Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reflections on "Narrative and Politics"

After the panel ended, I went straight up to PALWICK and tried to reassure her that her parable had been perfectly comprehensible –she’s recounted that here. I said of the Confronter, “How could she have completely ignored the fact that your Delany story was about class resentment?” PALWICK replied that for someone so focused on race, it was possible to be blind to arguments about class; indeed, looking at the Confronter’s blog, I find that she has some generous comments about race and astute thoughts on gender but tends to elide class issues and to be very immersed in the broadcast media –for example, she completely buys the press’s denunciation of Obama’s “bitter rural white Americans” remark. PALWICK pointed out that it was particularly odd to immediately associate a black man/white woman conflict with the current election, as such issues have been in the news since at least 1870.

As I said at the panel, there’s a lot of provocative stuff that I wunna comment on.

The Delany quote is vintage Delany and indeed makes its point beautifully; it’s a point that both Delany and DUCHAMP have made in different forms over time. And three of the panelists offered astute responses to DUCHAMP’s question. PALWICK, however, balked, for reasons I completely sympathize with, perhaps because she was the only academic as such on the panel and I too am an educator.

See, Delany is writing to an individual student about the problems with her manuscript; but DUCHAMP is presenting Delany’s insight as foundational; and to anyone who has any reservations about Delany’s generalizations, DUCHAMP’s gonna come off as though she’s saying, “Here is The Truth: how has it affected your life?” And someone who’s known Delany for a while and is very sensitive to his pedagogical shortcomings, his sometimes overbearing tone, and his aesthetic limitations may disagree with aspects of The Truth; and she’s gonna be as uncomfortable as I am with a job application that asks, “Write a four-paragraph essay on your journey to Christ.”

So PALWICK didn’t say, “Well, I have, as Bourdieu would say, twisted the stick in the other direction by disrupting certain clichés of narrative in ‘Gestella’, ‘Ever After’, ‘Stormdusk’, and ‘G.I. Jesus’, showing how the class and gender pressures of the real world mean that what our stories tell us will increase our agency and improve our status often doesn’t, and vice versa.” Instead, she tried, invoking her own longstanding knowledge of Delany's hortatory style, to deconstruct the premise that the Delany passage was The Truth for all of us. I was delighted by her response not just because I weary of Chipolatry but because it resonates with my pedagogical experience. She made three or four great points.
  1. “A lot of us have grown up being taught to be very critical . . . “ This is, to my mind, of a piece with Gwyneth Jones’s criticism of Delany’s contribution to the Symposium on Women in Science Fiction. Delany’s tone is occasionally that of someone who’s just discovered oppression and has to detail it to you; and not all of us need the pedagogical style he presents to his students. I was at a Burmese restaurant four years ago with Delany and a younger African-American writer, and Delany, whose knowledge of black history has a lot of lacunae, got very intense about slavery and said to the other man, “WE WERE KEPT IN PENS!!” And the younger guy looked at him with an “I kinda already know that, Chip” expression.

    This is very much a generational thing: Chip and Timmi were not taught in their every humanities course to eschew racism/sexism/homophobia, whereas it’s quite possible that PALWICK was taught that way and is more interested in the problems of that approach than its virtues.

  2. “telling readers or students what to think” Again, if you praise a movie or novel to Delany that he’s found homophobia or misogyny in, he will not say “What in Heaven’s name did you see in that?” He will, often, go on at length and with some intensity about his frustrations with it and cast it into the Outer Darkness. One really has to develop the assertiveness to argue against his points without his having expressed an interest in a conflicting opinion; he’ll listen if you volunteer your alternative take on the work. In the classroom, I’m told, he reins himself in; but that may not have been the case two dozen years ago when PALWICK was his student (at Clarion, alongside her friend VAN GELDER).

    I too am partial to other pedagogical approaches than telling students what to think: I’ll sometimes ask students to “show how a text contains or achieves x”; but often I’ll offer propositions or themes and ask the class what it thinks instead. Conflicting opinions are generally valuable and educational. I had a great class last term when, in response to a student who mistakenly thought one of our texts was advocating dismissal of narratives that used stereotypes, I asked the class what role stereotypes could play in the narrative arts; and they came up with six great answers, including "Tell us something historically useful about the beliefs of the era in which they were written" and “Promote discussion of the issues at stake.”

