Friday, June 8, 2012

On the death of Ray Bradbury, reflecting on why academics might read me more as an "activist" than a scholar

When I heard that Ray Bradbury died, my first feeling was surprise. My second was gratitude.

As far as I can remember, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was the first piece of dystopian literature that I read and was really enveloped by. Actually, the book terrified me. Not just the scenes where the protagonist burned another man alive or was hunted down by a mechanical bloodhound, but things like the earpieces and walls that functioned like television screens. And of course the book-burning.

But that fear I felt ignited (pardon the diction -- I couldn't resist) a passion for thinking about literature in more tangible terms. Rather than just think about how literature "spoke to the (psychological or universal) human condition" or other very general ideas, I began to think about how fiction related to the real world and gave us tools for thinking about our real world, maybe even tools for brainstorming ways to improve our literal human condition.

(To be more specific -- see what I did there? -- rather than just think about what it means in general for people to read less and for the entertainment industry to grow more, I wanted to talk about strategies for teaching children about reading in order to promote an enjoyment in literature and motivation to read as opposed to just watch or listen. That's the extra step: from the general concepts i.e. lack of reading books leads to less contextualized knowledge and an intellectually lazy populace to the more specific what can we actually do to prevent this?)

My English teacher at the time -- Mr. Boyle -- noted my interest in the book and how motivated I was by it, and he told me to read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. That is still one of my two favorite books that I've ever read. Like Fahrenheit 451, Orwell's novel scared me -- and again, not only during the scenes when the protagonist is being beaten or having his face attacked by rats, but in the moments when the reader can't tell if Julia is working for the Party or not, or when newspaper accounts of historical events are destroyed as narratives change. Again I wanted to ask questions about how what I was seeing in my country at the time I read the novel could be read in conjunction with Orwell's novel, and what could we learn from this? What could we learn about the War on Terror while thinking about the Two Minutes Hate or Emanuel Goldstein?

I went on to also read Thomas More's Utopia and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World before graduating high school, and took a class on dystopian literature during my freshman year of college. Since then, my literary interests have changed in terms of the primary content of the literature I read -- I'm a graduate student specializing in African American Literature and American Studies (at the moment at least; this, of course, could change) -- but my way of approaching literature remains profoundly influenced by my experiences with dystopian fiction which was really initiated by Bradbury's novel.

For me, the link between literature and politics (defined broadly: I'm one of those "everything is political in some way" people) is incredibly strong and I completely reject the premise that a work of literature is somehow a special autonomous cultural production which contains all of its meaning within itself. I approach literary works as pieces of a larger puzzle. I'm honestly not super interested in the question of "what does a piece of literature mean?" Yes, some interpretations are stronger (i.e. have more merit) than others based on evidence, but really, I find the argumentation about what the "correct" interpretation of a piece of literature is to be dull and boring. I'd rather ask the question (and credit goes to one of my Geneseo professors, Beth McCoy, for this formulation), "What happens when we read x that way?" Or "What does that reading do for us/what can we do with that reading?"

Ultimately, I'm interested in the world which created the literature, not the world the literature creates (not that these are neatly distinguishable or even categorically separate because of the special relationship of origins that they are wrapped into). I don't want to approach a piece of literature merely asking what it "means." I want to ask what it can do.

That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a piece of literature as an aesthetic object. Indeed, I am moved almost to tears by the beauty of the passage in Moby-Dick when Ahab laments what he's done to his family by being away at sea all the time. That image of his one tear dropping into the vast ocean is tragically beautiful and emotionally moving. And when I read Toni Morrison's description of the scene in Home when some men recall a boy killing his own father because the two had been forced to fight to the death, I weep with the boy in the text's memory as his father tells him -- implores him to kill him. And that is valuable and necessary. As William Carlos Williams reminds us: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

So it is not a matter of completely abandoning thinking about literature as aesthetic object. It is a matter of remembering that what matters is matter. Literature can help us to rethink our own material conditions and give us tools to reconfigure them. We can read literature alongside our current political and economic situations in order to better understand them and perhaps even change them. Literature can literally move us closer to the Just. And that's the kind of work that I want to do. If that makes me appear as an "activist" to some within the profession -- as I now know it does -- then so be it. I fundamentally reject the notion that activist and academic are mutually exclusive terms. Just read the literature.      


  1. Jesse, this is great. I'm glad you're blogging and igniting literary passion in others' minds (read: my own). There was a dystopian lit course at geneseo? I feel I sorely missed out.

    Keep in touch,

  2. Thanks for reading, Julie! I'm glad you enjoyed it =)

    The dystopian lit class was great. It was a subtitle for a section of HON 102: Critical Reading. Professor Joe Cope (History) taught it. We read Butler's Parable of the Sower, Utopia, 1984, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.