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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Disciplinary Tension? Or, Holbo Meet Hillis

Posted by Bill Benzon on 03/13/10 at 05:06 PM

We need to make every effort to defend, in changed circumstances, the tradition that makes the humanities in the university the place especially charged with the combination of Bildung and Wissenschaft, ethical education and pure knowledge.

J. Hillis Miller

Curiosity about a pendant one Joshua Landy hung on a 2009 post by John Holbo led me, first to Landy’s comment (about Moretti on Sherlock Holmes) and then back to Holbo’s post. And that reminded me that I had intended to bounce a post off of Holbo’s. So here it is.

John is discussing a panel discussion he’d attended once upon a time not all that long ago. He remarks:

I was struck, in particular, by one panel discussion I attended at which it was more or less agreed by various participants that scholarship and pedagogy of literary history are, at present, mutually ill-suited. . . . On the one hand, you need a set of texts that will provide you with sufficient evidence to pronounce intelligently—justifiably—on such subjects as ‘the nineteenth century American novel’. On the other hand, you need a set of texts to fill out a 12-week syllabus for an undergraduate course of that title. There isn’t any one set of texts that can do both jobs.

Of course it isn’t so surprising that the most sophisticated scholarship goes beyond what can be crammed into an undergraduate semester. But there is more to the point, it seems to me. There seems to be a tendency for good undergraduate pedagogy to recapitulate bad (as opposed to merely incomplete or preliminary) historiography. The teacher finds him or herself proceeding as if ‘the nineteenth century novel’ (pick your suitably broad subject) is the sort of thing that is at all likely to show up through the lens of, say, eight novels to be read. Reading a small number of novels and writing a few interpretive essays can be a fine and enriching way to spend a few months. But it’s not the same kind of enriching activity as studying the novel historically, with scholarly rigor. In a sense no one really thinks otherwise. So tension between pedagogy and historiography is not just tension between for-students simplification and for-scholars sophistication. It is tension between certain notions of value and certain standards of validity.

Let me offer a brief interpretive gloss on this tension between value and validity, which may only have emerged into view recently but has been latent for a somewhat longer time. 

Though I could be wrong in this, I don’t think it was felt at Johns Hopkins when I was there in the mid-late 60s and early 70s. Every once in awhile I’d overhear a remark about reading 3rd rate novels in graduate courses for sake of completeness or background, but undergraduate courses were happily populated with canonical texts. The texts that were taught were the best and the brightest, and that was all you needed to know. That is to say, the discipline’s dual commitment to Bildung and Wissenschaft led to the same body of texts.

And then things changed. All hell broke loose. What happened, I believe, is that the demands of Wissenschaft slipped the reins of Bildung. We ask undergraduates to read canonical texts because they are ethically important. We read and study all the rest, not for the sake of ethics, but because that are an important facet of the historical milieu in which the canonical texts arose. We cannot understand that milieu on the basis of the canonical texts alone.

Nor is the undergraduate curriculum the only domain in which this tension between Wissenschaft and Bildung is in play. It is also in play in our anxiety about the profession’s relationship to the educated public. Traditionally, what we have offered to the public is what we offered to the undergraduate, guidance through the canon. But if the traditional canon represents the interests of a privileged few, then it is no longer ethical to make the offer, at least not in the old way, is it?

What, then, do we do? Do we attempt somehow to resolve this tension between Wissenschaft and Bildung? Do we jettison one or the other? Do we split in two?


Exactly WHAT does reading works from the old canon contribute to the development of one’s character? I don’t see that exposure to “great works” is ipso facto good. Often, all it means is that we can recognize allusions and quotations when we hear them. If someone calls someone else a Mrs. Jellyby, we edumacated folks know what that means.

The “it’s good for you” defense of English lit is stolen wholesale from the classics, now down on their luck. Where once you were nekulturny if you hadn’t read Horace in the original Latin, now you are nekulturny if you haven’t read Dickens, or Austen, or Chaucer, or whatever your teachers regarded as canon.

IMHO, the justifications for reading the literature of the past are that 1) it’s fun, and 2) you learn something about the past by doing so.

For me, fun is not just the canon, it’s Charlotte Yonge and Mrs. Craik. Learning something about the past isn’t just the canon, it’s proofing badly-written, third-rate Victorian novels at Distributed Proofreaders. Or proofing Punch, or George Eliot’s letters.

If I want my moral character developed, I don’t read English lit. I read Simone Weil or Joko Beck. If I wanted to expose undergraduates to ethical thought, I’d have them read sacred texts (from all over the world, not just texts from the Western tradition) and moral philosophers.

