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Literature Against Criticism

Martin Paul Eve

Part IV: Discipline

8. Discipline and Publish

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  • 1 I am, of course, aware that there is no small irony in heralding Adorno as a standard bearer of co (...)

1As mentioned in the opening to the final part of this book, succinct critiques of teleology find their apex in Theodor Adorno’s well-known opening to Negative Dialectics where he writes that philosophy lives on because the moment of its realisation was missed.1 This statement — a clear reference to Marx’s proclamation in the Theses on Feuerbach (1845/1888) that philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, but that the point is to change it — came at a time when it seemed that the potential for revolutionary action was past. In his perpetual pessimism, Adorno advocates for a return to philosophy (Theory) in the wake of the seeming failure of the predictions of the future expressed in Marx’s historical materialism.

  • 2 Eaglestone, p. 1099.

2Likewise, throughout this book a spectre that stands against a proposed teleology has been haunting the fictional landscape: postmodernism. Detractors have proclaimed its death but often with no new terminology to describe a present literary moment beyond additional prefixes to ‘modernism’. Robert Eaglestone even notes that the term post-postmodernism is, in fact, “silly”.2 Metafiction and postmodernism live on, then, because the problems of representation that they address were never overcome. The interaction with the academy and the melding of criticism and fiction are aspects that remain, even in the wake of detractors’ continued assaults. This is none so clear than in the work of Ishmael Reed, to which this final literary chapter will be addressed.

Ishmael Reed and Anti-Enlightenment Values

  • 3 Ishmael Reed and Bruce Dick, ‘Ishmael Reed: An Interview with Bruce Dick’, in Conversations with I (...)
  • 4 Madelyn Jablon, Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature (Iowa City: U (...)
  • 5 Reginald Martin, Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988).
  • 6 Kathryn Hume, ‘Ishmael Reed and the Problematics of Control’, PMLA, 108.3 (1993), 506–18 (p. 509), (...)
  • 7 Pynchon, Against the Day, p. 805; Reed was quite clearly an influence on Pynchon who suggested tha (...)

3It is no secret that Reed has made a career out of grotesque and unconventional satires of American life, but also from his frequent spats with feminist movements.3 Most commonly compared to a generation of postmodern writers including Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, and Norman Mailer, Reed’s novels are also often strangely aligned (for crass grouping by skin colour) with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.4 Stylistically, it is easy to see the postmodern aspects of Reed’s work but it is also possible to trace them within a history of a “Black aesthetic”, as does Reginald Martin.5 Usually extremely playful, Reed’s metafictive creations also mount critique of both their conditions of production and the environments depicted. For instance, the plot of Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo, revolves around the advocacy of a counter-Western trickster spirit known as Jes Grew (a homophonic reference to spontaneity: ‘just grew’) that manifests in dance and jazz. Some have argued that this fixation on folk magic — or ‘hoodoo’ — that pervades much of Reed’s writing has broader social implications. Kathryn Hume, for example, traces Reed’s hoodoo influence to a desire for presentness, a form of eluding the coercive structures of control that decree an obligatory preparedness against the future,6 an aspect that then chimes well with the core line of the (then unwritten) Pynchon novel: “to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day”.7

4Part of Reed’s antagonism, however, has certainly been directed at the academy. As Hume points out of Mumbo Jumbo:

  • 8 Hume, p. 509.

[i]ndustrialism and capitalism reduce the already narrow Western values to a yet narrower materialism, and efficiency becomes the primary virtue. In the 1920s of Mumbo Jumbo, these values are promulgated by the Wallflower Order, a coterie representing the Ivy League, the Social Register, and other wealthy upper-class white institutions. This Wallflower Order rules America. Its members are wallflowers because they cannot dance.8

5That such Ivy League universities are referenced as members of the elite, prejudiced Wallflower Order in this text is significant for this study and, indeed, demonstrates the lineage within which the critique of the university, via sly side-swipes, is rooted within postmodern fiction. Harking back to the reading of Bolaño’s critique of the university that I undertook in Chapter Four, the university structure here is not one of universal enlightenment, but is rather entwined with repression and regression.

  • 9 Steven Weisenburger, Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980 (Athens: Unive (...)

6In Mumbo Jumbo, there is one passage in particular that lends itself to a reading as a critique of the university. While the plot of Mumbo Jumbo defies clear synopsis, the passage in question to which I will refer relates the autobiography of Abdul Sufi Hamid, a Muslim convert previously known as “Johnny James”, born on the “Chicago South Side”. Hamid goes on in the novel to destroy the Book of Thoth, the presumed sacred Text of Jes Grew, after growing disgusted with the supposedly lewd content therein. However, the passage that I am about to discuss is important because, as Steven Weisenburger has noted, Abdul appears “to be the sole character exempted from Reed’s satiric ridicule”.9 The passage also throws ridicule on institutions of learning.

