Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Peter Berkowitz’s review of Theory’s Empire in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review is mostly the usual sort of argument made against Theory by conservatives (cultural and political): Theory is just a cover for various kinds of leftist political crusades, it represents an attack on the inherited principles of the Enlightenment, etc. If people like Berkowitz really do want to reform academic literary study to make it more literature-friendly, as he insists he does, they’re going to have to come up with a new set of arguments about what’s gone wrong beyond these overblown denunciations. I am myself sympathetic to the notion that literary study has become literature-unfriendly (as a number of my posts here have illustrated), but if I also find Berkowitz’s kind of analysis shrill and reductive, who, exactly, is he hoping to convince? Certainly not literary scholars who might be in a position to alter the discipline’s focus from the inside, who understand that blanket condemnation of Theory and the ritual invocation of Derrida as deconstructive demon aren’t very helpful since they can’t be taken seriously.
Berkowitz’s critique of academic literary study cannot stand because it rests on flimsy foundations:
In these circumstances, it would be advantageous if our universities provided a haven from the forces so inimical to the love of literature. To do this, they need only live up to their official mission, which includes safeguarding knowledge of the cultural and intellectual treasures of the past, transmitting an appreciation of them to today’s students, and, at the same time, equipping students to challenge authoritative interpretations and think for themselves. Unfortunately, the teaching of literature at our universities today routinely makes matters worse, burying knowledge of the classics, deadening students’ literary sensibilities, and demanding students’ assent to a partisan, dogmatic, and incoherent system of beliefs.
The “original mission” of literary study, at least in the United States, was not to safeguard literary treasures or to provoke students into an “appreciation” of literature. While a certain kind of traditionalist undoubtedly has often resorted to this kind of talk when defending the existence of a self-contained literary curriculum, as Gerald Graff demonstrates in Professing Literature, the argument that ultimately carried the day in getting “literature” accepted into the broader university curriculum in the first place was made on behalf of “criticism” rather than literature per se. Appealing to the American need to find utility and definable results in all endeavors, this viewpoint stressed (at least nominally) the quantitative possibilities of the sustained study of literature: “Knowledge” could be produced, and our understanding of literature as whole could be suitably “advanced.” (In this way the American academy opertates in a manner closer to the German, rather than the English, model of the university.) No appeal to timeless values could have secured literature its place in the university at a time when reading works of literature was considered a fine way to pass one’s time but hardly something to do in a college classroom.
“Equipping students to challenge authoritative interpretations and think for themselves” is closer to the actual goal of literary study as it was envisioned by its original advocates, but it’s hard to see how this can be accomplished without formulating critical methods--theories about criticism--that can be practiced in the classroom and illustrated in disciplinary journals. New Criticism was such a method, and although it presumably comes closer to satisfying the expectations of bystanders like Berkowitz, given the academic imperative to advance the field, it was well-nigh inevitable that it would eventually be supplanted by other methods that might or might not begin with the assumption that the disciplinary subject--literature--is a timeless canon of great works whose ultimate value must simply go unquestioned. Those who would argue that such an assumption is finally incompatible with academic inquiry, even “distinterested” inquiry of a kind Peter Berkowitz might want to endorse but which “postmodernists” perhaps would not, are probably right.
In his conclusion, Berkowitz claims that “literature taught for its own sake serves a vital public interest in a liberal democracy. In our busy and distracted age, this may be even more true. Literature transports students to other times and places. It acquaints them with people and immerses them in circumstances remote from their own lives. It brings to life the variety of ways of being human. And it exhibits the common humanity in the glorious variety. In short, the study of literature for its own sake helps prepare citizens for the challenges of freedom.” Even Berkowitz seems to concede that literary study cannot be designed simply to inculcate “a love of literature.” It must be related to “a vital public interest” and help produce good citizens. I don’t necessarily dispute that literature can do the things Berkowitz lists here (although I don’t know that it is more important to the citizens of liberal democracies than to anyone else), but I don’t really see why reading it and thus benefitting from it in these ways has to be done primarily on a university campus. And to teach it in the way Berkowitz prescribes would indeed require a Theory about its nature at least as tendentious as any of those he disdains as “partisan” and “dogmatic.”
