Why Stoics Box: Essays on Art and Society by Jeanne Randolph


What would we do without Jeanne Randolph? Her work has been so integral to our cultural life in the past twenty years, one cannot fathom her absence. We would attempt to invent her, but find ourselves too simple-minded and graceless to complete the impossible task.

Randolph's previous collection, Symbolization and Its Discontents (1997), was arranged into sections according to genre: public lectures, theoretical essays, ficto-criticism and fiction. Her latest collection, Why Stoics Box, contains all those genres, but is arranged by topic rather than type: psychoanalysis, literary works, sports and technological society.

Central to Randolph's work has been her conception of critical writing as an activity parallel to art production. The critic does not describe, interpret or explicate. She does not produce a text secondary to the primary text of the artwork. Rather, she engages directly and collegially with the work/s in question, producing a text that engages the work and its relation to us and the world in a rich and complex manner. Randolph is never reductive. (Perhaps that is the best thing one could say about a critic.) We end up with a conversation. A never-ending conversation, all possibilities without conclusions. Ficto-criticism, as Randolph practises it, is profoundly community building.

Many of the essays, particularly in the sports and technology sections, form a kind of moral autobiography. Randolph's deployment of the autobiographical has always been central to her work. (All criticism that turns away from attempting mastery, such as feminist criticism, has some relation to the autobiographical.) Never before had I thought of Randolph as a social satirist, but her new investigations are more engaged with contemporary society and morality than previously. Randolph has often written sharply and cogently on our relationship to technology. These new pieces have a much greater sense of urgency, directness, immediacy. They demand an audience.

Randolph's writing is better than ever. Her prose is fluid, playful, seductive. On no less than three occasions I laughed out loud — Randolph had often made me smile, but her work had never before induced guffaws. Forget labels like quirky or idiosyncratic. These incredibly fine literary, critical essays seem to me central and necessary.

I recently performed one of her texts for a class I'm teaching. The text, "Theory as Praxis," was derived from a lecture commemorating the centenarary of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Like many of Randolph's lectures it is a largely improvised performance, reflexively concerned with what it means to perform a largely improvised lecture. But also contains a myriad of other ideas, images, anecdotes. A dizzying, exhilerating proliferation. I performed the whole thing as it is written, making a single substitution: "afternoon" for "evening." I did not tell them, hapless students, where the words were coming from, or why. I took them as my own. I spoke perhaps faster than Randolph, and more emphatically. This was in America, the midwest, where all ideas are held in suspicion until they can be reduced to hard facts. Still, she (I) ended with two analogies for criticism/theory which caught everyone's imagination and interest:


Somewhere in here I have a snowman, a drawing done in the Jefferson County bayous one of the rare times that it snowed enough that all the schools were closed, probably 1958. In terms of how a lecture, or how theory works its way into the productive artist's life, could it be that theory is like a snowman in bayou country?


I was sliding around on Netscape and I saw somebody's back and I'll tell you the metaphor because I think it has something to do with theory. Someone was injured. They had a big scar on their back and they went to Urban Primitive and had the diagram of an oak tree branded on to it. Oh, but not to hide the scar. Instead to commemorate the accident that created the scar. In cyberspace I saw the design of the branding that commemorated the accident that created the scar. What is theory, a burn that commemorates the accident that created the scar.