In this new series of Literary Conversations, New Polis general editor Roger Green engages with contemporary writers on aesthetic and thematic trends in their work. The initial conversation is posted above, followed by Roger’s reflections on the conversation below.
Steven Dunn is the author of the novels Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016) and Water & Power (Tarpaulin Sky 2018). He was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy, he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Some of his work can be found in Columbia Journal, Granta Magazine, and Best Small Fictions 2018.
Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels Slab, The Meat and Spirit Plan, and The Pink Institution, as well as the book of essays Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics. She teaches and lectures across the United States, and is the director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver.
Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom, two novelists currently working in Denver, Colorado, share many aesthetic sensibilities. In this post, I want to particularly focus on material approaches to language that I see in their work, arguing that what they bring to the novel is a notion of cultural dissent. As I’ve recently been discussing concerning the goat-god Pan in Victorian and Edwardian literature, I am particularly drawn to the ways both dissent and desire-toward-power are simultaneously embodied in literary works and discourse about them.
In a series of posts last year, I reread Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, exploring how philosophers and social theorists rely on literary texts and implicit concepts of what “Literature” is and does. Static and transcendent concepts of “Literature” were increasingly called into question during the late twentieth-century. As Daniel Boyarin summarizes in Carnal Israel, the approach known as New Historicism integrated earlier Marxian historicist approaches to literature with aestheticized New Criticism, which treated the literary text as an art object (14).
European poststructuralist tendencies had been compelled to some extent by American New Criticism with talk of the “author function” (Foucault, 1969) and “The Death of the Author” (Barthes, 1967). Intertextual focuses helped to “secularize” the concept of “Literature” from its place in bourgeois notions of art that signaled the inequities of France’s Third Republic. Writing Degree Zero, as Roland Barthes put it, sought approaches to language capable of engaging with “the apparatus” (dispositif) situated in what Louis Althusser Althusser called “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970).
If “writing,” as opposed to “Literature,” were to succeed in displacing underwritten bourgeois capitalism, it would presumably have to effect language (langue) at a deeply semiotic level — yet at a level at which, according Barthes in Elements of Semiology (1964), could not posture as exceeding or “above” linguistics, as Ferdinand de Saussure has supposed, but rather only within language itself, because we only have access for discussing meaning or the making of meaning within language.
The conception that “there is nothing outside of the text,” popularly attributed to Jacques Derrida arose in this milieu. What was lost on many in American literary studies, in attempts to make a method out of “deconstruction,” was Derrida’s claim that “deconstruction happens.” This was derivative in some ways from Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox of a cat in a box because it depended on the act of observation itself. It was simultaneously indicative of culturally Jewish approaches to textuality.
The dissent embodied in Derrida’s thought, as well as the French context’s willingness to support “the literary” alongside “the scientific,” was largely lost on American literary publics, who frequently accepted liberal humanist notions that implicitly supported their own romantic view of “spirit.” Rather than critiquing or seeking to produce language against an “apparatus” as the French did, Americans took a more “providential” approach to the implicit cultural critique within so-called “French Theory.” In doing so, the betrayed their own allegiance to eurochristian capitalism no matter how “Marxian-materialist” they claimed to be on the surface.
The situation created very privileged notions of “dissent” and a discourse of convoluted “theory” that in many ways could be dismissed by New Historicism’s more pragmatic approach to materiality and history. But what I think was lost in this moment was precisely an aesthetic approach to the literary which gave itself over to social scientific conceptions that had been advanced in an Americain context that tended to divide the “hard sciences” from “the humanities ” — an entirely different context than post 1968 French contexts which attempted to put literature, physics, and psychoanalysis into equal dialogue with one-another.
The so-called “culture wars” and “canon wars” of the 1980s, from a 2020 perspective, read more like the co-opted relegation of what Deleuze and Guattari had called ‘difference’ to the mere repetition that would produce “identity politics.” This was exacerbated in the neoliberal multicultural movements of the 1990s which too easily bought into notions of liberal progress while simultaneously rejecting “theory.”