I agree with everything Daniel Green says in this post, but it seems like the upshot is that if one loves literature, the worst thing one can do is try to be a professor of literature. Rather, one should be a novelist oneself, or a critic who generally promotes the activity of reading, even as he criticizes specific novels, plays, or poems.
Berkowitz claims that “literature taught for its own sake serves a vital public interest in a liberal democracy. In our busy and distracted age, this may be even more true. Literature transports students to other times and places.
Ones that never existed, generally, except in the mind of the author. Is this transporting itself valuable anyway? Most pople know more about the Great Gatsby than they do about the Great Depression; far more about Hamlet than about Tudorian England. That is not necessarily a good thing.
It acquaints them with people and immerses them in circumstances remote from their own lives. It brings to life the variety of ways of being human. And it exhibits the common humanity in the glorious variety.
Is this really the case? The reader becomes acquainted with splendid prose styles, superb metaphors, complex fictional characters, etc. but words are not humans or humanity. This seems more like a description of historical knowledge than of lit.
Just say No to hypostasis.
I am fascinated by how other people thought living hundreds or thousands of years ago. Knowing “about” the great depression is one thing. Knowing how a Peruvian mestizo communist living in Paris in the 1930s actually formulated his lived experience in poetic language--that’s a kind of knowledge that cannot be formulated outside of literature. It is historical and literary at the same time. This person is unlike me in almost every respect, yet our two minds are in contact. There is a dialogue going on. Reading César Vallejo is a transformative experience. It is not knowing “about” something, but inhabiting a different sort of consciousness. If I have a conversation with someone in a coffee house, you might say: “well, you didn’t really get to know anything about the person; after all, you only exchanged WORDS, stories, and WORDS and STORIES are not humanity.”
That, at least, is the argument being made. Of course, I can do without the empty rhetoric of “the variety of ways of being human” and the conservative agenda behind it all.
And, of course, it doesn’t have to happen in the literature classroom, but since that’s where I’m located, that’s where it will happen for my students, who wouldn’t otherwise be readers of literature.
Actually, amigo, I agree. But these sorts of John Deweyesque policy statements-- literature reflects the human experience, etc.--are sort of irritating. Like music, literature taken as a whole cannot be defined or categorized. I ‘m for having mature humans reading some Voltaire or Shelley, Kafka or Poe, Cela or Borges or Pynchon or PK Dick. But I’d be perfectly content to have victorian lit. disappear, and stacks of pulp genre novels, and really many of the classics, including Shakespeare, are of dubious value. When most consumers think music, they don’t think of Bach or Debussy or Duke Ellington; they think rock or rap noise. Similarly lit. doesn’t mean Kakfa or Pynchon; it refers to, like, Jane Austen or Woolfe or maybe Toni Morrison or Crichton etc. or some Oprah approved text. Better closing “English” departments than have Janey Austen and the Victorians Inc. replacing Voltaire and Shelley; or Woolfe replacing Bertrand Russell and Keynes in the scheme of things.
Jonathan Mayhew: “This person is unlike me in almost every respect, yet our two minds are in contact. There is a dialogue going on.”
You imagine that there is a dialogue going on, and that two minds are in contact, but I doubt whether you can really be confident that you are seeing a reflection of the author in the text rather than your own reflection. It isn’t really that much like talking to a living person in a coffee house, because there is no moment at which the author can respond to your idea of what is going on.
This kind of literatization of history bothers me in many contexts. I’m currently reading _Specters of Marx_. The first section is a great literary reading of Marx, no doubt about that. But as an answer to the question “Whither Marxism”, it completely fails to address the problem that Marx was not primarily writing for literary purposes in the first place. It’s a devaluation of leftist politics, as if all that economics and whether it was right or wrong is beside the point, complete with bits about “inheriting” something important from Marx while rejecting, say, class analysis. When people fought or died for Marxism, they weren’t doing so for a story, no matter how much literateurs might like to believe so.
Unfortunately, most literary people seem unable to distinguish attacks on this kind of literary expansionism from the left from those on the right or from those from various professional stances. That means that a right-wing critique like Berkowitz’s can uncriticially draw on a book like _Theory’s Empire_ as support without wondering why there is something from Chomsky, say, in it.
