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Monday, July 09, 2007

Anti-Progressive Syllabus?

Posted by John Holbo on 07/09/07 at 02:52 AM

Emeritus Valve author Mark Bauerlein has a piece in IHE:


Mark is catching flak in comments over there. Predictably, the most frequent complaint is that at least a few of his selections - specifically, David Horowitz’ Radical Son - are low quality. Another complaint is that the selection is a weird grab-bag. Mark is talking about what humanists should read, then assigning them social science.

Let me address this second point briefly, because it dovetails with problems I have with the likes of the Norton, on philosophical rather than political grounds. Briefly, if you are going to include Knapp and Michaels “Against Theory”, you really can’t coherently stop short of including a lot of other philosophy stuff as well. (I only pick this example because I’m working on it, not because it’s egregious, as the Norton goes.)

If you are reading Knapp and Michaels, why haven’t you read ... [reads dauntingly long list of names of analytic philosophers whose work is plausibly relevant to an assessment of the validity of Knapp and Michaels’ argument.]

In Mark’s case: if you are reading Foucault, why aren’t you reading Hayek? [Hayek is my favorite, off his list. I do think English majors ought to read Hayek, if they read Foucault. So I’m going to pick this favorable case.]

What both cases show, it seems to me, is that the disciplinary self-conception informing anthologies like the Norton has a rather dire tendency to go all pear-shaped. There isn’t a stable mid-point between ‘you ought to study English literature’ and ‘you ought to know everything about philosophy, politics, culture, economics and English literature’. The former feels too confined. But Department of Everything Studies isn’t a realistic goal. In practice, you have to make exclusions. But then they end up having an undisciplined, hence arbitrary quality.

Take the “Against Theory” case. Now you might say that literary critics have been going hammer and tongs about meaning and intention since Wimsatt and Beardsley’s time (if you don’t want to drag the whole discussion kicking and screaming back to Plato). But Wimsatt and Beardsley at least thought they were theorizing a narrow subject matter: the nature of literary meaning, or poetry - the proper method of literary interpretation, as determined by the character of its object. It made a bit of sense (apparently) for English professors to carve that off and claim special knowledge. Knapp and Michaels, by contrast, argue perfectly generally and many of their examples are not even literary. In short, they are doing straight philosophy of language. But then why aren’t there more straight philosophers of language in this anthology? (Not that Knapp and Michaels - and a lot of other folks - didn’t come by this problem honestly, by changing their mind about that assumption of distinctiveness that Wimsatt and Beardsley made: literary language is different than ordinary language. But it’s still a problem.)

But never mind about that tonight. Suppose someone says: English majors should all read Hayek.

The response: but that’s social science (or economics). Not our thing.

But what about Foucault? Figures like Hayek are relevant for assessing claims about culture, society, so forth. (This is handwavy. But you see where I’m going.) So if you include the likes of Foucault, you can’t rule out Hayek as irrelevant - too far afield.

Fine, the problem is that Hayek isn’t that good.

But: this debate was never really conducted in the English department. So, within the discipline, the choice of Foucault over Hayek looks arbitrary. (As does the choice of certain positions in philosophy of language over others. You see the analogy.)

This is a pretty schematic post. Possibly I’ll regret that. But what struck me is that Bauerlein is trying to leverage, rhetorically, the somewhat indefinite commitment of English departments to be Everything departments. So if you wanted to argue against him, you might want to decide how best to avoid that sort of vague over-committment.


There are so many problems with Bauerlein’s post, it’s hard to know where to start.

First, conservativism as politics.  His list illustrates, as all such conservative lists do, how little worthwhile thought there is in what is now known as conservatism.  It’s Hayek, and then nothing.  (I find the assertion that people have somehow stopped reading T. S. Eliot’s most well known critical work to be completely unconvincing.) The conflict of political ideas in the humanities is not between the left and the right.  It’s between the left and liberalism.

Second, politics as theory.  If you want to present texts that present the basics of the conservative viewpoint, because people need to engage with that in society or something, you need Burke, Oakeshott, Kirk, Strauss.  The first three of these are left off Bauerlein’s list.  Why?  Because he’s talking about inclusion in works about literary theory, evidently, not a syllabus about the basics of conservative thought.  But that makes his list inconsistent.  It’s one thing to say that if you have Knapp and Michaels, you need analytic philosophy, or even that if you have Foucault, you need that single example Hayek, but that has nothing to do with most of the list.  He’s using equivocation to do the same sort of thing that is so objectionable from the other direction, when it is suggested that analytic philosophy, say, is “conservative”.

Lastly, the existence of Horowitz’ Radical Son in the list need a special section all of its own.  There is no reason for this book to be there except, frankly, because of wingnut welfare.  That isn’t even an ad hom.  It’s an illustration that what matters in the conservative viewpoint is not intellectual quality, but boosting one’s political contacts.  The objection is not that the book is “low quality”, it’s that it transparently has no place except as a reward to Horowitz for his political work.  It’s part of the politicization that the conservative movement brings everywhere with it; the refusal to evaluate texts (or policies) on any basis except what their authors have done for conservatism.

By on 07/09/07 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

His list illustrates, as all such conservative lists do, how little worthwhile thought there is in what is now known as conservatism.

Sort of looks that way to me too. What’s striking to me is how old everything is. Horowitz’s book is a decade old, and of the other two pieces from the 1990s, one is by someone born in 1920 (Kristol). Of course anthologies lag behind the current developments of critical theory--one wouldn’t expect to see, for example, queer approaches to time covered in a Norton anthology--but Bauerlein isn’t proposing an anthology; he’s proposing a syllabus, something that should be very much of the now.

Now we might say that this is symptomatic of conservativism and its love of tradition, i.e., old stuff. But it’s also symptomatic, it seems, according to Rich’s critique. I don’t read conservative stuff, but I had figured there was probably something out there that’s worthwhile. Bauerlein’s witness suggests there isn’t.

Given the excellent institutional support (I imagine) conservative intellectuals get compared to us non-conservatives (who, being barred from most think tanks, have to teach classes and go to meetings), particularly since the early 90s, there should be a mountain of up to the minute conservative critical theory, but either there isn’t, or Bauerlein hasn’t read it, or he has read it and has decided for whatever reason that it doesn’t belong on a syllabus. It would seem, then, that conservatives are incapable of doing interesting work.

It’s bizarre.

And I’d love to be proven wrong. Maybe Bauerlein’s proposing a syllabus that introduces students into critical theory through its history, but still, shouldn’t it terminate in something recent to allow students to participate in what’s happening now?

By Karl Steel on 07/09/07 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I also wonder where, say, Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is. I’m no fan, but this book fits Bauerlein’s syllabus perfectly.

By Karl Steel on 07/09/07 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>>It’s part of the politicization that the >>conservative movement brings everywhere with >>it; the refusal to evaluate texts (or policies) >>on any basis except what their authors have >>done for conservatism.

Really, Rich?  I thought it had something to do with the conservative movement’s disregard for human life and an unaccountable affection for large, smelly cigars.  But if you are trying to tie a small detail to a larger conceptual framework (how Straussian of you) then I suppose politicization—it’s almost as if they don’t realize they are an ideology, isn’t it?—will do, with perhaps Creationism and Global Warming-denial thrown in for SAG.

By Herr Ziffer on 07/09/07 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting post, John.  The criticisms that Bauerlein works towards some rather faulty conclusions are generally on target (his syllabus lists too many works outside the humanities, these works are also rather deficient with respect to the questions of theory, etc.).  However, I do think that Bauerlein’s intentions are laudable - much of the humanities does suffer from a constrained and often contradictory view of politics (individualist libertarianism in personal ethics combined with a sort of socialist/technocratic collectivism in the economic sphere), and certain significant political thinkers end up overlooked and marginalized perhaps because they illuminate all too well the inner truths of this situation. 

Thus, I would amend (or replace) Bauerlein’s list with readings from Machiavelli, Hobbes, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, E. M. Cioran, Christopher Lasch, and John Gray (the latter a truly rigorous anti-progressivist as one can find these days, and a critic of free market globalization).  Gray’s work is read best alongside the recent fiction of his friend J. G. Ballard.  I’m erring a bit on the side of political philosophy, but isn’t that where identity politics is heading any way?

Also, I might add that conservatives in the US are often really naive progressives: they believe that free market capitalism is a system which is ultimately immune to human hubris and fallibility.  I suppose if one were to take a broader, theological view, the split in the political life of the country is between different interpretations of Pelagianism, of whether confidence should be placed in technology, the welfare state, or free markets to end human evils.

