Proposition: ‘September 11 has changed Literary Studies’

by Julian Murphet

© all rights reserved

My tactic has been to split the noun phrases in the proposition (aptly enough) into pairs of semantic twins. So, for ‘September 11’ I offer two meanings: first, as an Event, the day last year when the WTC towers and the Pentagon were attacked with domestic passenger jets; but second, as a synecdoche for an epochal geopolitical process, an ongoing struggle for control over strategic resources since the end of the Cold War, of which the events of last September were only the most destructive to have occurred on American soil. With apologies to Derrida, preserving the singularity of this Event from the dialectics of History is a necessary, but not a sufficient stage in critical analysis. The most distressing result of such abstraction this last year has been the creation, through repetition in the media and political discourse, of one of the great, consecrated fetishes of our time: Ground Zero, up there with JFK’s motorcade and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only, this fetish is used to justify a potentially endless campaign of unilateral war by an unelected Administration against a fugitive abstract noun – a war whose casualties are all too human.

For ‘Literary Studies’ I also suggest a dual definition: first, the general pedagogic and research practices of the discipline; and second, that much more particularized activity in which what we do is articulated with the culture at large – the engaged, public moment of the profession called criticism, which for me is characterised by the language of negation.

These two sets of definitions allow for four semantic permutations of the proposition, of which I will consider three. First: ‘The events of 9/11 changed the academic discipline of Literary Studies’. This one deserves short shrift.

I am grateful to Liam Semler, who passed on a recent roundtable by literary academics in the PMLA, on the topic of why students should still be encouraged to major in literature at all. Those contributors who addressed the events of 9/11 did so first in the spirit of self-lacerating guilt and impotence, but invariably moved on, in a more self-congratulatory tone, to reinstate the civilizing value of literature in a time of epic violence. So much is entirely predictable; and one can just as well imagine a colloquium of goat-farmers going through the same motions. ‘When I saw those buildings collapse, I truly felt the futility and luxury of farming goats; but on reflection I saw that, in these troubled times, goat-products have become more precious than ever.’ Neither the market in goat-cheese, nor the book trade, nor enrolments in literature courses, has experienced any lasting slump as a result of last September. The discipline has survived the Event.

At the other end of the semantic spectrum, however, we find this permutation: ‘The ongoing geopolitical struggle for and against American hegemony since the end of the Cold War has significantly altered the practice of literary criticism.’ At this level, the proposition becomes more interesting and arguable. If we accept that ‘American hegemony’ is a complex mechanism, operating on intertwined economic, political, cultural and military levels to secure ‘American interests’ at home and abroad, then surely the relatively unrestrained nature of its operations since the fall of the Soviet Bloc has affected the fortunes of critical discourse. At the very least, as Tariq Ali puts it, ‘With the triumph of one ideology and the total collapse of the other, the space for debate and dissent has narrowed considerably’.

Might we agree that the two great periods of ‘criticism’ were the period of Leavisite and ‘New’ criticism spanning the 1940s and 60s; and the period of High Theory during the 1970s and 80s? It would be otiose to deny that what certain critics wrote and said in these periods mattered – to other critics, to writers and artists, to the media, and to a significant public. Since 1989, however, the saturation of global space by American capital, and the highly effective discourse of the ‘end of history’ have undermined that residual ‘importance’ of criticism. I’ll simplify to the point of absurdity and say that for both Leavisism, and for High Theory, the point was basically political, and both depended upon historical situations in which social and cultural alternatives were both ideologically virulent and – however remotely – practicable. In the past ten years that horizon has been swept away: both by completing the identification of culture and economy in the West, and by violentlycontesting the viability of alternative cultural-economic zones – no longer just the Socialist ones, but all the client dictatorships and clerical despotisms put in place by America during the Cold War. In a context of unparalleled American power, and the full integration of culture and capital, criticism has – it seems – ‘fall’n into the sere’.

But perhaps the most intriguing of the three permutations I want to consider is this one – ‘The events of 9/11 have altered literary criticism’.

