J.C. Hallman on reading in the context of ourselves

J.C. Hallman writes that “We never read outside the context of ourselves” (qtd. in Kellman B15).  And this, I think, seems pretty obvious – why even state it, really?  Except that most theories of knowledge appear to posit knowing as tied to an external phenomenon.  There must be an external something that one is to know about.  But what if that’s not the case at all, really?  I mean, we can easily posit that all knowledge is internal – that has been done multiple times.

Should we contrast this with Barthes’s “The Death of the Author”?  Or perhaps with Raúl Sánchez?

But then, the Kellman article points to a trend of bitterness in Hallman’s work, phrases like “the state of modern literature in higher education these days…all about masturbation” (qtd. in Kellman B15).  Kellman provides us with Hallman’s long list of other teaching institutions because it “suggests of the life of an adjunct: itinerant, underpaid, and resentful.”  And Kellman uses this to not-so-subtly undermine the entire process of “creative” criticism in which Hallman is engaged: “The kind of passionate creative criticism that Hallman champions is a way of mooning the measured, footnoted scholarship valued by literature departments” (B15), and “Creative criticism is the revenge of the nontenured on the coddled professoriate” (B15).

This leaves me with some mixed emotions.  Are you truly “coddled” if you earn tenure?  From what I’ve heard about the tenure-track process, it is hell actually getting to the point where you do have that job security.  Not quite hazing, but certainly challenging.  And the uncertainties involved – you might still get rejected, have your tenure application turned down.  And then what?  You search for another job.  You lose whatever semblance of security you might have had.  You lose four years of labor, with little to show for it.

It is interesting, however, that this “personalization” of criticism is seen as anti-academic.  Kellman himself describes the rise of Literaturwissenschaft (the science of literature) in the late 19th century:

Banished from college classrooms and scholarly journals, mere dilettantism did not qualify as Literaturwissenschaft, the science of literature….English departments rejected France’s claim that “there is no such thing as objective criticism any more than there is objective art.”  New Criticism, the dominant school of literary analysis, proclaimed the impersonality of both art and its interpretation. (B14).

And as I’m writing this, I discover that I’ve slipped right into a kind of trap that Keller has laid.  Keller provides no information about himself, but the little asides about Hallman’s work (the “mooning” academia is particularly good) indicate that Keller himself may either have a strong bias against such creativity, or that he himself is strong invested in the New Criticism he describes on the preceding page.  And from the bio on Kellman’s faculty page at UTSA, we find that he himself may strongly favor an approach to biography that is far less autobiographical than Hallman’s:

Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W. W. Norton, 2005), which was honored with the 2005 New York Society Library Award for Biography and was praised in the San Francisco Chronicle as “not only a necessary addition to the annals of American literature, but also a trenchant exploration of the relationship between the horrors of life and the saving power of art.”

So…do we need to consider Kellman’s own life experiences if we are to properly interpret his interpretation of Hallman’s book?

This hits right at the core of the question of autobiography’s relevance within the academic writing classroom.  In what ways does creative writing studies need or demand this kind of personal expression in order to teach art? (see also Diane J. Donnelly).  For composition studies – or for any writing classroom – does the self-expressive essay offer to take us into new academic ground with our students? (see Sarah Allen)  Or is there instead too much danger that the rhetorical use of autobiography will allow for the success of insufficiently rigorous scholarship? (see James D. Williams)

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