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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What is your metaphor for your own work?

Mine is the idea of agon. Much as I don't want to be influenced by Harold Bloom, I see literary criticism as a struggle, a conflict. I don't think something is worth writing about unless it involves a significant critical problem. I don't even mind a polemic. I am motivated by ideas like having my ideas prevail, by competition with rivals and by struggles with the poetry itself. I want to win. Some of the negative emotions of the agon are actually motivating for me. For example, I might let my anger about weaker readings motivate me into doing something better.

I don't know if there is stupid motivational trick here. Maybe it's that you should consciously think of what your own metaphorical conception of your work is, clarify that to yourself. I think everyone has one, or should. Now once you have that clear, what are you going to do with it? What are the sources of power in the metaphor? What are the potential pitfalls?

In my case, for example, the idea of a struggle or agon allows me to excel in certain ways, to choose non-trivial critical problems, to have a stake in what I write. On the other hand, it makes me too testosterone driven, too angry and polemical. It's something that I have to consciously control in order not to let things get out of hand.


Vance Maverick said...


Is this actually part of how you think of your own mental workings? Like "tryptophan" (in turkey) and "endorphins", it seems to be used (in non-scientific discourse) as a synecdoche or kenning for the thing it purports to explain (aggression, somnolence, runner's high).

In any case, this is illuminating. No question that scholarship is competitive -- that's part of why I didn't excel as a grad student.

Vance Maverick said...

And you've probably seen this:

"I ask for creativity from literary criticism," says BolaƱo, "creativity at all levels." The critic should be "capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings," thus creating "something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe." He cites as an exemplary figure Harold Bloom: "I am generally in disagreement with him and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or [George] Steiner.

Andrew Shields said...

I can't think of any other metaphors that might serve scholarship well. At least the idea of the "significant critical problem" is essential to good scholarship, and approaching it as something besides "competition" does not seem very promising.