Any event such as this, making such an impact on so many lives, can certainly affect the texture and political fibre of one’s own critical discourse: the object lessons of Christopher Hitchens and Marjorie Perloff remain salutary. Recently Perloff, great champion of the avant-garde, has been quoted accusing marxian and postcolonialist professors, who remain critical of the war, of anti-Semitism. She was talking about Edward Said, Fredric Jameson and other contributors to the London Review of Books roundtable published immediately after the attacks; still justifying the awful letter she wrote there repudiating the critical intelligentsia in general, blaming the failure of the Humanities on their anti-patriotism, and urging her students never to read the LRB again. Now, of course, according to Perloff, if we’re critical, we’re ignorant anti-Semites. Such mendacity goes hand in hand with Hitchens’ recent book on Orwell, which offers us the prototypical opponent of fascism in a context which Hitchens himself has characterised as a war against ‘fascism with an Islamic face’. Orwell’s Victory, in Hitchens’ hands, will be against fascism everywhere; in Afghanistan, in the heart of Europe, and in the academy, where the obscurantisms of critical theory are directly associated with Orwellian doublespeak. Hitchens’ own language has never been shriller, or less measured. In such ways, yes, 9/11 has changed literary criticism, militarising and politicising critical discourse in ways as lamentable as they are predictable.

By contrast, it has been heartening to find Said, Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Judy Butler, Fred Jameson and other members of the lit-crit community remaining steadfast in their eloquent opposition to the sanctimonious pietisms and brutal retributions of their government. And this eloquence seems urgent. As John Sutherland wrote in his Guardian review of the LRB letters’ page exchange, ‘What the LRB has offered is something so rare as to be almost unique in the last couple of months: a gloves-off, no-bullshit, unspun debate on the real issues. Moreover, this academic firefight is being conducted by people who can write English (the other firefight is being conducted by people like George Bush, who can’t even speak it).’ The implication being that those who have access to knowledge and can write might have a responsibility to do so when arguments on the other side are so insubstantial and puerile. Academic responsibility was a question raised at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, after a presentation by Tariq Ali. One member of the audience congratulated Ali on saying what no Australian academic would ever dare say, and received dismaying murmurs of approval from the assembled. It would seem that there is a real social demand for what John Pilger calls a lucid ‘speaking out’ against a coercive political and media consensus in favour of open war. Whether or not this is a ‘responsibility’, it is a social need some of us might seek to fulfil.

Finally, there is the weird irony that one of the key imaginary symptoms that followed 9/11 was the sense that the WTC was a place of work, and that the victims were, as one of the PMLA contributors put it, ‘working people from around the world’. Needless to say, that did not previously characterise the way most of us thought about the Rockefellers’ towers – the site, par excellence, of capital accumulation and symbolic exchange.

I’ve been thinking (perversely!) that in this way 9/11, as an unconscious reflex, supplied a belated occasion to mourn for the absent antagonist of ‘actually existing Socialism’ itself, whose demise the ‘end of history’ thesis had only encouraged us to celebrate up till now. The recurrent dialectical reversals whereby former clients and allies against the Soviet regime have now become precisely America’s most determined political enemies, are potent history lessons. The pseudo-Romantic imagoof labour that arose from the ashes of 9/11 bespeaks a covert nostalgia for the Soviet Union; which is, in retrospect, the name given to a moment now lost to Western History: ‘the moment at which [according to Slavoj Zizek] the participation in the collective process of labour was perceived as the site which can generate an authentic sense of community and solidarity.’ Now, only consumerism in the West, and religious zealotry in many a social space ‘cleansed’ by America of the organized Left, can supply that sense of solidarity. The irony is that Americans should have come to affirm this moment in their own history – this ‘authentic sense of community and solidarity’ in work – only once it had become a mediatic spectre.

What most characterises the Muslim villagers of Afghanistan who have paid the ultimate price for these reversals of fortune, is their categorical worthlessness as labour to multinational capital. They – and other Muslims, in Africa, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere – are the world’s most expendable people in strictly economic terms. The political future will ultimately depend on how they respond to this structural sense of worthlessness. My sense is that whatever next passes for criticism will also have, at its ultimate ethical level, to find a way of writing from within that space of structural expendability – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call it ‘the voice of the multitude against Empire’. To date, we have only a confused idea of what it might sound like; meanwhile, the sound of our own social expendability is ringing in our ears. That might be a place to start.

Julian Murphet is a lecturer in English at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Literature and Race in Los Angeles (2001), Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho ( 2001), and Literature and Visual Technologies, edited with Lydia Rainford (2003)

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]