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The Power of Negative Thinking

The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Power of Negative Thinking
    Book Description:

    Benjamin Schreier is suspicious of a simple equation of cynicism with quietism, nihilism, selfishness, or false consciousness, and he rejects the notion that modern cynicism represents something categorically different from the classical outlook of Diogenes. He proposes, instead, that cynicism names the difficult position of not being able to recognize the relevance of democratic social norms in the future and yet being nonetheless invested in the power of these norms to determine cultural identity and to regulate social practices.

    In his readings of Henry Adams'sEducation,Willa Cather'sThe Professor's House,F. Scott Fitzgerald'sThe Great Gatsby,and Nathanael West'sMiss Lonelyhearts,the author affirms that cynicism is an important and under-appreciated current in mainstream modern American literature. He finds that, far from the simple selfishness or apathy for which it is so often dismissed, the cynicism in these texts is suffused by a desire for the certainty promised by norms such as national teleology, ethnic identity, and civic participation. But without faith in the relevance of these regulating terms, cynics lack ready accounts of America and of their place in it. Schreier's focus is not only on the cynical characters in the texts but also on the textual and epistemological strategies used to render normative narratives recognizably legitimate in the first place. In his refusal to historicize cynicism away with generalized claims about American society, Schreier argues instead that cynicism stages an unanswerable challenge to the specific expectations through which normative accounts of history become visible.

    The Power of Negative Thinkingmakes a vital and wide-ranging contribution to our understanding of American literature, intellectual and cultural history, philosophy, ethics, and politics. Schreier's close reading and his vigorous theoretical examination of analytical first principles combine to make a book that is valuable not only to the study of methodology but also to the scrutiny of the very assumptions the humanities bring to the exploration of the way we think.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2820-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XIV)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. XV-XXVI)

    I’d like to begin with a disclaimer: though its title might be read to suggest that this book makes claims about cynicism or American literary modernism, this is not wholly the case. Cynicism, which poses such a problem because of its curious combination of allegiance to recognizable normative ideals and skepticism about these norms’ actual relevance to the practices and institutions that demarcate and evaluate social experience, ends up being a fantastically rich lens through which to study democratic culture—indeed, arguably too rich. Authorizing this book is not just the fact that cynicism has essentially always been a factor...

  5. 1 America and Its Discontents
    (pp. 1-31)

    These days it’s nearly impossible to think about politics in the United States without thinking about cynicism. Here are four dispatches from the front lines, as it were: Rahm Emmanuel, an architect of the Democratic congressional victories in November 2006, closing a talk before the Brookings Institution in late April 2007: “The saddest legacy of the Bush Administration’s six-year trail of cronyism and corruption is that it contributes to the public’s already cynical view of government. This makes it even more difficult for those of us who believe that the purpose of government is to secure a better future for...

  6. 2 Cynicism and the Criticism of Competence
    (pp. 32-53)

    The word “cynicism” would appear to have suffered a 2,500-year-long reversal of fortune. Whereas the classical Cynics were—and remain—respected as virtuous and courageous critics of society and culture (at least in their ca-pacities as Cynics), modern cynics are often abhorred as inimical and stubborn critics of society and culture (at least in their capacities as cynics).¹ While we are told that Alexander the Great claimed that if he were to have been born anyone other than the conqueror of the world he would have liked to have been Diogenes the Cynic, the labels “cynic” and “cynical” are now...

  7. 3 Henry Adams and the Failure of Usefulness
    (pp. 54-84)

    Henry Adams is doubtless one of the most entertaining cynics in American letters. Late in his life he averred to Harvard English professor and former student Barrett Wendell that in America intelligence has lost everything but the hermetic capacity to mark its own shortcomings and lacks, importantly, an aptitude for productive self-criticism:

    [W]e are smothered in this American vacuum, and gasp for intelligent attack. Poison is better than pure void. . . . We all roll on the ground and sprinkle dust on our heads in consciousness of our miserable state, but we can get no help. The disease has...

  8. 4 Willa Cather’s Illegible Historicism
    (pp. 85-115)

    Read together, two passages from the second section of Willa Cather’sThe Professor’s Houseframe the novel’s primary anxiety—and its cynicism. Deceptively entitled “Tom Outland’s Story,” this central section, narrated out of the past by the orphaned student Tom Outland, originally from the Midwest but raised in New Mexico, with whom the novel’s titular professor, the historian Godfrey St. Peter, felt such a deep imaginative bond and whose absence since his death in World War I now seems so irremediable, reveals far more about St. Peter than about Tom, whom no one in the novel seems able to ignore....

  9. 5 The Great Gatsby’s Betrayed Americanism
    (pp. 116-144)

    It’s impossible to readThe Great Gatsbyfor Jay Gatsby without also reading it for America. In fact, Jay Gatsby’s manifold instrumentalization in the text that bears his name suggests the manner ofThe Great Gatsby ’scynical unease with the statist presumption that experience can (and, for that matter, should) be read as representative of national identity. Almost everybody in this novel presumes to understand Gatsby by reading him through their expectations, but the novel insists upon the fundamental—and irresolvable—error involved in this misreading. Nick Carraway’s confidence in his own ability to read people, seemingly secure at...

  10. 6 Miss Lonelyhearts’ Insincere Theodicy
    (pp. 145-178)

    In the late spring of 1939, six years after the publication ofMiss Lonelyheartsin book form (and seven after chapters began to appear in the resuscitatedContactmagazine, which he coedited with William Carlos Williams), Nathanael West wrote a letter to Malcolm Cowley from Hollywood that, putatively aboutThe Day of the Locust(just then coming out), illuminates the cynicism in his earlier short novel about a desperate advice columnist: “Lately, I have been feeling even more discouraged than usual. . . . I have no particular message for a troubled world (except possibly ‘beware’) and the old standby...

  11. Afterword: Invisible Literature
    (pp. 179-184)

    I have shown in the preceding pages that cynicism is best examined not as a specific, positive phenomenon—whether an attitude or outlook, an intellectual mode, a tendency or preference, a failing—that can be diagnosed and pathologized but as an interdiction of the ability to make sincere judgments that arises in the operation of judgment itself. The critique of cynicism turns on an interrogation of the normative apparatus of analysis that does not spare the narratives that house analysis and provide it the self-evidence of its rationale, its direction and meaning. In fact, cynicism has been so overdetermined, so...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 185-204)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-212)
  14. Index
    (pp. 213-230)