7Indeed, Hamid claims to have “always wondered why the teachers just threw the knowledge at us when we were in school, why they didn’t care whether we learned or not”. Furthermore, he observes that “the knowledge which they had made into a cabala, stripped of its terms and private codes, its slang, you could learn in a few weeks” and it certainly “didn’t take 4 years”. In fact, Hamid claims, “the 4 years of university were set up so that they could have a process by which they would remove the rebels and the dissidents”. In this text, the university becomes an enforcer of social norms, a space in which students are expected to internalise the value structures of broader society and to leave rigorous social critique behind. As the passage continues:

  • 10 Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (New York: Atheneum, 1989), p. 37.

[b]y their studies and the ritual of academics the Man has made sure that they are people who will serve him. Not 1 of them has equaled the monumental work of J.A. Rogers, a 1-time Pullman porter. Some of these people with degrees going around here shouting that they are New Negroes are really serving the Man who awarded them their degrees, who has initiated them into his slang and found them to “qualified”, which means loyal.10

  • 11 Ibid., p. 36.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 37.

8This is, as with the entirety of Reed’s novel, a confusing passage that merges several different strands of critique into one. First of all, the religious terminology of the setup must be noted. The esoteric jargons of the university become “cabala”. While this also chimes, etymologically, with ‘cabal’, the term for a secret grouping that must include the novel’s Wallflower Order, it also clearly links in to Jewish mysticism and textual interpretation. At the same time, however, Hamid is a convert to Islam whose holistic system of learning incorporates aspects of religion, alongside other disciplinary practices. Certainly, he was not born into the faith: “I wasn’t born with a caul on my face, PaPa LaBas”, he notes, “[n]or was my coming predicted by a soothsayer as yours was, Black Herman”.11 Furthermore, we are told that Hamid’s new education is one in which he “was borrowing from all of these systems: Religion, Philosophy, Music, Science and even Painting”, which perhaps yields an intertextual link to the eponymous subject of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (1943).12

  • 13 Alter, Canon and Creativity.
  • 14 Weisenburger, p. 168.
  • 15 Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, p. 168.

9The questions that could arise here are multiple: why is the academy affiliated to Jewish mysticism in Hamid’s tale? (A hypothetical answer: because the claimed theological role of university English, apparent in Robert Alter’s discussions of the ‘sacred’/theological nature of canons, can appear to be to produce meaning from arcane texts through recodings, decodings, and permutations of language, which are all, in Kabbalistic frameworks, permutations on the name of God.)13 Why does this particular religious take lead to hegemony? Is this an anti-Semitic trope? While I do not propose specifically to address the last of these questions, Weisenburger does propose a way to approach these issues. In Weisenburger’s take, the contradictions that centre around Hamid position him as “a potential threat to the opposition between Atonism [part of the Wallflower Order’s conspiracy] and Jes Grew that is driving Reed’s satire”.14 By featuring Hamid as a mass of contradictions, the character can represent the “synthesis” of the “primary opposition” against the “normative center” of Mumbo Jumbo; at once a character who embraces plurality while also espousing monotheistic dogmatism.15

10The position of the university and formal higher education within this synthesis is clear: it represents the dogmatic, unified past against the spontaneous freedom and plurality of the future Jes Grew. The association of the university’s knowledge systems with Jewish mysticism is, therefore, not necessarily a congruent juxtaposition. It is rather meant to signal the esotericism, privileged exclusionary, and hidden nature of the doctrinal teachings of higher education, even if this cloaking is an aspect that Hamid himself later propounds in various ways. If this critique of the university is not necessarily coherent, it does not mean that it lacks force. The place of the university within an evolving dialectic towards plurality is cemented, but the side on which it is placed is not the forward-thinking, supposed liberal humanist, critical-centric institution. It is, rather, the tool of the past and authority.

  • 16 Martin, p. 11.
  • 17 Audre Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in Sister Outsider: Ess (...)

11This criticism of the academy as authoritarian was most explicit in Reed’s 1993 novel, Japanese by Spring. This text, clearly a campus novel, revolves around the changing fortunes of its unloveable protagonist, Benjamin ‘Chappie’ Puttbutt. The son of a US military general, Puttbutt is a black academic at Jack London College, where, in the hope of achieving tenure and finding acceptance with his white colleagues, he writes screeds against affirmative action that blame the black population for its own social inequality. This seems to be a manifestation of an older Black aesthetic into the plot, in Martin’s terms, which involves “hating a society which loathes one’s self, while at the same time doing everything possible to become a symbiotic part of that society”.16 Predictably, this backfires and Puttbutt is denied tenure. As Audre Lorde once put it: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.17 Unpredictably, however, the university is, at this precise moment in the novel, purchased by a Japanese corporate entity that turns the Anglo/Euro-centrism of the current US university curriculum on its head and attempts to universalise elements of Japanese culture (as well as, apparently, being part of a larger plot to overthrow the Japanese government). The novel takes its title from the supposed timeframe of Puttbutt’s Japanese language course, into which he has thrown himself in the belief that Japan will be the dominant economic, military, and political force of the twenty-first century. As with all of Reed’s novels, the satire of monoculturalism is outrageous, contentious, and biting.

