19 Responses to “Discussion”

  1. Brian Ward said

    One of the goals of the Understanding the South, Understanding America Research Network is to promote dialogue between historians of the South and those scholars, principally from literary and cultural studies backgrounds, who are associated with “The New Southern Studies.” It is now nearly a decade since Houston Baker and Dana Nelson issued their call for a “new Southern Studies” that would complicate “old borders and terrains” and open up “a new scholarly map of ‘The South’” but it is still unclear how much southern historians have been involved with, or influenced by, or even aware of these exciting developments.

    My own touchy-feely sense is that, while any historian of the South would benefit enormously by reading the likes of Melanie Benson, Michael Bibler, Martyn Bone, Deborah Cohn, Leigh Anne Duck, Scot Romine, and Jon Smith among many other putative NSS practitioners, relatively few have actually done so.

    If I am correct, how do we explain this indifference, or perhaps more graciously, this failure to recognize what the New Southern Studies might add, conceptually as well as in terms of specific analysis, to our understandings of southern history? Conversely, how could greater involvement by historians contribute to the emergence of a genuinely “New” Southern Studies, rather than of what remains largely a New Southern Literary and Cultural Studies?

  2. Richard King said

    Thanks for getting the discussion started. But I have several loose questions that might be a supplement to what Brian writes.
    1] I wonder if the question couldn’t be directed back against the grain of yours Brian? How much of recent historiography do New Southern Studies scholars read? My sense is that neither “side” reads very much of the other. The interdisciplinary people at least worry about it but the historians generally don’t.
    For instance, how many of the people interested in the Caribbean/Black Diaspora/Global South have read much or any Caribbean or Latin American or African History?
    2]Maybe we need to identify what we are talking about–there are literary studies(textually oriented); “straight” historiography; and cultural studies which are contextually oriented.
    3] Is there a political content at issue here too? I know that form and content can’t be easily separated, but I’m not sure what it is about the New Southern Studies that is new–the subject matter? the method? the political orientation? All together?


    Richard King
    University of Nottingham

  3. Karen Cox said

    I tend to agree with Richard on this. What is “new” about the “New Southern Studies?” It seems to me that literary/cultural studies scholars are just applying their methods to the New South and calling it NSS. As someone who works in cultural history, I do look at works in southern studies but find it maddening. I mean, it is often inaccessible to a broad audience, filled as it is with jargon, and as a historian I want my own work to be read AND understood by audiences OUTSIDE of the academy. “Studies” suggests that people are working in an interdisciplinary way, but it appears to me that scholars in literary/cultural studies might footnote the work of historians but do not offer the kind of historical context historians want to see in books about the New South. My own work on the South in mass culture (under review) is intended to address culture from the perspective of a historian and to give this topic the historical context that NSS folks often do not give it. I even participated in a SASS conference to broaden my own scholarly network and found that it was dominated by culture/literary scholars including a few mentioned by Brian Ward, who are simply wedded to their own methods and seemed unable to communicate about history.

