25 writers

by CarlD

A while ago Profacero tagged me for the 25 writers meme, to list 25 writers who have been influential to me. I’ve been interested to read the lists I’ve seen, and if nothing else it’s a good advertisement for worthy authors. Like Cero I’m just going to crank out a list here without agonizing over it, and like Lumpenprof I’m just going to send a shoutout tag to anyone who wants to play. I guess the usual rule to link back here applies. In no particular order:

Lewis Carroll – Words at play.
Thomas Pynchon – Turns tragedy into farce, finds the humor in paranoia, captures the reciprocal absurdity of order and disorder.
Ursula K. LeGuin – Always so hopeful and encouraging about what we are and can become, yet without a trace of sentimentality or self-deception.
Octavia Butler – A feast for the imagination. Doesn’t let anything about what it means to be human sit still.
Erving Goffman – An evil genius. Manages to show how full of shit we are about all of it without ever descending to crass judgment like I just did.
Simone de Beauvoir – The best nietzschean of the existentialists, she spun his misogynism into the foundational text of a blisteringly anti-feminine humanism that’s still two steps ahead of the zeitgeist.
Albert Camus – When I come to conclusions without coming to conclusions, Camus is probably to blame.
Karl Marx – Maybe not a good influence, but if you want to know where my critical style comes from, this is a big part of it.
Antonio Gramsci – He said he wanted to write a long synthesis, but why? In the Prison Notebooks he covered just about everything and managed to pack more thinking into short commentaries than most people get into whole books. Today he’d be a master blogger.
Emile Durkheim – Poured philosophy into sociology without spilling a drop.
Max Weber – One of those where you can practically see the forehead bulging while he tries to say everything – everything. No wonder he had a nervous breakdown, but he recovered nicely.
George Herbert Mead – Mostly he liked to teach. His published work consisted entirely of short, highly distilled gems of philosophized self-reflection. Another master blogger before his time.
Chuck Dyke – Dad’s writing is punchy, combative and rich with allusion. If you’re willing to play rough it’s a great workout. The other key source of my critical style.
Bassett Ferguson – My grandpa loved wordplay and used language reverently, an interesting and difficult combination.
Friedrich Nietzsche – Consistently devastating, with a well-concealed tender heart. Another rough workout.
Kwame Anthony Appiah – Calls bullshit on destructive simplifications and shows how to get beyond them without hurting feelings or breaking a sweat. Class act.
Stuart Hall – Bridged Gramsci and critical race studies for me at an important time in my awakening from the dogmatic slumbers of eurocentricity. Elegantly evokes the perils of identity, its contingency and situatedness, without a touch of that genre’s usual melodrama.
Jorge Luis Borges – There’s always another way to look at things, and it usually shows up somewhere in Borges.
Kurt Vonnegut – For gentle, humane irony and the best in nonpartisan bullshit detection.
Michel Foucault – No one better for getting under the hood of power relations and truth claims.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Late Wittgenstein is so illuminating about how language works to create and dissolve problems. An essential shot of humility any time words seduce me into thinking I’ve got stuff figured out.
Paul Watzlawick – The master of reframing, he never saw a problem he didn’t think could be dissolved, more often than not with humor and a sense of the absurd.
Anne Fadiman – Fadiman stands in for any number of excellent ethnographers who have shown me again and again how to keep after the understanding project without getting sidetracked into the judgment project. It’s a hard lesson I must constantly refresh, so I return to work like her The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down as often as I can.
Bruno Latour – Never, ever lets thinking get lazy. I’ve read We Have Never Been Modern at least three times and each time it’s like stepping into a smartening machine. If only the effect would last.
Pierre Bourdieu – I’ve put Bourdieu last because in some sense he and his workshop are my omega influences, setting the standard of adequate investigation and analysis so high as to virtually silence me. Plenty of people hate him for it, which is one way to cope I suppose. There’s shooting from the hip of various kinds, which I can do, and then there’s this, which I can’t.

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17 Responses to “25 writers”

  1. *Fantastic* and fascinating list – my favorite – it’s *so* well thought out – I’m so glad I tagged you and you joined in!!!

  2. Thanks, Cero! I’m sorry to take awhile to get to it, but I must have done that long gearing up thing Undine’s been talking about, because when I actually sat down to do this it just sort of came together.

    Loved your list too, although it certainly exposes my profound ignorance of Latin American literature! Your brief explanation was so on point and inspired me to try something more than just a name list.

  3. No wonder I like your blog so much.. I’d say my own list would have perhaps half the same authors, with another few on the bubble. I’ll have to check out the few names that are new to me.