  3. Don’t discard something like Nancy Drew. Again, a generational thing. The circumstances of Delany’s and DUCHAMP’s lives mean that they’re not gonna look for liberation in The Adventures of Augie March but need something more explicitly liberatory. But you don’t have to be a Cultural Studies everything-is-counterhegemonic putz to enjoy the flashes of transgression in . . . here, let me quote my dissertation:
    two factors delayed the discovery of Highsmith, Dick and Thompson: the habit of viewing the Fifties as a conservative wasteland and the fact that the most energetic rediscovery and recuperation of authors was taking place as part of the battle against racism, sexism, and homophobia. A vast amount of energy had to be devoted to refuting Mortimer Adler’s claim that there were no great black authors before 1955 and William Henry’s insistence that the canon could be purged of women with little ill effect. Novels that contained villains who could be seen as stereotypically gay, novels that in some way partook of their era’s misogyny, and novels that presented black characters as adjuncts to a white protagonist’s struggle may not have been priorities2. Only recently, with feminist, homophilic, and antiracist ideas having gained a toehold in some academic and journalistic circles, has it become possible to relinquish our excessive vigilance and implement Raymond Williams’s insight that “it would be wrong to overlook the importance of works and ideas which, while clearly affected by hegemonic limits and pressures, are at least in part significant breaks beyond them” (Marxism 114).
    In other words – and DUCHAMP made this point (in different words) later in the panel as well as at her GoH speech – not everyone will have the energy to dig deep into the nostril of hegemony for the booger of subversion.
Instead of following up on PALWICK’s challenge, DUCHAMP –suffering, I would guess, from Tired Moderator Syndrome as most panel chairs were by Sunday- seems to have gotten (and stayed) mad at her for not playing the game. So she tried to defend Chip Delany, of all people, against the charge of dismissing potentially useful or healing stories. My read of PALWICK’s response was that it was the parable that first came to her mind to challenge Chipolatry and show that Delany was not always The Great Repository of Progressive Thought.

The parable didn’t work as an argument because of the way, as GUNN later observed, PALWICK was “emotionally involved in” it: whereas my notes say "Chip once said 'I'm more marginalized than you are' to a poor female grad student," those members of the audience who were not attuned to how an impoverished grad student striking for benefits would have lived heard a white professional saying, "A black man pissed me off by complaining about his oppression" rather than "A rich and famous aristocrat ignored my suffering to focus on his own."

It might have worked, for example, if PALWICK had said, "The kind of thinking that Chip's convictions lead to is what leads him to dismiss Toni Morrison's work, work which I, and many others, find very valuable." But the emotion in the parable she used was not hostility toward Chip so much as toward the reverence for his words that mention of his name was expected to generate. I’d had an analogous experience the previous day: I’d said to a woman, “I remember Timmi having told me blah blah blah,” and she’d replied, “Timmi can’t have told you that because it’s not true”; my impulse was immediately to recount Three Occasions on Which Timmi’d Been Mistaken; but my interlocutor didn’t want to hear about them.

MURPHY’s remarks from Heilbrun about “what has been forbidden to women” meshed wonderfully with DUCHAMP’s Alice Sheldon quote from the previous day and the “Thinking Ahead” panel’s discussion of Clinton from Friday.

GILMAN and GUNN’s conflicting characterization of whether our society pressures us to progress or to stay in our place and be like our parents is, of course, a class conflict.

DUCHAMP and PALWICK’s disagreement on therapeutic narrative echoed a conversation between Eric R. Marcus, Chuck Anderson, and Dominick LaCapra at the Columbia Narrative Medicine conference of 2003. Anderson, like PALWICK, was talking about how narrative could empower patients and indeed get their doctors to perceive them as human beings with agency and lives; others worried, based on the academic norms they’d learned regarding hegemonic stories, whether one risked turning a patient’s or a med student’s story into a “sutured narrative” that could close down the story and absorb all problems.

Now, I worry about artists who are dazzled by the aura of someone who teaches at a university –I wish Tony Kushner, for example, saw that he doesn’t have to quote Harold Bloom with such reverence; he’s probably smarter than Harold about many important things. So I was very pleased when, in response to that huge generalization DUCHAMP cited Peter Brooks as having made, PALWICK invoked Richard Wright (in a very Nussbaumian way, interestingly) to point out that there is such a thing in the canon as Protest Fiction, you know.