  4. Jon Smith said

    You do know those awful NSS people might actually read this, right?
    I’m going to be a little harsh here, as a kind of invitation to you to bring your game up. Your basic argument seems to be that good history is history that’s accessible to a wide audience, and therefore good work in other fields should be accessible to a wide audience, too. Both the premise and the conclusion are flawed. The first claim is questionable even among historians: think of the highly theoretical work of Dom LaCapra or Hayden White. The second claim frankly isn’t viable at all: most fields outside history, including nearly all those on which interdisciplinary work on culture might be expected to draw, have their own specialized jargon. Scholars in those fields may occasionally write pop books for the general public, but their “serious” work is for other scholars. Hence, to understand that work, you need to pay your dues, buckle down, and master the jargon. Some of the best historians in your field–Michael O’Brien, John Howard, Richard King (whose early work was quite Freudian), Grace Hale, and, yes, Brian Ward–do it all the time. Adjectives like “maddening” don’t describe the jargon, they describe your own subjective reaction to having to engage with it. It’s a common enough reaction, but in most other fields, scholars get over it by about the second year of their undergraduate major. (I was a philosophy major, so I speak in part from personal experience.) And historians routinely train themselves to do it, too, even if it may not always be for them the natural part of growing up as scholars it is for the rest of us.
    So it’s also not clear to me that you agree with Richard as much as you think. Richard (who isn’t complaining about inaccessibility, and even notes that interdisciplinary scholars worry about these issues while historians do not) is raising questions; you’re making arguments, and, from where I sit, not very compelling ones. But what I really fear I see here, in your insistence that, whatever their own traditions and generic expectations, scholars in other disciplines write like historians, that they provide the sort of historical context historians (at least historians such as yourself) want, and that they “communicate about history,” is a kind of (disciplinary) narcissism, an insistence that it’s your way or the highway. If so, it’s not the NSS folk who are “wedded to their own methods.” And I’m pretty sure that sort of narcissism is precisely what Brian, in these conferences and on this website, is working really hard against.
    Am I missing something? Is there anything in your post that, like Richard’s interrogatives, would suggest you’re in any way open to anything that could be said by NSS people? Because while I welcome fair criticism, the harsher the better, I would like to believe that, in both attitude and rigor of argument, we all deserve better than this.
    (Oh, and the NSS is just about the New South? Huh? What books have you been “looking” at?)
    Jon Smith
    Simon Fraser University

  5. Karen Cox said

    While it was not clear in my original posting, what I agreed to was Richard’s posing the question back to NSS scholars about how much historiography the have read. And yes, I’m familiar with LaCapra’s work and am a close friend of his daughter’s and couldn’t imagine going to dinner at his home without knowing something about his writing. Although I would add that his work as a European intellectual historian is not generally applied to studies of the American South. I also like Grace Hale’s work as well as Brian’s. He and I recently shared the podium at a music conference in Atlanta and I enjoyed his work immensely–in fact, his work and Hale’s are included in my essay on the South in mass culture in the 75th anniversary volume of the Journal of Southern History (August 2009). Have you read it?

    Maybe I’m a populist here (okay, I admit it) in that I am not interested in being a scholar for other scholars only, although (if we’re throwing the term “narcissistic” around) it seems a bit narcissistic to think that “serious” work is only for our peers. The fact is, while my own work might not employ jargon for purposes of readability, the interdisciplinary work has been read and duly footnoted. So are the historical facts.

    Clearly I have struck a nerve as I see that you offered a personal attack of your own on this awful historian that I should have “knuckled down” and “gotten over” the jargon by the second year of my undergraduate education. Ouch! The fact is I am over it.

    And I misspoke about NSS. Perhaps I should have asked what is “new” about southern studies? And I ask this seriously, because you’ll have to admit that very few historians are considered in this mix. When I’ve mentioned the term “New Southern Studies” and the names of the scholars who are listed as doing this kind of work to fellow historians, their response is “huh?” and “who?” Clearly, there is a disciplinary disconnect. Is that what you want? If not, from where you sit, how do you “dialog” with historians?

    Thanks for being a “little” harsh.

  6. I’ve been meaning to respond to Richard’s post for weeks now—and yes, that elapse of time is relevant. I’ve been reading historical and other texts, all related to specific projects. I’d like to (and occasionally do) find time for more field-oriented reading–in history, literary criticism and theory, and the multiple (related) “studies”—postcolonial, U.S., African American, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and yes, African and Latin American—in which I’m interested. I don’t think I’m unusual in this way, so I’ve been wondering whether one “NSS trait” might be different (or even lack of) aspirations in relation to the label “southernist,” if that label is understood to mean specialization in specifically regional history and literature. In the past, fewer literary critics displayed interest in the social sciences or other interdisciplinary fields; meanwhile, I gather there has been some shift in energy or concentration among the various subfields or kinds of history. Could it be that one challenge we’re facing is that both disciplines have changed in ways that necessitate different grounds for—or forms of—dialogue?

    Also, I don’t claim that NSS is solely responsible for the decline of the keywords “community, identity, and sense of place” in southern literary studies, but I do think it has worked to replace them with “power, economics, and globalization” (in the broad sense, including colonization and the slave trade). So, yes, that does suggest a different political orientation, which corresponds with different theoretical frameworks; different methodologies appear also, but I’m less certain of the correlation in that realm.