By on 07/09/07 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would’ve written about this, you know, were I currently contributing, because I wanted to say that this:

There is nothing here to represent the conservative take on high/low distinctions, or its belief that without stable and limited cultural traditions a society turns vulgar and incoherent. Nothing from the libertarian side about how group identities threaten the moral health of individuals, or how revolutionary dreams lead to dystopic policies. The neoconservative analysis of the social and economic consequences of 1960s countercultural attitudes doesn’t even exist.

Is a very fine point, but it’s sadly at odds with most of the books he chooses to represent it.  Yes, more Arnold, Eliot, Hulme, &c.  Even though they’re usually taught, they’re not taught with the political valences that Foucault’s “What Is An Author” is—they’re merely works about literary tradition, denuded of their larger (culturally conservative) implications.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/09/07 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, that would require cutting through the confusion among the various senses of “conservative”, which no one making this objection has any motive to do.  But in short, if the requirement for inclusion is that the writer has to have written something that bears on literary matters, very few political conservatives have.  If instead the argument is that people should be educated about a wide range of political thought, then the range proposed is always restricted oddly.  (I’m still waiting for some Theory type to make the retort “But we’re very interested in Carl Schmitt!")

Yes, Arnold, Eliot, Hulme etc. certainly wrote about literature, and they can be viewed as culturally conservative, but do they really have anything to do with modern political conservatism?  I’d say not.  In which case, the list proposed shows which conservatism this push for inclusion is really about.  And then you’re left with the question of why no Burke, Oakeshott etc. (or perhaps some of Peter’s suggestions).  The problem with the list is not that there are so many old names (that would be expected, for cultural conservatism), but why there are so many new names that are there seemingly for Bush administration-style spoils system reasons.

By on 07/09/07 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Libertarian socialism - also known as a form of anarchism and/or an ever more fully realized form of democracy - is neither “constrained” nor “contradictory” and may well hold the best hope for humankind, as its various tendencies and manifestations show.

Some of the most central and detailed thought of what may be called the liberation tendency in US literary criticism of the first half of the twentieth century may be found in, for example, the half dozen books and their like below. The books by Sinclair, Calverton, Smith, and Geismar have been buried, in being scandalously neglected by virtually everyone:

1903 Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist
1924 Upton Sinclair, Mammonart
1932 V. F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature
1939 Bernard Smith, Forces in Literary Criticism
1941 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form
1958 Maxwell Geismar, American Moderns--From Rebellion to Conformity

By Tony Christini on 07/09/07 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On a related note:

Only Pinter Remains

British literature’s long and rich tradition of politically engaged writers has come to an end

by Terry Eagleton


By Tony Christini on 07/09/07 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eagleton always grates.  In this case he mentions William Morris and H.G. Wells, both founders of modern fantasy and SF among other things, but then none of the contemporary residents of that ghetto are seemingly eminent enough for him to make their leftism mentionable—no Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray, China Mieville etc.

By on 07/09/07 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I think you’re missing the point of a Norton Anthology of Theory.  Norton Anthologies are all about serving the teaching needs of professors.  They are not coherent anthologies by definition—not like, say, Don Allen’s *New American Poetry*. 

If you looked at a Norton Anthology teaching guide, what you’ll find is a wide array of suggestions for possible syllabi that could be assembled from the materials in one of their anthologies.  For this reason, they are purposely not coherent.  They want professors to pick and choose.  You can think of a Norton as “the set of texts most often photocopied for a particular array of classes.”

So no, the Theory anthology need only include Knapp and Michaels.  Let’s remember why it’s there in the first place: (a) it criticizes dominant modes of literary interpretation (Hirsch, Derrida, hermaneutics); (b) because it references, and so participates in the tradition of, past literary theory such as Winsatt and Beardsley; (c) because it popularized a certain strain of pragmatic philosophy of language *for* an audience of lit scholars.  Sure, it would be nice if the intro to the selection in the Norton put it in context with analytic philosophy, maybe gave a suggested reading list.

But what John suggests is really a slippery-slope argument against any anthological impulse.  If Knapp and Michaels, why not Davidson; and why not Searle; and why not Kripke; and why not Chomsky; and why not all of the philosophy of language from the pre-Socratics to now, including Asian and African instances (Hindu philosophy, or the Dogon cosmology)?

The Norton doesn’t create a field; it markets a pre-existing field.  As such, it reifies it—and this creates problems.  But The Norton Anthology of Theory didn’t contain conservative readings of the sort Bauerline mentions precisely because they were not, to that point, among the most photocopied readings handed out in Theory classes.  And the NAOT includes philosophy and social science readings only insofar as they are of the “often photocopied” variety. 

Now, in theory (no pun intended), a good scholar will be familiar with a wide array of thoughtful scholarship in and around her field.  An English major need not be an Everything major.  It all depends on the specifics of a grad student’s scholarship—and it all depends on how we envision graduate education.  Is graduate education about continuing “well roundedness,” or is it about specialization, about training in a sub-field?  Very few research projects allow the researcher to stay confortably within a single field. 

So sure, if a grad student is doing work in which Foucault plays a large role, he should be sure to know a good deal of the other positions taken by historians, social scientists, political scientists, etc.  But an Intro to Theory course might just include Foucault, because the point isn’t to convince students to be Foucauldians but to increase their “cultural literacy” in Theory.  Hirsch makes this same argument in *Cultural Literacy*: students need to know what’s common or shared knowledge before they learn new multicultural bodies of knowledge.  Hirsch admits that this idea of education is conservative in the loose sense of the word.  The same goes for Theory courses: students need to know what will allow them to understand the theoretical debates in their fields.  Hayek is thus not too important in such a course. 

If the course is more specific—say a Foucault seminar—then some alternative views and critiques must be presented. 

John’s right that English majors should read Hayek.  But they should also read *Gravity’s Rainbow*—and I’m sure the former is taught in humanities courses more often than the latter.

And another disconnected point: Schmitt, Hulme, Eliot, Arnold, and the conservative tradition in general have received a burst of new critical attention in literary studies precisely because of the supposedly left-wing-indoctrination fields such as postcolonial studies, ethnic studies, modernist studies, etc.

Anyway, ideological balance is not important.  What’s important is critical and cultural literacy.  Are students exposed to readings that help them think critically about other readings?  Are students exposed to readings that help them understand the tradition and current situation of their fields?

By on 07/09/07 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I will second the notion that the list is a bit of an unfocused grab-bag. But Bauerlein has nothing on commenter AYY who drops the following sequence of names among those who could provide a whole world of worthwhile essays:

Mencken, Steven Den Beste, Roger Kimball.

It is surely a wonder that the Internet tubes are still standing after an assault of that magnitude.

By JP Stormcrow on 07/09/07 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"And another disconnected point: Schmitt, Hulme, Eliot, Arnold, and the conservative tradition in general [...]”

A nitpick, since I brought him up earlier: is Schmitt really considered to be part of the conservative tradition?  Wasn’t he an actual fascist?  I mean, if conservatives want to claim him, that’s fine by me.

By on 07/09/07 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Schmitt was a Nazi, but Foucault and Sartre were happy Maoists, and Althusser a happy murderer, and that doesn’t stop the left from playing kissy-face with those French studbunnies.  Everybody has a mass-murderer in their intellectual closet, right? 

Schmitt only really influenced the American Right via Leo Strauss.  But are we only talking American Right? 

And I second the John Grey suggestion, though he’s basically a British version of Cioran.

By on 07/09/07 at 07:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Taking it more seriously than you probably are, LB, Schmitt was a chief Nazi jurist, and his political philosophy seems explicitly fascist to me (from what little I know of it).  Sartre struggled to reconcile his existentialism with Communism; Althusser didn’t write in support of murder.  There’s a difference between political commitments or private misdeeds that are not central to someone’s theory and those that are.

By on 07/09/07 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right, Rich—we don’t want to fall prey to the genetic fallacy. 

So then the larger question remains: What constitutes conservative academic thought? 

The left might criticize Lenin, but his scholarship remains important to many far-leftists.  I don’t know how the American Right deals with Schmitt.  If you google “Schmitt + fascism,” you’ll find a lot of sites that knock leftists for holding Schmitt and his fascism against Strauss—and even for holding Schmitt’s Nazism against Schmitt.  (One site demands that we understand Schmitt’s fascism historically, which is always code for forgiving it.  Still, his critique of Weimer pseudo-democracy and Communism is intelligent, even if fascist.  Let’s remember that there’s a difference between fascism and genocide.  You can have a completely benevolent fascism—the “enlightened absolute monarch,” for example.)