12More specifically, Japanese by Spring is of note for this book because it straddles firstly (but loosely) the literary genre of the campus novel, and secondly the legitimation against the academy that I have been outlining in this work. Most of the texts that I have focused on in this book could not be described as ‘campus novels’. In fact, as noted, the works on which I have chosen to focus tangentially assault the university amid their focus elsewhere. There are a subset of books, however, that can be called the ‘postmodern campus novel’, and Japanese by Spring sits among these (others include DeLillo’s White Noise and John Barth’s Gilles Goat-Boy). These types of novel function differently from other works of contemporary fiction that bash the academy. While, I have contended, the passing jibes at the expense of the academy usually fulfil a legitimating role, in which the author proclaims his or her superiority over the critics that read such works, this usually serves to validate the literary representation of something else. Postmodern campus novels sprawl and can rarely be said to concern one singular topic. The fact that their geographical settings are universities, however, means that once a critique is made, the environment in which the remainder of the novel’s action will occur is contaminated. Il n’y a pas de hors universitaire. The academy is all that is the case.

  • 18 Ishmael Reed, Japanese by Spring (New York: Atheneum, 1993), p. 181.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 49.

13In Reed’s case, the critique is particularly bitter and the environment especially toxic: “you fucking intellectuals make me sick. All you can think to do is criticize”, notes one character.18 Reed’s academics are shown as purely self-interested narcissists, ethically and socially lacking in almost every sense. In many cases, Reed attributes this malaise to the stagnation of high Theory in which, it is claimed, “all you had to do was string together some quotes from Benjamin, Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan and you were in business. Even a New Critic like himself could make some cash”.19

  • 20 Ibid., pp. 47–48.

14Yet, as usual, all is not so straightforward in Reed’s fictional worlds. There is a section in Japanese by Spring where Puttbutt ruminates on the beliefs of the universalists and American exceptionalists. These ‘Back to Basics’ conservative characters, as presented through Puttbutt, cannot conceive of “a time when the domination of the United States by people of the same background would come to an end”. “These people”, it is claimed, also said that “rock and roll was the music of the devil” and believe that “English would always be the official language of the United States”. Most importantly, though, in a view that Reed clearly rejects, “they said that postmodernist literature was just a passing fad and that people were returning to the ordinary”.20

  • 21 Timothy Aubry, Reading As Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (Iowa (...)
  • 22 As has become a convention, I here place the author’s name in quotation marks when referring to th (...)
  • 23 Reed, Japanese by Spring, p. 122.

15Japanese by Spring also demonstrates other features that merit the designation of ‘postmodern campus novel’. Among the references to its own generic classification, it also directly features the author himself, as a character. This is a well-known trope of postmodern metafiction. As Timothy Aubry puts it in his discussion of David Foster Wallace, when “the author actually appears as a named character within the fiction” this “seems to straddle the boundary between the real and the fictional world”.21 In fact, Reed’s character in the novel comes head-to-head with the critique of high Theory that I have just discussed. When ‘Ishmael Reed’ is contemplating the rationale for his attraction to the language Yoruba, he poses a series of hypothetical questions.22 Was he, he asks, drawn to Yoruba because he liked the idea that “West Africa would eventually become a world leader”? Or, after many other such questions, “[m]aybe it was because of Derrida’s 1968 message about the age of the death of the author. There was no perceivable role for the critic in Yoruba art”.23

16This sneaky self-insertion into the text (which, as we must remember from Everett’s work, is not the same as the author) has two critical facets. Firstly, it draws attention to the role of voice; the difficulty of extracting a communicated ‘message’ from fiction (as per the Adorno/Sartre debate in my earlier discussion of Roberto Bolaño) is compounded by the uncertain placement of authorial figures. Secondly, it highlights the role that the academy ascribes to the author in the process of interpretation. The novel therefore demonstrates the importance of considering who is speaking (and the impossibility, often, of definitively knowing this) through such polyvalent authorial self-representation. This has an important knock-on effect for the above consideration of the critique of the university environment. Specifically, the character who observes that intellectuals “make him sick”, is none other than Puttbutt Sr., the military general who has wiretapped his own son’s communications and deliberately written to the university to block Chappie’s tenure application, believing that it would have been better for his son to have continued the family’s military heritage.

  • 24 When a parody is effected within a novel by a character that is, itself, a parody, is the result a (...)

17The dilemma posed by this particular challenge is complex. In a way, it is similar to the questions of double negation that I earlier posed of Everett’s Erasure.24 In another way, though, it is somewhat more political because of the connotations of militarism and Western imperialism that Reed packs behind the statement.