  7. As a member of the steering committee for the “Understanding the South” project, I’ve read this exchange of views with interest. I did feel that Brian’s initial post was a little harsh on the historians, as well as giving too much credit to the literary/cultural New Southern Studies (NSS) types; as such, Richard may be right (unfortunately) that neither “side” is sufficiently engaged with the other. But that’s part of what “Understanding the South” is trying to help rectify—indeed, it says as such in our “mission statement” on the project website!
    I don’t actually know whether my own work is part of the NSS—though I gather it’s seen that way by some folks (including apparently Brian!). However, it does seem to me that one thing that my work shares with the NSS more broadly is a “historicist” approach to literary and cultural analysis. But of course historicist literary analysis is hardly new or unique to NSS (just look at any issue of _American Literature_). So I tend to wrestle with and worry about the kinds of things that most historicist literary scholars must wrestle and worry about (unless they are either more blasé or more sophisticated than I am). On one hand, there is the danger of only superficially “footnot[ing] the work of historians” (to quote Karen Cox above); on the other, there is the danger of “using” historiography in an overbearing “vulgar materialist” way, so that the literary text is read only as a “reflection” of the history that one is drawing upon.
    I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently because in early March Leigh Anne (who is a visiting professor at Copenhagen this year) and I went to the University of Leeds for a three-day American studies seminar with PhD students, at which these kinds of disciplinary issues were debated, and during which both of us presented papers at a one-day conference entitled “Labor, Punishment, and Transnationalism in American Studies.” The conference, organized by Kate Dossett at the History Department in Leeds, was trying to do something like what “Understanding the South” is trying to do: bring historians and literary scholars together in dialogue. Anyway, in Leeds I presented part of a chapter from my current book project, in which I try to offer a historical materialist reading of Erna Brodber’s novel _Louisiana_ (1994). I had not looked at this chapter draft for maybe a year, as I’ve been working on other chapters since, but reading it again I was concerned that, in Leeds, my reading of _Louisiana_ might seem too “vulgar materialist” to the lit scholars present (including Leigh Anne and another southern lit specialist, Michael Bibler from Manchester), but still too “unhistorical” or plain irrelevant to the historians.
    Now, this chapter could not have been written without drawing on historiography by people ranging from John Rodrigue and Eric Arnesen to Tony Martin and Mary Rolison. At the same time, reading the chapter again I felt that the historiography was not enough to, well, historicize the novel. Put simply, I realized (a tad belatedly, perhaps) that I needed more theory. So since Leeds, I’ve gone back to an oldie-but-goodie: Fredric Jameson’s _The Political Unconscious_ (1980), which of course begins with the injunction “Always historicize!”
    My point, if I have one, is that I don’t see why someone working in (new) southern studies today has to choose between “theory” (“jargon”?) and “history” (any more than we need to choose between an “academic” or “popular” audience). The historiography will take a lit critic like me some of the way, but in order to fully historicize my readings of texts, I need the theory. As Jameson says, “History is what hurts.” Admittedly _The Political Unconscious_ is a certain (indeed, unabashedly Marxist) kind of literary theory; nor is it “new” (but then, neither is the work of Hayden White or Dominick LaCapra by now). But a properly “historicist” NSS can benefit from this kind of theory—and it can benefit literary scholars and historians alike.

    PS–I would be interested to hear from historians about what, if any, literary theory or literary criticism they have found useful. And perhaps the more lit/cult types could recommend NSS work that might seem especially relevant to (skeptical) historians…?

  8. Ben Wise said

    Agreed, Martyn. To me, the distinction between “theory” and “history” seems not altogether unlike the distinction New Critics used to make between “good” and “bad” literature. Michael Kreyling and Gary Richards have taught us, among other things, to be suspicious of such distinctions and to look for institutional and socio-political explanations for the creation of such categories. So why this “indifference” (to put it charitably) among historians towards cultural studies broadly, and the NSS in particular?