As to PALWICK's invocation of Thomas Covenant and Frodo as protagonists with power whose sovereignty is not exalted --I wouldn’t wish Stephen R. Donaldson’s prose on my worst enemies, but stories of the renunciation of power, from Cervantes (Sancho Panza’s abdication) to Neil Gaiman (Destruction’s abdication) are very important. Still, they don’t offer most of us identificatory characters, as we generally don’t have that level of power to relinquish.

Now, I began to wish that DUCHAMP had opened with a quote from Charles Baxter instead of Delany, because he’s written so well of the perils of therapeutic narrative; and therapeutic narrative kept coming up. I got the impression that MURPHY’s composition of “Before and After” was therapeutic for her; and of course, GUNN told an extremely therapeutic story that defies a whole bunch of counterhegemonic dogmas. Low-status female author in a dither calls up a high-status male and he gives her exactly the right advice? Shows how a great healing story can violate those dogmas, which was a point PALWICK was trying to make from the start. Anna Mollow, in a paper I described toward the end of my “Black Disability Studies” article, demonstrated the same point on a bigger scale: Willow Weep for Me is ableist crap by Disability Movement standards, but a brave act of rebellion in African-American culture (Looking at my notebook, I find I wrote in the margins that very day, “PALWICK’s point is really Anna Mollow’s: don’t get hidebound by dogmas and reject or ignore other people’s experience”). Again, class differences play a big role too.

GILMAN’s remark on what “tends to stress the personal and private and project it onto the public and collective” really deserved elucidation. She was talking about yente journalism, I think; but the change from “the personal is political” to the culture of therapy needs to be fleshed out, lest people keep blaming the latter on the former.


Ide Cyan said...

I wouldn’t wish Stephen R. Donaldson’s prose on my worst enemies, but stories of the renunciation of power, from Cervantes (Sancho Panza’s abdication) to Neil Gaiman (Destruction’s abdication) are very important.

Are you using only male authors as examples here to make your point about stories within the canon, or is this just an accidental irony?

Timmi Duchamp said...

Baffled, Josh, not mad. I was baffled. I had no comprehension of what Susan was saying and was trying desperately to figure that out so that I could integrate what she was saying with what the other panelists were saying. (I figured that was my job as moderator.) I didn't figure it out, though, and so fell back on winging it. Because of that, I would've had a strong sense of failure with that panel had not scores of people to continued to sit in the room as we ran into overtime (another goof on my part). The fact that so many people left the panel stimulated made me feel we'd done all right.

Josh said...

Ide, I don't think it's an irony that the two authors I named were male; it seems to me that, at least until quite recently, the whole "how do you responsibly deal with a whole bunch of power, and wouldn't it be noble to renounce it?" was largely a malestream question. The issue, as I say, arises in reality for so few people, and assumes so much privilege or security . . . perhaps it would have been hard for female novelists to take such a power fantasy as seriously? Or am I overlooking obvious counterexamples?

Timmi, the panel was absolutely a roaring success, thanks to the five brilliant people up there. My notes and subsequent thoughts covered primarily Susan's non serviam, but Carolyn was also memorable; and it was a delight to see the interplay and the author reminiscences of Eileen and Pat. I was motivated afterward to buy one of Carolyn's books from Aqueduct as well as Susan's from Tachyon (both at A Room of One's Own).

Susan Palwick said...

Don't get hidebound by dogmas and reject people's experience: yes, exactly. Thank you, Josh!

A few random notes: Gordon and I weren't in the same Clarion class. I think he was the year after me. Also, I did attempt to discuss some of my efforts to write non-traditional narrative in the form of narratives about small acts of mercy (and how difficult it is to turn those into exciting stories), but no one picked up on that.

Also, as you know, I don't find the culture of therapy entirely a bad thing, and believe it offers some useful correctives to academic approaches. For one thing, we'll have achieved the feminist revolution when emotional women -- and men -- are praised for being authentic, rather than criticized for being unintellectual. Rejection of feeling is, I think, itself a kind of oppression.

Timmi: Despite good will on both sides, we seem to talk persistently past each other, despite the fact that many other people understand both of us perfectly well. I don't believe my panel comments were opaque to other people, although (certainly!) not everyone liked them. I think we need to chalk this up to personality differences, and accept on faith that we are, in fact, allies.

And now, perhaps it's time to move on? I think we all have better things to do -- like writing books?

Peace to all of you!