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,. …