Something Is Happening Mr. Jones

“Something Is Happening, Mr. Jones”

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Electronic Book Review: Politics of Selling out issue, 1, 2 (1996), 8 pages.

In his provocative essay “Cultural Criticism and the Politics of Selling Out,” Michael Bérubé rightly worries about an “academic left whose chief function is to analyze and interpret the formation of the hegemonies that are actually being formed by our counterparts on the right.” “I fear,” Bérubé remarks, “an intellectual regime in which cultural studies is becoming nothing more than a parasitic kind of color commentator on the new authoritarian populism of the Age of Gingrich, too busy dissecting the postmodern eugenicist-libertarian-cybernetic-fundamentalist Right to be of any use in actually opposing it” (p. 10).

Touché! We can carry Bérubé’s argument one step further and point out that the present divorce between the academic literary/ cultural studies establishment and the public sphere is perhaps best understood as an extreme form of the ivory-towerism we claim to reject. For even as leftist cultural critics castigate what Bérubé calls the “postmodern eugenicist-libertarian-cybernetic-fundamentalist Right,” something else is happening and, to cite the old Bob Dylan song, “you don’t even know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” That something is the rise of serious literary and art venues outside the university which is so hostile them.

Let me begin with a personal anecdote. When my daughter Carey Perloff became the director of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco four years ago, she instituted a series of symposia to accompany each production, a series for which she even received a sizable grant from the NEH. The symposia are usually on Monday evenings when the theatre is dark and are free to the public; additional discussion groups occur after particular performances. For The Tempest, for example, Carey invited Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley) and Harry Berger (Santa Cruz) to speak; for Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Katherine Hayles (UCLA) addressed the issue of chaos theory and narrative structure; for Euripides’ Hecuba, the symposium included law professorJeremy Waldron (Bowlt), classicist Helena Foley (Barnard), and the anthropologist Martin Bernal (Cornell). And so on. I myself am shortly going to be on a panel discussing “language” theatre with poet-dramatist-novelist Mac Wellman and poet-dramatist-publisher Douglas Messerli, in conjunction with the production of Eric Overmyer’s delicious parody of film noir, Dark Rapture.

Very few scholars turn down the invitation to speak at ACT even though the honorarium is small, evidently because are pleased to have a chance to address a non-academic public. And on these occasions, the theatre is packed. People–lawyers, doctors, business people, Silicon valley types, students, artists, actors, designers–will sit for a few hours just to argue for and against ACT’s interpretation of Caliban’s role in The Tempest, about the use of mathematical models in determining the plot line of Arcadia, or about the efficacy of Paul Schmidt’s hypercolloquial translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The discussion, in other words, deals with those “literary” issues we used to discuss in the classroom–issues which are now considered hopelessly passé by an “enlightened” professariat that has abandoned genius theory, concepts of literary value, and the pleasure principle in its in zeal to unmask the oppressiveness of various discourses, of defining subject position and representative agency in the writings of the marginalized, and so on.

But the basic human instinct to produce, participate in, and enjoy art-making is not that easily squelched. Even as the Berkeley or Stanford English department turns its back on courses that allow for discussion of the problems of translating Chekhov for a contemporary audience or prompt a class to discuss, in anything like an open forum, the meaning of “magic” in The Tempest, the venues have moved elsewhere. At ACT, when the discussion is over, the audience (an audience, incidentally, racially and ethnically quite mixed, reflecting, especially, San Francisco’s large Asian-American population) looks extremely disappointed; there are still hands up, people waiting to express themselves on this or that issue. And lately there have been additional post-performance discussions with the director, set designers, actors, and stage manager.

Or, to take a quite different example, consider the recent success of the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery. Here is an item from the New York Times for February 19, 1996:

At 9 P.M. on Saturday, Feb. 10, a line started forming outside the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The visitors were determined to see the blockbuster Vermeer exhibition when it opened for its final day at 11 the next morning. The museum reported that the 14-hour wait was the longest recorded for any exhibition there.

“People came with pup tents, mattresses and futons,” said Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery. There was a continuous candlelight chess game going, and even someone selling a T-shirt that read ‘I Survived the Vermeer Line.’”. . . .

The show attracted a total of 327, 551 visitors [during a 70-day run]. . . . the Vermeer catalogue ($19.95 in paperback; $45, hard-cover) has become a best seller, setting a record with 55, 498 copies. [New York Times, 19 Feb. 1996, B4).

How do we explain this phenomenon? We can attribute some of the fuss to publicity, to the media presentation of the show as the “one and only” chance to see so many of the extremely rare Vermeers in one place at one time. But publicity cannot account for the fact that people–again, all sorts of people–lined up for weeks at 5.30 A.M. in sub-zero weather just to get into the museum and see twenty-two small paintings that have neither the sex appeal of Mapplethorpe nor the splashiness of such blockbuster shows as the ”Treasures of Tutamkhamun.”

On the day I attended in early January, the crowd, once inside the building, was curiously subdued and reverential. People patiently waited their turn to stand in front of the View of Delft (the painting Proust’s Swann wanted to see so badly when he was on his deathbed that he kept dreaming of the little yellow patch in the lower left and how gorgeously it was painted), just to contemplate what seems at first glance an ordinary seventeenth-century Dutch urban landscape–the silhouette of red and brown brick houses and church steeples along a nondescript waterfront.

At Stanford, I don’t believe we’ve had a course on Vermeer on the books in years. Indeed, single-artist courses are considered hopelessly tacky vis-à-vis such offerings as “Disciplining the Female Body in Surrealist Photography” or “Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and the Commodity Fetish.” But somehow the “public,” with their camp stools and pup tents are lined up around Constitution Avenue waiting for Vermeer. It is a phenomenon that should, to say the least, give us academics pause.

