Critical Precision: a Manifesto

Earl
Jackson, Jr.

Tomrip5@aol.com

Suspense
Fiction

Fall 1998

 

 

Critical
Precision

While „suspense fiction“ is ordinarily viewed as „trash“ or purely „entertainment,“
this course will take the texts we read and their genre very
seriously
. Our methods
of approach
will be equally as serious. Our readings
of the primary texts will proceed within a
guided
overview
of certain tendencies in contemporary literary
theory and cultural critique. Students will be expected to read the theoretical
texts and to
utilize
theory
in their written work. This is not an elitist
demand, nor an attempt to impose „academic“ value on „popular culture.“

A course like this is a form of intensive
conversation
. In order to converse
effectively
, we need a common
language
. The theoretical discourses we will study
provide part of that language. This does NOT mean that we must all think
alike or come to
the
same conclusions
. But if we agree upon a set
of critical terms
to use, that means we can use
terms very precisely and specifically. Otherwise, confusion will reign,
and it will seem that „theory“ is to blame, when it may simply be that
not everyone is speaking the
same
language
.

For example, we will be relying in part on Samuel
R. Delany’s theory of genre
, and his distinctions
between „speculative fiction“ and „mundane fiction.“ These are terms very
familar to both
science
fiction
writers and their readers. „Speculative
fiction“ includes both science fiction and fantasy – fiction that does
not take „the given world“ of our daily experience as its location or its
model. „Mundane“ (from the Latin, „mundus,“ „world“), is NOT a derogatory
term. It is the science fiction writers and readers‘ way of classifying
texts that DO take „the given world“ as the location of the story. This
means that realist fiction, whether „literary“ like David Copperfield
or „paraliterary“ (in a genre outside of „literature“) like
The
Killer Inside Me
[suspense] or The Hound of the
Baskervilles
[
detective],
would be „mundane.“ We will be adopting these terms with these meanings
in the class. Therefore, if a student were to write a paper on
The
Talented Mr. Ripley
, and to complain
about the slowness of its pace, and its long stretches of daily life without
event by declaring the first half of the book, „mundane,“ this would
make
no sense
. Indeed, since novels don’t usually change
genre, this would be unintelligible. In the context of the course and „
our
language
“ the entire novel is „mundane.“

We will go over the advantages of critical
vocabulary
and precision in more detail.

Even if we strongly oppose the content of that
theory
or the presuppositions
of a critical practice, by using the terms, we can state our argument against
that theory in a language that
the
theory itself provides
. Our disagreements will be
more productive if the
shared
language
allows us to be specific as to where
our disagreements lie
.

For example, if we are engaged in a Freudian reading
of a text, this does not require everyone [or anyone] to „
believe
in
“ Freudian psychoanalytic theory. It does require,
however, an understanding of the concepts and an
ability
to use
those concepts. If you are anti-Freudian,
you are free to argue against Freudian psychoanalysis as long as you base
your argument on your own careful readings of the
Freudian
texts
in question. You cannot base your opposition
on what you think Freud said, or another writer paraphrases Freud.

And the clarity of definitions and the control of
technical vocabulary require a similar responsibility. Whether you applaud
or deplore Freud’s conception of and therapies for „hysteria,“ your exposition
of Freudian hysteria will itself acquire more dramatic symptoms than any
of the protagonists of
Studies
on Hysteria
, if you vacillate between technical
and non-technical uses of your key terms. In other words, once you have
begun to engage with Freudian theory and practice, and have entered into
conversation with others about it, your entrance into such communities
and conversations should mark your
abandonment
of the ordinary meanings
and everyday connotations
of the key terms under discussion. If you persist in using the word „
hysteria
to mean the kind of
noisy
temper tantrums
in which Lucy Ricardo indulged when
Ricky would not allow her in his show, then you are opting out of the
very
conversations
you have begun.

While I begin with the warnings, I write this „manifesto“
and encourage this rigor, not for what it forbids but
for
what it allows
. It should be obvious why and how
a careful reading of the pertinent material will enable you to build arguments
and contribute to the intellectual enterprise in question. Maintaining
terminological clarity and consistency will
prove
just as enabling
.

