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Cultural Decoder Rings

Anyone who read my recent post on J.J. Long’s new book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity witnessed some of my unease with Long’s approach. There’s too much theory and way too much academic prose for my taste. But a recent post by Dan Green over at The Reading Experience brought into focus one of my other quibbles with Long’s book. Green writes a little about his own disaffection from the world of literary academia:

My alienation from academe was in part a reaction against the prevailing modes of academic criticism, which in my view had essentially abandoned “literature itself” in favor of critical approaches that were mostly just a way of doing history or sociology by other means. I had pursued a Ph.D in literary study in order to study literature, not to validate my political allegiances on the cheap, or to study something called “culture,” an artifact of which literature might be considered but given no more emphasis than any other cultural “expression.”

It is this very tendency (perhaps too mild a word) to push literature over into the arena of cultural studies that bugged me from page one of Long’s book. Perhaps a dozen times I wrote in my notebook “He’s not reading Sebald!”. When applied to literature, cultural studies often seems like a method of decoding texts rather than actually reading them and struggling with them – as texts, not as encoded cultural messages. One of the times that I made this note occurred when Long talks about Museums and Modernity. In one long sentence he summarizes the numerous types of collections that appear in Sebald’s (“Collections of various kinds are everywhere in Sebald’s work: zoos, menageries…”) and then he provides a four-page outline of how “systematic collecting” is implicated in the history of Europe since the seventeenth century (“hand in hand with changes in the relationships between knowledge and power…”) without ever again referring to Sebald or quoting from one of his books.

Long, to his credit, seems to recognize at least some limitations to his methodology of applying cultural disciplines to Sebald’s texts. Midway through the book is a short section called The Limits of Discipline where he writes: “Sebald’s work is also, however, abundant in moments that dramatise the limits of discipline.” Having earlier, for example, discussed the role of maps in Sebald’s books, Long now notes an example from Vertigo “that demonstrates the failure of the map” at a point when “Sebald’s map proves completely useless” (in spite of having map in hand, the book’s narrator becomes thoroughly lost in Venice and is mugged).

I’m a product of academia myself and my quibble is not with any kind of cultural studies. But increasingly I think that literature is not well served by a strong-handed cultural approach.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mm… on maps: Long is right to notice the “failure of the map” in Vertigo. It all starts w/ Stendhal, I guess, whose hand-drawn, illegible maps are reproduced in Vertigo. If you read The Life of Henry Brulard, the book is charmingly full of these incomprehensible, useless maps.

    March 25, 2008
  2. hp #

    AMEN to that!

    March 25, 2008
  3. I agree re: Long’s book and the wider debate within which it’s been framed. Whilst I haven’t read all of Long’s book, I do feel from what I have read that Foucault is wrapped around Sebald’s work in a way that does make the book more Foucaldian than Sebaldian. In Long’s defence, he is one of the clearest and most engaging ‘academic’ writers out there, despite his irritating habit of ticking off other Sebald critics as if they’d got it all wrong. This is obviously not his intention, but the tone gives it that attitude.(Unfortunately this is the case with a number of Sebald scholars, especially Germanists, most of whom believe that reading Sebald in English is self-defeating and philistine. Their view tends to be that reading Sebald in translation automatically invalidates the hard work done by such scholars, and I think this is wrong.)

    Thanks for framing Long’s book in such an interesting way. As a baby academic (as I like to call myself), I feel threatened by discourses against academic criticism and whole disciplines like cultural studies, which I happen to think yields highly engaging work. But I do absolutely agree that literature must never take second place to a broader theory or theme. The text is everything, as far as I’m concerned. That is where all analysis begins.

    March 28, 2008
  4. Christopher, It probably appears that I’m being overly hard on Long, largely because I’m more motivated to write about the aspects of his book that irritate me. I actually think that much of what he says is really dead on; unfortunately, the poor reader has to drill down through nearly inscrutable sentences to realize what is being said. Like this comment on the photograph of a gypsy in Vertigo: “Located at the intersection of ethnography, family albums and (post)memorial practices, the gypsy photograph thus contains a sedimented history of perpetration, racial politics and the attempts of those born later to deal with this legacy, traces of which are inscribed in the private spaces of the bourgeois home.” No wonder Sebald wanted out of academia.

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comments.

    March 28, 2008
  5. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    Poor old Jonathan (whom I’ve known for yonks). His heart’s in the right place and he’s one of the first people to try and link WGS’s work to the larger problematics of Modernism. But if you can’t write impenetrably, you don’t get taken seriously as an academic these days. So keep encouraging him to go back to the text, to use “theory” more sensitively and to prune his luxurious prose and one of these days, he’ll produce something really good. Sebald wanted out of academia (a) because he was getting near retirement age and (b) because he was fed up with state interference. Fashionable academic impenetrability didn’t bother him a toss: I know because I was a mate of his.

    July 19, 2008

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