    I’m a historian who reads literary criticism, and though I occasionally find it maddening I more often find that it keeps me sane. I also occasionally find historians maddening. So rather than fighting about who out-maddens whom, here is my take on how I benefit from literary criticism. Cleanth Brooks taught me how to read poetry when I was a teenager, F. O. Matthiessen taught me how to construct an argument, Fred Hobson made me want to become an historian, and the assortment of critics who may or may not have an NSS card continually challenge me to be careful and deliberate when I talk about cultural texts. When I was formulating and writing my dissertation, Look Away!, South to a New Place, Inventing Southern Literature, The Narrative Forms of Southern Community, The Postsouthern Sense of Place, and Lovers and Beloveds, among others, were on my mind. (It was the historian, Hayden White, who almost derailed the project—my first draft was so self-conscious about its modes of emplotment that it had no plot, no narrative, no character, no anything really.) When I teach students how to close-read evidence in my history classes, I often have the formalist techniques of the New Critics implicitly embedded in my instructions.

    Perhaps I have more affinity for literary criticism because my intellectual interests are literary/cultural, and because many people who have written about Percy are critics. But I think not, and would make a case that all southern historians would benefit from reading literary criticism. A southern historian writing a local study should read Scott Romine on community; one writing about urban history should read Martyn Bone on place; one writing about southern nationalism should read The Nation’s Region; one writing about gender and sexuality has a long list to choose from but might start with Siobhan Somerville and Gary Richards. Historians and literary critics have a great deal to say to each other about the things that matter to us: place, region, gender, community, race, etc etc. (One interesting experiment might be to read Pippa Holloway and Gary Richards’ recent books alongside one another. The intellectual payoff each hopes for is similar—to explain the delineation, representation, and regulation of sexual deviance. Different source bases and different methodologies, but the big questions have a lot of overlap. State legislators and literary critics, it turns out, have a lot in common!) On some level, the task of the intellectual/cultural historian and the literary critic are the same: explaining the meaning and significance of ideas and texts by placing them in context. But the social/economic/legal/etc historian can read criticism for its methodological sophistication, its careful reading of textual evidence, its attention to the structures of arguments. And they might even learn some vocab.

    Two points of contention/possibilities for further discussion regarding NSS. The first has to be its emphasis on newness. Sometimes I feel like walking into an English department with my beloved copies of Understanding Poetry and Errand Into the Wilderness would be tantamount to walking into a tea party in Omaha with a tattoo of Chairman Mao on my neck. This, I think, has an understandable political basis: critics are duly skeptical of Miller’s portrayal of American exceptionalism and the New Critics’ writing of queerness and black women (among others) out of the canon. Agreed. But now we can re-read them from a whole new vantage; we can read them simultaneously as primary and secondary texts. I think what I’m saying is that I think the field should be marked by an expansive, intellectually generous sensibility. A rigorous, careful sensibility, but also one that has a sense of humility that at least matches its sense of inventiveness.

    My second, related, quibble—and this is really a thought about American Studies more broadly—has to do with anxiety. As I see it, the field’s recent move towards transnational/ multicultural/hemispheric work is grounded in a political orientation—a skepticism of nationalism; a desire for a more inclusive definition of “what counts” as object of study; a mistrust of American imperialism (economic, cultural, and military); a continued desire for racial and economic justice in America; and an awareness of scholarships’ implicit collaboration in the creation and maintenance of various inequalities. Self-reflection on the relationship between scholarship and politics has brought about these good shifts towards inclusiveness, and much good scholarship. But it has also produced “state of the field” essays at the rate of about one a week. There seems to be an underlying anxiety of situatedness—a nervousness about what American studies, or southern studies, is, and what it should be doing. Far be it from me to suggest we stop being self-critical, but at some point I lose interest in the constant barometer watching. There are texts to explain, stories to tell.

    And my criticism of historians is fairly obvious at this point: read theory! Read criticism! Literature and literary scholarship can only be good tonic. In addition, trying to find the line between “text” and “context” (or theory and history, or fiction and fact—Richard King’s essay on the “Freedom of Fiction/The Discipline of Fact?” comes to mind) will land you in a conceptual thicket; there is no choice, as I see it, but to read both theory and historiography. At the very least, doing so will (to paraphrase William McNeill) make us leery of the weedy little path that leads down to the antiquarian’s gazebo.