By on 03/13/10 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Zora on the *content* of the Great Works.  I mean, who in their right mind teaches *The Odyssey* as a model of ethical thought?  Or *Hamlet*?  Or *Wuthering Heights*?  Or Alexander “Know Your Place in the Great Chain of Being and Stay the Fuck There” Pope? 

Where I’d disagree is on the Martha Nussbaum territory: great literature is often literature that poses difficult ethical or existential questions and presents enduring models for the consequences of action and images and symbolic forms for continuing to think through those questions.

So even when we disagree with the content of a work, we can still use the symbolic terms they offer to pursue new ethical or existential positions.  For example, as I teach *The Odyssey* to my high school sophomores, we examine the models of behavior held up for us: Odysseus as a man of cunning; Telemakhos as the dutiful son; Nausikaa as the ideal young woman; Penelope as the ideal wife; Alkinoos and Arete as the ideal leaders; etc.  By posing those questions, Homer helps us to think them through with images today, often concluding that there *are* no images in today’s culture of the model son or daughter or the model leader.  This week we concluded in a Socratic seminar that Homer stresses what we need to restrain or leave behind in order to restore social order, while contemporary culture stresses that we need to leave behind social order in order not to retrain ourselves or leave anything behind.

On Holbo’s concern about being able to generalize about “18th century fiction,” I’d simply say that before 1970, no one did such a thing.  When those scholars talked about “18th century fiction,” they meant the few great works of 18th century fiction.  It’s more a historicist dream to be able to generalize about everything produced by a culture in a given period.

By on 03/14/10 at 05:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is more germane to the comment thread than to the post, but (given the coincidence of Miller and Landy) I can’t resist a self-link to my essay on the ethical turn in academic criticism. As I lamented to Scott and John, I had originally intended to cross-post to the Valve, but even after cutting two-thirds of my draft it was just much, much too long.

By Ray Davis on 03/14/10 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I just taught the Odyssey, as it turns out, and I was surprised how many folks thought the killing of the maids was justified.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/14/10 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Further, on and around the time you refer to, not only did “theory"/Wissenschaft/science expand in exciting ways in lit realms, so to did normative/aesthetic achievement and production in lit explode excitingly, largely due to the multicultural expansion, riding a progressive opening of culture and society, a function of the series of civil rights/human rights movements, ongoing.

I think that’s more or less correct.

Art is not science, despite overlaps.

Well, sure.

For the study and teaching of art (and non-art lit), what is of orders of magnitude greater benefit to the public? First, the production of the primary texts. Second, the dissemination and the “introduction” and understanding of valuable works (through time). Third, the science behind it all. And I think that third is a distant third, because the humanities are not spawn of the sciences, are not valuable in the same way, and cannot be converted to a hard science, except perhaps minimally, as far as anyone knows.

Your third proposition is utterly traditional and, in the current world of intellectual possibilities, wrong. You are assuming that the only reason to study literature and literary culture is to serve literature, to advance whatever project literature itself engenders, but in a different mode. You are, in effect, assuming that literary Wissenschaft is necessarily subservient to and subsumed by literary Bildung. You don’t recognize the possibility separating the two and of standing outside literary culture and attempting to examine it in the same way biologists examine the biological world. There’s a lot of good work to be done from such a stance (for that matter, much work has already been done from that stance, which is hardly new literary study), and arguably where the most interesting current possibilities exist. The notion that the study of literature is necessarily subservient to literature strikes me as anti-intellectual.

By Bill Benzon on 03/14/10 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, Tony, it’s pretty clear to me that we disagree. But it’s not so clear to me just where and how. Some of the disagreement is probably substantial, but some of it is mere semantics.  Teasing the two apart is something I find to be enormously difficult, more than I want to attempt at the moment.

By Bill Benzon on 03/16/10 at 09:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, you haven’t got the foggiest idea of what I’m up to. Biological science of literature? Not at all not at all not at all. I don’t do that & I haven’t proposed such a thing.

By Bill Benzon on 03/16/10 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, er, to say that that sentence is arguing for a biology of literature is a rather willful misreading. It’s just saying that we need to stand outside literary culture and examine it from the outside.

By Bill Benzon on 03/16/10 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find it peculiar that you choose to contrast analysis to both art and science. Both artists and scientists engage in analytic activity while doing their work; it’s not a category of activity separate from either.

As for solving the problems I raised in the post, I’ve not proposed a solution. Nor do I have one to offer. I do think it’s an issue that needs to be explicitly faced.

By Bill Benzon on 03/16/10 at 04:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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