Marx was not primarily writing for literary purposes in the first place. It’s a devaluation of leftist politics, as if all that economics and whether it was right or wrong is beside the point, complete with bits about “inheriting” something important from Marx while rejecting, say, class analysis. When people fought or died for Marxism, they weren’t doing so for a story, no matter how much literateurs might like to believe so.
Yes, and if I may be permitted to yawp, the literary business and postmodernism has done much towards the aestheticizing of Marx as well as politics in general. A few literary works might serve as sort of initiators of dissent--tho’ I don’t think many improve on Candide, or perhaps a few works by Shelley--but generally lit. functions to distract from and trivialize political and historical discussion.
I’m a little bewildered about why we have to toss out Shakespeare and Victorian lit. It seems to me that almost any text from the past has something to say.
And I suppose I’ve been too influenced by Gadamer in my notion of dialogue. Yes, literally, the text can’t talk back to you. But does that mean that I only see my own image? Something very like a dialogue takes place. I know the text answers back because I change, there is a transformation in the self.
And yes, “literary” readings of Marx and Freud take place in a context in which their ideas are no longer wholly credible. That is “literariness” as the residue or remainder of a text that can no longer stand in its propositional content. (I’m not saying these writers have no credibility, but that they are treated as though they didn’t.) This kind of “literariness” can be problematic in many ways, though also extremely interesting. It’s the mirror image of reading a literary text only as a historical document.
I’ll boldly propose something for which I have only a feeling—no sociological study to back me up. But to my mind, the political problem of literature right now is the collapse of the male readership of the novel, or of poetry, or of plays, outside of academia.
I say political, because one of the reasons that the novel is inseperable from the Enlightenment and was actually an epistemic technique, like the experiment, is that the novel developed a model of narrative intelligence. This kind of intelligence actually explored the asymmetry between selves—that I do not understand the other simply by translating stuff about myself, imaginatively, to another person is a great, and novelistic discovery.
The collapse of narrative intelligence in, at least, the U.S. is all around us. For instance, much of the discussion about Iraq in the U.S. going into the war and going through the occupation has simply assumed a non-novelistic, hollywood action/computer game narrative. In this narrative, there is only x and y, y being wholly defined as not x. I would even venture to say—and this might be total bullshit, but what the hell - that if PC Play station 2 had not existed, the war with Iraq would never have happened.
If the American male were given a good dose of Victorian literature, all of Zola, and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure, it would do a lot to elevate the sadly low state of public discourse in these here States. Since reading them would, of course, be too onerous and painful, I’ve been wondering if they couldn’t be transfered by way of suppository.
Here’s my woeful attempt at providing you some comic relief.
Just a generic thought on the whole concept of theory having an empire, what sort of empire is it? I suppose we are meant to think of jolly English tea parties, a sort of ironic attack on postcolonial theory, but no, that’s not what I think theories empire is.
No, theories empire, is very firmly based around a death-star, or a star, or a series of stars. Likewise it’s dogfaces are clone troopers. It uses the power of the dark side of the binary.
And the opposition? A ragtag band of rebels: progressives, conservatives, analytic philosophers and those who reject theory on more aesthetic grounds. They haven’t got X-wings yet, but by god they do have the mighty strength of the tilde mastered.
Just imagining Derrida saying:
“There is nothing outside the text”
In a Darth Vader voice makes the whole thing worth while.
Sorry about the mistakes in the last post, it’s just I am very tired.
This posting dismisses Berkovitz’s review as just the “usual sorts of argument” that “can’t be taken seriously.” Well, for 20 years now, conservatives have made such arguments, and while humanities professors have disdained them in just these terms, conservative criticisms have thrived in the public arena, to the point at which literature professors are a standing joke, with no public voice from the Right or the Left to defend them. This kind of condescension is nothing but professional suicide. Berkowitz is a serious and thoughtful intellectual with whose work one may disagree, but snide descriptions (Berkowitz as “bystander”?) only bolster his point.
I think you may be confusing the editorial offices of Reason, The New Criterion, and possibly The National Review with the “public arena.” Also, you can substitute the name of any theorist for “Berkowitz” in your last sentence without changing its truth-content.