The rejection of “theory” through a soft approach to “New Historicism” could self-congratulate on the basis of a kind of textual “materiality” that could be mirrored through identity-oriented positions (feminist, African-American, generally “marginalized” voices), and this impulse fueled liberal impulses toward “Inclusive Excellence,” which sought to “acknowledge difference” against the more cosmopolitan impulses of “multiculturalism.” Inherent in the colonized concept of Inclusive Excellence is the inherently liberal (eurochristian) notion of social progress.
Critical Race Theory rejected such optimism and black feminist thought in particular has been able to critique eurochristian notions of the human while attending to transgenerational forms of embodiment.
In contrast, the embodiment of “Inclusive Excellence” has often had more to do with status-quo versions of liberal (eurochristian no matter the “color” of who expresses it) rights-based dialogues about “humanity” than it it does about any kind of recognition of difference or otherness. It presupposes a “virtual reality,” and “infinite” liberal space that is inherently able to accept “new articulations” of identity. This has been a particular problem of liberal-oriented identity claims within an LGBTQIA spectrum against classic queer theory, which resisted the politics of recognition.
Moral posturing within neoliberal terminological screens, as Wendy Brown’s rereading of Foucault on governmentality attests, has had the effect of “undoing the demos.”
One result is that transgressive queer theories and practices that embraced ambiguity against the relegation to what we now call “identity politics of recognition” now have to contend with liberal desires of “representation,” as José Esteban Muñoz has articulated in Cruising Utopia. Queer and black feminist thought share approaches to embodiment that have become especially meaningful in twenty-first century literary production.
In the late twentieth-century, the relegation of “the literary” to the social sciences within American institutions meant the farming out of any concept to sociologically-derived notions of “habitus” and “praxis” that de-aestheticize even as they re-politicize works of literature within eurochristian rights-bearing frames of reference. Such assumptions rested on new historicist and poststructuralist disdain for ‘Literature’ because any aesthetic concept of ‘Literature’ always already adhered to regressive notions of social class.
In Radical Tragedy (1984), Jonathan Dollimore astutely critiqued christian humanist essentialism in literary studies that had prevented scholars from seeing the dissent at work in Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As he argues,
The crucial point is surely this: essentialism, rooted as it is in the concept of centered structure and determining origin, constitutes a residual metaphysic within secular thought which, though it has not entailed has certainly made possible the ideological effect: a specific cultural identity is universalized or naturalized; more specifically in relation to social change this residual metaphysic is activated in defense of one cultural formation, one conception of what it is to be truly human, to the corresponding exclusion of others. (Radical Tragedy, 258)
As Daniel Boyarin notes in his study of sexuality in Talmudic texts, Stephen Greenblatt prefers the term “cultural poetics” to “new historicism.” To me, the distinction is crucial. As Boyarin says, cultural poetics is “a practice that respects the literariness of literary texts (that is, texts that are marked by rhetorical complexity and for which that surface formal feature is significant for their interpretation), while attempting at the same time to understand how they function within a larger socio-cultural system of practices” (Carnal Israel 14).
While part of me embraces the “secularized” notion of “the Literary” brought on by twentieth-century theory, one broader result in the US has been the rejection of any study of literature as a social value outside of “positivistic” social sciences. For example, I teach at an underfunded “urban” university where most of my colleagues embrace status-quo notions of “the literary” along transcendent and universalized conceptions of “humanity” because most of our students see in a dogmatic way that becoming “well read” will increase their social mobility. Part of my work is to ethically disabuse students of the notion that knowing anything about “literature” is gonna “get you” anywhere while also conveying its ongoing importance as cultural poetics.