18The point that emerges from these considerations of voicing is that, in actual fact, it does not always matter whence the enunciation. In Japanese by Spring, for instance, the fact that General Puttbutt criticizes the university does not undermine the critique, despite his militaristic placement, but instead acts only to intensify it. As, perhaps, with James English’s analysis of scandal in the literary prize scene, it often seems that critique, whatever the intra-diegetic source of its utterance, adds to the credence of the critique, rather than to detract from it (furthering my earlier work on Erasure). This is not universally the case. If the critique were only to come from the general — and if it were purely a critique against critical thinking in which the army disliked academia for its own criticisms — the matter might be very different. In Reed’s worlds, though, the university comes under assault from a large number of locations and the words of a war hawk do not, in this case, undermine the critique. Rather, it seems to signify alignment across the political spectrum.

Juice!, the Media, and Disciplining Academic Publishing

  • 25 Ishmael Reed, Juice!: A Novel (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2011), p. 75.

19In 2011, after an eighteen-year hiatus from writing novels, Reed published Juice! with the Dalkey Archive Press, the book towards which the remainder of this chapter will turn in its demonstration of Reed’s disciplinary technique. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Paul (‘Bear’) Blessings, a cartoonist who is obsessed with the OJ Simpson trials and who rigorously protests the innocence of the former NFL star and actor. At every instance possible, Bear reads OJ’s troubles as enhanced, or more frequently entirely produced, by structural racism; after all, “the men who run the networks prefer blondes”.25 Were this simply a tool of communication, though, a polemic rant on the continued deplorable state of US race-relations, Juice! could hardly be said to merit its sub-title: “A novel”. Instead, as with Everett’s Erasure, Reed seeks to complicate his protagonist’s distorted narrator in order to extend the traditional postmodernist deconstruction of binaries, again centred around supposed post-raciality. Bear alternates between poles of paranoia and viable critique, the one continually undercutting the plausibility of the other in order to show, at one remove, how it is that cultural reading practices of paranoia and truth degrade the efficacy of radical critique.

20The book is also one that states its own metafictionality through a critique of metafiction, thus clearly demonstrating Currie’s assertion that no point in the regress of self-awareness is ever totally sufficient. For instance, the novel contains many striking passages that are concerned with flagging up the relationship between the diegetic environment, the author, and the history of the realist novel. At one point, for instance, the narrator states that:

  • 26 Ibid., p. 321.

somebody had to strike a blow for the return to common sense in the arts. You have these self-reflexive novels where the novelist interjects himself as a character. Novels like those written by that Ishmael Reed. He’s probably out in some obscure hole in California right now, thinking of another way by which he can badger himself into his work having been criticized for introducing himself as a character in his novel Japanese by Spring.26

  • 27 Ibid., p. 193.

21Yet this is not all. As with all the texts studied in this book, Reed’s novel is one that subtly, but persistently, situates the academy at its margins and as the subject of its ridicule. The most prominent of these references is to an article in “Critical Inquiry”. At this moment, Bear describes how this journal will “fill an entire issue” with his cartoon of OJ Simpson “pretending to stab a white woman with a banana”, which “sends out a whole bunch of signs”.27 The critique here is one of triviality and over-reading (in-accessibility), alongside an inefficacy compared to the domineering power of the media (un-accessible). The implication is that the unpacking of the obvious semiotics of this cartoon — with its phallic and racial registers — is trivial and yet those authors publishing in Critical Inquiry will be more than happy to waste their breath with verbose commentary on a straightforward matter.

  • 28 Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 334–35.
  • 29 David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Ficti (...)

22This is a strategy that is frequently deployed by other writers and, given the postmodern heritage here, it is an aspect that I will turn to in the works of Thomas Pynchon, for the final time, before returning to Reed. Although there are other prominent instances of the university in Pynchon’s oeuvre — famously, Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) walks through the campus at Berkeley — Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge (2013), becomes the foremost satirical representation of the academic humanities in his work. In Bleeding Edge the reader is introduced to the academic research of Heidi, a character who is working on an article for the “Journal of Memespace Cartography”.28 Clearly supposed to be humorous, the passage ridicules the academic debates over irony and sincerity that have raged in recent years as a result, again, of Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Pluram’, a piece that itself targets Pynchon.29

  • 30 Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, pp. 2, 9, 245.

23Despite its parodic nature, however, this section of Bleeding Edge that deals with Heidi and the Journal of Memespace Cartography is symptomatic of a broader trend in Pynchon’s later writing: direct engagement with and representation of academic communities. In fact, Bleeding Edge parodies Otto Rank and Jacques Lacan throughout and mocks the academic who uses the terms “post-postmodern” and “neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis”.30 Likewise, Pynchon’s preceding novel, Inherent Vice (2011), connected the supposedly innocent academics working on the ARPAnet to the sinister histories of the ICBM traced in his earlier work, Gravity’s Rainbow.

24Consider Pynchon’s reference to a fusion of Rank and Lacan. On page two of Bleeding Edge, we are told that:

  • 31 Ibid., p. 2.

