Illustration of Sheila Heti by Joanna Walsh
by Anahid Nersessian
Near the beginning of Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel, How Should a Person Be?, the narrator—coyly, “Sheila”—recalls a jilted ex-lover’s composition of “an outline for a play about [her] life—how it would unfold, decade by decade.” As her ex rises “in prestige and power,” play-Sheila is rudderless, “always dissatisfied, heading farther and farther away from the good” until at last she arrives at her “shriveled, horrible, perversion of an end,” having sex with a Nazi in a dumpster (Heti 25). At once raunchy and preachy, the play is sillier than it is disturbing, but Sheila is nonetheless haunted by what it foretells, gripped by the fear of “wind[ing] up loveless, lost, and alone, [her] face in some stranger’s hairy ass” (273). Late in the novel, however, in a chapter called “What is Freedom?”, she has an epiphany:
Who cares? If someone has to wind up, at the end of their long life, kneeling in a dumpster before a Nazi, it might as well be me. Why not? Aren’t I human? Who am I to hold myself aloof from the terrible fates of the world? My life need be no less ugly than the rest. (ibid)
How Should a Person Be? makes no secret of its debt to the nineteenth-century novel, and this passage in particular seems to tweak the ambiguous editorial on social martyrdom that ends Middlemarch: certainly kneeling in a dumpster before a Nazi might make Sheila into one of those “many Dorotheas, some of [whose lives] may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of” Dorothea Brooke, patron saint of untapped potential (Eliot 838). But while Dorothea’s vanishing act leaves her to molder among “unvisited tombs,” this protagonist surrenders herself without disintegrating, her casual acceptance of that “shriveled, horrible, perversion of an end” granting her a sort of wry poise. “What is Freedom?” finds its answer, then, in a refusal of mastery that is also a form of comic deflation—of oneself but, better, of a competitive fantasy in which the good life is sheltered from harms to which other lives are bared. Shrugging off the elegiac mode of Eliot’s last paragraphs along with the cramped moral vision of her ex’s revenge play, Sheila finally trades her own desire for prestige for the prospect of nonchalance, and for an unexpected, anti-dramatic affirmation of her standing among the remaindered “rest.”
Now, Sheila isn’t just nonchalant; her detachment is mixed, not stoic but curious and open. I’d like to borrow this mood to draft a literary criticism whose feeling about its fate is, like Sheila’s, richly indifferent. A recent, high profile conversation about criticism and its future has represented its own passions as anything but, making frank use of the attitudinal pedagogy of polemic even when it commends interpretive styles of modesty, reticence, or distance. In a context of dwindling enrollments, jobs, salaries, benefits, and protections, this sense of urgency is, of course, warranted. My purpose is therefore neither to chastise this sort of work nor to doubt its motives. It is to think provisionally about what it would mean to look down the barrel of criticism’s bleakest destinies and say, “who cares?” Like How Should a Person Be?, this experiment is comic in the generic sense, which is to say it requires thinking up livable and even gratifying adaptations to seemingly intractable circumstances. It is, comic, too, insofar as it attempts to “open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible,” most obviously the pleasure of indifference itself, which the disciplinary turn to polemicism effectively proscribes (Freud 123). In what follows, I group the comic indifference of “who cares?” with cognate terms and phrases from other critics, whose work might join Heti’s to build a vocabulary for confronting auguries of obsolescence on something other than their own terms. The point here is to ask what we might learn from suspending the assumption that becoming obsolete is one of the more “terrible fates of the world,” and whether we might find a style of alternative resilience in saying, with Sheila, “it might as well be me.”