In the conversation above, I very much have my Introduction to Literature students in mind. This summer, we have been focused on the theme of tragedy and sacrifice. The emphasis on tragedy was in part an educational tool to convey broad shifts in literature as it moved from Greek drama to the novel. In his 2004 Preface to Radical Tragedy, Dollimore writes,
Far from being liberating, the humanist aesthetic has become a way of standing still amidst the obsolete, complacent and self-serving clichés of the heritage culture industry, the Arts establishment, and the m market-driven humanities education system. The aesthetic has become anaesthetic. (xxii)
For me, the work of Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom implicitly share this critique. However, both Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom convey in the discussion above that writing was for them a way out of poverty. At the same time, the conditions surrounding literary education in the US are entirely unsustainable. While more people benefit from the liberal (inclusive humanist) policies regarding higher education since the 1960s, institutions themselves increasingly disregard the humanities precisely because those who might benefit are those who have been historically deemed “not human enough,” what Alexander Weheliye has termed habeas viscus as opposed to habeas corpus.
Education has often been a pretense to “citizenship” with little acknowledgment about the conceptual trappings of such “citizenship.” The more “inclusive” education in the US became, the greater the reaction between conservative “traditionalists” and “great books” conceptions established themselves against “multicultural” cosmopolitans who, in their dogmatic adherence to liberal forms of “inclusion” implicitly relied on a virtual “infinite” political space that could, in universalist and eurochristian terms “include” everyone, so long as they could all hug it out within a politics of Sameness rather than difference.
Traditionally marginalized students could really give a shit about such politics. The situation for them is simply about surviving, even if it alienates them from the communities from which they came.
Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat generally documents the childhood and adolescence of an unnamed black protagonist. In some ways, the book reads like a a folktale. The boy is treated badly by his stepfather, constantly yelled at and told to do chores such as lighting a fire, cleaning up dog shit, being a nurse to an incontinent grandmother who frequently mistakes him for her deceased husband. At one point, he’s punished for standing up for his little sister, who like him both recognizes the injustice of the situation and the futility in being able to do anything about it.
My mom tells me to pull my pants down and bend over the stool. She’s having a hard time choosing between the belt and the extension cord. Until my stepdad says, Use this, and gives her a big stick. I think of how to draw a face on my Etch-A-Sketch. (23)
Artistically motivated, the boy’s creativity goes largely unnoticed by everyone except his sister. He fantasizes about becoming an apprentice to a Ninja and going to Japan to study. As Dunn says in our conversation, there really was talk in his down of a ninja prowling through the night. The boy decides to go find the ninja.
My back against a tree. Peek around and see him leaned up up against a rock with his back to me. The fire is dying. He knows I’m coming. Ninja, I whisper, its me, your faithful disciple. He doesn’t turn around. Ninja. Master Ninja, I have come to learn the ways of the night. He doesn’t move. Move closer. His mask is on the rock. He has an afro. I peek over his shoulder and recognize his face. It’s crazy Percy from down the road. A needle stuck in his forearm. (31)
Stark realities such as this break into the child’s imagination, but he remains resilient, even open-hearted, though not necessarily hopeful. In Dunn’s second novel, we see an adult version of the boy who leaves for the Navy at the end of Potted Meat, as his stepfather is yelling at him to fix a sink. Read as a sequel, Water & Power ironically finds the character stationed in Japan for a time.
Water & Power is less centered around one character’s perspective, however. It acts as a kind of ethnographic account of military life. In both books, an oppressive and constantly hostile condition traps an individual who perseveres. It is not a moralized account of the qualities or “ethic” of perseverance. It is just the way things are, and the way things are is unjust.
When I teach Dunn and Saterstrom, students tend to use the word “real” to describe their work. There is a candor to the language that would not, however, fall under the description of “realism.” Indeed, as with the place of fantasy in the ninja story — both the boy’s and the town’s fantasy — there are brief moments of enchantment. At one point, the boy, his mother, and his sister visit the grave of his sister’s twin.