[t]he Otto Kugelblitz School occupies three adjoining brownstones between Amsterdam and Columbus… the school is named for an early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle… It seemed to him obvious that the human life span runs through the varieties of mental disorder as understood in his day — the solipsism of infancy, the sexual hysterics of adolescence and entry-level adulthood, the paranoia of middle age, the dementia of late life… all working up to death.31

  • 32 Ibid., p. 244.

25At a first evaluative glance, we might think of this as a straightforward reference to Rank. After all, Rank shares a first name with Pynchon’s ball-lightning-surnamed character. Rank was also prominently cast out of favour in Freud’s inner circle for his near-heretical take on the Oedipal complex in The Trauma of Birth (1924/1929). However, Rank’s theories do not seem to fit that closely with Pynchon’s description of Kugelblitz. Rank proposed that there was a phase before the Oedipal (the pre-Oedipal) in which a human life is spent attempting to recover from the trauma of birth. By contrast, Lacan is a figure we might more closely associate with “the solipsism of infancy”, given his focus on the mirror phase and the moment of self recognition. Lacan is explicitly mentioned later in the novel, ironically having been put out of business by supposed “neoliberal meddling”, even though Lacan’s ‘variable-length sessions’ have been decried as a mere exercise in money-spinning and may be the reason that Leopoldo has such a “decent practice”.32

26Lacan sits at the heart of at least one psychoanalytic school of literary criticism and much contemporary Theory owes some form of debt to his thinking, particularly in the works of Slovoj Žižek. It is also the case that a great deal of contemporary fiction makes side-swipes at dense literary theoretical approaches for the aforementioned reasons of inaccessibility. But this seems to be particularly acute in Bleeding Edge. Furthermore, the reference to a character that speaks of the “neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis” in Bleeding Edge is a particular attack on an aesthetic application of social theories and/or philosophy.

  • 33 Ibid., pp. 8–9.
  • 34 Tom LeClair, The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction (Urbana: University of Il (...)

27The term itself (“neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis”) is, in fact, an accurate rendition of the particular act at this moment in the text. It refers to the moment when Reg Despard first discovers that he can zoom on his video camera and begins doing so, totally unnecessarily, while recording a movie to sell on the bootleg market. The diegesis refers to the narrative inside the frame. Reg’s zooming disrupts the realist certainty of what is being seen and forces the viewer’s attention onto the framing device itself; Brechtian alienation subverting the diegesis. At the same time, though, there is a parody underway of the complex terminology used, in this case, by an “NYU film professor”, perhaps pointing to Robert Stam.33 Tracing the specificity of this hostility is not straightforward, however, and, as above, it would be a mistake simply to consider extra-textual referents as true one-to-one mappings. So far as I know, however, Tom LeClair was the first to suggest a connection between Brechtian alienation techniques and Pynchon’s writing in his 1989, The Art of Excess, an aspect to which Stefano Ercolino has recently returned in his writing on The Maximalist Novel, so there are a range of possible targets at which this parody might point.34

  • 35 Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, p. 348.

28The other aspect to note is that the only reason that the NYU professor is able, at this point, to comment upon the “neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis” is because “Reg managed to sell one of his cassettes” to this professor. In other words, the shady underworld of the 1990s pirate video scene that Pynchon uses as a parallel to the contemporary online piracy space and the Deep Web sits beneath this parodied academic pronouncement. There are a range of interpretative paths that we might follow from this point. Firstly, it appears that academia is complicit with the system of piracy that precedes the hashslingerz project of Gabriel Ice in Pynchon’s unsummarizable text, an aspect that might be radical but that is also entwined with the recuperation of alternative hidden under-spaces by venture capital. “Someday there’ll be a Napster for videos, it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody”, Reg remarks.35 Secondly, though, academia is making pretentious statements about elements in Reg’s filming that don’t exist or were not intentional, even though the text, like many of Pynchon’s novels, is concerned with hidden digital spaces of plausible deniability; projected worlds.

  • 36 Ibid., pp. 334–35.

29The other moment on which we might briefly dwell is the use of the phrase “post-postmodern” in proximate connection to the aforementioned neo-Brechtian spiel. This ties in with a theme pertaining to irony and literature that runs throughout the entire novel and, particularly, the deliberate reference to the debates around New Sincerity and the works of David Foster Wallace, as classified by Adam Kelly. In one sense, this is a continuation of the discourse parody that recurs throughout Pynchon’s novel. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the mere proliferation of-modernist suffixes and accumulating post-prefixes is now becoming an almost-silly way in which we seek to classify any new literary movement (i.e. base any new taxonomy of literature on a named paradigm that, in its canonical high form, ostensibly has ‘newness’ as its guiding principle). Perhaps what we actually need is a manifesto for ‘No More Modernisms’. On the other hand, once more, the debate around irony and sincerity that is at least part of the characterisation of post-postmodern literature is one that has broader political ramifications for society. While Pynchon’s caustic remark through Maxine casts the debate as overstated — that it seems, in this quarrel, as though irony “actually brought on the events of 11 September” — there is surely an attempt at a deeper societal diagnosis than this acknowledges.36

  • 37 Ibid., p. 87.

