Twentieth-Century Literature's Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2005

Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Twentieth-Century Literature's Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2005


The winner of this year's prize is Jeffrey T. Nealon's "Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony, Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme's Snow White." The judge is Charles Altieri, Stageberg Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Among his works are The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects and Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. His new book, The Art of Modernist American Poetry, is just out.

Professor Altieri writes:

  I hope the finalists for this year's prize are representative of
  changes taking place in literary study. No glib theorizing; no easy
  claims that particular texts have cultural and historical significance
  for their rendering or concealing of the interests of power; no
  discoveries of what turn out to be obvious cultural forces; and above
  all no willful allegorizing of texts on the basis of single passages
  and the author's passion to make it new. The finalists' essays were
  all careful analyses of particular texts driven by powerful conceptual
  and historical concerns. I chose "Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony,
  Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme's Snow White" because I especially
  liked the liveliness of the writing and the sharp rendering of the
  conceptual underpinnings of the argument, but I easily could have
  chosen any of the others.
    This essay offers an appreciative yet critical account of
  Barthelme's ironic perspective in Snow White. To appreciate that
  ironic perspective is also to see how closely it is bound to the
  traditional aesthetic that it inverts. So the author makes us
  understand how more radical writers might break from what Barthelme
  makes of postmodernism in order to explore positions best theorized by
  Maurice Blanchot's work on the concept of disaster. Where an ironic
  aesthetic can only invert but not escape the models of mastery and
  knowledge basic to traditional aesthetics, the alternative perspective
  imagines the mind aware of how the disaster it confronts "calls for
  response without models, without maps, without the possibility of
  regaining a privileged subjective control" (135). Knowledge becomes
  something like recognizing the need for sympathetic responsiveness to
  events that make manifest the impossibility of traditional ideals of
  knowledge and the visions of our faculties sustained by these ideals.
    Ironically, the author's case against irony depends on utterly
  masterful prose, which I will try to represent. This case begins,
  appropriately, by demonstrating how Barthelme's opening sentence poses
  a striking concrete instance of the text's concerns with matters
  aesthetic: "SHE is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty
  spots." For those readers interested in where the beauty spots are,
  Barthelme tells us that they line up on the left side of her body--
  then provides an abstract map consisting of bullets to represent those
  spots. It seems that texts require supplementary pictures, but the
  pictures prove so abstract as to make it impossible to compose any
  practical image. More important, mention of those spots makes our
  critic wonder if Snow White becomes more beautiful because of the
  spots or if the spots themselves become aesthetic objects because they
  are attached to such beauty. Are the value categories instantiated by
  the object, or does the singular object compel us to judge it as
  beautiful? Is beauty something recognized or constructed so that we
  can have a name for a compelling force?
    It is clear that the text's way of visually representing beauty will
  not help resolve such questions. Rather the opening passage suggests
  how difficult it is to flesh out words like beauty, so that the very
  ideal of aesthetic presence seems to collapse into mere cultural
  production, the more powerful because the signifying element is so
  uncertain. In other words, we are in the realm of postmodern irony
  that
    troubles traditional aesthetic thinking on at least three registers:
    first, it robs aesthetics of its role as arbiter of taste and value;
    second, it collapses the aesthetic distance that is absolutely
    essential for a traditional notion of aesthetic judgment;
    finally,. … 

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