A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

Oh, And Another Thing: Mood

Oh, and another thing. I think I could better cope with the uniformity of language, method and critical purpose which has developed among writers on culture attached to the universities were it not for the sapping uniformity of mood characteristic of that writing. I mean the obstinate cheerfulness, the determination to look on the bright side, the grisly and remorseless sense of high and serious purpose. Criticism, it appears, is governed by the imperative of the imperative. In order to be a literary or cultural critic, it is necessary to pitch one's writing in the narrow waveband of intonations, between, at one end, suspicion, critique and scolding execration, and at the other, the assertion of commitment to this or that project or programme. Worst of all, worse even than all this sabbatarian sternness, is criticism on holiday, with its atrocities of clodhopping `playfulness' (saints preserve us from texts that solemnly inform us in advance of how riskily ludic we are going to find them) or white-lipped `celebration'.

The person saying this is someone who has had repeatedly to try to work out how to write things about Samuel Beckett. Beckett represents the most obvious kind of problem for the proponents of critical good cheer, whether their disposition be humanist or antihumanist. Either Beckett's works are the courageous and dignified affirmations of the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of adversity and suffering (the humanism of Martin Esslin and the Nobel prize citation), or they are fierce assaults on the various kinds of epistemological despotism that critics like me love to condemn: the privilege of the self, the idea of the human, the integrity of the body, the authority of the Law, the Father, and so on. In other words, they are either For Value, or they are Against Power. I remember the moment when I suddenly realised that, far from being indigestible within the critical paradigms emerging during the 1980s, Beckett's works were available to be recruited to them wholesale. So it now seems perfectly obvious to all that if you're looking for emancipatory antilogocentrism, the celebration of the Bakhtinian body (hah!), the ecstatic assertion of decentred subjectivity, or the Bataillean informe, or the ethics of alterity, then Beckett is your only man. These works are so howlingly neither For Value nor Against Power, that academic reading and writing about Beckett must surely be seen as a process of energetic self- defence against the very intensity of that writing's assaults on conviction, high sentence and good cheer.

What if this compulsive, professional need for high conviction were less compulsory? What if there were other moods and inflections in which criticism might allow itself (sometimes) to be written and read? I mean, for example: admiration; curiosity; reverie; shame; nostalgia; longing. Not to mention all the other, seemingly more negative hues of feeling: boredom; panic; disgust; misery (why can't cultural critics sing the blues?) and amalgamations of same.

A good way to get the measure of this compulsion to the posture of gathered seriousness is to read the final paragraphs of books. Here are three endings of books selected at random (i.e., after a long and painstaking search) from books on my shelves:

Above all, rethinking the possibility of a Left politics will require a new model of intellectual and political authority. It will offer...a modest politics that struggles to effect real change, that enters into the often boring challenges of strategy and compromise. An impure politics fighting for high stakes.

In the end the question is whether we see cultutal politics as serious business or cultural politics as play.

And, most terrible of all:

The quickening predicament that I have tried repeatedly to evoke here, and which our world must hereafter continue to encounter and explore, is that value cannot ever be wholly in the tenure of theory, since this is always illegitimately to arrest the transport of its absconding play; even though, more than ever, theory's vocation must be to resist the evacuation of value, must be in truth to instate and permanently to occupy the instances of its passage.

It is the rhetorical demand contained in that raising of the tone that I find so tediously pervasive. In the end, questions are definitively posed; bottom lines are drawn; stakes are raised; perils bravely faced; lessons made luminously manifest. Yes, all right, these are the endings of books, for God's sake: you can't just...stop, and knowing quite how to leave off is always difficult, for writers of all kinds. Their authors can surely be forgiven for surrendering momentarily to the urge to screw things up into finality. The problem is when the demands of this raising of the tone wash back into what has preceded it.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |