How to lose friends and alienate powerful CUNY faculty

Wayne Koestenbaum was the keynote speaker for the English Students’ Association conference a week or so ago; I knew him by reputation and thought about going to see him. But it would have required leaving work early, and I was already so disoriented and vexed after having attended the conference’s opening panel the night before that I decided one evening of conferencing was enough.

If I’d seen Koestenbaum speak before reading his Viegener review and found him to be a delightful person, the review might have hit me very differently. As it was, I found the tone of the piece so insufferable on first reading that I composed, but did not send, an email to Professor Tougaw asking if it was OK to use profanity when I blogged about it.

To access the, as it turns out, many valid observations in the review, you have to wade through what initially seemed to me a vast swamp of scholarly grandstanding and name-dropping. Although Koestenbaum isn’t responsible for Salon’s stupid, point-missing subhead evoking Joyce and Artaud (which didn’t appear when the piece originally ran in the L.A. Review of Books), the piece itself is just as much of an exercise in highbrow self-congratulation as the subhead would suggest. Lacan’s tranche, Lichtenberg’s scrapbooks (you know, Georg Christophe Lichtenberg! the 18th century German physicist!), your no doubt favorite composers Les Six, the obnoxious parentheses in “Valéry (Carnets)” and “Aaron Kunin (Grace Period),” because of course you’re so familiar with their entire oeuvres that you need clarification as to which Valéry and Kunin. When Koestenbaum suggested that “we, readers, might also feel authorized to stop in the midst of any activity we find no longer worth pursuing,” I was very much tempted to take him at his word and give up on the review.

I eventually calmed down enough to acknowledge that Koestenbaum is doing more here than showing off. His term “parataxis” does accurately capture what Viegener is doing much better than misnomers like “random.” From what we’ve already read in Hustvedt about Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Koestenbaum’s connecting him with Viegener seems apt. Koestenbaum’s comment that Viegener “sides with life against art” in preferring his mother’s living presence over the whole world of conceptual art identifies a key reason Viegener’s book feels as humane as it does. His observation that each of Viegener’s “things” “stops exactly at its own threshold, and never violates the atmosphere by swelling into an unwanted narrative” is arresting and true, although I think the “things” do eventually swell into a larger, more subliminal narrative that Viegener does in fact want.

That said, I can’t help but notice the irony of someone with Koestenbaum’s reference-laden, authority-brandishing approach to art lavishing so much praise on what he sees as Viegener’s simple, essentials-only approach to same. As art aficionados, as cultural commentators, as writers, these two are so different. Where Koestenbaum says, “Viegener has a gin-clear candor,” Viegener himself simply says, “I like the phrase gin-clear.” If Viegener decided to imagine Walter Benjamin playing tennis with Arnold Schoenberg in Hollywood after the war, he would be certain to explain who they were, unobtrusively, in a manner that talked neither up nor down to the reader. Viegener would never use phrases like “a Whitmanic (body-electric) dithyramb reincarnated as a fortune cookie” or “a propositional, investigative, sight-cleansed freshness.” This doesn’t mean that Kostenbaum doesn’t sincerely appreciate Viegener; he may in fact appreciate him the more for being able to achieve effects that Koestenbaum himself is incapable of achieving. But it’s funny to hear Koestenbaum recommending that “literature’s happy futurity” should “involve a practice, like Viegener’s, of mentioning only the observations that matter, stopping immediately afterward, and waiting to speak until the next catalyst for speech arises.” I don’t think for a minute that Koestenbaum intends to apply this practice to his own work — not his prose, at any rate.

Nancy K. Miller is our other CUNY faculty author of the week, and I enjoyed her chapter in a much less conflicted way. I wrote “Yes!” in the margins of this chapter a whole bunch of times. The ‘90s memoir craze represented “the desire for story killed by postmodern fiction”? Yes. “The predominance of women writing memoirs may have something to do with the genre’s disrepute”? Yes, yes, yes. We have a heightened need for memoirs in an age of literal and metaphorical Alzheimer’s disease? Makes a lot of sense to me. Memoir is “a way to have my life turn out better on paper”? For sure. Also, I was delighted that Miller wrote about How I Became Hettie Jones – I’ve read it, and it’s a great book that nobody seems to know about. The Baraka-Joneses are as interesting a literary family as the Jameses, if you ask me: Their daughter, Lisa Jones, is a journalist who wrote great columns about, in her phrase, “race, sex and hair” for the Village Voice in the mid-’90s, which are collected in a book called Bulletproof Diva. And I guess Diane di Prima, who’s pretty interesting in her own right, needs to be included in that family too.