30There is a final element of Pynchon’s treatment of the academy to which I here wish to turn: those elements to do with societal isolation (un-accessibility). If Pynchon depicts academic arguments as overstating their influence on world events he also depicts the denizens of the university as insular individuals, communicating obscurely among themselves and powerless against the larger forces, inefficacious except to lament the current state. In Bleeding Edge, for instance, Professor Lavoof is the “generally acknowledged godfather of Disgruntlement Theory” and develops the “Disgruntled Employee Simulation Program for Audit Information and Review, aka DESPAIR”.37

  • 38 Ibid., p. 137.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 143.

31The main jab, perhaps, at academic insularity, though, comes through a critique of dissemination and reach of scholarly communications. Even before we get to academia, Bleeding Edge has several moments that deal with information dissemination. For instance, Maxine says to Gabriel Ice, “come on, it’s only a Weblog, how many people even read it?”, to which he responds, “one is too many, if it’s the wrong one”.38 On the other end of the scale, Reg Despard speaks of a future age of information overload, in which there is “way too much to look at” and in which, as a consequence, “nothing will mean shit”.39 This all comes to a head in the parody of Heidi writing the article for the “Journal of Memespace Cartography” entitled “Heteronormative Rising Star, Homophobic Dark Companion” that makes the aforementioned argument that irony has supposedly taken the fall for 9/11.

32Remarkably, and to return to Reed, these mentions of academic publications and their in- and un- accessibilities can be read as far more than a simple signpost to highlight the academic community. Although, as a reference to academic journals, it fulfils the role of a pointer to the academy, the fact that such devices are rarely used in respectful contexts in contemporary academic fictions brings to the fore a new angle. If the humanities disciplines in particular — those that would be signalled by “Critical Inquiry” — are supposed to promote critical thinking, in the tradition of critique — that is, thought that attempts to comprehend the structural limits of its own possibility — then what might be signalled by the particular mention of journal serials as a signalling mechanism for the academy?

  • 40 See Eve, Open Access and the Humanities.

33As I have written elsewhere on many occasions, the sphere of journal publications in the academy is one of abject a-criticality.40 This is not to say that material that is expert within its own subject domain does not appear in academic journals. Far from it: research work that thinks rigorously and critically about its subject matter is far more likely than not to be published in these venues than elsewhere. What I mean instead is that academics often do not think critically about their own publication practices and the serials (journal) environment is a clear indicator of this.

  • 41 Association of Research Libraries, ‘Expenditure Trends in ARL Libraries, 1986-2012’, (...)
  • 42 Ian Sample, ‘Harvard University Says It Can’ t Afford Journal Publishers’ Prices’, The Guardian, 2 (...)
  • 43 OAPEN-UK, ‘Researcher Survey’, 2012, (...)

34For instance, the cost of subscribing to all the journals that an institution needs rose by approximately 300% between 1986 to 2012.41 Even Harvard University has cancelled subscriptions on the basis of price.42 Researchers, though, are usually unaware of the material price of the journals in which they publish: they have no price sensitivity. Instead, researchers work within a symbolic economy of prestige whereby their publications, in addition to fulfilling a dissemination function, act as currency for accreditation based on the brand of the journal. This symbolic capital is then re-converted into material capital through hiring, tenure, and promotion procedures. At the same time, some commercial publishers are making hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of profit per year out of academic publishing, without remuneration to academics who give them the material for nothing and are also not usually compensated for peer review labour (this system is beneficial in many ways: it frees academics from market populism in the object of their research inquiries but the benefits are financially obviated if publishers are beholden to that same market). Only 20% of researchers feel that it is acceptable for academic publishers to make a shareholder-driven profit and to do with such proceeds what they wish.43 That said, far more than 20% of researchers publish in venues that work on exactly this model and thereby deny access to their colleagues at other institutions who often cannot purchase the work.

35This is a matter of critique. Publication, as the driver of contemporary systems of accreditation in the academy, forms the conditions that structure the everyday practices of most academics. This is, in many ways an awful way to proceed and to evaluate, but it is what exists. However, researchers usually have to think in terms of self-gain in order to play the system to their advantage. Publishing outside of recognised venues on the basis of principle is usually not an option unless one feels suicidally inclined with respect to an academic job. This means that it is usually easier not to consider the economic consequences and to ignore the ways in which we continually, communally fuel the bizarre economic cycles that constitute the serials crisis.

36The specific target of Reed’s satire, Critical Inquiry, though, is owned by the University of Chicago Press. This is hardly the most exploitative of journal venues. In fact, in contrast to many subscription venues, Critical Inquiry is positively good value for money with an individual subscription costing $ 58 per year. This is still enough to pose a financial burden upon some (especially if they may have to subscribe to dozens of such publications and do not have institutional access), thereby limiting the circulation (un-accessibility). The primary focus here, though, is upon the petty nature of the critique that is mounted within the venue and probably also upon a limitation of circulation. Specifically, this is a co-joined focus on over-interpretation and under-circulation, the twin critiques that I contended were enacted by Reed’s novel.