The answer to “who cares?” in its usual rhetorical sense is “no one.” If we take the question straight, we’ll have to identify the populations who grieve, fight, and are hurt by criticism’s curricular demise. This part is easy: that would be us, and we do continually, in multiple forums, lament and protest and sustain sometimes irreparable losses by institutional and legislative assaults on the discipline in all its domains. To mull a question like “who cares?” is not a sly way of saying “I don’t care,” let alone “give up.” It is neither a defense against the disappointments of caring in vain, nor is it an oblique invitation to anybody to care about what happens to literary studies and the people who teach it. For my purposes, “who cares?” is a figure of non-alignment to the imperative to save literary criticism, at least as that imperative is typically phrased: as a litany of crisis that gives the crisis back its own inflexible shape. “Who cares?” breaks into and off from this iterative loop, just as Sheila unravels the snarl of exhausted tropes—the ambitious woman brought low, the abandoned ex avenged, the Nazi—joining her to an unsavory end. Her own “who cares?” affirms the fact while declining the sanction of an ungenerous scheme of public worth, in this case one that derides sex as a specific form of social vulnerability while explaining social vulnerability as a form of karmic redress. Similarly, to say “who cares?” to literary criticism means upsetting the combative postures that merely mirror attacks on the field and direct them internally. In contrast to the (great and generative) scholarly work that urges critics to find new ways to read and teach their material, and new ways to make that material engaging to the public, “who cares?” is not a methodology, let alone a research program. It is a means of drawing attention to the fact that caring is a complex social activity, one that, as Heti suggests, is at least partially determined by our own attachments to “prestige and power.” By wondering aloud whether the discipline should be protected at all, we expose and, ideally, modify those attachments by attending to a follow-up question intimated by “who cares?”: if the anchor of what matters most to us were, at any given time, dislodged, what could we bear to imagine in its place? Again, these alternatives will be comic to the extent that theyare bearable, and also to the degree that they respond to—are open to adjustment by—comedy’s improvisational protocols.
There is already a body of scholarship attuned to the simultaneously unassertive and antipathetic register of “who cares?” Along with Sianne Ngai’s notion of the merely interesting, “who cares?” might be counted among other strategies for thumbing one’s nose at the sublime, principal stimulant and representational mode of critique from Kant to Bill McKibben. Faced with any object that has a tendency or design to seduce, challenge, overwhelm, or intimidate, such responses “begin as a feeling of not knowing exactly what we are feeling” before falling into cogent but still unreliable patterns of “ambivalence, coolness, or neutrality” (Ngai 135). To be sure, “who cares?” has more of a confrontational edge than mere interest, and while when it comes to the latter “it can be even hard to say” whether it registers “as satisfaction or dissatisfaction,” “who cares?” bluntly registers both, being at once irritated and pleased in its irritability (Ngai 135). Yet “who cares?”, too, is a species of “judgment” that “inevitably diverts attention away from itself so as to throw the spotlight entirely on the question of its own legitimation”: should anyone care? The apparent rebuff of “who cares?” thus turns out to be a “plea for extending the period of the act of…evaluation” in a way that is expressly public, needling in order to procure an audience who must answer: I do? Not me!Some people….(Ngai 169-170). It therefore has a share in the social function Henri Bergson ascribes to comedy, which likewise expresses its own judgment of coercive forms of relation—from the aesthetic to the interpersonal—by rerouting their “mechanical inelasticity” through its own erratic movement (Bergson 10).
Similarly teasing techniques are found in critical writing that adopts dispassion, or the appearance of dispassion, as an analytic instrument, and whose orientation toward its object is one of partial withdrawal or an incomplete avoidance of intimacy. Roland Barthes associates this kind of noncommittal intensity with the moving target of aesthetic and affective phenomena he calls “the neutral,” a term that describes—among many, many other things—“the opposite of: ‘getting into a state’” (Barthes 76). Although this characterization implies that the neutral reacts against private experiences of discomposure, it would be a mistake to confound it with the principle of impersonality conventional to certain philosophic ideals of aesthetic appreciation. The neutral represents, rather, a kind of painterly abstraction of the personal and its dilation into an interpretive model. Barthes’ own lectures on the subject accordingly range between generic and idiosyncratic experience, with the lecturer himself—“impertinent, even funny”—inhabiting the neutral as a projection “of the uncanny, of mooniness, of the off-the-mark enigmatic: an opening in the direction of an undefined something else” (111-112). While the content of the neutral also remains “undefined,” “in the end,” for Barthes, its “essential form is a protestation,” whose slogan is “it matters little to me” (14). This phrase, much like Heti’s “it might as well be me,” seems covertly to point “in the direction” of a place or circumstance where serious things are nudged toward the possibility of their own irrelevance, and the magnitude of “me” likewise reduced (ibid.)