“one of the reasons that the novel is inseperable from the Enlightenment and was actually an epistemic technique, like the experiment, is that the novel developed a model of narrative intelligence”
Perhaps, sir. Yet some narratives are more equal than others; that is to say, people should read Voltaire’s Candide or Poe’s or Hawthorne’s tales (and I use Candide because I think that particular type of narrative and satirical intelligence is sorely lacking); instead, the English depts., have, due to feminism and multiculturalism, eschewed writers who are closer to Enlightenment ideals in favor of women or minority authors (tho’ a Du Bois or RW Ellison are not such bad writers). That a Louisa May Alcott is taught alongside Master Poe should induce nausea. No female ever wrote a Candide, it pains me to say; nor has one produced stories that would match the complex macabre structures of Poe: and I am hard-pressed to think of a book written by a femme similar to Zola’s “Germinal.” That’s not misogyny--simply an observation.
Here are some other editorial offices (apart from the obvious ones on the Right) that have taken now and then to mocking literary theorists:
New York Times
The New Republic
New York Review of Books
Now, is there a single major periodical that defends them?
My point earlier is that the standard academic rejoinder to conservative public intellectuals hasn’t worked. Having spent a heckuva lot of time working outside the university in cultural settings, I’ve seen humanities professors consistently ignored, if not rebuked, because of their pointless quibbling, jargon, and insider politics. Instead of dismissing conservative public intellectuals, let’s try to consider why they say the things they do, and whether they might have a shred of validity, and whether the shrinking reputation of college professors doesn’t call for a diffferent response.
All of those defend them, in that they regularly publish articles by literature professors. Disingenuousness is the only conceivable motivation for the claim that the remarkably differentiated group known as “literature professors” is under concerted attack by middle-superciliate media. The much more simple explanation is that there were, about ten to fifteen years ago, a series of tedious culture war essays in those and other periodicals.
What cultural settings are these, exactly? And who’s doing this balanced and informed ignorning and rebuking? Is is possible that it’s ideologues who know not what the hell they’re talking about, more often than not? Who then is free of pointless quibbles, jargon, and inside politics? Let them pen the first (or ten thousandeth) op-ed.
One, authentic conservatives place a premium on Reason, either broadly or narrowly construed (as say analytical philosophy), and thus are, or should be, in principle offended by the anti-rationalism of postmodernism.
The empirical status of marxist concepts is another matter, which the blogger left seems to routinely overlook. Capital is not to be dismissed with a few waves of the hands, regardless of the history of communism (tho’ that history of course should be acknowledged). The question is what concepts in Capital are worth salvaging: surplus value theory? the writing on the commodity? Marx’s critiques of Ricardo’s “rentiers” (yes) class struggle ? (mostly not) . Once the worth of Capital is determined, then the other post-marxist approaches--Frankfurtians, etc.-- might have value. But that’s an empirical question requiring quite a bit of legwork, not so much literary or conducive to eloquent speculation or college-boy metaphysics.
"conservative criticisms have thrived in the public arena, to the point at which literature professors are a standing joke”
Right. And the literary academy has changed not at all, for a reason I gave in the post. People who might otherwise be sympathetic to the argument that literature itself needs to be reasserted as the subject of literary study (like me; I’ve even been known to agree with “conservative criticisms” now and again) don’t want to be associated with simplistic arguments that attribute all problems to the influence of Derrida. (Derrida is actually much more literature-friendly than Berkowitz seems to think. But I suppose it’s too much to ask that he carefully *read* Derrida.)
X, here’s a novel to put on your short list: Margarite Yourcenar’s Coup de Grace. Short, swift, and along the best enlightenment lines. One of the great novelistic explorations of fascism. You’ll like it, I think.
Strange woman, Yourcenar.
*The Female Quixote* is as rich a satire as any, along with brilliant satirical moments in the work of Austen and Geo Elliot. Fanny Burney? Wait. What the hell am I doing? Why even bother responding to idiotic claims about how multiculturalism and feminism have destroyed the quality of literature? WTF? Given that Toni Morrison and John Wideman are two of the few consistently interesting contemporary American writers who have anything like, to borrow Sontag’s phrase about Sebald, a “noble literary project,” I find your assertions, X, ridiculous. Writers of African origins, from Wilson Harris to Kamau Brathwaite to Achebe and Ngugi and Bessie Head to Harryette Mullen and Nathaniel Mackey are about as great as it gets.