    I’ve rambled on too long. Thanks to Brian for setting up this lively confessional of misdemeanors and fancies.

  9. Karen C. said

    Just so it is clear, I have and do read the theory and find it useful to a point, but avoid the jargon in my own writing. Shoot me for wanting to be accessible. My apologies if my distaste for jargon meant that I did not find theory useful, which is not the case.

    Ben suggests that more historians read theory; it certainly makes sense in his own work. Richard suggests that NSS scholars read historiography. I think it speaks to the disconnect that exists that there is a call by both scholars to be truly interdisciplinary and not just talk about it.

    One of my colleagues who works on Brazil said to me the other day that as soon as you see “studies” in the title, you can bet that the focus will primarily be on literary studies. This has been my experience in a few “studies” conferences. I think that the project “Understanding the South” could do a real service to the community of scholars on both sides of this issue by bringing them together for honest discussions about methods and practices to the benefit of all concerned.

    The blog is a great start.

  10. Randall Stephens said

    Enjoyed reading Brian’s post and the comments.

    I think the argument about influence or impact could be made elsewhere too. I mean, how much does new Atlantic history influence southern historians who work on the late Victorian era? Or, how serious do southern religious historians take religious studies theory?

    I do think there is something to be said about the quality of writing in highly theoretical works. Couldn’t theory-driven writers take a few cues from William Zinsser? Is that populist? Why the word salad of theory speak?

    A couple of winner’s from William Dutton’s much-missed bad writing contest:

    “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.” (Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 1994).


    “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” (Judith Butler’s, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” Diacritics, 1997)

    • Ben Wise said

      Karen And Randall–I’m completely with you on this point. Anyone who cares about their scholarship should think long and hard about their prose. Accessibility is important. By way of example, Randall, I recommended your holiness book to a hard-core right winger cousin of mine–this because I think it’s a great book, and that it’s accessible, and that if my cousin read the world might be a slightly safer place. Of course, I don’t think he will, but that’s not your fault. 🙂

      But at least for the purposes of this blog, there has to be some engagement by historians beyond complaining about jargon. Is there any substantive, specific intellectual problem–be it methodological or conceptual–that we can engage across disciplines?

      • Randall Stephens said

        Ben: Thanks for puffing the book to your cousin. I worried a bit that my right-tilting relatives in the Midwest would hoist me up a flagpole after reading the book. But that, fortunately, hasn’t happened.

        I certainly think that there is much to be learned from other disciplines. But venturing into other fields requires a certain amount of adventurousness. And historians have to believe that there will be a real payoff if they engage and incorporate the work of ethno musicologists, or the lit crit crowd, or something else.

  11. Jon Smith said

    Here’s an embarrassingly long post that I hope might get us past this issue if anyone makes it to the end of it.

    I appreciate Randall’s first point very much. But I’m going to be blunt again about his second. I think one reason many lit critics find some historians’ take on the “accessible prose” issue so frustrating may be that it reminds us of our less bright undergraduates who are annoyed that Faulkner (or Kant or Hegel or Habermas or Derrida) doesn’t write like John Grisham. Of course Butler and Bhabha aren’t Faulkner! But the same notion is at work: in both literary and academic prose there are things you can do with particular kinds of difficulty that you just can’t do with (seeming!) transparency. _Absalom, Absalom!_ simply doesn’t work as, and cannot without great loss be translated into, a traditional realist narrative. Nor can it be mailed off to redirect a misguided cousin. Yet it’s pretty worthwhile reading. In _academic_ writing, the key thing about difficulty is that you can deal with abstraction better. This was rhetorician Richard Ohmann’s very smart response to Strunk and White (which I think can stand in pretty well for y’all’s notion of the only good way to write) thirty-one years ago: “‘Use definite, specific, concrete language’ closes off analysis.” (If you’re serious about engaging, please consider reading that classic, oft-reprinted article—the above is just a sound bite, and the supporting argumentation, which is quite clear and uses examples, is what matters. It’s most easily found in _College English_ 41:4 [Dec 1979]. Also, it’s only eight pages—not a lot of work for a “real payoff” in terms of perhaps thinking less dogmatically about what we all do.)