Regardless of the topic of the course, if we were
to forego
any
technical vocabulary
, and make a pact to speak only
in „plain language,“ and phrase everything we say „so that anyone could
understand it immediately,“ there would be precious little we could accomplish.
In deciding to „do“ research, to investigate, to re-think, and to
read
and re-read
, we are committing ourselves to a
speculative adventure
and intellectual experiment
that cannot be limited to the horizons of „what everyone already knows.“
We have to be willing to think beyond the strictures of ordinary language,
common sense, and unconscious habit. This means we have to allow ourselves
to „have thoughts“ and to development thoughts, ways of thinking and observations
that will exceed not only what we „already know“ but also what we can „already
say.“

If we guaranteed you that a literature class would
be free from theory, and technical jargon, that’s like guaranteeing that
the class won’t expose you to anything new, and that you won’t be in any
danger of learning anything you wouldn’t have known already. What would
the point of such a class be? What would the point of such a discipline
be? Do students who become biology majors focus exclusively on what living
things seemed like before they became a major? Do they refuse to learn
the scientific names for organisms because their grammar school friends
and their grandparents don’t use them? Do they refuse to fulfill the chemistry
requirement because they aren’t interested in it? Are literature majors
who dislike and dismiss theory expressing a desire to pursue a course of
study that requires no specialized knowledge, no discipline-specific training?
Is the attraction of a „theory-free“ literature major then an intellectual
program devoid of specific modes of inquiry, a packaged set of textual
encounters that promises to leave the student unchanged – that the
course
of study
is not only content-free, but also completely
innocuous? Rather than challenging,
does it preserve the
narrowness
of world-view
and the habituated patterns of thinking
that
the
student arrived with
? Four years of tuition is a
lot of money to spend on a major that guarantees not to give you anything
for it.

Finally, I want to point out that the kind of terminological
consistency and conceptual rigor I am advocating here is not
elitist
. It is precisely the opposite, in fact. Let’s go back to the
idea of speaking in „plain English,“ and saying everything so that „everyone
will understand“. If we do that, we rely on the most pernicious cliché’s,
and the
deadest
metaphors
in the language to do our thinking for
us. It’s not called „small talk“ for nothing. More importantly, consider
what happens when our discussions turn to questions of gender, race, class,
ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, etc.. Will „ordinary language“ and „what
everyone knows“ really help us here? That „ordinary language“ and those
things that are most „obvious,“ and „common sense,“ are „ordinary,“ and
„obvious“, and „common“ precisely because they are completely saturated
with the traditions
and ideologies
that have formed whatever status quo we are currently
experiencing.

Usually, in asking questions about race, ethnicity,
gender, etc., the status quo doesn’t come off looking too good, that is
if we have a position from which to look at it. We can’t observe it from
inside it. The „status quo“ is not merely the institutions of oppression,
but also the language and the „sensibility,“ the totality of „what everyone
knows,“ that has perpetuated those oppressions
by
naturalizing them
and making their internal contradictions
invisible, and by determining what cannot be said, by
foreclosing
complexities
and inquiries „out
of bounds
“ from the „ordinary language“ that „everyone
can understand.“ Can you imagine trying to have a discussion of gender
politics with the characters from 1950s situation comedies? What would
June
Cleaver
say if you told her that „the personal is
political“? Or imagine explaining Marx or Gloría Anzaldua to Ricky
Ricardo?

The language that everyone knows is the vehicle of
our most engrained intuitions, and those
intuitions
are to a profound degree the aftereffects of the ideological system in
which we became „
ourselves.“
That language that is most natural, most comforting, is the one which requires
little to no thought to understand, is precisely the language that cannot
ask
any questions about race, ethnicity,
gender,
or
sexuality,
because it „already knows,“ and it is that language that tells us what
„everyone knows.“ We need to collaborate on
tentative,
temporary,
serious
yet playful
and insubordinate
languages
that „everyone“ doesn’t „know,“ that cannot
be understood automatically, that does not
tranquilize,
reassure,
or
confirm.

In the first full week of class, I will give you
a practical example of redesigning „ordinary language“ to make it „theoretical,“
by which
I
mean useful
. Next week I will give you the definition
of „
sexual
difference
“ I developed a few years ago, and will
demonstrate how much you can do with that term and its components with
this  „un-common-sensical“ definition, that „common sense“ wouldn’t
have permitted. In the meantime, ask yourself what your
definition
of „sexual difference“ is now, and write it out. And keep your eye out
for
any situation
whatsoever that you might want to
think about, analyze, or discuss in terms of „
sexual
difference
,“ as you understand that concept. Then
next week we’ll try the same thing, using my
definition of sexual difference. It might seem like magic, and it is in
a way. But the language that performs
the
magic is no trick
, it’s quite the opposite of „hocus
pocus
.“ It doesn’t mystify
the audience
but wakes them up to the mystification
they were already living in. Best of all, in this kind of magic act
,
I don’t remain the sole magician
.

Earl
Jackson, Jr.

Tomrip5@aol.com

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