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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
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Past Valve Book Events

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

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

If he must sing, we’ll teach him to him sing like WE want him to

Posted by John Holbo on 03/25/08 at 10:49 AM

Pardon the light blogging. Life is complicated. A little bird sent an email, suggesting I might be interested in ESC: English Studies in Canada Volume 32, Issue 2-3, June/September 2006. So I prove to be. The forum title: “Why do I have to write like that?” Hard to hate on that. I’ll quote the original call for papers by Stephen Slemon:

Literary criticism is a baleful genre, overrun with disinclination and overwhelmed by the dispirited. And what is more, it is institutionally fraudulent. We entice students into our discipline through the lure of pleasurable reading. We then proceed to train them in the manufacture of tortured analytical documents—a perfect example of marketing logic at the level of “bait and switch.” For those of us who are employed in the English Studies industry, this fraudulence comprises a necessary self-deception: our careers depend on our ability to write the kinds of books and articles that we would never willingly read. For those of us who are just entering the profession, however—graduate students especially—a hope prevails for the possibility of real professional change. This panel will examine that hope, preferably in the context of actual global practice in the general field of “academic writing” in English Studies. Can one write differently in “English”? Who has tried to do so, and under what conditions? What is ventured in the attempt to revolutionize critical commentary in the discipline? What is not ventured? Were we to succeed in writing professional documents differently, who might we seek to address as we proceed?

The papers are short. Slemon expresses gratitude that they did not divide, predictably into anti-theory screeds or defenses of being ‘difficult’. (Whew! Makes me glad I’m not in the anti-theory screed business. I hate to be predictable) There are funny bits. “I particularly recall a memorable phrase in circulation at the time and even today: ‘the tyranny of lucidity’.” (That’s from the Murray piece.) From the Cowan piece: “Always a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, I wonder if the culture of academic publishing is so inhospitable to non-academics in order to ensure that only trained, specialized writers contribute to critical literary discourse.” I’m not sure exactly how to characterize the rhetorical mode: epiphenomenal paranoid? Suggesting that something which obviously exists, which doesn’t look like a conspiracy, per se, can only be supposed to exist on the assumption that there’s a conspiracy? ‘Always a sucker for a good conspiracy, I’m going with: sun will rise tomorrow.’ You try it. The Cowan piece vexed me, playing a bit slow, the better to pass off rather straightforward points as smart flourishes. And occasionally rather presuming on my gameness for unargued sideswipes against ‘the tyranny of lucidity’ (call it what you will). I have some moments of serious culture shock, reading English professors describing what they think are appropriate editorial practices for assessing argumentative prose.

Mostly, I agree with what is getting said. I wish everyone was a bit more forceful - clear, if you will - in making points that strike me as, surely, pretty obvious. Especially I wish there were franker acknowledgement of the simple point that the demand for disciplinarity - stylistically - in the absence of a discipline, is recipe for trouble. If everything is cross-disciplinary interventions; if humanists are polypragmatic flaneurs, jaunting about, where’s the sense in posing as more intellectually ‘disciplined’ than, say, popular journalists (to pick an example from one of the papers)? “Such work ... is best described as post-theory rather than anti-theory. It requires greater intellectual depth, not dumbing-down, to try to stand outside the changing pressures of our current moment while fully engaging the new challenges that it sets us” (from the Brydon). But surely this boils down to: be smart; which, as regulative principles go, is neither post-theory nor anti-theory. It isn’t even regulative.

But, again, the forum is called “Why do I have to write like that?” We all sympathize with the little guy with the big eyes in the little red coat, I take it. If you don’t know why my post bears the title it does, better click the link.


Comments

Cf.

By nnyhav on 03/25/08 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not read any of the articles, so I don’t really know what’s being said. But I do tend to get irritated with this line of thinking. I suppose there are critics who are being difficult either because they see some virtue in making the reader work for it, and perhaps become befuddled in the process, or because they’re imitating difficult prose they don’t understand. That’s unfortunate, and I’m opposed to it.

But, I get worried that the lucidity brigade simply doesn’t recognize that some things are difficult and so cannot be rendered in simple prose. Or, perhaps, while they may recognize that things like physics and chemistry and math and biology can legitimately be like that, but the study of literature cannot, or should not. Why not? Why - in the principle of the thing - not?

Literature is made of language, and linguistics a technical discipline, some aspects more so than others. That makes for prose that is sometimes difficult to those without the appropriate technical background. The linguistics literature may even have extensive formal notation of one form or another. Must I therefore avoid using linguistics in the study of literature because it will force me into difficult writing?

There seems to be some implied notion that anything written about a literary text should be intelligible to someone who can read that text - or the parent of someone in the case of children’s literature. There’s certainly a lot one can say within the confines of that restriction. But such a restriction puts severe limitations on our ability to understand how literature works in the mind, culture, and society. It is ultimately an anti-intellectual plea for ignorance.