Finally, some thoughts about poetry venues in the late nineties. Those of us involved in the poetry world know that within the academy, especially the Ivy League academy, the study of poetry is considered largely retro and elitist, it being more difficult to pinpoint political issues in poetry than in fiction, not to mention cultural theory. For every course that actually studies a living poet, there must be dozens that study the writings of Homi Bhabba and Gayatri Spivak. “Public,” in this context, means little more than debating Habermas’s discussion of the public sphere, and so on.

My colleague Robert Harrison and I are currently teaching an undergraduate Humanities Honors seminar on two DWEM poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The course has no particular “angle,” and we are not using the poetry to illustrate this or that hermeneutic theory; we are merely trying to expose students to the extraordinary and complex poems themselves. The first day forty-five students showed up, including a lot of graduate students, all insisting that they “must” get into the class. Weeding it out, we ended with a group of twenty-eight, including about ten grad students in fields as diverse as Philosophy, Psychology, and Slavic Studies. It has been an exciting class but sometimes discouraging when we realize how little background our students have. Thus a very bright and successful senior Modern Thought and Literature major came in to see me to explain his less than outstanding performance thus far. “Baudelaire,” he told me, “is the first poet I have ever read.”

Once exposed, however, this student and others like him catch the bug. And the predisposition, as in the case of this particular student, is already there because the poetry scene outside the university is currently so exciting and engaging. In San Francisco, readings of new and experimental poetries are jammed. In New Hampshire, Romana Huk is currently organizing “Assembling Alternatives: An International Poetry Conference / Festival” to be held this August that promises to be, like the Robin Blaser festival in Vancouver last year, a major event. Romana Huk is a professor at the University of New Hampshire, but she has organized the festival largely on her own steam, found funding (non-university) for some of the foreign poets, and the rest of us are going are paying our own way. Will it be worth it? Well, it’s a chance to hear and talk with Charles Bernstein and Johanna Drucker, Steve McCaffery and Joan Retallack and Nathaniel Mackey, with Tom Raworth and Denise Riley from the UK, and with poets and critics from around the world from as far away as Taiwan and Nigeria. What more could one want?

One of the subjects to be discussed in New Hamphsire is, in Huk’s words, “How changing poetries in new cultural contexts force us to rethink old debates about the subject, reader, and politics of form.” One would think this is a topic that would interest the intellectuals who are Bérubé’s constituency , but the facts speak otherwise. The academy’s aim over the last decade has been to make poetry as invisible as possible. Indeed, poetry (literature in general) is only permitted to appear in “and” and “in ” constructions, as in the ubiquitous conference title “Literature and the Law,” or as in the article title “Interrogating Domestic Ideology in American Women’s Poetry” (the lead essay in the most recent issue of American Literary History). But the idea of poetry as a language construct, poetry as delight, poetry as itself a form of knowledge and not necessarily a conduit for domestic or any other ideology is rejected by most academics.

Accordingly, poetry must–and does– move out into the streets– or, more accurately, out onto the electronic highway. Bob Holman’s poetry slams at the Nyorcan Cafe may not convey the best that is known and thought in the world but their energy and vitality testify to the simple fact that the “public”–a sizable public–does care about poetry. The Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo, now read around the world on the Internet, is an amazing facility; every day I’m astonished by newcomers from nations around the globe who are participating in the conversation. Individuals like Al Filreis at Penn (see his Home Page) have brought serious postmodern poetries to classes of engineers and Wharton School students. Or again, take the activity on the John Cage List ( On Feb. 8, 1996, the following posting appeared:

I’m a 17 year old music student from the UK. As part of my A level examination (June 1997) coursework I have to write a dissertation on anything musical. However, after hearing some of Cage’s works (Amores is one of the set works) I was really enchanted, and decided to try and find out as much as I could about him. I also decided that it would be great to make him the subject of my coursework (not to mention different– everyone else writes about Bach Chorales, and Freddie Mercyry apparently!). Anyway, after finding minimal information in encyclopedias etc. I decided to ‘surf the net’ to see what I could find. Imagine my delight when I discovered a whole mailing list dedicated to him!!!

And, having raised various issues about Cage and Zen Buddhism, the writer signed off as “Helen.”

I found Helen’s posting quite moving in its sense of discovery. She isn’t, evidently, listening to Cage’s music because it’s fashionable: in the UK, let’s remember, Cage continues, at least in the pages of leading periodicals like The London Review of Books, to be regarded as something of a joke: the American who invented a piano piece made up of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence! And even in the U.S., you won’t find Cage’s work figuring much in the university curriculum, certainly not in English and/or Cultural Studies departments. So seventeen-year olds who are interested will increasingly turn elsewhere–most probably, like Helen, to surfing the net.

It will be objected, of course, that British secondary-school students who take A levels are already an elite group even as it will be objected, by some readers of this essay, that ACT patrons, National Gallery goers, and those who attend avant-garde poetry festivals belong to a particular elite. My reply to this is simple. The left intellectuals to whom Bérubé refers–say, Fredric Jameson critiquing Tony Bennett’s “Putting Policy into Cultural Studies” in Social Text–are not exactly writing for the “public” either. They are writing for one another, refining specific points in what is an ongoing and increasingly arid neo-Marxist argument. Indeed, the special skills and knowledge required to read such an article are at least as “elitist” as the knowledge required to discuss a performance of a Chekhov play or a poem by Susan Howe. And it can be argued that if we really do want to produce some kind of rapprochement with the public, perhaps it’s time, not to “sell out,” as Bérubé fears he’s doing when he lets the New Yorker editor cut and rearrange his prose, but to ask ourselves what our training in literary theory, history, and criticism actually enables us to do for the sizable public that is finding it cannot, after all, seem to do without its particular pleasures.