But then again, the way *Candide* socks it to those optimists is . . . is . . . o altitudo!
<>iI am hard-pressed to think of a book written by a femme similar to Zola’s “Germinal.” That’s not misogyny--simply an observation.</i>
That’s quite the killing argument there.
Jonathan Mayhew: “This person is unlike me in almost every respect, yet our two minds are in contact. There is a dialogue going on.”
R.P.: “You imagine that there is a dialogue going on, and that two minds are in contact, but I doubt whether you can really be confident that you are seeing a reflection of the author in the text rather than your own reflection.”
From “Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds,” by Ker Than, Special to LiveScience:
“Simulation theory states that we are natural mind readers. We place ourselves in another person’s “mental shoes,” and use our own mind as a model for theirs.
“Gallese contends that when we interact with someone, we do more than just observe the other person’s behavior. He believes we create internal representations of their actions, sensations and emotions within ourselves, as if we are the ones that are moving, sensing and feeling.
“Many scientists believe that mirror neurons embody the predictions of simulation theory. “We share with others not only the way they normally act or subjectively experience emotions and sensations, but also the neural circuits enabling those same actions, emotions and sensations: the mirror neuron systems,” Gallese told LiveScience.”
Surely something similar may happen while reading. It depends on how one approaches or treats the reading, the interaction, the experience.
On the other hand, to say that one is having a “dialogue” with the experience is a bit fanciful, no matter how much reflection or analysis one may engage in. If the experience contains “dialogue,” one may experience the dialogue of the experience.
The sort of excessively civil, white-boy PC liberal praising multi-cultural writers, feminists, victorian bag books, etc. is probably more of a danger to equitable politics or literature than outright racists or skinheads.
“Tenderness leads to the gas chamber”; as Walker Percy once said.
Jonathan asks about what cultural settings I had in mind when stating that literature professors are ignored or rebuked for their quibbling and parochialism. He also adds a cheap insinuation about my motives.
As for the first point, I did not mean gatherings of or publications by conservatives. I meant other, less partisan programs in which the input of literature professors isn’t considered, including:
---education meetings to draft benchmarks for English language arts in K-12 education
---gatherings of business leaders to discuss the state of reading/writing in the workplace
---gatherings of government officials to draft standardized tests in reading and writing
---initiatives by libraries to promote literary reading in local communities
---meetings of publishers and booksellers regarding the future of fiction and poetry
The unfortunate reality is that in the larger development of literary culture in the United States, literature professors play a negligible role outside the campus. However much conservative critics have simplified the issues, they have proven more effective in setting the terms of debate.
I agree with Daniel on the importance of making the case for literary study in the academy, but his selection of Derrida as a source of strength may be a mistake. Derrida was, indeed, literature-friendly, although his range of literary reference was narrow. But there was a paradoxical, and ennervating, aspect of his interpretations. He highlighted the indeterminate, the playful, and the rhetorical, all which should have produced more enjoyment and flexibility in reading. But he did so in such deadeningly serious and, ultimately, formulaic ways, and his disciples were even more rigid. Indeed, what was so attractive about Derrida was that he made interpretation into an adventure, and made it seem as if genuine stakes attached to the outcome. But after awhile, the thrill was gone, and the stakes seemed to bear more upon the status of deconstruction than upon the meanings of literature.
And, too, there was the obedience required. I remember one votary lecturing in the late 80s to us about proper deconstructive method, and he laid it out in mechanical steps: 1) identify the operative polarities in the text; 2) show where they are and where they are not; 3) explain why where they are not is just as important as where they are; 4) invert the values attached to each pole; 5) but don’t just make it a dialectical reversal, thereby reinscribing the same structure . . .
How prescriptive, and how routine. Of course, Derrida was much more dextrous, but still the predictability was strong. If we had to look for Derrida’s most energetic influence, I think it would fall less on literary scholars than on cultural critics who could apply deconstructionist dialectics to socio-political themes.
I’m not sure how “cheap” it is, given the immense overgeneralization you’re making here. Remember that we were at first talking about the literature-professor publishing and yet somehow self-condemning cultural commentariart.