So is it fair to include, say, Hitler and Schmitt on a syllabus as examples of conservative thought?  Not quite, insofar as there’s an important distance between conservative and Right-wing.  Hitler and Schmitt are as radical as Lenin and Mao; none are old-school, preserve the past conservatives. 

Of course, this is what Bauerline might have addressed, if his suggestions were meant to be taken in a scholarly fashion and not as a political assault on today’s academy.

By on 07/09/07 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No matter how you cut it, Academia—the humanities departments in particular, and no longer just the political and social scientists—is far more critical of the American status quo and puts far more faith in government to positively reform and/or revolutionize than the public at large. I have much sympathy for the first task, although, like Pinker, I find much of the critique hopelessly naive and out-of-balance in the context of human nature and history. (And, yes, there is always a debate to be had concerning the whats, whos, whys and hows of definitional “human nature” and “history.") But, regardless of the diagnoses, it is the solutions shouted about the hallways and in the classrooms that disturb me most, solutions that almost always begin at the front steps of government. Some further suggestions on this count:

“Main Currents of Marxism,” Leszek Kolakowsi: This massive work goes far beyond what is conventionally understood as “Marxism” and touches on many of the modes of thought so prevalent today among the thinking/saving class. Kolakowski is as serious as you get. A must read for all people interested in “making the world a better place.”

Public Choice Theory: The seminal work is James Buchanan’s “The Calculus of Consent,” but I trust your curiosity to search beyond. The sad fact is, the broader and deeper the regulatory structure in Washington becomes, the broader and deeper American corporatism becomes as well. The frustrations of Ralph Nader, et al. are entirely appropriate, the Ralph Nader agenda entirely counterproductive.

Everything ever Written by Richard Flathman beginning with “Willful Liberalism”: A very impressive thinker. For you “meta” types, Flathman offers the most timely and learned rebuke to excessive “state” encroachment I have yet to come by. The fact that Foucault recommended Hayek late in life, and Rorty grew increasingly fascinated with Oakeshott, is more than aberration. It points to a natural convergence of skeptical philosophy and skeptical politics...not to mention a conspicuous incoherence in the theory/politics of the Academic Left.

By on 07/09/07 at 09:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, your point about the nature of anthologies is well-taken. I originally had a bit in the post where I made somewhat similar points: anthologies don’t collect the best, but they collect what everyone talks about. (Then I started making jokes about Paris Hilton: famous for being famous. Anthologists are actually in the business of including a few Paris Hiltons, at least arguably. Then I said: aak, I made a Paris Hilton joke. Then I deleted it.)

Mark is, in a way, looking through the telescope from the wrong end, suggesting a conservative anthology. The first step would be making Hayek standard. Then he gets into the anthology. But I do think you can read his column more simply: there ought to be more conservatives on reading lists. That’s what he is getting at, so we might as well argue about that.

As to my allegation of pear-shapedness: technically you are right, that I shouldn’t try to PROVE it by citing an anthology. But I still think the point I am making is broadly sound.

By John Holbo on 07/09/07 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, let’s remember that Paris Hilton first rose to public notice as a model, and a pretty fine model at that.

By on 07/09/07 at 10:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, but before she was a model she was the daughter of rich hotel owners.  This remains the main reason for her fame.

By on 07/10/07 at 01:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You can have a completely benevolent fascism—the “enlightened absolute monarch,” for example.

I’m not sure that’s true except from a narrowly nationalist perspective.

By David Moles on 07/10/07 at 04:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you want conservatives as literary theorists, then the right Strauss would be “Persecution and the Art of Writing” or “How to Read Medieval Philosophy.” But insofar as Strauss defends a naive approach to reading, nobody’s going to write a dissertation on it. Or you could read Schmitt on romanticism, Political Romanticism. The criticism that most conservative theory is old is misplaced. Of course it’s old, that’s why it’s conservative.

By on 07/10/07 at 09:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now that I think about it, there’s really no conservative “theory” because the conservative reads literature as literature. By that definition, Helen Vendler is a very conservative reader.

By on 07/10/07 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The point of the column was a simple one: to provide students with an exposure to some anti-progressive theories/analyses of culture. The reading list here was just a suggestion. It takes off from the table of contents of popular anthologies, and it focusses only on the last 50 years with the exception of Hulme and Eliot. The responses here seem to me to be little more than quibbles, and they avoid the larger point: that the last 20 or so entries in the Norton et al are deadeningly uniform in their politics.

1. Scott’s point that the don’t represent the principles articulated above is wrong. Kristol is excellent on the consequences of the counterculture. Hayek is excellent on the utopianism motivating central planners. Strauss is great on high/mass distinctions . . .

2. Luther is wrong to talk about this as “ideological balancing.” It’s about acquainting students with the scope of serious and influential opinion. And his statement that such a modest proposal constitutes “a political assault on today’s academy” displays just how high the sensitivities have climbed.

3. Karl’s admission, “I don’t read conservative stuff,” is it’s own evidence for parochialism.

4. And I stick to my admiration for Horowitz’s memoir, quite apart from his activism. As I said, the triumphalism surrounding the Sixties in humanities departments has to be questioned, and if people know of better historical/biographical texts to do it with, I’m ready to listen.

By on 07/10/07 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I said, the triumphalism surrounding the Sixties in humanities departments has to be questioned

See Lacan, “As hysterics, you demand a new master. You will get it!” So you already have the basis for questioning.

Point of the article, judging by its title, was to provide a syllabus, which to me is something quite a bit more particular than just providing “students with an exposure &c.” Which to me suggests providing something up to date, and also suggests to me that you’re doing apples v oranges in comparing a proposed syllabus to an anthology. Moreover, you’ve offered nothing, Mark, to disabuse me of my sense that there’s a paucity of worthwhile conservative work from the last 10 years. So far as I can tell, I’m parochial in my reading habits just as I am in my eating habits: I don’t read conservative stuff, I don’t eat bad food. I’d like to think it’s otherwise, but no proof of that yet.

Now, this is a boring suggestion, but it strikes me that you might want to arrange a syllabus to put theoretical approaches in debate with one another. That’s how it’s often done anyway, isn’t it? It’s not normally on the axis conservative v. (whatever you want to call this set), but if you have the texts, why not do it this way? Thus you can do Pinker v. Butler (perhaps), Schmitt v. Benjamin (e.g., how Agamben displays it in State of Exception), and even Lee Edelman (here deployed perversely as a ‘conservative’) v. I don’t know who, and I expect it’d be rather easy to get us a full and fun and with-it syllabus this way.

By Karl Steel on 07/10/07 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The main problem with your article is that, as a whole, it itself is a quibble. If you’re going to question thought in English departments during “the Sixties” or currently, you won’t find better texts to use than the ones I mentioned (though there are other more recent valuable ones, particularly from the progressive left) whose burial is actually scandalous, rather than quibble-ous. As Vincent Leitch noted in American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (1988):

“What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1960s-70s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

Probably more accurate to say it had been rejected, to a great extent. Some of the slack has been picked up but the main problems remain that the departments are scandalously status quo and too often rooted in a sort of cloistered and sometimes jargoned talking to one another, as is true of universities and intellectuals generally, exceptions far from the rule aside. Your proposal would essentially perpetuate the status quo, its quibble aside.

(1988) Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”): “When the MLA put together its centennial issue of PMLA in May 1984, it commissioned Paul Lauter to write about the impact of society on the profession of literary criticism between 1958 and 1983. Lauter was a radical associated with the Movement in the sixties.... According to Lauter, the MLA between the fifties and the eighties had expanded and diversified immensely, yet ‘the hierarchy of the profession remains fundamentally unaltered, so—as yet—does the hierarchy of what we value’…. This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’…. What most dismayed Lauter about such fashionable criticism were its alignment with linguistics and philosophy rather than history and sociology, its tendency to become obscurant self-referential metacriticism in a debauch of professionalism, its preference for a limited canon of elitist texts, its increasing abnegation of practical exegesis and humanistic values, and its deepening occupation of the core of the profession”…. [Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1960s-70s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

“In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”

“Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition. ‘In spite of our academic merchants, literature is not a commodity, but the sign of a creative act which expresses personal, social, and historical needs. As such it constantly undermines the status quo.’ The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. ‘As members of the educated middle class, we must learn that our words should discredit our own culture. Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel…’.”

