The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Raritan:  A Quarterly Review

Jackson Lears, Ed.  Vol. 27.  No. 1.  Summer 2007.  $24 for a year’s subscription.  167 pp.  Flatbound, digest. 

Raritan contains essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews.  About half of the contributors in this issue note in their biographies that they are university professors, and indeed that seems to define the journal’s target audience, though not necessarily exclusively.  The relative tone of the writing tends to be, more or less, high brow.  Just the same, the editorial in this issue argues refreshingly for a certain engagement:  “Misconceived notions of patriotism strangle criticism in its cradle. […] Under these circumstances, journals that seek to nurture independent thought are more necessary than ever.” However, the editor, while stating his commitment “to staying with that agenda,” fails to mention that criticism is also strangled by misconceived notions of academic/literary established-order correctitude (e.g., “good taste”), perhaps because Raritan is, after all, an academic-based journal (Rutgers University) and the editor a professor. 
What tends to characterize such journals, rather than independence of thought, is the long-windedness of the prose and clever vacuity of the verse, as well as general disengagement or, if seemingly engaged, at a distance and never at personal risk to the author, as illustrated in this issue by John Canaday’s two poems regarding the Manhattan Project.  The other poems in the issue are simply disengaged, as in “The Game” by Gianmarc Manzone:  “Among the hundred things/ he had to think through/ along his approach// to the foul line—/ velocity, accuracy,” […] and “The Shell” by Lisa Williams: “There is almost no wind./  The river’s surface shines but is barely moving./ Two mink slip into the blue green// dusky water from a limestone shelf.” […].  
The editor informs that he is currently exploring postcolonial, anti-imperial perspectives in the context of an interdisciplinary faculty seminar and argues that “the imperial vision must be challenged, if we are ever to get beyond the current crisis.”  Furthermore, he states that “Raritan aspires to be part of that challenge […] by criticizing dominant modes of thought […].”  What the editor fails to come to grips with, however, is that the academic/literary established order is part of the political established order and thus part of the problem.  
            By the way, two sketches appear in this volume, both entirely disengaged.  The first one depicts a naked couple with bird wings, while the second depicts a tree entitled, “This tree looks too much like art,” as if that cutesy statement somehow permitted the tree to pass as art.  Why would a purportedly engaged editor wish to include such vacuous art?  “One Million B. C. The Prehistory of Love,” a story by Victoria Nelson, also appears entirely irrelevant to the editor’s professed “agenda” and reads as if meant for schoolchildren, albeit Native-American.  “With all their wanderings, the man and the woman began to lose their bodies, and after a while they became Spirits,” concludes the author.  “Pulp History,” an essay by Carlo Rotella equally appears to be irrelevant to the “agenda” and reads as if written for adolescents.  “In the beginning, there was Conan,” notes the author.  That’s right, Conan the Barbarian. 
In “The Authenticity Issue,” Adam Phillips writes that “Authenticity, I think, is an unusually interesting example of the phantom-limb effect—a significant casualty of ironization—because the tone in which it is used has changed remarkably quick.”  How to avoid hard truth by writing about anything but the hard truth!  Bruce Robbins’ review essay on Terry Eagleton’s The Gatekeeper touches on the ivory tower but how to dig into the typically long-winded prose?  Interestingly, Robbins notes “the university is under assault by corporate and government forces,” while conveniently failing to mention how that assault has been made possible and successful thanks to the tenured professors theoretically acting as gatekeepers.  In reality, the role of the academic gatekeeper is to keep out those with the courage to criticize the academic gatekeeper.
“Theory out of Bounds” by Noah Isenberg is the most interesting piece in this issue, not so much for the lengthy reviews of the three books in question, but rather for the author’s own semi-confessional comments:  “Ever the insecure set, all too eager to please their teachers, graduate students of my generation were only very rarely able to wield the authority to defy the dominant [theoretical] trends, especially when it appeared that mastering these trends was the golden ticket […] to a well-placed career in the academy.  Falling in line was, for most, much easier than facing the potential fallout from scholarly rebellion.”  What makes these statements so interesting is that they actually reveal, though unintentionally, the very crux of the problem confronting academe:  professors creating and assuring an ambiance of sycophancy to the extent that only sycophants may rise to become future professors.  Too bad Isenberg, Chair of Humanities at The New School (NY), doesn’t render his safe, semi-confessional into a full confessional, one that might risk his obtaining future emeritus status.  In other words, how precisely did his own eager “falling in line” enable him to rise to the position of Chair and, more importantly, how precisely does the army of “falling in line” grad students turned professors harm academe and especially democracy today?
Overall, the writing in this issue falls short of the editor’s stated agenda. 

—The Editor