  • 44 Graff, p. 137; André Morize, Problems and Methods of Literary History, with Special Reference to M (...)
  • 45 Ivor Armstrong Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (London: Transaction, 2 (...)

37On the first front, the accusation of ‘over-interpretation’ has been levelled at the hermeneutic/critical front of literary studies since the discipline began. The recent swing towards archival and historical practices, away from the formalist and philosophical pole, is not a new phenomenon. The blow aimed at criticism has long been that it is “an affair of subjective impressions”, a selective activity that merely collects “anecdotes or isolated facts” without reference to a socio-cultural whole.44 Yet, criticism was legitimated as a valid paradigm most strongly in the twentieth century, usually alongside a historicist approach. The question was: how much historical context did one need to ground an interpretation? New Critical approaches, usually framed through I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929), tended to answer ‘none’ or ‘little’ while later twentieth-century thinking on historiography and discontinuous history reversed the relationship through the New Historicism, reading history out of textual culture.45

  • 46 Graff, p. 251.

38The degree to which an interpretation can be deemed an ‘over-interpretation’ depends upon one’s perspective. To cite Gerald Graff one last time, from outside of literary studies departments, all activities that scholars and critics undertake can appear arcane and obscure: “it is hard to think of any field from Chaucer to Pynchon studies that is not ingrown and esoteric if viewed from the lay point of view”.46 For most ‘lay’ or ‘common’ readers, the research, hermeneutic, and scholarly approaches of the academy can all be seen as jargonistically over-interpreting a body of work that speaks for itself; an in-accessibility. In turn, this leads to the age-old debate over whether literature can be taught at all or whether it is an area whereof we cannot speak and thereof literary studies should remain silent.

  • 47 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hul (...)

39The moment in Reed’s text containing Critical Inquiry emphasises the over-interpreting nature of university English through both the presentation of an incommensurate volume (“a whole issue”) of critical writing on a single cartoon and the low cultural status of the object of study. In the first instance, Reed signals that the critical material is reading more than the object contains. Like Adorno’s critique of applied philosophy, criticism here “reads out of works that it has invested with an air of concretion nothing but its own theses”.47 Such signalling then hinges on an assumption (on the part of the creator) that the cartoon cannot be an object that “sends out a whole bunch of signs”. Finally, this assumption rests upon a notion of intentionality; over-interpretation implies a kind of critical perpetual-motion machine in which more is taken out of the system by the critic than was ever put in by the author.

  • 48 Eco, ‘Overinterpreting Texts’, p. 49.

40That Reed’s critique is of over-interpretation can be deduced with reference to the criteria that Umberto Eco sets out in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992). For Eco, a non-paranoiac interpretation is one that “cannot be explained more economically; that […] points to a single cause (or a limited class of possible causes) and not to an indeterminate number of dissimilar cases; and that it fits in with the other evidence”.48 In this case, it is primarily the first of these that Reed sets upon: there is a clear proliferation of discourse that Reed’s character feels could be explained more economically and, indeed, may be entirely obvious.

  • 49 Umberto Eco, ‘Interpretation and History’, in Interpretation and Over-interpretation, ed. by Stefa (...)

41The problem is that Reed’s novel and tradition are steeped in postmodern irony, a tradition that complicates this high/low binary. Furthermore, a critical work such as this book becomes trapped by the metatextual paradigm. As the cartoon within the text becomes a metonym for the novel, critical discourse on the text is pre-invalidated by the work it studies. When Reed’s character, Bear, criticises academics for reading more into his trivial work than was invested by the author or is present in the text (an imbalance towards the latter in the conflict between the “rights of texts and the rights of their interpreters”, as Eco might put it), it is impossible for the same not to apply to work written about the novel itself.49 This is certainly a disciplinary technique, designed to silence academic writing about the novel by destroying its legitimation claims, in advance, so that the critical space is left wholly to the novel.

  • 50 Lokman I. Meho, ‘The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis’, Physics World, 20:1 (2007), 32–36.

42The second point of discipline that we can infer from Reed’s swipe at academic publishing is linked to the above comments on the economics of scholarly communications. For Juice! is a novel that is saturated by the mass media. The hysteria over the OJ Simpson trial can only be described as a ‘media circus’ in which the forces of mass technology were harnessed to achieve mass dissemination. In which case, what are we to make of Critical Inquiry? A recent (contentious) analysis in the discipline of physics claimed that “as many as 50% of [academic] papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors”, a figure justified by looking at citation analysis.50 Certainly a survey of article counters on toll-access/subscription journals reveals a similar anecdotal picture for English studies. In addition, therefore, to a disparity of input/output (‘over-reading’), there is a disjunct in circulation. A book that deals with the mass media and its multi-millionviewer coverage of a racially charged US murder trial that also mentions an academic journal with comparatively trivial circulation cannot but be making a critique of triviality and readership. At the same time we might ask what the circulation of Reed’s obscure novel is likely to be and from where his primary audience demographic might be drawn. We might conclude that the academy is one such site.