By Tony Christini on 07/10/07 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You might also say this critique is a quibble, Mark, but I’m having some trouble determining your criteria for inclusion and exclusion. You speak about ‘radically progressivist” selections (which seems to me to be an oxymoron. See Edelman) as if they are the same thing as “adversarial leftist impulses.” For example.

We get a sense of what you mean by ‘conservative,’ but not a very strong sense (although when you praise ‘limited cultural traditions,’ I can’t help but hear Eliot’s warning about ‘free-thinking Jews’). You expand your criteria towards the end to include liberal, conservative, neoconservative, and libertarian thought, but I’m still a bit unclear on your criteria. I’m reminded of something else you wrote, discussed over here and discussed by me at comment #3.

By Karl Steel on 07/10/07 at 01:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As someone who follows Bauerlein’s writing, I feel embarrassed coming to this thread so late. What fascinates me is MB’s constant efforts to rehabilitate Horowitz.  After all, he’s out of place on this syllabus NOT because of his conservative activism, but because this is a memoir.  (Does anyone assign memoirs in theory courses?  I don’t.) Why does MB feel so desperately that he needs to legitimate Horowitz to the Insidehighered audience?  The fact that he asks us to ignore the more recent activism when evaluating the book is telling. 

Let’s face it:  This whole syllabus is in a different plane of intelligence and erudition (as is Bauerlein’s scholarship) than Horowitz’s work.  Or did I read a different book?

By on 07/10/07 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl writes: “So far as I can tell, I’m parochial in my reading habits just as I am in my eating habits: I don’t read conservative stuff, I don’t eat bad food.”

Karl, again, for “conservative” literature—I take this to include any literature seriously skeptical of the state—in the last ten years I recommend Public Choice Theory along with Richard Flathman. Moving beyond the ten year parameter, I recommend Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism.” For an interesting communitarian retort to the state, there is always Robert Nisbet’s “Quest for Community.” You may very well walk away from these reads fundamentally unconvinced, but I have a hard time seeing you compare such works to “bad food.” If it’s pure theory you seek, there’s always “Theory’s Empire.”

By on 07/10/07 at 03:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl and Leo have made my points for me, but I wanted to respond to MB’s accusation of my “sensitivity” myself.

First off: unlike MB, I am not an academic with a cosy tenured position.  My stake in these debates is purely intellectual, not professional.

But Mark’s suggestions are all about the profession, not about students’ intellects.  He claims to want to expose students to “the scope of serious and influential opinion.” Which is to say what I said before: a Theory course is mostly about cultural literacy in the field of Theory.  Now, there are serious and influential critiques of Theory, and they should be taught in Theory courses.  But as these are negative instances, it means that first you have to teach the positive instances: Foucault and Said before Windshuttle, Derrida before Ellis, feminism before Paglia. 

That said, there’s very little that passes as positive conservative literary theory in the past 30 years.  MB wants us to deflate things like “central planning” and “the counterculture,” as if what we really teach when we teach Derrida and Foucault and Lacan is central planning and the counter-culture.  As an opponent of central planning and counter-cultures who takes marxist literary theory very seriously, I object to Mark’s idea of what should go on in a Theory class ("See, kids, Lacan was a hippie.  So let’s read a critique of hippies.") Horowitz’s memoir would have no place in a Theory course, precisely because Theory is not about teaching kids to love the Panthers.  (Actually, you’ll find few defenders of the Panthers among today’s Af-Am intelligensia.  Baker is about as close at it gets, but he’s attacked by Gates precisely because of his early Black Arts writings.) In fact, Lacan and Derrida could form a solid foundation for a devastating critique of Panther and Black Arts style cultural politics. 

Because Mark doesn’t seem to care what actually goes on in a Theory classroom, I saw his article as a politically motivated bit of rhetoric and not a serious intellectual proposition.  Because, well, serious intellectual propositions would take some time to consider the issues of genre, pedagogy, and conceptualization that he writes off as “quibbles.”

By on 07/10/07 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"See, kids, Lacan was a hippie.  So let’s read a critique of hippies.”

Only a conservative would seriously think that there is “triumphalism surrounding the Sixties in humanities departments”, or that this imagined triumphalism needs a special pedagogical counterargument against it.

By on 07/10/07 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ferdinand: thanks. That’s exactly what I wanted to see. I’ll add your suggestions to my list.

By Karl Steel on 07/10/07 at 09:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find the question of giving “equal time” to the other side of the political spectrum to be of limited value.  Why not come up with a syllabus that breaks up the question of political orientation by focusing on the itinerary of a thinker or writer, such as:

1. The many who move from Left to Right (Dos Passos, Bellow, the contributors to the *God That Failed,* Andre Glucksmann, etc., as well as Friedrich Schlegel and Dostoevsky)

2. The rarer and thus more interesting thinkers who move from Right to Left (Thomas Mann, to a certain extent Ludwig Wittgenstein)

3. Adlai Stevenson Democrats revered by the political Right (Leo Strauss, Peter Viereck)

4. The unclassifiable (Eric Voegelin, Simone Weil, George Grant), who remain difficult to integrate into the constellations that underpin present-day political stances

Will there come a time when postmodern theory will appear hopelessly quaint and academic, if not conservative and reactionary?  Given the tendency of theorists and artists to age towards the right, I wouldn’t et against it, as the references above to Foucault’s discovery of Hayek and Rorty’s regard for Oakeshott would bear out.

By on 07/11/07 at 01:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it would be a useful exercise for Mark B. to parse the reasons he thinks people SHOULD have to accept his proposals.

First, it is obvious why anti-progressives (broadly speaking) will favor an anti-progressive syllabus. They will find these opinions valuable because they think they are right (broadly speaking).

But why should progressives, who think these writings are not only wrong (broadly speaking), but also unduly influential in the public sphere, feel obliged to make significant room for them in the classroom? There are a couple ways for Mark to push his point against this very understandable resistance, and it makes a bit of difference which he picks (or how he mixes and matches possible lines). Mark B. should work harder to find some thing that ‘progressives’ (academics, anyway) already believe (and which Mark B. himself believes) - some commitment concerning the character of the liberal arts, some principle of tolerance of pluralism, some principle of quality control - that implies the need for this thing.

It isn’t enough say that triumphalism about the sixties needs to be combated, because (as the laywers say) this presupposes facts not in evidence.

If the purpose of including the anti-progressive stuff is to provide variety - to avoid deadening uniformity - yet it isn’t an exercise in ‘ideological balancing’, exactly what IS it? What is the principle according to which the variety is cultivated, for its own sake, that isn’t some sort of principle of balance?

Maybe I’ll write a follow-up post.

By John Holbo on 07/11/07 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In answer to Bauerlein’s point number four, I’d suggest that a scholarly, non-memoiristic work that makes the New Left look unpleasant is Maurice Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer.

By Josh on 07/11/07 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther writes: “As an opponent of central planning and counter-cultures who takes marxist literary theory very seriously, I object to Mark’s idea of what should go on in a Theory class (’See, kids, Lacan was a hippie.  So let’s read a critique of hippies.’)”

It seems to me Mark’s piece strikes deeper than this. He is nudging the humanities classroom in a direction where its “Marxist literary theory” may turn further inward. We can nitpick all day about the specifics. (Every thought inheres a challenging opposite.) But if social, cultural, political, moral infrastructures are to be explored, questioned at their roots, this should include the dominant presumptions and background whispers of the very inquisitors, no? Do you really believe this is already happening, and to a satisfying extent? And if not, then why resist the welcoming of a Hayek here and a Polanyi there, a Kolakowski there and a Flathman here? I agree, there are points at which a Derrida and a Lacan are poised to tag team, say, a Baker. But why not wish for more than what you’ve already got?

And if your only gripe is that Mark’s idiosyncratic list does not belong in a Theory classroom because, well, it is not Theory, then I think you’ve missed the entire point. The word “Theory” is just as much a cultural artifact as the words “Man” or “Truth.” And it’s the culture itself, the culture of Theory (and yes, the culture of the Academic Left more broadly) that is at issue. Sound familiar?

By on 07/11/07 at 01:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Peter: I think you raise an interesting point about tracking the writers/thinkers in their political journeys. Keep in mind, however, that Wittgenstein’s “Right” and “Left” was very different than, say, Bellow’s. The European Right during heyday Vienna hardly resembles the American Right of today. Not to mention the America Right of today hardly resembles the American Right of today, if you catch my drift.

