Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Stephen Vincent Benét Again . . .

Stephen Vincent Benét

Several weeks back, I posted selections from a couple of referees' remarks on a short paper about Stephen Vincent Benét that I submitted for publication in a literary journal, but most of what I posted was from a single referee, so this posting concerns the other referee, whose remarks are worthy of more serious attention. This second referee begins as follows:
This extremely short paper requires considerable attention, to the extent that this reader cannot (at this point) recommend the work for publication . . . . The issues are manifest, and the brevity of the paper belies a suite of problems: simply put, too often complexities are ignored or glossed, and opportunities for analysis (historical, generic, socio-cultural, ideological, political) are consistently missed. There is no clear evidence of either a methodology or theorized approach; structurally, paragraphs are often misrepresented as sections. For this reviewer, the question becomes why recuperate the work of a "nationalist" who is elsewhere remembered as "old-fashioned, quaint, and chauvinistic"? The paper never quite convincingly resolves this crucial question.
The crux of this critique lies in the question posed by the referee: "why recuperate the work of a 'nationalist' who is elsewhere remembered as 'old-fashioned, quaint, and chauvinistic'?" Why? Because the charges are untrue, as I believe I show in my brief paper. Part of the answer lies in a point noted by the referee in a second paragraph of critical remarks:
About halfway through, the writer proffers a strategy (or is it a defense?) to recuperating Benét, and suggests we differentiate between "ethnic nationalism versus civic nationalism" . . . the latter blithely characterized as extending "membership to any individual – regardless of ethnicity – who is willing to embrace the shared values of the imagined community". This seems willful, or at least willing to ignore the civic community as a "munus" (I use that term after Esposito) demanding our duty bound acquiescence to putative social codes; one wonders what Foucault might have to say in terms of those privileging and legitimizing power/knowledge discourses which systemically erase the other as part of a process of social codification (the process imparting erasure as equally as anything parlayed by a so-called "ethnic nationalism"). The author seems unwilling to tackle these complexities, and instead simply appropriates/promulgates the ethnic/civic paradigm (gleaned from an encyclopedia) without analysis. At a minimum, further thought is required here.
In this part of the critique, the referee grows disdainful. Take the distinction I note between "ethnic nationalism" and "civic nationalism." There is nothing controversial about this basic distinction, which I elaborate upon. Note the referee's dismissive term "blithely," which implies that I am ignorant or, in the sentence that follows, that I willfully ignore such approaches as those by Roberto Esposito or Michel Foucault. Why do I not draw upon these and other theorists? Because what I am up to is not especially difficult and needs no complex theoretical apparatus. Perhaps I am "willful," but I am not without reason for my willfulness. The issue at the level on which I am interested is a simple one. As for "gleaned from an encyclopedia," that's simply another disdainful remark. I've long known the "ethnic/civic paradigm" and had no need to 'glean' it. Rather, I borrowed - for the edification of my readers, if they should happen to need any edifying - the distinction from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in an article written by an expert on nationalism. From this point, the referee goes on to make clear what was most of concern:
Finally, nationalism and fascism are flattened into a-cultural, a-historical, universal ideological or political manifestations (which, of course, they are not): where did Germany's NSDAP party start if not in particularly enculturated versions of a staunchly felt "nationalism"? As a culturally situated historical mode, Benét's nationalism must be more deeply critiqued and, I suggest, contrasted with anything roaming the old world (Europe) in a similar moment in history. But perhaps most damningly, I am afraid the notion of a national literature suffering some kind of "ethnic and multicultural fragmentation" puts us back somewhere within the realm of the New Critics; since [John] Crowe Ransom et al., much theoretical work has necessarily happened in order to create an incredulity toward these sorts of grand narratives.
Leaving aside the referee's effacement of the difference between ethnic and civic nationalisms, let me just note that grand narratives are far from dead, despite Postmodernism - and what is Postmodernism itself but yet another grand narrative, even a meta-grand narrative! And look at the accusations, the charges leveled at me, all because I used the expression "ethnic and multicultural fragmentation" of American literature. In fact, I used this politically incorrect expression as a test to see what sort of response it would garner. Apparently, I am criticized for wanting to turn back the progress made in literary criticism. What nonsense! I merely suggested that we take another look at the oeuvre of Stephen Vincent Benét, whose writings have been - in my opinion - unjustifiably ignored.

This referee's critique misses the actual target because it aims at a target that I did not set up. I don't deny that the referee's suggestions would make for an interesting article, but that article is not the one I set out to write. A literary journal expects literary theory, however, and I didn't provide that, so I accept the journal's decision not to publish my article.

Time to submit elsewhere . . .

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