To Barthes’s “it matters little to me” I’d add a line from the famous opening of “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” where Cindy Patton answers Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s hypothesis that AIDS has the motor of a government conspiracy behind it with “I just have trouble getting interested in that” (Sedgwick 123). Like “it is what it is,” which Daniel Wright singles out as “the reigning tautology of our contemporary moment,” Patton’s response seems at once “lazily meaningless” and, where precision is most wanted, “meaningfully capacious” (Wright 1122). Sedgwick’s now-familiar argument against paranoia leans, however, on the end and not the overture of Patton’s speech: “I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy…what would we know then that we don’t already know?” (Sedgwick 123). For me, it’s Patton’s “I just have trouble getting interested” and not her “what would we know then…?” that cracks the monopoly of a paradigm keyed to the “reflexive and mimetic” pedagogy of alarm. Patton’s own merely uninterested slant (“I just”) on conspiracy meets it with a faintly irritable agnosticism that is both critique and invitation. Instead of struggling against provocations of debilitating magnitude, Patton gives them some lip—gives them, that is, a chance to hear their own affinity for whatever violence they claim to abjure. This is, in part, a hostile gesture, but one whose purpose is to slow the drift of both activism and criticism toward an uninspired, insular rendering of the moral high ground.
I confess that, when I read through the manifestos, counter-manifestos, defenses, and autotaxonomies our discipline has produced over the last handful of years, I sometimes feel embarrassed that my own feelings about the field are nowhere near as strong as some of my colleagues’. It’s not that I don’t care; I’m simply not sure who cares this much this way or, more precisely, why our caring takes such internecine forms. Deirdre Lynch notes that the present mania for endorsing literary studies on the ground that reading produces pleasure not only leaves “pleasure without a history,” it also hides the anecdotal truth that most “reading routines” place “pleasure and tedium in a delicate balance” (Lynch 12, 188). What this argument suggests is that pleasure used in self-defense is often evacuated of the sensible range that makes it so compelling—so pleasurable, really—in the first place. The same might be said of the event called caring, and “care” is what we are implicitly asked to do upon being told that this or that methodology is bogus or bankrupt, that periodization can make or break a subfield, that form outclasses history or history form, and, especially, that some approaches to literary studies and not any others light the way to a more modern, more functional and alluring discipline. Once such claims are weaponized to protect the humanities, it becomes difficult to hear in them the everyday undertones of boredom, indecision, fatigue, and frustration reminding us that care is a confused and unstable sort of commitment, one that can be at best skeptically renewed.
“Who cares?” amplifies this skepticism so that it can be seen as a mode of commitment, one that is exceptionally unconcerned with producing consensus around matters of disciplinary identity, practice, and value. As criticism finds itself compelled to lobby on behalf of its own seriousness, and as seriousness is herded into a tactical synonymy with pleasure, perhaps we might spend more time developing the pleasures of levity, if by “levity” we could approximate the lightness left to Sheila when she stops hoping for exemption from social injury. To be light is to be many things: for Sheila, it is a condition that defines the human as unseemly and unguarded, but also communal. Her own skeptical commitment to lightness offers one response to the question David Batchelor raises in his discussion of another dumpster-and-Nazi fable, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Can you imagine a luminous ruin?” (Batchelor 29). When we ask “who cares?” we are also asking: “can we?”
Piece originally posted at Arcade |
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Barthes, Roland. The Neutral. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Batchelor, David. The Luminous and the Grey. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. London: Macmillan, 1911.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Ed. Rosemary Ashton. London: Penguin, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be? New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2012.
Lynch, Deidre Shauna. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.”Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 123-151.
Wright, Daniel. “Because I Do: Trollope, Tautology, and Desire.” ELH80.4 (2013): 1121-43.
 Heti’s interest in the high-realist novel is announced early in How Should a Person Be?, in what must be the book’s most quoted sentences: “We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.” My discussion of Heti with reference to Middlemarch is indebted to David Kurnick, and to his paper on “The Novel and Sociological Eros,” presented at the Nineteenth-Century Colloquium, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, April 2013.
About the Author:
Anahid Nersessian is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her first book, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard) was published in March 2015, and her writing has appeared in Contemporary Literature, ELH, European Romantic Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Studies in Romanticism, Modern Language Quarterly, and Public Books. She is currently working on an edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Laon and Cythna, and a second book called The Calamity Form.