    I’m almost embarrassed in this context to say it, but I actually understand the Butler and the Bhabha OK (and what they said was, when they said it, important). I paid my dues. And I’m still paying them. When I’m in Vancouver, I’m in a group that goes through one chapter of one Lacan seminar a week (actually, two chapters every two weeks). Even for a former philosophy major like me, who also has a pretty good grounding in Freud, it’s incredibly arduous—and I don’t know French, and I don’t know what’s being lost in the translation we’re using. But I’m a much better psychoanalytic critic—do I have to explain what I mean by that?—for having paid my dues. (And, frankly, since I’ve been out of grad school for some time, I enjoy being kept on my toes—as Ben says, it’s a tonic.) On the other hand, if I had to completely recap what Lacan meant by _objet petit a_ every time I introduced that term in my own work, and had to do the same for every other “jargony” term, my articles would all be at least 100 pages long. And on a related point: Butler and Bhabha are pretty extreme examples in any case, and when people keep using the same examples from the 90s “culture wars” era over and over to imply that all “theory” is that hard (it isn’t, though some of it is), it starts to look like somebody’s making excuses, and using very old examples to do so. (It also starts to look less like an argument and more like a reflex.) Plus, it’s not like there aren’t all those “for dummies” books out there. There’s a whole series from Oxford UP: _So-and-so: A Very Short Introduction_, etc. Frequently using such books as ways in, we routinely teach this stuff to undergrads—and some historians profess it’s beyond them?

    Besides, “accessible” historians use theory, too—they just tend to use it after its terms have become “common sense.” More often than not, unfortunately, by that time the problems with the old theory have long been apparent in the field the theory came from. Here’s an example from David Chappell, who I would hope is rather universally regarded as a very smart southern historian: “It would remain for a later conservative movement, one that sublimated the racism of the southern white masses and built its power within the churches, to hammer together a radical (and largely successful) conservative insurgency” (_A Stone of Hope_, 178). The transition from a race-based to a religion-based conservatism is important to all of us, I would hope, but the vulgar-Freudian “sublimated” there doesn’t work; you sublimate things like the sex and death drives, and racism isn’t a drive, it’s a symptom of one. This turns out, I promise, to be way more than a quibble. I realize people like to argue with David, and I realize there are plenty of ways to do it. But one is this: to get a handle on what’s going on, you might need not just a less cavalier version of Freud but some Lacan, who’s the go-to guy for drives.

    OK, to wrap up. What I find amazing is that so many historians (of a certain sort) seem to spend so much of their time talking to people who think exactly as they do that, for all their vaunted sensitivity to audience, they seem honestly to have no idea how they sound to the rest of us. When you say “there has to be a real payoff” (and I realize that was probably written in haste) do you know how that sounds? It at the very least seems to contradict your reasonable concession earlier that there is value in reading in other fields. If you thought there were a likely “payoff,” you’d do the work, no? Is it really so “adventurous” to just do the work? Dude, you make it sound like bungee jumping. 🙂

    Yes, I’m definitely playing bad cop here to Ben’s (and Martyn’s and Leigh Anne’s) good cop. But somebody probably needs to tell some of y’all that what can feel like a bold, moral stand for clarity may look to others like intellectual laziness, even intellectual cowardice (even if it might not be). So: maybe a little more introspection, a little wider reading, a little less complaining about the rest of us to other historians as if, again, we’re not even here? And could we, as Ben suggested, talk about something else now? I’m happy to talk—and, goodness knows, listen—about definite, specific, concrete ways other disciplines might affect religious history, Randall, or their impact on how we think about commemoration and mass culture, Karen. But please, somebody, put something out here that we can _all_ work with.

    • Randall Stephens said

      Jon: I think I understand where you are coming from. Though I’m perplexed by your grad-seminar-style grandstanding about the awesomeness of poorly written, opaque work. As if the more obscure something is, the more precious it is. Seems like the rhapsodizing of some Pitchfork adjective merchant, raving about the latest indie neofolk band from Williamsburg. Hard to escape the fashionbug thing. So you have newer theoretical sneakers than most people. Mad props.