John: I look forward to Mark’s own response, but as my last post implies, I think one answer would be: because it’s where the theory (Theory?) must lead.

And yes, of course, I wouldn’t mind seeing more ideas I like being flung about the classroom. Sure.

By on 07/11/07 at 02:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ferdinand—Mark was specifically referring to Theory classes.  Sure, anything can be stuck into any syllabus.  But Mark himself acknowledges that the point of Theory anthologies and courses is to build up a student’s cultural literacy in the field.  Reading work that isn’t terribly important in the field over work that is important seems to conflict with Mark’s own view of what Theory classes do. 

A course called “The State and Literature” should include Hayek and Strauss and Schmitt along with Foucault and Agamben. 

But a course called “Intro to Theory” should introduce students to the work they’ll need to know in order to understand what Theory was.

By on 07/11/07 at 02:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s also the question (which I don’t think has been discussed in this thread) of pedagogy.  ‘Conservatism’ versus ‘leftist’ (or ‘countercultural’) approaches aren’t just different flavours of ice cream.  Surely we need to interrogate what they might mean practically (and by practically I mean pedagogically) in the first instance?  One of the main things I’m trying to achieve when I teach (teach Theory, or anything else) is to get the students to think for themselves; and I often find I’m swimming against the inertial preference of many students who really would prefer to sit at the feet of a guru and write down what he thinks.  In a nutshell pedagogic practice is about finding ways of getting students to disrespect the implicit authority of the teacher; to challenge, disagree, contradict, argue against.

What I’m saying is that the effective putting-into-practice of a list like this is not merely an ideological question.  Pedagagocially speaking it seems to me undesirable to teach students that they should automatically respect Authority.

Of course in saying this I’m taking it as axiomatic that Conservatism--a very varied collection of discourses and practices--does tend to constellate itself around this business of respect for an essentialised Authority; that may not be right.  I mean the authority of Tradition, of God, of the Military, of the Market, whatever.  I daresay there are right-wing thinkers who’d argue the exact opposite--that left-wing thought is all about making obesience to Marx, where right-wing thought is true independence of mind.  I don’t buy that.

By Adam Roberts on 07/11/07 at 03:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Pedagogy is well worth addressing here, and I agree with the notion that right-wing thought being independently-minded is usually false. Establishing an often illusory liberal status quo (political correctness, seemingly always having ‘gone mad’; media leftism; redistribution of wealth through excessive, bureaucracy-funding taxation etc.) through which to contra-distinguish itself, is almost a mainstay of popular conservatism, especially when opposition to taxation needs to be marketed under the guise of laissez-faire free-thinking free market. (Sorry this is getting a bit politico-economics 101).
But I’m not convinced the converse holds true for academia, that institutionalised left-wing thinking, even as pedagogic practice, amongst academic staff encourages freedom of thought amongst students. The problem, Adam, if you can handle the blushes, is that you were/are one of the good ones, willing to bite your tongue while your students engaged in the most desultory free thinking (for ‘student’ read ‘me’). Sadly, many of your peers, many of your leftist peers, aren’t half so generous or encouraging.
The tutor in thrall to Marx is too easy and unlikely a target, an anachronism so successfully replaced in much left-wing academic thought by deconstruction or PoMo’s ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ that it is itself now institutionally metanarrational, and the student who wishes to read and think on Pynchon, say, has a hard time doing so without recourse to the ideology that is Theory per se. Decades after Derrida, Lyotard et al, Theory, as it stands in humanities departments, looks to be the dominant conservatism, internally diffuse and ridden with dissent perhaps, but the Authority nonetheless.
(And whilst it may be understandable from an institutional perspective, it has always struck me as peculiar, if not indefensible, that many academics expect the study of twentieth century literature to be accompanied by contemporaneous Theory; is the student of Shakespeare supposed to not only engage with but then apply the thinking of Hobbes or Bacon to their reading of The Tempest?).

By on 07/11/07 at 06:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just read the above back to myself and syntax appears to have got away from me again. More haste, less speed.

I meant to suggest in the final paragraph that the figure of the Marxist academic has been replaced or superceded by general incredulity toward metanarratives and that this incredulity (I daresay post-Sixties Theory en masse) is now an institutional metanarrative of sorts.
Does that make sense? I assume so; rather a basic point and hardly novel?

By on 07/11/07 at 06:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, I agree with your point about how the study of 20th c literature is often “bundled,” like a bad PC, with some other expectation.  I found that out on the job market, and it bugged the hell out of me.  It’s especially true of jobs in contemporary lit.  Modernists are allowed to be modernists; contemporary lit scholars need also to work in Theory, women’s studies, ethnic studies, film, or popular culture. 

Adam’s point about pedagogy is interesting.  I suppose I see my job as two-fold: first, to build up students’ cultural literacy, and second, to train students to read critically and write coherently.  The former goal *is* about tradition and authority.  We might not like it, but there’s a body of texts students need to know.  Cultural literacy is formally conservative, by which I mean that it’s all about what’s been important in the past.  (Formally conservative but perhaps lefty in content: as I’ve written several times about the Theory class, students need to know Lacan and Derrida before they know Hayek and Strauss, if only to understand lit crit from 1970 to now.)

I have my problems with Hirsch’s work, but his basic point is right: students need a wide foundation of basic knowledge before they can “think for themselves.” Or not “before,” but rather the two processes are concurrent: the more you know, the better you can critique.

By on 07/11/07 at 08:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, yes, that’s a better (a more complete) way of putting it.

Anthony: “Does that make sense?” Yes it does; it’s a good point.  Mind you I’m blushing so hard I can’t really make out what you’ve written.

There’s a cuts-both-ways element here, isn’t there.  What I mean is: one conservative belief is that education has become politicised by the left, and that interventions from the right are needed to rescue literature from ‘ideology’ and for value, common sense, humanity etc.  But of course that’s illusory.  The thing is that me wanting to encourage my students to think dialectically, contrarily and so on, is precisely as ideological a desire as the desire for them to learn the civilising value of respecting literary tradition.

By Adam Roberts on 07/11/07 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther writes: “Students need to know Lacan and Derrida before they know Hayek and Strauss, if only to understand lit crit from 1970 to now.”

I agree that an Intro to Theory course cannot multi-task as an Intro to History, Politics, Society and Culture. But the problem still remains that the very subject fodder for Lacan and Derrida (history, politics, society and culture, et al.) is already being discussed and explored—well before the student attends a Theory class—in an unconsciously narrow manner; in other words, in a way that allows little if no voice to the Hayeks, Polanyis, Oakeshott’s, Kolakowskis, etc. The very concern raised about pedagogy, which obtains no meaning without the underlining assumption that the American Left is less authoritarian (authority-friendly) than the contemporary American Right, is the product of a Frankfurt-inspired education (inspired by Adorno, popularized by Richard Hofstadter) that simply would not/could not stand so tall were—for example—Richard Flathman’s theory of “mutual opacity” given the curricular acknowledgment I believe it deserves. And such an acknowledgment will never arise unless people like me convince people like you to read a guy like Flathman in the first place. That’s all I ask at this point. (Oh, and I wouldn’t mind a more vigorous attempt to accompany the teaching of Theory with the teaching of “Theory’s Empire,” if not the work of some of its most interesting contributors. But that’s only an afterthought.)

By on 07/11/07 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking as a radical curmudgeon I take it as indicative of the dismal state of the discipline that the major quarrel over “the theory course” seems to be about its politics. If I were to teach a theory course, it would be about literature; that is to say, the theories and models would be about how literature works – as language, in the mind and body, in culture, society, history – not about how to use literature as a granh Hummer of an explanatory vehicle in which to drive your ideology – left right up down over under around and through – around the whole freakin’ world and the universe beyond. No doubt that’s a big part of the reason why I’m not academically employed, or employable.

Of course, I don’t know what I’d use as texts in such a course. I’ve never been able to read Welleck and Warren, though it’s been sitting on the shelf for years and I do consult it now and then. I liked Frye’s Anatomy when I first read it way back when, and despite its title – ... of Criticism – it really is a theory of literature. But, like W&W, it is rather old. What is there, really, that’s recent and in touch contemporary intellectual developments in cognate disciplines? Is there anything?

