Friday, September 10, 2010

Tension, anxiety, fear

I may see more of this than most--I work in modernism and science studies after all. But it seems to me that literary critics talk an awful lot about "tensions" in lit and culture, social "anxieties," and historical "fears."

It would be too glib to just call this projection on the part of a famously neurotic lot. But I'd like to think more on why it is that tensions, anxieties, and fears play such a large part in contemporary literary criticism.

(And is it just me or was "excess" all the rage in the 90s?)


Andrew Seal said...

Hi Natalia,
I have definitely noticed this as well; I wonder if to some extent these terms seem to have taken over from the New Critical "ironies," "ambiguities," and "ambivalences" as ways to name things that are difficult to apprehend concretely but which seem to be constitutive of something important, some sort of latent structure. I mean, obviously, the "tension/anxiety/fear" trio means something quite different, but functionally they seem quite similar to me.

Natalia said...

I think you may be right about that -- we always need some way to address that "OMG LITERATURE!" phenomenon that keeps blowing the minds of those of us who are invested in art. Interesting that we should name it by the vocabulary of anxiety, though.

I have to admit I'm one of those people who sometimes points to "anxieties about female workers" or "anxieties about industrial modernity" or what have you as the upshot of the phenomenon I'm registering. And I don't really think it's wrong. I can recognize the justifications for such a move. It's just a strangely psychological gesture that disavows its own psychological nature by refusing to place the anxieties in a person. What's being defended in that gesture?

Chad said...

This is only tangentially related, but I've sometimes wondered about the quasi-militarized language of some critics, e.g. arguments are "deployed," texts are "investigated" or "interrogated." I'm patiently waiting for some particularly paranoid soul's attempt to "tap the line" of, say, Charles Olson.

I have no idea when people started using that vocabulary.

Natalia said...

I'm pretty sure "deployed" came with the rise of big-T Theory. That usage used to strike me as funny -- I'd get the image of a soldier in fatigues and helmet running through the brush and yelling into her walkie-talkie, "deploy the tropes!" But of course, I don't even notice it anymore.