By Bill Benzon on 03/25/08 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And another thing . . . from the passage you quote, John:

We entice students into our discipline through the lure of pleasurable reading. We then proceed to train them in the manufacture of tortured analytical documents—a perfect example of marketing logic at the level of “bait and switch.”For those of us who are employed in the English Studies industry, this fraudulence comprises a necessary self-deception: our careers depend on our ability to write the kinds of books and articles that we would never willingly read.

I’m not sure that that’s what’s going on. But it does seem to imply that the professional study of literature ought properly to consist of basking in the pleasure of reading and learning how to prolong and intensify that pleasure without end. What kind of intellectual discipline is that?

By Bill Benzon on 03/25/08 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s no accounting for taste. Someone must’ve thought it was a good idea to cast Keanu Reeves as John Constantine. Still, I’m mystified by Cowan’s claim to like thesis statements. They usually wreck structural integrity and always wreck surprise. At least include a spoiler warning!

In most discursive prose, theses should be kept implicit, like a novelist’s moral judgments. When an explicit thesis is called for, it should be treated like the solution in a classic detective mystery. Maybe do like the early Ellery Queen and prefix it with a “Challenge to the Reader.” Or like the later ghostwritten Ellery Queen and position a tragically flawed initial thesis about a third of the way in, concluding with a more expansive and satisfying thesis.

The only reason to lead off with a thesis is when it’s startling enough to build suspense. Like, say, “In this paper I will argue that I walked with a zombie....”

By Ray Davis on 03/26/08 at 08:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

When I was younger owls really used to freak me out.  Nightmarish beasts.  Something to do with the big eyes, I think.

By Adam Roberts on 03/26/08 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now that’s the way to start a paper!

Bill, you should probably read the essays. (Anyone blocked by the paywall can contact their friendly neighborhood intellectual pirate. Yarrh.) I found most of them a bit more interesting—if polite; it’s a Canadian journal, after all—than that. (Len Findley’s was irritatingly smug, but then Camilla Gibb’s metamorphosis from anthropologist to novelist made a nice conclusion.)

I think your first argument depends on a strawman. Let’s just agree that everything should be as lucid as possible and no lucider, OK? You’ve read my stuff, so you know I carry no torch for lucidity per se. It would have been just as possible for an English department cog to ask “Why am I doing this?” in 1955. Academic fashions change, but they’re always worth questioning.

Your second argument makes an assumption of its own: that everyone wandering into the English department actually does desperately want to work in a professional intellectual discipline. If that were so, I have to believe that at least some of them would be happier in math or physics or comp sci or biology or history. Literature seems like a perverse place for it. (Speaking as a pervert.) Similarly, while I love stories about using English courses to teach critical analytical thinking, I can’t help but think that my ex-peers would be benefited more by learning to deploy those skills against commercial, political, and theological rhetoric than against short stories and poems.

By Ray Davis on 03/26/08 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Yust a leetle fella mit big eyes undt a leetle red coat.” When I was a kid, I watched that cartoon on a b/w TV. Makes much more sense when you see it in color.

By Josh Glenn on 03/26/08 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It would have been just as possible for an English department cog to ask “Why am I doing this?” in 1955.

And they did, they most certainly did. Which is why Fry had to argue against those folks in the intro to his Anatomy.

Academic fashions change, but they’re always worth questioning..

Well, rather the focus on the tortured opacity of the writing style, why not try arguing that the ideas aren’t very good? 

. . .  that everyone wandering into the English department actually does desperately want to work in a professional intellectual discipline.

While I’ve got some idea about why I chose to study literature, I don’t know, in general, just why people do so or what they expect. My sense is that, when I was at SUNY Buffalo a significant portion of the grad students more or less drifted there. They didn’t want to get a job, had no particular interest or intellectual passion, but they liked literature; so they entered the English department on track for a PhD. I have no idea how common this generally is or whether or not these are the folks who are complaining about bait-and-switch.

Literature seems like a perverse place for it.

Why?

By Bill Benzon on 03/26/08 at 10:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"When I was a kid, I watched that cartoon on a b/w TV.”

Thanks, Josh. My daughters have fallen totally in love with the Warner disc I’ve got with all the music ones: Froggy Evening, What’s Opera, but also Katnip Kollege, Hep Cat, Book Revue and Three Little Bops.

One thing I wonder about the “I love to Singa” one is: why the high-German owls? We had a houseguest who opined that it was sort of a subgenre. Maybe a Judy Garland thing? The escape from the preposterously strait-laced, conservative musical environment film? Like Ralph Maccio in “Crossroads”. I have no idea, honestly.

By John Holbo on 03/26/08 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, pops vs. classics was a cultural theme at the time, and it did figure in a number of cartoons. There’s a Disney short - the name of which escapes - in which we have a rivalry between a classical land and a pops land which is brought to a head when boy from one meets girl from the other.