Who taught the high school teachers and administrators making these decisions? Where did these business leaders imagine that they were taught to write well (and “reading” in the workplace?) Who edits and provides introductions to the books on the library shelves? Who writes the guides for the perplexed reader?
Perhaps if you mean only some tenure-track faculty at more-or-less high prestige universities, then, yes, they have historically tended their own esoteric research gardens. Blame the Prussians. Is the higher education division of the NCTE uninterested in public literacy? No. Of course not. And I doubt that you mean to imply that they are not “literature professors.”
Derrida’s range of literary reference was narrow compared to whose, exactly? I wonder how “deadeningly serious” the Genet column in Glas is, to take just one immediate example out of hundreds.
X: “ ‘Tenderness leads to the gas chamber’; as Walker Percy once said.”
"But he did so in such deadeningly serious and, ultimately, formulaic ways, and his disciples were even more rigid.”
This happens to almost all critical methods, as far as I can tell.
That Derrida was too “deadeningly serious” has hardly been the complaint made against him by conservative critics and anti-theorists. That he’s somehow a threat to serious reading is more like it.
Luther: “Why even bother responding to idiotic claims about how multiculturalism and feminism have destroyed the quality of literature?”
Luther, it’s the ToS. Don’t bother.
Let’s get clear on the facts. I brought up examples of deliberations of literary culture and education in which literature professors are not involved. The counterexample put forward cites high school teachers and administrators making decisions regarding the English curriculum, who were taught by English professors. But in the matter of reading, curriculum, and testing in English, the people making the decision are, usually, neither English professors nor were they trained by English professors. They come out of education and psychology programs. Take a look at the groups meetings to determine the NAEP reading exam and note who dictates the terms. They aren’t literature professors.
The point stands. There are numerous public policy decisions and debates going on at the Federal and state level, in private industry and public schools, regarding literary culture, and literature professors aren’t at the table. I’ve attended about two dozen of them in the last three years--not as an English professor but as a government researcher.
As for NCTE and its support of literary education, you might consult with one of its past presidents, Sheridan Blau, and ask him how his proposal to strengthen literary instruction in the classics went down. Or you could consult a column by last year’s president of NCTE who said we need to stop worrying about the verbal illiteracy of students and start appreciating their “visual literacies.”
First, let’s note that you began with the inaccurate claim that literature professors are the objects of special ridicule, a “standing joke.” The role of literature professors in policy debates about K12 education and public literacy is a different matter.
The NAEP 12th grade reading list included, in the sample I looked at, the “vast wasteland” speech, 1040EZ directions, and a Ray Bradbury story. Instead, we need The Wasteland, Macbeth (original likely alive in 1040CE), and a Malcolm Bradbury essay? Fine. Isn’t this an institutional question? Do faculty have any incentive to participate in these federal programs? Are departments likely to provide such incentives? (And is this a matter of “literary culture” per se? It’s credit card and mortgage contracts that people are concerned that college graduates can’t understand.)
I’m very curious about this question: from where do the educational administrators and middle managers you refer to imagine they get their “literary culture?” Of what does it consist? Do they themselves not spend an awful lot of time watching television? Is “literary culture” distinct from “basic literacy?”
One, authentic conservatives place a premium on Reason, either broadly or narrowly construed (as say analytical philosophy).
Why do you think analytic philosophers construe reason narrowly? Do you equate analytic philosophy with positivism? Do you think we ignore practical reasoning? Inductive reasoning? What aspect of reason is it you think we ignore?
Mistake in above post, there should be quote marks around first paragraph.
Assuming ‘markb’ is Mark Bauerlein:
The point stands. There are numerous public policy decisions and debates going on at the Federal and state level, in private industry and public schools, regarding literary culture, and literature professors aren’t at the table.
My God, really? And presumably, at some time in the not-too-distant past, they were? If only we could just go back! In any case I’m sure you’re quite right it’s the philosophy itself of Derrida and not his oh-so-fashionably philistine appropriation (much less the radical, proto-fascist shifts in geopolitical priorities, as the neo-this’s and neo-that’s shepherd the center ever more perilously rightward) -that are to blame.