Always Historicize

by Scott McLemee on February 15, 2007

Looks like everyone around here is just too shy to mention it, but all this week Crooked Timber has been among the blogs discussed and/or vivisected by “Movable Snipe,” a regular feature at the website Jewcy.com. The various CT-related entries are all conveniently available here.

To be honest, I found the comments (whether on CT or otherwise) somwhat puzzling. Not hard to understand, by any means, but…well, puzzling. And then it hit me.

In a classic essay called “The New York Intellectuals,” published almost forty years ago, Irving Howe described what he called the “style of brilliance” cultivated by one generation of Jewish-American writers:

It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura and display. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, willfully calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle —such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers. In most of these essays there was a sense of tournament, the writer as gymnast with one eye on other rings, or as highly skilled infighter juggling knives of dialectic.

But an older generation’s example can be a burden—one that, in this case, the Movable Snipesters have clearly shed. In response to a recent CT item on embodied energy, for example, we read this:

Next post: embodied energy. What the hell is that? I have to go to some other website to read about this thing—energy consumed in creating one unit of product X, wha?—and then back to the CT to read more? I don’t have time for this. Do you have time for this?

Not when there’s TiVo!

The “style of brilliance” that Howe described was forged in the 1930s and ‘40s by cerebral young writers who felt alienated from mainstream American culture. Fast forward a few decades, and all is transformed. Now, it seems, young Jewish writers feel free to be just like their fellow citizens: Unthinking yet unapologetic; averse both to dialectical juggling and to looking up the word “dialectics”; incurious and proud….

The melting pot works and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

{ 21 comments }

1

kb 02.16.07 at 1:35 am

Oh please. As if that style has never descended into logorrhoeaic, bloviating pomposity. (Except, wait– it did that all the time.) It’s even in the very Howe excerpt you quote: “dispute, dialectic, dazzle”, or, as it reads in the subtitled version: “Look at me, I can alliterate!”

The problem with the New York Intellectual style is that without rigid control it devolves into– well, into Martin Peretz, in its most extreme form, but more generally into over-wordy rhapsodies over one leaf on one twig of those trees you can’t see the forest for.

I’m not the least inclined to defend the Movable Snipers, of whom I have never heard. But the tendency of those who measure literary quality in syllables to sneer at those who say of the obscure, opaque, and boring,* “This is obscure, opaque, and boring,” infuriates me.

*. Please note that none of these adjectives is a synonym for “unimportant.”

2

josh 02.16.07 at 1:38 am

While I can’t lay claim to the ‘style of brilliance’, as a young, Jewish intellectual or would-be intellectual, I’d like to say that I don’t recognise myself either in the characterisation presented above, or in the image presented by Jewcy (though I do think it’s often a fun website). And I have to wonder about the practice of drawing conclusions about the development of a whole ethnic intellectual sub-culture from one website (then again, I suppose one could raise the same question about drawing conclusions from, say, Partisan Review. But those are conclusions in the reflected glory of which I’d be perfectly happy to bathe, so I’m happy to suspend any methodological scruples).

3

vivian 02.16.07 at 2:06 am

Earlier today I wondered about the difference between watching really great minds critiquing/collaborating one another at one of their seminars, and watching the merely-bright do the same thing, to anyone’s paper. We pick up the form of, say, analytic philosophy pretty quickly, know how to help clarify points, distinguish two closely related things, etc. But the great ones always include substantial pieces, and target their verbal interventions to sharpening or refining these pieces.

So, yeah, these snipe-ists seem to have good role models, and they ape some forms of entertaining essays, but it’s just not that good, and certainly not as good as CT. But that’s true of most writing. So I’m missing the point – what about this made you give this a second thought? Are they influential – usually better – what?

4

bi 02.16.07 at 3:55 am

I don’t have time to read anything, but I sure have time to write lots of things.

Verily, the pen is mightier than the eye.

5

alex 02.16.07 at 4:25 am

I, too, think its weird to write about “young jewish writers” based on one website.

6

dave heasman 02.16.07 at 9:04 am

” As if that style has never descended into logorrhoeaic, bloviating pomposity. (Except, wait—it did that all the time.)”

Not all the time. Not in the lyrics to the popular song, I think.

7

abb1 02.16.07 at 9:15 am

Well, it’s understandable: they may have the same names but they are different people and, more importantly, people with a much different social status (on average). Alienated rebels vs. a part of the establishment; what did you expect.

8

Chris 02.16.07 at 1:11 pm

I just spent a few moment at the website in question, and the writing is awful. I mean, awful. This may be one of the worst paragraphs ever written in our language:

I mean, I had to read it a couple times because there’s something weirdly incoherent about the man’s prose style, but once I got with it—the ultimate endorsement of pleonasm—I laughed. He’s a cynic. So the Saudis make nice with us, so what? It’s only a gesture. Or: they’re just getting in bed with the winning side. Or: they’re getting in bed with the lesser evil. We’re doing good! We suck. You get the feeling he thinks we suck. And he’s right. Especially now that Bush wants to bleed even more money from the arts, ostensibly to fund his New War. Because when I need money, the first place I turn is the arts. Jeeze. Does anyone read anymore? I’m serious.