By Bill Benzon on 03/26/08 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

more ontopic

By nnyhav on 03/26/08 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does disciplinarity without a discipline necessarily mean trouble? I take your point on a certain level, but I don’t know of any discipline that’s as clearly defined as it would like to be in theory. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, etc; everything I know about the institutionalization of those disciplines (which is not much, I’ll grant) suggests that nostalgia for clear disciplinary boundaries and conventions is somewhat misplaced: there’s the externally imposed definition of what kind of work should be done, and then there’s a huge chaotic maelstrom where practicing academic argue about what they should be doing, mainly by doing very different things from each other. I read a lot of anthropology, and there’s a lot of incredibly good work being done over there these days, but anthropologists don’t have a single convention of the discipline that isn’t at least highly fraught. Most of it (the entire “white people studying darkskinned people so as to colonize them” paradigm, for example) has been completely abandoned, at least in theory. And yet brilliant work keeps getting done. 

For me, the fact that literary criticism has become a “baleful genre” has a lot to do with the fact that everyone seems to agree to keep saying so. A lot of work is bad, of course, but you don’t have to condemn the entire enterprise to explain why that might be so; I’d start with the material conditions under which the work gets done. When I’m dealing with my department, I do sometimes despair, but I find the people in it to be wonderful mentors, colleagues, and models for future practice. And when I’m alone with my computer, I find the lack of disciplinary boundaries (and the knowledge that I need to be rigorous or I’ll get called out) to be exactly what’s right about the work.

By on 03/26/08 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I always figured “I Love to Singa” was particularly beholden to The Jazz Singer and if it had been made a bit later the high German would include more Yiddish. But I agree with Bill, the basic idea circulated widely. That tired old plotline was still going as of Bandwagon, and then got revived for rock-and-roll (and then for disco and then for punk).

Bill asks why I consider literature a perverse subject to call forth “professional intellectual discipline” (complete with specialized technical vocabulary) from large numbers of people. Simple: the study of literature doesn’t require such discipline, and if that’s all you aspire to you’ll likely find less ambiguous rewards (and more powerful targets) elsewhere. Books like The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period are wonderful but exceptional; most good and bad products are essayistic in nature and might do better with fewer stylistic constraints. Especially since those constraints don’t lead to the production of more books like The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. The discipline involved is less Prussian military than Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

Also, discursive prose isn’t the only non-teaching task humanities departments are well placed to handle. What if institutions honored the production of new translations and freely accessible scholarly editions as much as it honors journal papers and bound dissertations?

(To head off a probable misunderstanding: I don’t want my friends in the English and Comp Lit departments to lose their jobs. I want their jobs to be happier and more productive.)

By Ray Davis on 03/27/08 at 09:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm, it seems to me your cartoon example could just as easily be used against your point as for it.  Rather than the Eurocentric immigrants concerned with reproducing the old intellectual order and forcing their jazzy kid to sing like they do (i.e., write like Derrida’s translators), you could just as easily turn it around and make the jazzy kid prey to the latest intellectual fad just to fit in in the strange world of American English (departments).  Jack Bunny, after all, is the arbiter of the new popular taste, and could be cast as easily as tyrannical as the Pop.

To me, it’s not a question of sympathizing with Owl Jolson, but recognizing his attempt to synthesize his multiple heritages.  A lesson for literary critics everywhere--it’s all about finding your own voice.

And if the Pops and Jack Bunny’s of the world don’t get it, blog away happily!

By The Constructivist on 03/28/08 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here we go.  Once again literary scholars get to hear another sermon about how we, of all scholars, are the ones who ought to be writing criticism that is also literature. (try reading the prose of philosophers, or economists, or anthropologists).  And we get to hear this sermon from a blogger whose own prose is only occasionally better than crass and rambling and whose smugness and sanctimony should never be inflicted on anyone.  Come on, maestro; you must know in your heart that if bad writing, esoteric doctrine, and sloppy (or even ugly) practice condemn a discipline, then the blogosphere ought to be your first target, not your gun platform.

By on 03/30/08 at 09:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Come on, maestro; you must know in your heart that if bad writing, esoteric doctrine, and sloppy (or even ugly) practice condemn a discipline, then the blogosphere ought to be your first target, not your gun platform.”

You just misunderstood the post, Derek. That’s all. (But I hope you enjoyed the cartoon!)

By John Holbo on 03/30/08 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, in most departments, a fine scholarly edition or translation will count as an important publication in one’s tenure or promotion review.  (While the very fact that a scholar believes that a new translation or edition of a work is necessary should mean that s/he could easily write an article about that fact as well.)

And I totally don’t understand what you mean when you say that Literature doesn’t require a professional scholarly approach.

By on 03/31/08 at 09:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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