bernstein's NEMLA plenary address of 1992, "What's Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of the Humanities in the Age of Cultural Studies." On the one hand, we have the "professionalism" of "the university environment," where thinking is inherently reductive and as such "antipoetic." The procedure of academic thought, according to Bernstein, is "to elect one interpretive mode and apply it, cookie-cutter like, to any given phenomenon." If you want to think like a professor, according to Bernstein all you need to do is this: "You fix upon one of many possible frames." This insistence on single-minded, narrow, method-driven frame of thought leads to an "academic culture of imposed solutions at the expense of open-ended explorations," perhaps because Bernstein's academics want to reduce phenomena to determined meanings, and shriek when they see "the sheer surplus of interpretable aspects" of their subjects."

Against these unappealing academics, Bernstein places a poetic tradition, in which thought is much more open. "The poetic," says Bernstein, "is both a hypoframe, inhering within each frame of interpretation, and a hyperframe, a practice of moving from frame to frame." Unlike academics proper, the poet is multidisciplinary in his individual thoughts, and is happy moving from one frame of reference to another: his thinking is a "an art of transitioning though and among frames." He has "context sensitivity" and "allows different contexts to suggest different interpretive approaches while at the same time flipping between different frames."

This ought to give us pause. I mean, Bernstein's dichotomy seems to make a straw-man out of academe. I suppose one can find some instances of the cookie-cutter approach he sees as endemic to academe. I think immediately of one of the most misguided publishing ventures of recent memory, the Bedford Critical Editions of classic literary texts. These were an attempt to emulate the success of the Norton Critical Editions. Unlike the Norton editions, though, the Bedford editions didn't collect prominent pieces of existing criticism to package with the text itself. Rather, they published commissioned essays, each of which was meant to represent a particular theory — so you'd get your novel, along with essays purporting to be "a feminist reading" or "a Marxist reading." But the very fact that Bedford failed to make significant inroads against the Norton editions, with their less mechanical, more intuitively interdisciplinary and miscellaneous commentaries, shows that academic culture was not predominantly a phenomenon of the kind Bernstein claims it is.

Moreover, Bernstein's characterization of academe is at odds with the work of a figure Bernstein actually cites in his essay: Stanley Fish. While Bernstein sees Fish as an academic of the reductive sort, we need look no further than the opening pages of one of Fish's most famous essays, "Interpreting the Variorum," to see how far off-base Bernstein has gone. "Interpreting the Variorum," which appeared in Critical Inquiry in 1976, was a kind of über-review of a collection of several centuries worth of commentaries on Milton's poetry. Fish surveys the long conflict of interpretations, and the deep history of different forms of interpretation ("frames" in Bernstein's terms), and tells us that the problems of interpretation simply do not lend themselves to resolution:

In short, these are problems that apparently cannot be solved, at least not by the methods traditionally brought to bear on them. What I would like to argue is that they are not meant to be solved, but to be experienced (they signify), and that consequently any procedure that attempts to determine which of a number of readings is correct will necessarily fail.

Fish can hardly be seen as without influence in academe, and like those other influential academics Deleuze and Adorno, he believes in a multiplicity of meanings, supports a multiplicity of "frames" of understanding, and welcomes the inchoate and inconclusive.

One could wear oneself out citing academics, prominent when Bernstein gave his address, whose ways of thinking are utterly unlike the "cookie cutter" reductiveness of what I can only think of as Bernstein's academic straw man. Even the New Critics, antiquated and marginalized by the 1990s when Bernstein wrote, did not believe that meanings must be "subject to … paraphrase." One might wish to remind Bernstein that they considered paraphrase a heresy. Or, moving to "The Humanistic Intellectual: Eleven Theses," an essay that appeared in 1989 (the year Bernstein entered the academy), one could point out that no less prominent an academic than Richard Rorty argued that the social function of academics in the humanities was "to instill doubts in the students about the students' own self-images and about their societies" — a goal best accomplished by "keep[ing] the humanities changing fast enough so that they remain indefinable and unmanageable." This is hardly the academic world Bernstein depicts. And it is an image of the academic humanities upheld by no marginal figure, but by one of the most influential thinkers of the late twentieth century.