Dribs and drabs, certainly. But a comprehensive body of theories and models? I think not. Until vigorous work commences on those various lines of inquiry I’m afraid this political quarrel is mostly about rearranging the deck chairs on the good ship Titanic.

By Bill Benzon on 07/11/07 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m in the process of drafting a follow-up post and I just made a deck chairs crack that is orthogonal to yours in a confusing way. Bother. Now I have to decide whether to use it or not.

By John Holbo on 07/11/07 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’The thing is that me wanting to encourage my students to think dialectically, contrarily and so on, is precisely as ideological a desire as the desire for them to learn the civilising value of respecting literary tradition.’

Well yes, but three things point toward the former ideological desire taking precedence over the other. Firstly, it seems fair to expect a degree of commitment to that civilising value and some conversance in literary tradition from anybody that signs up to three, four years of BA English Literature or what have you (particularly as the fiscal rewards are often limited). Dialectical thinking, on the other hand, isn’t a given.

Secondly, a reasonable case can be made for much of that tradition consisting of works that were themselves contrary, liberal, dialectical. Equipping students with the capacity for such thought is more likely to deepen their respect for that tradition (or their understanding of it, which isn’t quite the same I concede).

Thirdly, do the job well, and those students, armed to the teeth with the arsenal and vim of the contrarian, might pull you up on your ideological desires.

You’re right of course, Adam, that your pedagogic impetus is partisan, but given the discipline, it’s probably more fitting than instilling fealty to, or mere recognition of, the canon.

I’d be interested to know if any academics out there feel guilt/a twinge/hesitant at allowing their ideological precepts to influence their teaching.

And Luther, it’s so very affirming to read some assent on what you handily term ‘bundling.’ I’m sure this is isn’t the time or place, but it worries me on so many levels, not least of which is the implicit suggestion that while there’s enough to and in your Miltons and Shakespeares, contemporary literature needs to be padded out with so many other trades. And this quite aside from the fact that for every student who broadens their mind at the Church of Theory, there’s another who thought they’d signed up to study novels, poetry, drama.

By on 07/11/07 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Many of the points made against the piece are, I think, warranted, such as the all-over-the-place nature of the list, or the way in which the title suggests a more coherent aim than the text executes, or John’s point about making positive arguments, not negative ones.  Fair enough.

Let’s take one of them, then. Luther raises a significant point that goes deeper to the heart of what is and is not relevant in a Theory course. He says that this course should teach students the ideas and approaches that have prevailed in the discipline for the last 30 years or so. But what if the problem lies in precisely what the discipline has considered important? That’s the real issue. For me, literary/cultural theory has traveled so far into itself, so far into advanced humanistic study, that it has lost touch with both the basic undergraduate classroom and with cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere.

Here is where the parochialism comes in, and where we have the ironic situation of graduate students plunging further and further into theory, and thinking that they are growing more sophisticated, whereas in truth they are only becoming more habituated to an ever-more-marginal discourse and practice.

In sticking to the texts and ideas influential in academic life, and ignoring the ideas and texts influential in public life, we only shortchange the students. If they leave the campus, as I did for a few years, they find themselves completely unprepared for questions such as the development of state educational standards in English, or funding for cultural projects.

This doesn’t mean we drop Foucault or Derrida, but it does mean that reading Strauss or Hayek is, in fact, just as important as reading the first two.

By on 07/11/07 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another name for the conservative list: Luc Ferry. His Homo Aestheticus (1990), at least what I’ve read of it, definitely doesn’t need a handicap to be read alongside the heavyweights (uh, the heavyweight golfers that is), and has the added merit of explicitly correlating literary and political questions.

As I understand it, Ferry and his buddies form a current in French philosophy that opposes the soixante-huitard theory we all read. Now, I find this in itself a salutary lesson, kind of a coordinate that gives a third dimension to the familiar roll-call of French theory. Which suggests a more general point - not an original one, to be sure: more a reminder than an insight.

There is clearly a confusion in these posts about terms, one which has not prevented us understanding each other, but which has cropped up recurrently and been commented on - as with the caution on assimilating “heyday” Vienna to the contemporary US. This is indeed a danger when we tally up “conservative” and “leftist” theory in ahistorical columns; the word “reified” has already been used in these comments. (For example, we classify Arnold as a conservative today, obviously in the same bag as Eliot, whereas in his own era he was irritatingly unclassifiable but professed (I believe) a kind of unorthodox Liberalism, whilst criticising the party itself.) To my mind, the desideratum of a theory anthology would be historical context, whereas the last thing students need is a sort of Eliotian simultaneous tradition. I feel like this would avoid the comparative star-ratings or putative IQ scores handed out to different theorists, which are not helpful, at least for deciding on a syllabus. Rather than a toolkit, students should get an archaeology of tools. A techno-archeology. An archetechne...whatever. And maybe just a little toolkit.

By on 07/11/07 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not a LITTLE toolkit, a BIG ONE. And with lots of NEW tools in it too. Many yet to be invented.

By Bill Benzon on 07/11/07 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Somebody should probably tell the guy that Lester Bangs was a real person (or, if the quotation marks around Bangs’ name are to indicate the distance of the character from the actual man—although I understand it is non-negligible—to be less attached).

By Jeff Rubard on 07/11/07 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Much the best solution is to not have standard anthologies at all, I think.  Especially of literary theory, perhaps.  Mark’s story about reading through all the essays and expecting this would translate to comprehensive knowledge of the field illustrates why anthologies are such a bizarre notion.  At least if you have to rummage in the library on your own and stumble about you’ll not forget that there are vast tracts of stuff you have no inklings of. 

It wasn’t until I started reading blogs that I understood how widely anthologies are used in university teaching in the US.

By on 07/12/07 at 06:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Possibly a hardhat, of the sort required for deconstruction sites. And a Cultural Studies Plane, for leveling high/low hierarchies.

By on 07/12/07 at 08:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dunno, Laura.  Anthologies are good things, especially when it comes to copywrited materials.  At least, when you have student buy an anthology, the authors and their estates have received some compensation for their work.  When you teach a theory course with a series of reserve readings and photocopies, only Kinkos wins.

In the end, I’m with Bill: the theory course needs to give way to something like “Maps and Methodologies of Literary Study.” The most useful “theory” I’ve read is that which was imminently useful: Bakhtin’s essays on the novel, Scholes’ introductions to semiotics and structuralism, Jameson’s *The Political Unconscious*, Burke on form and history, Dewey on art as structured experience, Said on counterpuntal reading, Frye on motif and genre, etc.

By on 07/12/07 at 11:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s also worth noting the headstart that anthologies have on other means of cheaply distributing short selections for students to read.  I was still getting dittos from a Gestettner machine as recently as 1991, and PDFs have really only started to come into their own in the last six or seven years (about the time I started teaching at UIUC).  Whereas, say, the first edition of the Norton Anthology came out in 1962.  Once the anthology habit gets established, it’s hard to break . . .

By on 07/12/07 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Only Kinkos wins?  Luther I find the idea that making sure royalties are paid ought to be a consideration when setting readings a bit strange, particularly with writers who are presumably getting paid by their universities anyway.  In Australia at least there are legal ways to give students access to copies without either infringing copyright or making them pay extra for them. 

I’d have thought most academics would just be happy if students read their stuff and wouldn’t worry whether they read it in the library or in a Norton anthology.  In fact the library is probably better especially for excerpted sections from monographs as then there’s at least a chance the student will see the excerpt as part of a bigger whole.

By on 07/12/07 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura, you’re right, of course.  I was just arguing for the sake of arguing.

By on 07/12/07 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that MB’s column doesn’t get to the root of the problem: English professors aren’t using “conservative” figures as sources for literary theory.  The syllabus of the Theory course is not the place to make this change—rather, he should be arguing for the deployment of Fukayama (or whoever) in literary scholarship.  “Hitler Studies After the End of History: A Fukayaman Reading of White Noise.” It’s not as though people chose Foucault because he was left-wing—if that’s your goal, then why not cut straight to Stalin and Mao?  Foucault was chosen because a critical mass of scholars found his work to be productive for literary study.  If they thought the same of Fukayama, then he would be in the anthology. 

In fact, MB should be out there doing Fukayaman (or Horowitzian) scholarship himself, instead of writing bitchy little columns like this.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/07 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It’s not as though people chose Foucault because he was left-wing—if that’s your goal, then why not cut straight to Stalin and Mao?  Foucault was chosen because a critical mass of scholars found his work to be productive for literary study.  If they thought the same of Fukayama, then he would be in the anthology.”

