Tradition and Cynicism in Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The sixth installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Robert Hurd, Associate Professor of English at Anne Arundel Community College. He has published on Flaubert and Seinfeld in New Literary History and Joyce and primitivism in The James Joyce Quarterly. His current book project is a study of literary notebooks as a genre, with a special focus on the modernist period.

One of the great strengths of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart lies in its delicate balance of close readings of unjustly neglected texts with its working out of a theory of feminist critique from within commodity culture. While taking in Keyser’s careful theoretical development of humor-as-critique in the introduction, I was struck by Keyser’s brief mention of Lauren Berlant who “warns against feminist overreadings that reflect the critic’s desire to find political resistance and then obscure complicity and compromise in middlebrow texts” (9). Berlant’s warning resonated with my own thoughts: who reads humor by women writers in a middlebrow periodical as powerful critique? Is it the 21st century scholar with her or his own transformative political “desire” (or in Keyser’s quote from Michael Warner’s definition of counterpublics as “spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poesis of scene making will be transformative, not merely replicative” I would draw attention to the notion of the critic’s hope (italics mine))? Did the actual readers of Vanity Fair or the other “smarts” read it as such a critique and is there evidence that it indeed had a transformative impact on its readership? And does it matter if even the writers themselves saw it this way or not?

Before getting to how Keyser’s book responds to these questions, I’d like to briefly mention that I’m somewhat suspicious of the notion of a “counterpublic” in general (not of Keyser’s specific application of it). It seems to me perhaps a too facile way of adding an evidentiary wallop to certain texts’ claim to subversiveness merely because they appear in a periodical medium rather than in some other one. How you can prove that a counterpublic actually exists, aside from the fact that the critical texts appear in a magazine with a relatively wide circulation?

Again, this has nothing to do with the Keyser’s detailed analysis of smartness in specific texts, but rather with the concept in general. And yet, as I read on, I saw that Keyser’s book might provide a provisional answer to some of these questions. What I found most interesting in the book was less the notion of a counterpublic than what might be called a counter-tradition. Tradition, after all, is one of the conceptual keystones of modernism. But rather than looking at tradition in Eliot’s too general and vague sense of a literary “past,” I see tradition as tied to specific time-bound genres. And Keyser’s book argues, persuasively, that feminine smart humor is a distinct genre that has now a rich tradition of its own, ranging from Millay’s daring opening moves to its modulation in the Harlem Renaissance or in the political literary circles of the 30s to its culmination (for now) in Nora Ephron and Sex and the City. And like any good tradition, some writers, like Fauset and McCarthy, enrich it most by reacting in part against it. Perhaps this notion of a tradition does in fact prove that readers, before or while becoming future producers, of this genre did indeed read it in  ways that accord with our critical hopes or desires.

But perhaps I’ve been too well-trained as a member of the post-theory generation to let this end on an optimistic note. Daniel Worden remarked in his review that today, “we inhabit a position of irony not through choice but by necessity” because irony “is now an established advertising strategy, and individuals are increasingly responsible for their own well-being in a world of crumbling state infrastructures and dwindling social support systems.” I think this raises an important point about the possibility of holding an actual distancing critique under the conditions of modernity (or postmodernity). This reminds me of Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of cynicism as both a sort of inoculation of the modern subject against the possibility of critique and a more corporeal act of exposing oneself that can still jar our enlightened false consciousnesses. In particular, Millay’s story about Diogenes and the barrel made me wonder which side of Sloterdijk’s cynical divide “smartness” falls on. Did smartness contribute to our current sense that the modern subject is always already hollowed out by a reflexive irony that buffers against critique? Or in its attention in particular to the constructedness of gender roles and its theatrical display of the female body in the public sphere does it offer us a more potent and radical cynicism? Or both?

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