Koestenbaum suggests that memoir is a sentimental zone of jejune sentimentality; Miller is down in the trenches defending its honor. Have they gotten into fistfights in the English lounge yet?

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4 Responses to How to lose friends and alienate powerful CUNY faculty

  1. Liz Foley says:

    Professor Tougaw, thanks – I’m really fucking glad to hear that!

  2. Liz Foley says:

    Jen, thanks for this comment and for the link. What Vint Cerf says is such a contrast to the other truism about the Internet we always hear lately – i.e., “Don’t ever send anyone compromising photos of yourself or post them online, because the Internet is forever!”

    I have to admit that Koestenbaum can turn a phrase and produce an unexpectedly right adjective for things. The whole Koestenbaum experience has been weird for me – I’m too old be having violent “Down with the establishment!” reactions to readings that I then have to humbly revise. It’s occurred to me that my freakout might have had something to do with the fact that I first read the piece at the posted link – the mismatch between Kostenbaum’s style and the Salon audience seemed grotesque to me, especially given how aggressively dumbed-down Salon has become over the last few years. They’ve given up on publishing anything that even approaches the erudite, yet suddenly they’re trying to shove Koestenbaum’s erudition-on-steroids down my throat? Reading the piece in that context, I felt both Salon and Koestenbaum were screwing with me. I tried to print the review so that I could scribble invective all over it , but there was no easy-print option (does no one print articles off the Internet anymore or something?), so I clicked the L.A. Review of Books link to print it from there. Rereading it in that more intellectually serious context made it suddenly seem less presumptuous, and Koestenbaum less guilty of grossly misreading his audience.

    Still not a fan of the Les Six references, though!

  3. I like your point juxtaposing the accessibility of Viegener’s lists with Koestenbaum’s overly intellectual/emo review. I surely found myself looking up words and references throughout reading the review, just to get through it! Even so, I really enjoyed the “way” Koestenbaum said things (word choices, their strings, their pop and fire). He created for me, similar to how he describes Viegener, “a place where an echo might lodge.” His writing felt smart and new, even though there was a good deal of name dropping… but I really felt that Viegener did a lot of name dropping, too. Did they both name drop a lot so that some readers might find another level of relatability while reading? If you know the names, you might feel more like you’ve found your “tribe” (as Miller references when talking about MH Kingston in But Enough About Me). Hey, I also wanted to go to see Koestenbaum’s keynote the other week!, but I also had to work until late… at any rate, I totally get what you’re saying about the review, but in the end, I liked it. I liked that Koestenbaum liked Viegener. Even if I’m not entirely sure I like or don’t like Viegener, depending on the page. For sure, some things he said made me nod in agreement and some made me recoil.

    I like Miller’s sum-up sentence about memoir “as prosthesis–an aid to memory”; that memoirs “support you in the act of remembering” as “a spur to keep cultural memory alive.” That resonated with me. Stories are important… documenting is important… finding connections is important… access is important.

    As an aside, all this about memoir and keeping cultural memory alive made me think of the recent discussion around Google VP Vint Cerf saying we may be facing a digital dark age, soon, where the historical connections through words and images of past to present is lost (for various reasons). I then thought of all of my papers from college on 3.5 inch hard disks, written on an early word processor that was 1/3 computer, 1/3 typewriter, 1/3 printer, that I can’t even access, as well as any of the emails I’d sent when I first got my school email account. Lost. Or that whenever I get anxious about piles of paper in my desk or journals from long ago, I inevitably rip up a few things and toss them every few months, without there being back up, mostly on whim or sometimes out of fear that someone will read them someday that I didn’t want to read them.

    Never mind my stuff, though — what *really important conversations and emails and photographs aren’t being saved so that history might be told… and not just one history but a representative history… something more democratic than just one or two groups that had the money, forethought, and ability to save certain things from being lost, did. It can be so personal sometimes, but I still love memoir (and especially on paper 🙂 because it gives me hope that people who document things will have made it possible for people somewhere in the future to know “what was what.” That there were a lot of people that were the same, and there were a lot of people that were different. It seems we have a hard time thinking beyond 25, 50, 200, 500 years… but what will be remembered, and how?

    Another aside: I remember loving swearing when I was younger and through my twenties. It always felt so daring and fun. Like smoking a cigarette, staying out late and seeing the sun rise by accident, or sneaking into a space you weren’t supposed to be. I guess the things that make us want to swear seem to change a little as we get older… at least this has been true for me.

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