My mom gets on her knees and pulls the roots and moss and poison ivy from the crumbled headstone. She says to me sister, like she says every year, Here’s your twin, died three months after yall was born. I look at my sister. her twin walks up and stands next to her. They are holding hands. My mom says, Why God why. I ask my mom again why she died. She just died, she says. (39)
The brief moment of enchantment is not magical realist or supernatural. The tone is matter-of-fact. The boy observes, inquires to his mother, and receives a kind of deadpan answer. We later learn that the twin’s death was largely the result of their abusive father, so that any kind of longing for his biological father on the boy’s part is mixed in tragedy.
In another post, I have dealt with the divinatory poetics in Selah Saterstrom’s writing. But alongside Steven Dunn’s we see a shared materialist sensibility to their work. Saterstrom’s latest novel, Slab, largely tells the story of the final moments of the life of a young woman named Tiger and a preacher who puts her to rest.
As Dunn and Saterstrom discuss in the video above, they think of plot as a space, “like a burial plot,” as Steven says. Saterstrom concurs. “My first identification with plot is always connected to funerary rights. You know, the place of the grave, the underworld, and so I think of plot in relation to the underworld and the underworld for me is the zone of being initiated into the holy darkness.”
In her semi-dream state, Tiger is being interviewed by Barbara Walters on the subject of cooking. “Of all the cakes, I love most red velvet. Barbara, did you know that if a Southern bride serves red velvet cake at her wedding it’s considered a slutty thing to do? True story. It’s the equivalent of wearing a red dress to a funeral when you have been the mistress to the man in the casket” (72). Recipes show up as a form of writing throughout the book.
Red Velvet Classic
Get a thorn from a white rose bush.
And a box of Betty Crocker red velvet cake mix.
Acquire a jar of gold, magnetic sand. Goat milk, fresh if
you can arrange it, you will need a whole cup. And bowls:
two small, one large, glass, and clear. We shall need a
towel too. Petition that the dram correspond to the nine
conditions, and a bench, of chapel length, and a man’s bed.
Warm the wax. Form one portion of the wax into
the shape of him. Form one portion of the wax into
the shape of you. Bake the red velvet cake using
black hen eggs. After it springs from the pan, knife the red,
steaming bread and slip in a dead relative’s lock of hair.
Bury the cake in your backyard, under a tree, whole,
With birthday candles on top burning. Balm, enough to
coat the entire sarcophagus, and wash your slips in blue
water that has within it one pinch of saltpeter. And after
you have done these things, all these goddamned things,
you will be done with it, you will be done. (76)
Clearly, hoodoo culture is at work here, and part of that culture is necessitated on what Saterstrom calls “skillful will.” One may not have much, but the materials matter. Just as Dunn remarks in the video on the theme of potted meat and the the way the can’s contents can serve as a meal multiple kids if stretched with mayonnaise or a few other things.
In “Notes on Fiction and Philosophy,” Brian Evenson laments the sensibilities many readers bring to recent fiction.
Probably our biggest difficulty with acknowledging fiction’s present involves the insistence of the models of the past, which, like Melanie Klein’s part objects, we have internalized and which seem to speak to us from within with a voice of authority. Thus, to move to an understanding of late 20th and early 21st century fiction, the first step is to move out of the 4th century B.C.: to let go of the Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the institutionalization and burgeoning of writing programs here has been that most of these programs are much less interested in pointing to fiction’s present—let alone fiction’s future—than in preserving fiction as an eternal past tense. Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, etc., their parameters derived from Aristotle, seem hardly to have advanced beyond New Criticism’s neo-Aristotelianism; and when a workshop student says “I didn’t find the character believable,” usually the model for believability is firmly entrenched in 19th century notions of consistency that have probably less to do with how real 21st century people act (not to mention 19th century people) than with specific, and often dated, literary conventions.
Dunn and Saterstrom appear to have performed just what Evenson calls for. Saterstrom says in our conversation above that “what narrative teaches us is about how to be with uncertainty, it’s not about regulating uncertainty.” Mainstream publishing appears to be “reifying” something else.