The Skeptic and the Guys in Lab Coats

"Okay," says the skeptic. "Maybe Bernstein is wrong about Rorty's humanities, and about the social sciences where Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari have had so much influence. But he's at least right about the sciences, right? They want to reduce everything to a single, unified theory, a single master frame, right?" Well, no. I mean, I'm no expert on the philosophy of science, but Peter Medawar is, and here's what he has to say about the notion that science is all about reducing multiple frames of understanding to a single frame (it's from his book Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought, which appeared in 1968 — this isn't some newfangled view that came about only after Bernstein's complaint about academe):

Reducibility; emergence: If we choose to see a hierarchical structure in Nature — if societies are composed of individuals, individuals of cells, and cells in their turn of molecules, then it makes sense to ask whether we may not "interpret" sociology in terms of the biology of individuals or "reduce" biology to physics and chemistry. This is a living methodological problem, but it does not seem to have been satisfactorily resolved. At first sight the ambition embodied in the idea of reducibility seem hopeless of achievement. Each tier of the natural hierarchy makes use of notions peculiar to itself. The ideas of democracy, credit, crime or political constitution are no part of biology, nor shall we expect to find in physics the concepts of memory, infection, sexuality, or fear. No sensible usage can bring the foreign exchange deficit into the biology syllabus, already grievously overcrowded, or nest-building into the syllabus of physics. In each plane or tier of the hierarchy new notions or ideas seem to emerge that are inexplicable in the language or with the conceptual resources of the tier below.

So even the lab-coated guys with the good calculators resist being categorized as the hidebound, narrow-minded jerks that populate Bernstein's imagined academe. They're as interested in multiple frames, and as wary of reducing matters by single-framed, cookie-cutter thinking as humanists and social scientists.

Status-Shifting and Self-Doubt

So why does Bernstein present such a distorted version of academic thinking? It's possible that he's simply ignorant of academic thinking, but that hypothesis seems both extremely uncharitable and unlikely to the point of impossibility. In fact, Bernstein cites plenty of academic thinkers in his NEMLA plenary address. The strange thing is that when he approves of them, he positions them as outsiders, at war with what he imagines to be the dominant norms of academe. So when he tells us he admires Roland Barthes (from the Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique and the Collège de France), Stanley Cavell (who was Bernstein's thesis advisor at Harvard), Erving Goffman (from the University of Chicago), Michel de Certeau (from the University of Paris — VII, and other institutions), and Luce Irigaray (from the Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique) he has to pretend they aren't creatures of the academy, and to deny their status as some of the most influential academic thinkers of our time.

So what gives? Bernstein works in academe, and seems to admire the kind of thinking that academics do — but he refuses to see it that way. Instead, he mischaracterizes academe as a place inimical to the kind of thinking he admires (which he claims is the special province of poetry, and of a few thinkers who, despite their academic status, are somehow meant to be anti-academic).

When we find that someone's statements about the world are inaccurate without being ignorant, one course of action is to stop looking for explanations in the world outside that person, and look instead for some inner cause. That is: if Bernstein is wrong about academe, but has knowledge of academic thought, the explanation probably lies in some inner need, on Bernstein's part, to present a distorted view of academe.

If I had to venture a hypothesis about why Bernstein distorts academe, I'd look at his unusual career trajectory into the academic world. Unlike most academics, who go to graduate school with the hope (however farfetched in recent years) of going on to a career as a professor of physics or French or creative writing or what have you, Bernstein began his career as a poet outside of academe. He wrote his books and led an active poetic life while working from the early 1972 to 1989 as a medical writer and an arts administrator, and only then found his way into academe. While he'd been an engaged student at Harvard as an undergraduate, he didn't go the usual route of the Ph.D., and I think this shows in his attitude to academe, which seems fraught with the kind of anxiety one might expect when someone leaves one status behind and takes up another, without the usual certification.

The sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb get at this sort of status-anxiety issue in their study The Hidden Injuries of Class. Here they examine the psychological consequences of changing work status, mostly by examining blue collar workers who transition into low-level white collar work. It's not that Bernstein has changed social class per se (medical writers, arts administrators, and English professors all fall within the professional classes), but he did shift from one status system (that of corporations and non-profit agencies) to another (the world of the universities, which is stratified in different ways, and by different criteria). And what happens to Bernstein seems very like what happens to the workers described by Sennett and Cobb.