It has the distinct feel of high school kids playing educated social critics, wielding a thesaurus. Still, I don’t think one would have to look far to find much better young Jewish writers. So I’m pretty sure the generalization at the end of this post isn’t warranted. In fact, the generalization seems oddly… well, I’ll put it this way: it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

9

Chris Bertram 02.16.07 at 2:02 pm

Hmm well I don’t think Scott was meaning to generalize about people who happen to be young, Jewish, and writers. Rather he was making a comment about _this_ particular bunch of people who are happy to see their site described as “the accoutrement of choice for a new breed of Jewish hipsters” etc etc.

There’s some kind of phenomenon here, which is hard to describe, but which goes something like this:

In iteration 1 you have someone who is great at what they do and to and about whom identity issues are also very important. People talk about them as a great Jewish/Black/lesbian/Irish writer/film-maker/cook, whatever. Among other things, they are great at writing, making films or cooking.

In iteration 2 you get people writing blurbs for dust-jackets or other advertising copy who write apropos some moderately talented person from the same group that they are “the next Philip Roth” or “the next Spike Lee” or whatever.

In iteration 3 (or n) you get real mediocrities who try to promote _themselves_ as creative-person-with-identity-X. The kindest thing you can then say is “nice try”.

10

Henry 02.16.07 at 2:27 pm

What Chris B. says – the problem is arguably worse for Irish writers.

It should be said that the rest of the site has some interesting stuff on it – but this purported attempt at blog criticism is bloody awful. One of the two people involved, Michael Weiss, has what he surely imagines to be a “riposte”:http://www.snarksmith.com/2007/02/the_kugel_falls_far_from_the_z.html posted today, which rather undermines itself by making sarcastic comments about the “professor” engaging in “symposium bathroom break pedantry,” Scott’s “lectern,” ” how “McLemee must have tenure already,” &c &c &c. It would have taken about 10 seconds Googling to discover that Scott has never held an academic position, and is rather an independent writer, critic, and recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian prize. This is surely the kind of intellectual laziness that annoyed Scott so much in the first place. I’ve seen Scott in reviewing mode – he takes a lot of time to write a several hundred word review b/c he takes care to do a lot of real research reading through the secondary literature on the subject of the review. He simply wouldn’t treat a topic that he was writing about with the sloppy incuriousness that these folks have displayed.

11

harry b 02.16.07 at 3:22 pm

Aren’t I right that Scott doesn’t even have a batchelor’s degree? Makes the sarcastic comments seem especially pathetic.

12

Kieran Healy 02.16.07 at 4:25 pm

sarcastic comments about the “professor” engaging in “symposium bathroom break pedantry,” Scott’s “lectern,” ” how “McLemee must have tenure already,” &c &c &c.

Ha! That’s great. Well, they said they were going to carpet bomb us, and I guess that’s been about the level of competence and accuracy they’ve managed so far. Scott takes a single pop at them with the ack-ack gun and the result is that Weiss manages to crash his little plane all by himself.

13

Scott McLemee 02.16.07 at 4:52 pm

My generalization about the cultural condition of young Jewish writers was so willfully over-the-top that I figured the trope to be obvious, and it certainly will be so to any smart yJw’s who happen to read it.

Anyway, turns out Weiss took high school Latin, so I take it all back. He should be careful about figural language however. Referring to my display of “symposium bathroom break erudition” might be taken to imply that Movable Snipe is a urinal cake of wannabe hipsterism. And that would not be good.

14

Chris 02.16.07 at 6:52 pm

I did just read the reply. Wow, do these people really think they’re good writers? I mean, it’s so forced. Running with the bathroom metaphors, it feels as though their prose was produced in a stall, as they strained every muscle in their abdomens.

15

alex 02.16.07 at 9:44 pm

Christ Bertram wrote,

“Hmm well I don’t think Scott was meaning to generalize about people who happen to be young, Jewish, and writers. Rather he was making a comment about this particular bunch of people”

Scott Mclemee wrote,

My generalization about the cultural condition of young Jewish writers was so willfully over-the-top that I figured the trope to be obvious, and it certainly will be so to any smart yJw’s who happen to read it.

Apparently, Chris, not only did Scott mean to generalize, but he meant to do so in a willfully over the top manner. To get it, you had to be smart and Jewish. Those of us who did not get it – which apparently includes you as well as me – can now reflect whether we are insufficiency Jewish or insufficiently smart (I hope its the former as far as I’m concerned).

16

I Calvino 02.16.07 at 9:49 pm

“The melting pot works and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

Leaving you to carry on the real tradition of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura and display. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, willfully calling attention to itself again and again and again.

17

Chris 02.17.07 at 12:00 am

OK, I laughed out loud at that. And I’m sick, so that meant a lot of coughing. And the pseudonym was perfect too. I’m going to go read The Baron in the Trees, now.

18

Scott Eric Kaufman 02.17.07 at 3:19 am

At least they credited Scott’s orthographic acumen without resorting to an ostentatious display of their own substantial erudition. I know he’s an acknowledged groyser tzuleyger and all, but it bears repeating: that Weiss fellow, he’s classy.

19

Ray Davis 02.17.07 at 2:34 pm

Barbellion‘s pretty good today.

20

Jonathan Goldberg 02.18.07 at 4:40 pm

In a fit of morbid curiosity I just read through the linked pieces about CT and others.

1) I didn’t see anything especially Jewish in there.
2) Reading this stuff was a waste of time. Why did you even mention it?

21

Steven Crane 02.18.07 at 8:51 pm

Aren’t I right that Scott doesn’t even have a batchelor’s degree? Makes the sarcastic comments seem especially pathetic.

i don’t have a bachelor’s degree yet, either. should i regard this place as over my head?

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