Earlier this month, Adam had posted a note saying that Big Other was reviewed by Mary Miller in the July/August issue of the American Book Review as part of its special cluster on lit blogs. I found Miller’s account to be both problematic and unnecessarily snarky, and I had waited a bit to see if anyone was going to chime in…no one has responded thus far, so I’ve decided to take the bait.
My first (and most specific) objection to Miller’s review was her unfair and misinformed reactions to j/j hastain’s energetic posts and book reviews. Miller states:
[Some] posts made me feel like I was in a theory class and seemed out of place. For example, j/j hastain’s ‘A Proprioceptive Description (Naropa’s Violence and Community Symposium),’ begins ‘proprioception does not come from a singular or specific organ within the body, but from a sort of strange collective (the nervous system), this account will be necessarily fragmented—parts pouring from parts.’ I wasn’t sure what to make of this.
Some of j/j hastain’s other posts also turned me off. Here’s one more example of j/j’s writing: ‘I am feeling very excited to be engaging with you re this little interview in support of and co-investigation (with you) re your new book Narrative and Nest (Pre-Natal Architectures & Narrative Rituals).’ What’s j/j doing here? And why?
The term “proprioception” doesn’t strike me as particularly theoretical. It’s a simple physiological term that j/j actually defines right away. Proprioception, as j/j notes, does not come from a singular or specific organ within the body; proprioceptors, which are located within muscle or nerve tissue, respond to stimuli arising within the body…proprioception then is the body’s own sense of itself by the movement of its own tissue.
It seems that j/j is using the term as a metaphor to describe a methodology that depends on multiple, decentralized reactions. This is a far cry from dropping a term such as “interval” (which comes from Luce Irigaray) or “remnant” (which comes from Giorgio Agamben) and not explaining the extremely specialized usages of those terms. This is to say that the term “proprioception” doesn’t require any sort of specialized theoretical knowledge…one can simply look it up in the OED–by contrast, in order to fully understand what Irigaray or Agamben means, one would need much more than just a nutshell definition of “interval” or “remnant.” “Proprioception,” moreover, is a term that would be more important in a class on literary history, poetry, or post-war American literature than a class on theory. Charles Olson, of course, introduced the term to the literary community in the 1960s. The fact that Miller “wasn’t sure what to make of this” signals a lazy and dismissive reading practice, an unwillingness to look up an unfamiliar term. One certainly doesn’t need to take a seminar on theory or continental philosophy to make sense of “proprioception.”
Miller’s befuddlement with j/j’s second sentence (“I am feeling very excited to be engaging with you re this little interview”) is befuddling in turn. It’s quite obvious that j/j is conveying excitement and enthusiasm–which is something I look for in a literary blog post. No theoretical obfuscation going on over here. To adapt Miller’s own questions: “What’s Miller doing here? And why?”
It’s clear that Miller wants to “fit in,” to feel the familiar comfort of a literary clique and not the more discomforting diversity of a literary community. She doesn’t do well with what seems “out of place.” She, in fact, shows her cards in the second paragraph of the review:
I enjoy reading bios. It’s the first thing I flip to when I get a new literary magazine in the mail. I like to see where people are from (how many are from New York City?), who thinks they’re funny, and, most importantly, who has books out and/or has been published in magazines that I want to be in. In other words, I want to see where I fit.
What is important to Miller is not literature but literary credentialization, not intellectual curiosity but a self-serving careerism, not the fruits of authorship but authorial aggrandizement. The contemporary literary landscape is so diverse that things (writers, texts, movements) simply do not “fit” in neat and clearly delineated ways. This is, I argue, something we should celebrate. I’m particularly interested in writers that don’t fit into stable categories.
Ultimately, I think Big Other, as a collective enterprise, gains its strength from a radical eclecticism and not in the way it presents a doctrinaire or Procrustean attitude towards literature and culture. See, for example, Adam’s recent meditation on Big Other, which includes references to such diverse things as Star Trek, Nirvana, Pynchon, and Caravaggio…in this way, I read Adam’s post, which is simply titled “Big Other,” as an oblique and clever response to Miller’s sense that “Big Other doesn’t have a coherent personality.”
With thirty contributing writers, Big Other doesn’t need one.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.