Consider the case of Frank Rissarro (not an actual name: Sennett and Cobb change the names of their subjects to protect their privacy). Rissarro's father was a laborer, and he himself held a job as a meat-cutter for most of his working life. At one point, after he failed to raise the capital to start his own small business, a friend introduced him to a local bank manager, and he got a job in the office helping people fill out the loan forms that a higher-level official would review for approval. In many ways, Rissarro is satisfied with his new life — but because he arrived among the other bank workers by a non-standard route, he feels the need to defend the kind of life he left behind, and to denigrate the norms of the system he's joined. "I'm working, like I said, with fellows that are educated, college boys, in the office," says Rissarro, "I go in at nine, I come out at five. The other fellows, because they got an education, sneak out early and come in late. The boss knows I'm there, a reliable worker. 'Cause I had the factory life…" Even though Rissarro chose to leave his old life for a new opportunity, he sees his old life as having a kind of legitimacy that the lives of those around him in his new career don't have. "These jobs aren't real work where you make something" says Rissarro, "it's just pushing papers." This is how Rissarro deals with the anxiety of not being a 'real' banker (an anxiety caused by his non-standard, and late, entry into the field). He needs to denigrate the new norms, even as he conforms to them. It's how he can feel legitimate: he's a representative of his old set of values in this new world of mere paper-pushers.

The analogy with Bernstein is this: like Rissarro, he enters a new field late in life, without the usual educational certification. Like Rissarro, Bernstein associates virtue with the way of life he's left behind (for Bernstein, this is the extra-academic world of poetry). Like Rissarro, Bernstein decides to read the kind of work he sees being done in his new environment as more-or-less worthless (Rissarro's paper-pushers become Bernstein's narrow-minded, "cookie-cutter" thinkers). There's a sad kind of self-loathing at work in both cases, a kind of self-doubt (the autodidact, says Bourdieu, is constantly on trial in his own mind). An unfairness, even a distortion, of the activities of those around them serves as a way to compensate for these anxieties and doubts.

Maybe I'm wrong, here. But I can't see any other explanation, beyond a defensive self-justification, for Bernstein's almost deeply skewed description of academic thinking. And I suppose this post is a kind of defensive move of its own, since I don't like to see academics (a group that includes me, many of my friends, and some relatives) so inaccurately maligned. I mean, there are plenty of good reasons to malign academe. Bernstein's doesn't seem to be one of them.


In other news, if you're interested in the crowd I write about in Laureates and Heretics, you'll want to have a look at the anthology Five American Poets just out from Carcanet. An American edition is, I'm told, in the works, but you can order the British edition now. It's an updated version of an anthology from the seventies, and contains work by John Matthias, John Peck, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, and Robert Hass.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Cultural Society: Rejoice!

Rejoice, people! The latest installment of Zach Barocas' journal The Cultural Society is up online, featuring Joel Bettridge, Norman Finkelstein, Roberto Harrison, Amanda Nadelberg, Michael Heller, and (be forewarned) the present humble blogger, among others.

In the unlikely event that you need to be convinced Barocas is cooler than the rest of us, I've included above the video for "Savory," a song by his band Jawbox, which re-united not long ago to play on The Jimmy Fallon Show. You can probably use the Fallon appearance the next time you're playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" and want to link poets to Hollywood.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize

What's that you say? You're a poet, you're under 40 years of age, you haven't had a book published yet, you'd like someone to publish your manuscript, you'd like to spend a couple of months in a swanky mansion (pictured above), and you'd like $10,000? We at Lake Forest College have got you covered! It's time to apply for the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Award. Past winners include Jessica Savitz (for poetry) and Gretchen Henderson (for prose).

I'm one of the judges, but please don't send anything to me directly — everything has to be handled via the official snailmail and email addresses below.

You've got two weeks before the deadline.