At least part of that reification is determined by social conditions, and I often tell students that studying literature is about how we track social desire over time. From a materialist perspective, the production of literature in any given moment operates in symbiosis with material reality, and the struggle within that materiality, as Marx might say, is what produces consciousness itself. It seems clear that current literary production in the United States reflects social desires expressed as values in (neo)liberalism.
This occurs both within academic and mass market publishing contexts, where themes of gender expressivity, race & ethnicity, sexual-orientation, socio-economic class, and nationality – the lists of “Inclusive Excellence”in higher education — are part of the power structure of “getting published.” For example, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton draws on issues related to impoverished white people, yet for me, marketed as it is to a wide audience around or in the wake of Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, Tommy Orange, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon (to pick celebrated writers across some literary genres), it comes across as minimizing broader national discussions through a white exceptionalist rhetoric (“we’re poor too,” “my family wasn’t rich,” “I never owned slaves,” etc.).
This is not to pick on Strout’s work in particular, but to note the material conditions of literary production in the current landscape. Clearly, themes of race, class, and gender permeate all of these works, but I would argue that work of Dunn and Saterstrom resists “mainstream” sensibilities particularly through stark materiality in language and the privileging of thematic concepts aligned with private desires rather than public symbols.
However, these “private desires” are not premised on characters who are individual “subjects,” so the work of the desire exists at a community or “cultural” level. Amid these conditions and expressed social desires, their work at the level of language pushes toward different ways to be.
Perhaps one of the most indicative aspects of this work appears in our conversation as Dunn “slips into” the heavy blending of self-experience and fictional qualities of the work. Calling the work fiction or a novel does something to the register of self, and as Dunn says, there is a kind of permission that the novel as a form allows him, but it was in reading Saterstrom’s Pink Institution that he could see that he liked novels again after becoming bored with them in school.
Both Saterstrom and Dunn mentioned feeling uncomfortable with my question about sacrifice. For clarity, here is what I asked them in email as a primer to our conversation.
According to any of the bullet points below. How do you see sacrifice at work in your own writing? Feel free to talk about either your process itself or thematic content in your work. My colleague, Cleo Kearns, who has a nice Incite Seminar on the subject, defines sacrifice as: a formal act of setting apart, relinquishing, and destroying something of worth with the intention to open communication with spirits.
By “something of worth” she means something living, whole, intact, and likely decorated. With respect to Christianity it falls under a category of “work” rather than “grace.” The specific protocols must be followed because the stakes are always high. Below are mostly Cleo’s criteria.
• It can be used to seal oaths, establish hierarchy, open spaces for divination, engender paternity (baptism), discharge debt, blur human and animal relationships. Done with intention, sacrifice has a specific purpose.
• It’s done between and among volitional participants, including the “victim,” who assents to the sacrifice.
• It opens a pathway from the ordinary to the non-ordinary. It is not only metaphysical but theological. You have to kill or destroy your emissary as it’s sent across worlds. Death becomes a portal to send something through, moving it out of common use, changing it as it is dispatched to another domain.
• The killing of humans was considered the ultimate sacrifice. It is paradigmatic of the victim who has great value or worth.
• It is often capable of masculine reproduction (think Zeus and Dionysus).
• Blood is highly adaptable to sacrifice.
• In principle, sacrifice must allow substitutions.
• It’s a question of connection between different realms.
• Spirits depend on humans.
• Both sides depend on substitution.
• To make it work there must be some non-arbitrary proportion between the sacrificed and the need.
• Money creates a problem. Gods cannot be bought out or tricked. They can deny. The spirits don’t want to be mechanical.
• Slaves cannot sacrifice.
In their discomfort with the theme of sacrifice, Dunn and Saterstrom push their writing and language away from highly dramatic, formalized ritual and the tragedy of tradition. Dealing with the tragic, however, as a condition — in Saterstrom “the disaster” and in Dunn poverty and racism — their characters move through a hostile world, surviving, and occasionally thriving. I thank them both for joining me in the first of hopefully several discussions about literature on The New Polis.
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.