The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth
By Christopher Schaberg
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)
One of the earliest appearances of the term postmodern can be found in Leslie Fiedler’s essay “Cross the Border—Close the Gap,” published in Playboy in 1969. Fielder used the term to describe a paradigm shift from “the finicky canons of the genteel tradition and the depressing pieties of the Culture Religion of Modernism” to “quite another time, apocalyptic, antirational, blatantly romantic and sentimental; an age dedicated to joyous misology and prophetic irresponsibility; one . . . distrustful of self-protective irony and too great self-awareness.” In this new age, notions of taste—high and low, classic and popular—melted like the last snows of winter. They were followed by a sort of omni-cultural spring in which the “exploitative” genres of the written word—science fiction, the western, horror, and pornography—could be mined for the purpose of forging capital-L Literature.
The change in authorship and audience necessitated a new kind of criticism: “Death-of-Art criticism.” According to Fiedler, the “traditional novel is dead—not dying, but dead.” As such, he saluted the return of “entertainment.” The criticism vital to this shift, Fiedler contended, must discard the “scientific” tone of the past in favor of an approach that is “mantic, magical, and more than a little mad.” He continued:
The authority of the critic is based not on his skills in research or his collection of texts but on his ability to find words and rhythms and images appropriate to his ecstatic visions of, say, the plays of Euripides or the opening verses of Genesis. . . . To be sure, the newest criticism must be aesthetic, poetic in form as well as in substance; but it must also be, in light of where we are, comical, irreverent, vulgar.
Fiedler’s examples of “new new criticism”—Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, and Charles Olson—betray the date of the essay, but its core argument is not so easily dismissed. Like its ancestor, Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” “Cross the Border” captures a shift in American literary history that was not only genuine and destabilizing but also enduring. Enduring, anyway, up to a point. For the conditions Fiedler propounded may have reached their own endpoint; that we are in some way post-postmodern. A recent book seems to have intuited that endpoint, though how effectively it reckons with it is another matter.
The Work of Literature in the Age of Post-Truth comes fifty years after “Cross the Border—Close the Gap.” Its author is a professor of English and Environment at Loyola University New Orleans. Christopher Schaberg is not explicitly a postmodernist, but he waves the flag in implicit ways. For example, he taught a course called Bad Romance that started with “Lady Gaga’s song and music video, which we come back to again and again throughout the semester as we read different American narratives of love and loss.” Yet Schaberg is critical of the apparent triumph of postmodernism. “A few years before writing this book,” the preface opens, “I might have celebrated the arriving of an age of ‘post-truth.’ . . . But ‘post-truth’ means something more sinister these days.”
Like “Cross the Border,” The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth was written to mark a turning point in American literary culture, but this book is something of a mirror image of the earlier essay. Gone is Fiedler’s optimism and sense of wonder about the prospects of human self-expression and of his profession. “How am I supposed to keep teaching . . . literature,” Schaberg asks:
when the highest public office in the United States is held by a person who is utterly unbound to the words he says or, for that matter, tweets? Donald Trump has been unflappable about the fact that he doesn’t read books, at least not in their entirety. . . . Where does this leave books, in our cultural estimation? What is the role of literary writing in a time when widely read stories can appear (and sometimes actually be) far more fictional and fantastical than we could ever imagine, much less closely read in the classroom?
The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth, then, doesn’t have a central thesis so much as a recurring anxiety that Schaberg explores through reflection on three themes: environment, education, and politics. Despite its bloodless title, The Work of Literature is not a treatise, nor is it particularly didactic. Instead, it is a 150-page assemblage of short, interconnected essays that Schaberg describes as “partly a collection of meditations, occasionally a manifesto, and attuned to contemporary tensions throughout.” The form is quite deliberate. Schaberg cites approvingly the genre-indifferent “autotheory” of Maggie Nelson and the fragmentary essayism of Sarah Manguso.
The Work of Literature, in this sense, is a sort of anti-book. This is the stuff of which classics are occasionally made. Walden is an anti-book, as is A Tale of a Tub, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and The Gutenberg Galaxy.
But Schaberg’s execution does not rise to this level. He is at his strongest when writing on the environment. His passion informs his eloquence, whether reminiscing about sleeping under a white pine tree as an undergraduate at Hillsdale College; bemoaning the manipulations of suburban lawn maintenance; cataloging the fauna, flora, and refuse of the Mississippi River; or defending the place of the tick in the natural order. “We don’t have to completely agree on the definition of the anthropocene . . . to recognize it at work in the Slate article,” he writes, “where the author confidently situates humans as having a deciding role in the fate of ticks.” Technically, the term anthropocene names the current human-dominated geological era, but Schaberg questions its underlying intent. “Can we be so bold,” he asks, “as to name an entire geological era after our arguably still young species? One way of answering this question is that we do it all the time, simply by rendering nature as something other than human in the first place.”