Each spring, Lake Forest College, in conjunction with the &NOW Festival, sponsors emerging writers under forty years old—with no major book publication—to spend two months in residence at our campus in Chicago's northern suburbs on the shore of Lake Michigan. There are no formal teaching duties attached to the residency. Time is to be spent completing a manuscript, participating in the annual Lake Forest Literary Festival, and offering a series of public presentations.

The completed manuscript will be published (upon approval) by &NOW Books imprint, with distribution by Northwestern University Press. The stipend is $10,000, with a housing suite and campus meals provided by the college.

2011 Guidelines (Deadline April 1, 2010):

We invite applications for an emerging poet under forty years old, with no major book publication, to spend two months (February-March or March-April 2011) in residence at Lake Forest College.


1) Curriculum vita
2) No more than 30 pages of manuscript in progress
3) A one-page statement of plans for completion to:

Plonsker Residency
Department of English
Lake Forest College
Box A16
555 N. Sheridan Road
Lake Forest, IL 60045.

Submissions must be postmarked by April 1, 2010 for consideration by judges Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, Joshua Corey, and Jennifer Moxley. Direct inquiries to with the subject line: Plonsker Prize.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Archambeau World Tour, Spring 2010: Update!

I'm packing my stack of Peavy amps and Stratocasters for a world tour that is now double the size previously projected, having grown to two events. The world-straddling motorcade will now make its way at breakneck speed from a late-March event in South Bend, Indiana to an early May event in Chicago. How the roadies, groupies, and hangers-on will handle the pace is beyond me.

Anyway: in addition to giving a reading March 29 at Notre Dame with Cornelius Easy and Joyelle McSweeney, I'm now set to read at Chicago's own Myopic Books on Sunday, May 9, at 7:00 pm. Myopic is one of my favorite bookstores in Chicago — and up until he made some terrible strategic error in booking me, Larry Sawyer had a great record of bringing interesting poets to read there.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Norman Finkelstein and the Offending Adam

"A Scribe Turned into a Scribe,", my review of Norman Finkelstein's latest book, Scribe, is up and running at The Offending Adam. I don't know what I like more: Norman's book, or The Offending Adam itself, the brainchild of Andrew Wessels and his merry band of literary co-conspirators.

I think there's a good chance that The Offending Adam may be the model for how literary journals can make the transition to the online world. The best feature (shared with a more established online journal, Jacket) is the way writing is rolled out in front of the public a little at a time. This seems like a better use of the possibilities of electronic publication than the dropping of all the content down in a big one-shot pile every issue, which is just an imposing of the limits of print production on a medium that needn't be bound by those limits. Jacket puts parts of each new issue out on an irregular basis, adding content as the issue comes together under the guidance of the editor. The Offending Adam is a bit more disciplined, at least so far: there's a new issue every week, with a few items published every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I like this, since in the age of democratized access to publication and massive literary proliferation, the best thing an editor can do for the writers he cares about is to present them in a way that draws attention to them — just a few items at a time. Poetry Daily has been doing this, but it relies on previously published material. Wessels and company do the extra legwork of selecting new material, and they provide a forum for reviews as well.

The intimacy of the presentation of material at The Offending Adam — you meet the contributions one at a time, not among a crowd of other poems — makes for something like a community-feeling. And community is also very much at the core of Norman Finkelstein's Scribe. Here's how I try to describe the phenomenon in the opening paragraph of the review:

Michael Palmer has said that to read Norman Finkelstein’s book Scribe “is to pass through a series of gates into the paradoxical heart of the poem,” where “the communal and the solitary” come together in the music of the poetry. He’s on to something, I think: what strikes one most strongly in Scribe are the repeated invocations of communal experience, and the ways the influence on collectivity works its way into the forms, as well as the subjects, of the poetry.

The book is available from Dos Madres Press, or here.


In other news, the latest Contemporary Literature is out, and includes "Postnational Ireland," a piece I wrote about contemporary scholarship in Irish poetry, and about the end of the old nationalist paradigm that has animated much of the thinking about Irish poetry (and some of the poetry itself) for the past century or more. Here's the table of contents. If you have access to a university library, you can probably view the piece via Project Muse or JSTOR. Otherwise, they make you pay. But you were wondering what to do with your royalty checks anyway, right?