43In this way, Reed’s novel is a good case study to show the unification of the structure that I have explored over this book. It disciplines the academy by pre-invalidating the critical discourse that Reed knows will be brought to bear on his work. In a cunning double-move, this legitimates his text as an originary art-object above the critical voice. Finally, by claiming the legitimate right to speak and silencing the academic commentary that might run alongside it, Juice! is left alone to speak in the critical space. Discipline, legitimation, and critique.

44As a closing remark, we might note that while I have here claimed that discipline is a silencing technique, English studies does not remain quiet. Its discourses continue to proliferate. Some, like this book, write at the meta-level, describing how such texts create feedback circuits with the academy that trouble and disrupt our normal practices (except that this then becomes one such set of normal critical practices). Others simply ignore such injunctions and proceed in the usual vein. The question then becomes one of whether English studies adapts to its object of scholarship or whether this relationship is actually one-way. We see fictions emerging that critique the academy. Do we see the academy responding to the injunctions of such fiction? I would answer positively to the former and, for the most part, more negatively to the latter. In this case, strangely, given the course that I have charted through this book, it seems that the anxiety of academia is most strongly held by fiction, and not by critics fearing their target fictions.


1 I am, of course, aware that there is no small irony in heralding Adorno as a standard bearer of concision.

2 Eaglestone, p. 1099.

3 Ishmael Reed and Bruce Dick, ‘Ishmael Reed: An Interview with Bruce Dick’, in Conversations with Ishmael Reed, ed. by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), pp. 344–56 (pp. 345, 348–49); see also Womack, p. 124.

4 Madelyn Jablon, Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997).

5 Reginald Martin, Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988).

6 Kathryn Hume, ‘Ishmael Reed and the Problematics of Control’, PMLA, 108.3 (1993), 506–18 (p. 509),

7 Pynchon, Against the Day, p. 805; Reed was quite clearly an influence on Pynchon who suggested that the reader should ‘Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it [Masonic mythopoesis] than you’ ll ever find here’. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 588.

8 Hume, p. 509.

9 Steven Weisenburger, Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), p. 167.

10 Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (New York: Atheneum, 1989), p. 37.

11 Ibid., p. 36.

12 Ibid., p. 37.

13 Alter, Canon and Creativity.

14 Weisenburger, p. 168.

15 Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, p. 168.

16 Martin, p. 11.

17 Audre Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg: Crossing, 1984), pp. 111–13.

18 Ishmael Reed, Japanese by Spring (New York: Atheneum, 1993), p. 181.

19 Ibid., p. 49.

20 Ibid., pp. 47–48.

21 Timothy Aubry, Reading As Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), p. 125; see also Marshall Boswell, ‘Author Here: The Legal Fiction of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King’, English Studies, 95.1 (2014), 25–39,

22 As has become a convention, I here place the author’s name in quotation marks when referring to the intra-diegetic representation of the author, rather than the author himself.

23 Reed, Japanese by Spring, p. 122.

24 When a parody is effected within a novel by a character that is, itself, a parody, is the result a parody or is the effect of parody thereby lessened?

25 Ishmael Reed, Juice!: A Novel (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2011), p. 75.

26 Ibid., p. 321.

27 Ibid., p. 193.

28 Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 334–35.

29 David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13.2 (1993), 151–98.

30 Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, pp. 2, 9, 245.

31 Ibid., p. 2.

32 Ibid., p. 244.

33 Ibid., pp. 8–9.

34 Tom LeClair, The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Ercolino.

35 Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, p. 348.

36 Ibid., pp. 334–35.

37 Ibid., p. 87.

38 Ibid., p. 137.

39 Ibid., p. 143.

40 See Eve, Open Access and the Humanities.

41 Association of Research Libraries, ‘Expenditure Trends in ARL Libraries, 1986-2012’,

42 Ian Sample, ‘Harvard University Says It Can’ t Afford Journal Publishers’ Prices’, The Guardian, 24 April 2012,

43 OAPEN-UK, ‘Researcher Survey’, 2012,

44 Graff, p. 137; André Morize, Problems and Methods of Literary History, with Special Reference to Modern French Literature: A Guide for Graduate Students (Boston: Ginn, 1922), p. 130,

45 Ivor Armstrong Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (London: Transaction, 2008).

46 Graff, p. 251.

47 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 447.

48 Eco, ‘Overinterpreting Texts’, p. 49.

49 Umberto Eco, ‘Interpretation and History’, in Interpretation and Over-interpretation, ed. by Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 23–43 (p. 23).

50 Lokman I. Meho, ‘The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis’, Physics World, 20:1 (2007), 32–36.


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