      Good writing doesn’t have to be tied to American idiocracy, as you assume. (Nice use of John Grisham. But, instead, you could have used Terry Eagleton as an example, or, you could have pointed to the accessible and intelligent sort of writing that appears in the TLS, the NYRB, the LRB, the New Yorker, or the Atlantic.)

      There is a difference between artful prose–a la Faulkner or Joyce or Pynchon–and artless, arcane prose, rendered for a tiny audience. There is also a difference between “difficult” and “bad” writing.

      Is there such a thing as good American English writing? I think so. I’d refer you to a wonderful essay that David Foster Wallace wrote on the subject some years back in Harper’s: “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage.”

      You assume that this issue about writing and theory is just one more instance of some outmoded Fox News/Weekly Standard culture war or yesteryear. Long gone. Dead and buried with the dotcom bust. I disagree.

      Here are a couple of wonderful passages from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (2006):

      “Because of this bestowal of a historical specificity to consciousness in the narrow sense, even as it implicitly operates as a metaphysical methodological presupposition in the general sense, there is always a counterpointing suggestion in the work of the group that subaltern consciousness is subject to the cathexis of the elite, that it is never fully recoverable, that it is always askew from its received signifiers, indeed that it is effaced even as it is disclosed, that it is irreducibly discursive.”


      “Another note in the counterpoint deconstructing the metaphysics of consciousness in these texts is provided by the reiterated fact that it is only the texts of counterinsurgency or elite documentation that give us the news of the consciousness of the subaltern.”

      Lovely. Should be set to music.

      Here’s another from Anjali Prabhu, Hybridity: Limits, Transformations, Prospects (2007):

      “In thinking through hybridiry from the colonial novel it becomes evident that the racial articulation of hybridiry that caused certain upsets in maneuvering the dear superiority of the white race was elided in favor of concentrating on a cultural definition of it. Therefore, it is all the more important to be able to properly and quite specifically articulate what is meant by total cross-cultural interaction and transformation that postcolonial theories of hybridiry envisage. If, through colonial hybridiry, racial hierarchies became explicitly or implicitly reiterated, what are the terms in which postcolonial hybridity escapes or at least deals with hierarchy in difference?”

      What are the terms indeed!

      What’s wrong with “linguistic transparency”?

      A few other minor questions: Why does everything have to be pluralized (academies, theologies, spectacularizations, geographies, nationalisms, hegemonies . . .)? Why do nouns have to be made into verbs, for no apparent reason? Why do (ran)dom words still ne[ed] to be fid-dled with? Why so much passive voice usage? Why personify of abstract ideas? Is it OK to have all sorts of dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, repetition, agreement problems, and signposts galore in a published work? The above passages should come with AWK written in red in the margins.

      It’s lazy (though not cowardly) to not address some of these basics in writing.

      • Jon Smith said

        Randall, you’ve got me. At least sort of. That is, in reacting against what I saw as a complete (and grandstanding) dismissal of theoretical prose, I wound up seeming to endorse even the most extreme aspects of it, and grandstanding myself to boot. But my argument wasn’t that the more opaque something is, the more precious it is—just that opacity doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of no value whatsoever. (I did also cite Ohmann’s piece to the effect that more abstract prose can also serve a function.) Work that’s a pain in the ass is just work that’s a pain in the ass. But for some historians it seems to become something of a—wait for it—_objet petit a_. And I think that can get in the way of historians’ doing their jobs. Seriously in the way.

        So let me try to say this better. We should avoid dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, etc., and the world might well be a better place without some of the other things you mention as well. I’m not convinced the prevalence of the latter always comes from laziness; sometimes, though, it surely does. But to pounce on those things as a reason not to read the work at all is not the answer either.

      • Randall Stephens said

        Jon: Agreed. I don’t want to give the impression that I think historians should dismiss material that is not written to their specs. And there can be a kind of philistine rebuke of theory among historians. (I remember overhearing a jurassic prof in grad school mutter something like “what is this gender stuff?! Is that women’s studies, or what?”)