Schaberg is also infatuated with his teaching life. That is especially admirable given the perception of many tenured faculty that undergraduate teaching is a chore. “One of the joys of mentoring students over the course of four years . . . is hearing from such students again one, two, or five years after graduation,” he writes. Schaberg is sincere in his concern that universities are too fixated on career paths. “The idea that there are or will be stable careers in the blooming twenty-first century seems like questionable at best, and a pipedream at worst,” he rightly observes. Reviewing the litany of fads and gimmicks that have promise to make higher education useful, Schaberg sees “a willful denial of the fact that these things too are destined to change again . . . in the oncoming years.”
Yet Schaberg’s own teaching is framed by a similar sensitivity to relevance. He switches out the “sardonic and yet weirdly moving” novel The Sun Also Rises in his Twentieth-Century American Fiction class for Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan,” a “sickening rape story” that nonetheless reveals “themes of women’s oppression and the entrapments of Regionalism.” Fitzgerald’s “Three Hours Between Planes,” it appears, is “somehow appropriate for understanding how the message ‘Make America Great Again’ was expected to arrive on a gilded jetliner seventy-seven years hence.” In another class, Schaberg starts reading discussions with scenes from Labyrinth:
My students made amusing connections: Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah was an embodiment of how Marx defines alienated labor; Bowie’s Jareth could be explained by way of Freud’s unconscious; Hoggle utters a statement akin to Nietzsche’s delineation of truth and fiction in an extra-moral sense. It was really working!
“The class became more serious, as the 2016 primaries loomed in the distance,” he adds mournfully. “I wish I had kept us watching Labyrinth.”
Slow Reading a Trump-Haunted Work
Despite his affection for popular culture, Schaberg tries to instill in his students a habit of slow reading. Meticulous reading of his own book reveals a pattern early on. The Work of Literature is Trump-haunted. For Schaberg, the president is at once an insult to and an epitome of the human situation. He is “a sort of ambassador of the anthropocene. . . . He can’t escape the realities of the world, and this [is] all the more obvious as he tries to drown out the voices of others.”
Even when he is right, Schaberg’s commentary is a kind of intellectual headcheese coagulated from scraps of recent “takes.” His account of post-truth, for example, largely ignores George W. Bush—whose administration set the bar for ignoring narrative consistency to achieve its disastrous ends. Schaberg is transfixed by Trump in a way that only a Trump supporter could appreciate. In this sense, too, The Work of Literature is a kind of inversion of its object.
The Work of Literature is a disappointing book, then, because its central concern is of eminent significance, but Schaberg appears ill-equipped to address it. His references to books, films, and thinkers seem copious but are actually quite narrow. J. G. Ballard’s depiction of humanity as a compulsively self-harming species that treats the earth like a giant mound of flesh would have given his rapine account of the anthropocene an intense illustration. Yet Ballard goes unmentioned. Schaberg returns again and again to the colder modernities of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace while remaining ambivalent about their “authorial” presence. One rather comical essay describes anxiety over, of all things, book blurbs: “My friend Ian ordered [the Delillo novel] Zero K but felt so set upon by the overwhelming acclaim that he was unable to read the book, and he ended up returning it to Amazon.”
So much of this book indicates that Fiedler’s postmodernism has itself become a “finicky canon,” a “Culture Religion.” A victim of its own success, postmodernism’s iconoclasm has given way to institutional discipline. Writing on Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a genre-blending work of criticism, prose poetry, and memoir, Schaberg does hit on a crucial insight. Nelson “made me think about the books that might be written if many scholars/writers were not bound by idiosyncratic and capricious so-called standards or genre conventions of scholarship and publication.”
Yet he, too, cannot escape from the academic fortress. For instance, Schaberg cites Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” theory: “To give a text an Author,” Barthes wrote, “is to impose a limit on that text . . . to close the writing.” Schaberg quotes this maxim as though it were confirmed doctrine but does not consider how the theory has come to life, especially on the internet.
When amateur sleuths tried earlier this year to uncover the identity of the Twitter aphorist @dril, his legion of fans went into near panic fearing the mystique would be tarnished. “Slenderman,” an internet-born urban legend, has a creator, but he has been minimized by the extensive multimedia reproduction—art, stories, films—of the character by countless internet users, and now a major film studios. The “death of the author” lives in the internet era as something more like the birth (or maybe renaissance) of the avatar, in which the self-made online screen name takes the authorial mantle.
The internet, moreover, is not as concerned with “genre conventions of scholarship.” When Schaberg comments on the internet, it is as a source of distraction and provocation, something from which he needs to save his students. That is not untrue but overlooks how people outside institutions are using tools available to them to do just what Schaberg says literature should. “The work of literature right now is about including more material in our canons and discussions, about fanning out into the world.” It may turn out that the genre-defying books that Schaberg longs for may be out there. They just might be on Tumblr. ♦
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey. His writing has appeared in the American Conservative, Lapham’s Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.