Adam, this is a partial truth. The reason most scholars found Foucault’s work to be productive for literary study was BECAUSE they were already (and still are) operating under “left-wing” assumptions about the nature of the free market, the nature of the state, and the nature of culture, society and humanity as a whole. I agree with you that neither Fukuyama nor Horowitz belongs on a Theory syllabus, but this in no way interrupts the broader message of the piece: Academics, literary theoreticians in particular, are thinking and teaching in a narrow and ultimately counterproductive kind of way, and perhaps it’s time they dig deeper when attempting to wrestle with heterodox—in this case “conservative—ideas and sensibilities. And by “dig deeper,” I mean actually read some of the thinkers Mark and others (including myself) recommend on this thread. Of course, many academics have already done so (continue to do so) and this is great. But judging from my own reading , clearly not enough.

Only then will we have the pleasure/displeasure of digesting a scholarly “Fukuyaman” take on DeLillo.

By on 07/12/07 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam writes: “It’s not as though people chose Foucault because he was left-wing—if that’s your goal, then why not cut straight to Stalin and Mao?”

If you are serious about this, Adam, then you are being naive. Obviously Foucault was attractive to academics for his politics (as well as for other features of his writings that he doesn’t share with Stalin and Mao.) But now I see that Ferdinand said it already.

By John Holbo on 07/12/07 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hell, I used to be a conservative literary critic myself and am still a bit of a Straussian even today and Bauerlein’s list perplexes me at best. Hayek is completely irrelevant to literary theory - there’s simply no overlap there. Hayek did no work in hermeneutics but Foucault did a lot of work in it (as did Strauss, Gadamer, Habermas.......).  There’s no way to do a “Hayekian” criticism of a literary work that’s anything but entirely trivial. Criticizing a literary work’s economics from the viewpoint of a Hayek is usually not a very productive enterprise.

The critique that Marx was an economist too, and there are plenty of Marxist critics is a false critique.  Doctrinnaire Marxist literary critics are pretty boring and shallow too.  The good Marxist critics of the past were using very sophisticated combinations of Marx, Rousseau, Heidegger, Lukacs, Benjamin and others (many of whom were very unorthodox Marxists or nonMarxists entirely). I.E. they were consciously building their own hermeneutical philosophies, not just building any philosophy about anything.

I’m also amazed by the introduction of Fukuyama into the list.  Fukuyama isn’t a conservative, has done no serious work on hermeneutics and Fukuyama’s book that Bauerlein mentions is inspired by Kojeve - Kojeve being a Marxist, though an extremely unorthodox one.

Bauerlein’s list is in the end largely unserious. He doesn’t even bother to select Strauss’ actual hermeneutical writings (Persecution and the Art of Writing or even better, Strauss’ writings on Plato’s literary theory).

As Adam correctly states, Bauerlein should be out there actually doing great scholarship - if that scholarship is based on Fukuyama or Hayek or Aron or Kristol, then THAT would establish those thinkers as great literary theorist minds.  I personally think that effort is impossible, but Bauerlein has done nothing to show that it is in fact possible.

(Conversely, I do think the Straussians have shown that Strauss has at least a semi-plausible hermeneutics that can do at minimum some valuable work.)

By on 07/12/07 at 10:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The reason most scholars found Foucault’s work to be productive for literary study was BECAUSE they were already (and still are) operating under “left-wing” assumptions about the nature of the free market, the nature of the state, and the nature of culture, society and humanity as a whole.”

The problem with this idea is that Foucault did a lot of serious work on literary theory, which gave people a lot of good tools to use (along with potentially some bad ones, of course). When the New Critics (many of whom were quite conservative) did their work and gave people useful tools, a lot of people who thought their politics were silly or worse used New Criticism theory too (in fact, I use some aspects of New Criticism myself and I think the Southern Agragrian politics largely ludicrous).  Very few people used Stalin or Mao seriously as literary theorists, because Stalin and Mao didn’t do robust profound hermeneutics or literary theory.

Hayek, Kristol, Fukuyama and Horowitz simply haven’t done work which provides any literary critic (conservative or otherwise) with any useful tools or ideas.  When I was a conservative, they were just as useless as they are to me now, when my politics have moved massively left.

By on 07/12/07 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not saying that literary scholars had no political commitments and just chose Foucault sheerly on a neutrally-arbitrated merit.  What I’m saying is that MB is painting the “leftist” literary scholars as marching in a lockstop doctrinaire manner—and if that’s the case, why not go straight for, you know, the doctrine? Maybe not Stalin and Mao, but Marx at least.  I don’t think there’s any simple way to characterize Foucault’s politics on the left-right spectrum—nor Lacan’s for that matter.  Derrida, on the other hand, was pretty much a standard-issue liberal democrat politically (though a European one, meaning he appears really “left-wing” to Americans).

Certainly people chose Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and whoever because they resonated with their concerns (personal and political as well as scholarly)—but they resonate differently, with different people.  Theory cannot simultaneously be a lockstep dogma and an arbitrary hodge-podge.  On the face of it, it seems to be the latter—and when you view it in those terms, it seems rather less sinister than MB wants to make it.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/07 at 11:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, no on is claiming that the “doctrine” is that of Marx or Mao. And if you’re correct about Mark seeing all these scholars in a doctrinaire light, it would seem the doctrine he’s thinking about is more in line with that of, um, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. Now, clearly, it would be foolish to compare the collective writings of the latter as a single “doctrine,” especially in the same sense of Marxist doctrine. You are correct. It is a hodgepodge (much of it I enjoy, by the way). I have a feeling Mark would agree with you here, too. But again, it is a hodgepodge that is still being composed, understood and expanded in the context of fairly narrow presumptions about the world. Mark, myself and others are attempting to challange, perhaps add to, these presumptions, for the benefit of the hodgepodge as well as the world.

By on 07/12/07 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo wrote in his most recent post, “Take, for example, [Bauerlein’s] claim (in comments) that ‘triumphalism about the 60’s needs to be combated’, and the likes of Irving Kristol and David Horowitz will be helpful in this regard.”

I have a parting shot to make, but in belongs in this thread, not in the Holbo-on-Exemplary-Robbins thread. Namely, there already is a critique of the triumphalism of the 60s, and it’s in the body of criticism Bauerlein decries. I quoted Lacan on 1968 above, and, well, look at Lacan’s apostle, Zizek. Sheesh. We can say that critiques of 1968 from the Right have something to offer us that critiques from the Left don’t (presumably an argument that we should have killed more Indochinese or that women shouldn’t have began to close the wage gap or against Loving v. Virginia), but to suggest that there’s a monolithic enthusiasm for the 60s in the academic left is worse than silly. It’s evidence of bad faith.

By Karl Steel on 07/13/07 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the same vain as Karl’s comment above, doesn’t the introduction to Foucault’s History of Sexuality, vol. 1 quite explicitly announce his intention to deflate the 60’s/triumphalist account of the sexual revolution?

By on 07/13/07 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’m glad we are bringing out the lurkers. Don’t want to discourage that. But I have to say: I don’t think it is absurd (certainly not bad faith, although it is vague) to say there is sense in which a kind of New Left spirit left an oddly permanent mark on American academic humanities. There are styles and fixations and aspirations and tendencies and so forth that can be substantially traced to the relatively short, strange trip that was the late 60’s (I don’t really think it’s even insulting to say so.)

Obviously the point wouldn’t be that you couldn’t find significant counter-examples to this generalization.

I remember Scott posted about this a while back:


He references a McCann/Szalzy piece which, I confess, I haven’t read.

By John Holbo on 07/13/07 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Something positive about what is called the academic “new left” is that in some ways it is a multicultural continuation and advance from the best left/progressive work of the 20s and 30s, the time of strongest progressive advance in the past century. In other fundamental ways, it’s no advance at all. Especially with a prestige fixation on “theory” rather than an intellectual and normative commitment to socio-literary analysis of literature, English and other departments largely remove themselves from actual left/popular struggles and needed thought today. World Social Forum thinking certainly isn’t pervasive or “triumphantly” engaged within the academy. To the extent it does appear it is typically marginalized in myriad ways. In fact, neither the recent US Social Forum event in Atlanta nor much of its essential thought has even been broached here or in lit sites generally. Some “radical” “triumph”.