  4. I believe I can find some notion of the word “game” in nearly all of these authors.

  5. “A smartening machine”–I think your whole list would have this effect!

  6. you can’t have named so many
    that have influenced *me* by accident:
    you must be a pretty good reader.
    bodes well. i’ll be back.

  7. funny, many of these people made it on to my list as well; tho many did not

    dare I say we are all products of a similar “great books” school of thought . . .

  8. Susurro, it’s inevitable that a restriction of influence to only 25 writers will tend to skew toward ‘great books’, because they offer bang for the buck. You cheated lots of things together and still ended up with big chunky influences, right? For most of us, the actual reconstruction of formative influence would require the kind of granularity that could capture the fateful accumulation of habits of mind, not to mention those moments when little causes had disproportionate effects – the stray quote, the accidental confluence of unrelated texts read and subconsciously collated at once, that aha! moment when a bunch of stuff comes together in a flash, often for no good reason.

    Kvond, I think you’re right and it wasn’t conscious, which makes it even more right. But ‘game’ is not an obvious way to approach, say, Marx, so this probably means that we could locate my more dominant influences in those on the list who are more directly gamey. Then the question would be whether they influenced me, exactly, or whether there was more of an ‘elective affinity’ in my (and Dan’s) discovery and appreciation of them.

    Undine and Vlorbik, I hope you’re right!

  9. Carl,

    As to “game” and Marx, there is more than one connotation of “game” (not just the playful, creative, rule-following of human expression), there is the game of deceit, the game of tricking others, the game of ideolology, the game where those playing don’t know all the rules.

    Perhaps you don’t read Marx this way, but I think I do.

  10. No, I do agree, but then it starts to look like ‘game’ will work as a metaphor for all the things other than naive empiricism we need critical thinking to get at. So I did want to reserve ‘game’ for the specific kind of critical thinking that doesn’t make good/evil, right/wrong judgments; or that takes such judgments as the targets of critique rather than its weaponry. Does that make sense?

  11. Having to name authors, as opposed to passages or journals or books, definitely shifts the final form of the list. But I do think we can chalk up some of these recurrences to an intellectual commitment to certain texts over others. (Interestingly, Baldwin keeps showing up in many lists and I wonder what that says about his canonization or a counter-canonization?)

  12. Susurro, you’re right, and the Baldwin example is interesting. I expect many of us thought quite a bit about the danger of using the meme to posture, or to make easy declarations not actually backed up by commitment or transformation.

    As a game, the meme invites us to choose up sides, which is perhaps Baldwin’s chief iconic appeal. He’s like a uniform, instantly identifying, friend or foe. So we read these lists, see some fraction of ourselves reflected back, and have that ‘Yay, team!’ reaction. I’m not knocking it, I’m just picking up on your suggestion that there’s something going on here besides a transparent evocation of influence.

  13. I think my suggestion is more about what we were taught than what we teach, if that makes sense. I’ve seen many who did this meme say how making their lists reflects their educational training while at the same disavowing them as a reflection of what they read on average or the subjects they teach . . . I just think it is interesting given the whole “great books” vs. multiculturalism controversy of the late 80s-early 90s.

    also, I admit to the “yay team” effect on Baldwin for me. This game idea does open the question of what constitutes intellectual cred I think.

  14. Yes, I see. I never got the strong, formal version of the bloomian great white men, but I certainly did absorb the idea that there are certain texts that transcend their places and times. So when I woke up from eurocentricity it was at first largely through that multiculti project of decentering the euro canon without questioning canonicity more deeply – counter-canonization, precisely. The traces of this process are all over my list.

    The world is vast and life is short. I’m now of the opinion that there’s nothing more fundamentally rude, in an intellectual setting, than to suppose any particular educated person must have read any particular text. This does make telling in-jokes at mixed cocktail parties more difficult, and it certainly complicates intellectual cred, but so be it.

    So I’ve got my wares to offer and try to pick up what I can from those offered by smart, interesting others, without feeling that either they or I have some obligation beyond the conveniences of interaction to become familiar with each others’ shtuff.

  15. Carl: “So I did want to reserve ‘game’ for the specific kind of critical thinking that doesn’t make good/evil, right/wrong judgments; or that takes such judgments as the targets of critique rather than its weaponry. Does that make sense?”

    Kvond: Yes, that is one of the pleasures of Wittgenstein for me, the way that it refuses to “essentialize” (not just about philosophical essences, per se, but really how the ground is undercut for essentializing human beings or processes). Essentialization is a powerful, projective tool, and has its place, but need not by one’s only root-taking.

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