Marjorie Garber, Kenan Professor of English at Harvard, was lost in arcana. Squinting analytically, and fiercely puzzled, she began to split hairs. “May I add a transgressive note?” she asked the lecturer. “As somebody who has appeared on them, there does seem to me a difference between talk shows such as ‘Donahue’ and ‘Oprah’ and, say, shows like ‘Jenny Jones.’ It may only be the difference between modes of Protestant confession and Catholic confession, of course....”
The two-day conference on “Dirt,” organized by Garber’s two Harvard departments, English Literature and the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, was a hit. Shy graduate students delivered papers on the nineteenth-century sewer, the orgasm in recent feminist pornography, pest control in the early years of the American republic, fashion magazines and Pears’ Soap.
In general, there was an air of prosperous jubilance. The graduate students were smartly dressed and optimistic; Marjorie Garber seemed happily protective. She stalked around like a proud pirate. A sober-suited young man with a thin voice welcomed us “to Harvard and to dirt.... Dirt speaks,” he mused. “Dirt tells stories, dirt talks back.” This I can verify.
How did we get here? Until about Freud, our omissions were not deemed to be aesthetically interesting or deserving of study. Walter Pater, in his essay on style, considers it self-evident that a mark of the great writer is “his tact of omission”—what he consciously leaves out. But Freud noticed that we hide things unconsciously and that what is hidden works a kind of revenge on us by returning to mark the hider. Borrowing Freud, critical and deconstructive theory interests itself not in what is intended but in what is omitted. Our omissions are not necessarily under our control—they are symptoms—and the symptomatic is as interesting to critical theory as the intended. Obviously, if everything we cannot control is as interesting as everything we design, then almost any cultural product, marked by omission and unintended ideological contradiction, is as interesting as any other. Middlemarch is symptomatically interesting, but so is MTV.
Pater was interested in good intentions; Garber is interested in bad symptoms. The New Critics of the 1950s, with their talk of “ambiguity” and “tension,” were concerned with a text’s supreme control of itself; today’s theorists hunt for what a text cannot control. Hence dirt—for what better example of what we cannot control? As Jonathan Dollimore, who gave the keynote address, has written: “whatever a culture designates as alien, utterly other ... is rarely and perhaps never so. Culture exists in a relationship of difference with the alien.” “Dirt” means anything that we ignore or deem alien—no doubt this explains why, over the course of the conference, it was possible to learn new insights about both Philip Larkin and cockroaches.
Oddly, for all its theoretical cooking, the dirt conference turned out to have a taste for the gristle of the real. It was even anti-theoretical. In essence, a number of graduate students delivered case studies, many of them historical and empirical: Gulf War Syndrome, Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward dirt (she was against it). The great providers—Derrida, Barthes, Lacan—went unthanked. Foucault was occasionally mentioned, and Freud much more. But Freud is problematic, since he was a theorist who also believed that he was conducting verifiable science. Professor Dollimore offered an eloquent unwitting example of the conference’s contradictions when he declared that he was interested in theory, but that he was more interested in those moments of reality that “resist” theory—what he called “the cultural real.” His intellectual life had, he said, become a struggle with “what is stubbornly, contingently there.” He seemed unaware that “stubbornly” and “contingently” are rivals. So the trick of the conference was to smuggle in empiricism without ever calling it that.
There is a stimulating general lesson to be learned about how we repress and contain what we call alien; but thirty identical examples of how this theory works are not stimulating, even if the examples concern “the iconography of the Tampax.” This is what made the conference weightless: not its subject matter, but that its participants knew what the answers would be before they had started. Each speaker unrolled her mat—and each had the same pattern.
A paper on Judy Blume’s sex-novel for young adults, Forever, gives an idea. Two giggly and squirming Ph.D. students from the Harvard English Department, Aviva Briefel and Sianne Ngai, spoke about the function of the bathroom in this book. The bathroom, we were told, is “a space into which deviance disappears.” Not only do people lock themselves in the bathroom; but dirt—specifically, masturbation—is locked in the bathroom, too. Forever is a highly normative text that needs to repress and contain any hint of sexual otherness. The bathroom is the ideal narrative dumping ground for the alien. The bathroom “acts like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa; it is an ageless, institutional space which must resist change.”
After this, the Mona Lisa was not the only participant with a smirk. These speakers seemed awkward.Not so Marti Hohmann, who filled a room with her paper on orgasm in feminist pornography. Having spent several months on such texts as Big Ed, she had decided that “we are living through a pornographic renaissance.” Like many of the speakers, she cited Garber’s work: “As Marjorie Garber notes” was one of the most popular phrases. The most popular gesture was the finger-quote sign, used to provisionalize any word of contention, such as “truth,” “good” and “book.” One grew accustomed to seeing the two fingers cocked and twitching like rabbits’ ears on almost any pretext.
At one point, Hohmann said: “I do believe that pornography is literature; that it’s worthy of literary study.” But one does not necessarily follow from the other. Many texts may seem worthy of literary study; but part of the purpose, and the joy, of literary study is to determine what is literature and what is not—to decide what is “worthy.”
For art is not merely an example, or a by-product, of human busyness. Sewers and soap are examples of how communities organize themselves and are areas of legitimate inquiry. But artworks differ from such products because they exist for our higher contemplation, not merely our use. Artworks exist to be judged (and in turn judge us). The student of literature, unlike the historian, is always engaged with the question of value, and hence with the value of subject matter.
Some of the speakers knew this. A rather solemn student from Emory University, Scott Samuelson, delivered a fine paper in which he argued that “the philosopher’s duty is not to raise the level of dirt to a higher level, which would be a gross aesthetic and metaphysical error, but to account for its presence.” This was properly said, though on the whole most of the participants did not sound like John Calvin. More characteristic was Dina Smith’s trivial, amusing decoding of the best-selling cookbook White Trash Cooking. She had come with visual aids—slides of some of the book’s finished recipes. Like all visual aids, they were almost invisible. As a daunting blur flickered on the wall, someone behind me offered his partner a critical decoding of his own: “I think they’re dumplings.”
James Wood is the literary critic for The New Yorker and author of How Fiction Works. This article appeared in the April 22, 1996, issue of the magazine.