Michael Albert’s general overview and take on the event, “USSF – 2007 and After…”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=1&ItemID=13271

Key works in the liberation lit tradition aren’t even included in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. (And it’s true I believe that there never even was a Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism? So we can see here quite clearly where the emphasis of the establishment is: on “theory” – which is far more tolerable, far less threatening to the interests of the status quo than more normative and directly engaged literary analysis.) V.F. Calverton isn’t exactly a marginal literary historical figure; his best work isn’t exactly a peripheral achievement. That is, shouldn’t be. Not in reality. Though he surely is in the reality of the academic lit establishment today (and previous days). What percentage of the lit establishment has even heard of The Liberation of American Literature, let alone read it? 1 percent? Let alone Bernard Smith and Forces in American Literary Criticism. Who has even heard of V.F. Calverton himself, editor of the Modern Quarterly for 17 years, from 1923 until his death in 1940. Just as Calverton was eventually marginalized in his own time, for ideological reasons as well, so have many central progressive literary concerns been marginalized by the academy. The pillars and defenders and enforcers of the status quo who largely control the academies (the boards of trustees and their minions, and the corporate-state governments) would be smart to proclaim as loudly as possible, and often do, that there is an irresponsible Sixties Triumphalism of a would be, if not already, socialist faculty. The notion is comically false in its fully intended sense (despite any extraordinarily limited and/or trivial accuracy to such proclamations). As for English departments being different: Leftward Ho! V.F. Calverton and American Radicalism, by Philip Abbott, was published in 1993 as part of Greenwood Press’s series Contributions in Political Science. This seems to be how a limited amount of work of some “radical” substance gets done in the academies. It can be easier to get it published in someone else’s field other than your own. Less threatening that way, I suppose. It’s a way to both marginalize yet produce valuable work. It’s a way for the university to breath a little, sometimes very little, yet still keep the lid on.

By Tony Christini on 07/13/07 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I know Calverton’s work pretty well. As an editor and someone opposing the more sclerotic tendencies in the far left of his day, he was obviously an important figure, and his theory of “cultural compulsives” is interesting as a very rough and ready approximation of a Marxist sociology of knowledge.

But Calverton’s writings on literary criticism and history have been forgotten for the simple reason that most of it was not very good. A satirical piece in the New Masses from the late 1920s portrayed the method of a critic everyone reading it knew was supposed to be Calverton. He sat down to prepare an essay on Marxism and Bulgarian literature despite not know Bulgarian or ever reading a single Bulgarian writer. Instead, he copied some facts about Bulgarian history out of an encyclopedia, added some thoughts on how the class struggle shapes literature, and voila! This was cruel—Calverton wasn’t quite that bad—but there was a reason why the satirist could expect readers to recognize his target.

Calverton is worth studying in context. (There are much better things to read about him than Abbott’s book, by the way.) But if nobody much in English departments reads “The Liberation of American Literature” anymore, that is not proof that there is anything wrong with the English departments. It’s full of errors and is often crude in its interpretations.

I wish this weren’t true. There is a lot to admire about Calverton, but even his friends were often aghast at how sloppy he could be.

By Scott McLemee on 07/14/07 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course I don’t state or intend that “if nobody much in English departments reads “The Liberation of American Literature” anymore, that is…proof that there is [something] wrong with the English departments.” The point is that the marginalization of TLOAL is indicative of the marginalization of the vitally important tendency of what I call liberation criticism of the time period and to a serious extent in English departments generally. And it’s not just liberation criticism that is marginalized but also liberation lit generally, liberation novels and so on (though as I’ve mentioned previously, repeatedly, good strides have been made in other areas, in particular in regard to multicultural issues, in realms sometimes known as “identity politics,” thought and experience). But consider, in how many courses next year and in these past several years have students a chance to read and consider an explicit investigative antiwar novel about the ongoing US invasion and occupation of Iraq, one of the greatest calamities of our time for which our country is responsible? The answer is none, apparently. And precious few if any such novels were written for the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and World War II. And where is the criticism of that lack? Again, this example by itself doesn’t prove anything but is indicative of a general great failing of literature departments and the literary establishment as a whole (i.e., publishers, reviewers, writers and so on), which I’ve written about at length elsewhere.

I appreciate your comments but find them to be essentially beside the point, because while Calverton and some of his work can be easy targets for some of the reasons you mention, his book The Liberation of American Literature, along with Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart, and Bernard Smith’s Forces in Literary Criticism all emphasize and explore the tendency (or tradition, and lack thereof) of liberation literature far better – more thoroughly, incisively, and in greater context – despite flaws – than any other group of texts of the time period (though I would also add to this group a number of essays in Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form), and they remain unusually valuable, and buried. There is no sound intellectual reason for their neglect - quite the opposite - only the typical political ones, however often unconsciously held and otherwise enforced or cultivated, that one may expect to find and does find in establishment institutions like the universities and beyond.

By Tony Christini on 07/14/07 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This discussion has covered quite a bit of ground, but on the narrow topic of the kind of thing that conservatives might think ought to be taught in an intro to theory class, I would like to offer “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis. 

He isn’t anti-theory, so much as he is pro-humility.  The book is short, accessible and excellent.  I especially reccomend this grouping of chapters:

IV The Reading of the Unliterary
V On Myth
VI The Meanings of Fantasy
VII On Realisms
VIII On Misreading by the Literary

I hate to try to summarize the work, because if you know Lewis’ academic writings they are densely packed with well-expressed ideas.  But the general gist is that a good reading takes the author seriously from his own world-view.  Or rather it takes the reader away from his own world view.  Too much of criticism is about forcing the reader’s worldview on to the writer.  But that is a hopelessly simplified version of his thesis.

By on 07/18/07 at 05:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This may be beside the point, but I wonder what political outcome this change in syllabus might have.  Mark writes:

“In sticking to the texts and ideas influential in academic life, and ignoring the ideas and texts influential in public life, we only shortchange the students. If they leave the campus, as I did for a few years, they find themselves completely unprepared for questions such as the development of state educational standards in English, or funding for cultural projects.”

Do assigned readings in theory really change students’ political thought and practice?  Is it reasonable to try to alter political behavior with curricular changes?  How intellectually malleable are grad students, and in what way?  I have never seen a theorist, in any of my courses, meet with overwhelming approbation from students, nor have I seen anything like a majority use ideas from critical theory to make practical, policy-related decisions.  The level of investment actually seems pretty low.  Life experience still trumps reading lists, on the whole.

The internal logic of literature departments, of course, constantly presses expansion and innovation, so the fact that Hayek doesn’t have a hermeneutics isn’t necessarily a death blow.  You can write metacritical papers all you like.  The unified, theory-centered curriculum, which can lead to textual studies of Baroque lyric or multimedia cultural studies or to a Benn Michaels/Guillory-type career, is a fairly small part of the sprawling megalopolis of literary studies in the end.  If I wanted to do something contrarian and new, honestly, I’d try to start an institute and draw people to it; if I thought I could get some right-wing money for it, I’d really hustle.  It seems a lot more potentially rewarding to take smaller-scale, positive (exemplary) measures than to try to pressure the academy as a whole to reform.  Calls for reform come every few hours of every day as it is.  But setting an independent example could be interesting.

By pica on 07/18/07 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . the sprawling megalopolis of literary studies . . .

Does anyone know, on the ground, what’s actually going on in this megalopolis?

By Bill Benzon on 07/18/07 at 09:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does anyone know, on the ground...?

There’s always the UPenn listserv:


You know.  One’s great-grandfather would not recognize his hometown.  I see there’s a big upcoming Heinlein conference in Kansas City.

By pica on 07/19/07 at 12:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought the idea was a good one, but the list was a terrible one. It isn’t bad to put in older writers, if the whole point is that this tradition has been neglected. I’d second Paik’s Weil - the Need for Roots. Instead of the Horowitz, if we are looking around for Autobiographies, I’d put Witness on it. Surely Santayana should be on the list - doubly, once for his essay on the Genteel tradition, which is the conservative response to the hold of a certain reformist-liberal elite that develops through Mencken has almost taken over conservatism now - and of course Scepticism and Animal Faith. Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses should be on the list. To gain a sense of the conservative defense of hierarchy, something by Oakeshott - or by Chesterton. Perhaps, even, Wills’ book on Chesterton. Then there are outliers, like Belloc’s The Servile State. Surely Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Perhaps something by Raymond Aron, like The Opium of the Intellectuals.

By roger on 07/20/07 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

oops - I just noticed the Aron is on Bauerlein’s list. One final suggestion: Wydham Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled.

By roger on 07/20/07 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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