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Mark Greif Mark Greif
n+1: Reading, Writing, and Publishing
Dayna Tortorici, Kathleen Ross, Mark Greif
The inaugural episode features editor Mark Greif, associate editor Nikil Saval, and contributor Gemma Sieff. Director of our research branch, Mark Greif, has sent me on a French fishing expedition.
By Michael W. Clune (Case Western Reserve University), Mary Esteve (Concordia University), Mark Greif (The New School), Andrew Hoberek (University of Missouri) and Lisa Siraganian (Southern Methodist University)
Both as intellectual and as literary history - as an account of the relation between the two in the mid-20th century and an attempt to reimagine the relation between the two in the early 21st century - Mark Greif's The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015) is an important and original book. We asked a number of critics working in related areas to say what they thought about it, and Greif to respond. Mark Greif's new book is a spirited, erudite, yet somewhat rickety triple-decker of American intellectual and literary history. Greif goes on to show how this discourse contributed to a wide array of institutional formations and debates-from the University of Chicago's Great Books program to the United Nations' Human Rights Committee and UNESCO, from Reinhold Niebuhr's hardened "anti-Deweyan, permanent-nature message" (29) and Hannah Arendt's searching disquisition on the failure of human rights to Dwight Macdonald's programmatic anti-conformism. It's provocatively "empty" because, Greif explains, nobody really expected a single definitive answer to the fundamental question of crisis-of-man talk, what is man? In fact "the underlying point" of the question was to elicit a "proliferation of answers" (13). But just as the obscurer elements of Greif's archive tend in this book to give way to synopses of well-known midcentury figures' crisis-of-man contributions, the book's central preoccupation turns out to be remarkably-I hesitate to say drearily-familiar. According to Greif, midcentury intellectuals were beset by the problem of how to resolve the conflict between universal, global, abstract man and particular, local, embodied man. As such these man talkers would hardly miss a beat in any number of graduate seminars held over the last 10 or 20 years. And yet these man talkers can't be called anticipatory originals, since the universal-particular problem predates Greif's midcentury by decades if not centuries, depending on where one locates the origins of American ethno-racial politics. Greif acknowledges a debt to historians such as David Hollinger who have devoted their careers to investigating this problem's more pronounced coalescence around ethno-racial patterns of identity formation. Noting midcentury literary criticism's calls for a Great American Novel amid simultaneous laments over the death of the novel, Greif imagines a pressurized socio-ecosystem in which writers of "the novel had the obligation to humanize a fallen mankind" (104). Writers who fleshed out, belabored, and challenged the core claims of crisis-of-man talk are deemed to have met "the [midcentury] demand that artists answer the problems of the age" (98). It should come as no surprise, then, that Greif dwells exclusively on the midcentury's most familiar: Bellow, Ellison, O'Connor, Pynchon, and (as a melded duo in dramatic failure) late Faulkner and Hemingway. (Greif also lodges the perplexing assertion that today's curricular canon of 19th century American texts is "exactly the canon of books, unchanged" that midcentury intellectuals created: those by "Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville" . It should come as no surprise, then, that Greif dwells exclusively on the midcentury's most familiar: Bellow, Ellison, O'Connor, Pynchon, and (as a melded duo in dramatic failure) late Faulkner and Hemingway. (Greif also lodges the perplexing assertion that today's curricular canon of 19th century American texts is "exactly the canon of books, unchanged" that midcentury intellectuals created: those by "Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville" . For in contending that midcentury novelists internalized crisis-of-man discourse in "practical matters of hope and disappointment, expectation and opportunity, and competition and resentment within the literary field" (132), Greif generalizes far too willfully and falls into constrictive circularity. The claim functions to rule in as relevant to his history only those novelists who match his description of authorial obligation, while ruling out a whole raft of midcentury novelists who might not. In effect, he accepts the criteria by which midcentury literary critics, invested in a narrow canon and in themselves as canon-makers, defined their own authority. He does not test the strength of these criteria, say, by situating crisis-of-man critics in a wider "literary field" or by considering other novelists who might be engaged in less "empty" talk. In other words, Greif's fixation on promoting the historical sway of crisis-of-man talk leads him to discuss only those novelists who confirm this talk's influence. Arguably more important, Greif restricts the idea of the universal to the one advanced by crisis-of-man talk. He thus misses the opportunity to consider how his stable of fiction writers, let alone numerous others, might be seen to redirect man talk's construal of the universal-particular problem toward something less empty. Nowhere does Greif discuss these critics' insights. For his part he locates O'Connor's literary value in her attack on man talk's universalist claim of "the basic psychic commonality of all people" (214) and in her insistence that there is "more than one type of person in the world" (213), thus casting her presence in the midcentury literary field as little more than a virtuous scold. In the book's final section, which takes up the presence of crisis-of-man discourse within the rise of theory from the 1960s onward, Greif observes in passing that the kind of universalism espoused by Rawls-whereby a social-contractual decision-making procedure entails a hypothetical "veil of ignorance" that erases decision-makers' knowledge of their subject position-was "a gain of sorts over naive universalism" (293). One of the central conduits through which Greif tells his story of man talk's "transmutation" into theory talk is Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose career in linguistic anthropology, pursuing universalist structuralism, and later advocacy of ethnographic and cultural relativism betokens mid- to late-century shifts in intellectual commitments. But where Pecora's critique creates space for a democratic liberal alternative to poststructuralist enchantment, Greif would have us think that the only alternative to the bad universal is the good, "practical" particular-as though the practical particular need no backing of intrinsic universal belief. Greif's astonishingly comprehensive new book produces one of the most impressive accounts of the rise of particularism and the concomitant decline of universalism as a trend from mid-century modernism to the present day. Curiously, Greif locates this transformation in the genre of the novel and sees it as fundamentally about race, even though other genres grappled with the mid-century's "crisis of man" discourse in other ways. Most problematically, Greif is never quite clear whether universalism per se is the central, indefatigable error of the discourse of man, or if the error is in thinking that universalism could be put into practice. One way to think about this difference is to ask hypothetically if the discourse of the crisis of man would be better if it were less "maieutic" and performative. This is a hypothetical question because, as Greif explains, the discourse of man is necessarily and fundamentally maieutic in so far as its central form is to pose imperatives such as "We must think/ask/answer" while abstaining from the work of selecting from, or even bothering to listen to, the answers that we "must" generate (24). Greif describes this distinct kind of discourse as empty (understandably), but also useful (counterintuitively). But Greif's book opens up a way see Olson's solution to the "human universe" as a variation on a persistent theme. But Greif locates this transformation in the genre of the novel and frames it as essentially about race: Ellison's The Invisible Man reveals that "no one can rely on an abstraction called 'man'" (200), and, more grandly, that "the essential flaw in the American discourse of man had always been race" (261). In doing so, Greif holds up a particular genre and cultural period as unique bearers for a set of problems and questions that are the major post-Enlightenment problems. In this case, Greif identifies a feature (race as an essential flaw of man-discourse) in a genre (the novel) at a certain moment (the 1950s) that is then attributed to the period's characteristics more globally. However, that feature could just as plausibly be a generic feature of novels-and not uniquely of the discourse-during that time period, and arguably of a much broader period. Had Greif chosen to focus on the poetry of the long modernist period, then his argument certainly would have incorporated race as an example of the trend towards particularism, but it would have been equally clear that fictions about race were only one lens to think through Olson's "intended angle of vision. Greif has important reasons for focusing on race fiction, and I take his point that the novel at this cultu
Whatâ€™s Wrong With Public Intellectuals? - Media Channel
By Mark Greif via Chronicle of Higher Education
Mark Greif is an assistant professor of literary studies at the New School and a founder and editor of the journal n+1. He is the author of The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, just out from Princeton University Press. By Mark Greif via Chronicle of Higher Education For years,...