  12. Karen Cox said

    “Intellectual laziness?” “Intellectual cowardice?” and reminds you of “less bright undergraduates?” Belittling and condescending–now THAT’s a sure fire way to shut down a conversation.

  13. Greetings from Understanding the South HQ!

    Firstly, thanks to you all for participating in the discussion – and for making it so lively and provocative in the space of a mere thirteen posts!

    Following Jon’s comment at the end of his most recent post, I’m conscious that while this particular line of enquiry seems to be generating a good deal of debate, there may be more discrete and specific topics that participants would like to discuss. If you would like to propose a new topic, please email your opening gambit to me in the first instance; and I will muster all of my technical prowess to work out how to get a new thread going…

    Again, thanks for your participation – and please feel free to encourage/manipulate/coerce your colleagues to do the same!

    Jennie Chapman
    Project Assistant

  14. Brian Ward said

    Thanks to all who have contributed to the list thus far and greetings to all those poised to leap in.

    I think I’ve discovered the common ground between Southern historians and our colleagues in lit/cult studies: we all need 36-hour days to read each other’s stuff! I’ve already added half a dozen books and essays to my own “to read” list from these exchanges and recommendations. That’s why we [ought to] talk to each other, right?

    Now, all this extra reading doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to buy everything hook-line-and-sinker, or radically change the way I approach my work on the South, or the way I frame the questions I ask about the region – but, strange to tell, reading actually has had that kind of impact in the past and it might just do so again…and that’s exciting.

    As Ben, Jon and Jennie have suggested, while there is doubtless much more of import to be written about disciplinary differences in methodologies, theoretical underpinnings, vocabularies, etc. among notional “southernists”, maybe it’s time to move the discussion towards some more concrete topics/themes/questions where a range of disciplinary approaches might collectively illuminate much more than any single perspective (this is a stalking horse to be sure, since I don’t know that too many folks engaged in this discussion are really guilty of such one-dimensional work…).

    So, here I go again: lighting the blue touch-paper, and standing well back….

    One of the things I initially liked about the NSS was the way in which it challenged the relatively uncontested dominance of, to borrow from Leigh Anne, keywords such as “community, identity, and sense of place” in thinking about the South, offering alternatives such as “power, economics, and globalization” to frame our investigations and understandings of the region. It’s not as if historians were previously unaware of these possibilities and the multiple contexts for studying the South (the ‘New’ in any new intellectual/scholarly trend or movement is usually contentious and sometimes sounds excessively shrill). Still, the sheer intellectual vigour and cumulative power of the variegated attacks on these old interpretative verities sharpened my own sensitivity to alternative coordinates and well-springs of southern history, culture, identity, memory, etc.

    However, what strikes me as equally fascinating — and salutary — is how impervious popular understandings and representations of the South, its history, and culture, are to such scholarly nuance. “Community, identity, and sense of place” still seem to dominate “southern” (whether southern-themed or southern-derived) popular culture and public memory/imaginings of the region; moreover, aren’t these factors underscored and perpetuated, rather than eradicated, by the broader/deeper forces of “power, economics, and globalization”? There’s nothing particularly novel in this last suggestion, of course — it animates, for example, much of James Peacock’s “Grounded Globalism” — but that doesn’t stop me being intrigued by the question of how we address the relationships among the local and the regional, national and transnational (a major preoccupation of many in and around the NSS) in particular eras, places, or fields of action.

    Nor does it stop me pondering if one of the ways in which the NSS and its derivatives can be most helpful to historians of the South is because it actually seeks to probe, using a variety of texts and evidence not always the first port of call for “traditional” southern historians, the roots, trajectory, and nature of the things in which those historians have traditionally been most interested: er, that would be “community, identity (racial, religious, class, gender, regional…), and sense of place[s].” I don’t think historians need to be defensive about continuing to pursue those themes, but nor do I think they should assume that these are the only games in town, or that they have exhausted the ways of approaching them, either methodologically or evidentially. Put another way, in my experience, reading in the NSS sometimes encourages me to contemplate different aspects of putatively southern history and culture; but more often it leads me to look at familiar things with a different, hopefully sharper yet more flexible, mind.


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