Thursday, April 05, 2007
Leroy Searle’s “Literature Departments and the Practice of Theory”
The Valve has admirably or irresponsibly avoided discussions trending meta about matters such as theory, the profession, and the like. I would be interested, however, in hearing what you think of Searle’s piece. The English building at the U of Washington is apparently more of mass oubliette than panopticon, for example. (I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like a specimen of the “prison-functionalist” school of campus architecture. Turlington Hall at the U of Florida, affectionately referred to as the “Death Star,” is another noteworthy example.) Allow me to use a footnote for the obligatory quotation:
See, for example, Lindsay Waters’s sobering comments in Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2004) on the ongoing decline in book buying even by libraries, which together with the current tax laws on inventory held for sale, puts the average sale of university press books, almost all of which are printed with the aid of subvention, at under 300 copies before they are remaindered. In the same context belongs the unprecedented presidential letter to the membership of the MLA from Stephen Greenblatt about four or five years ago concerning the crisis in book publication in the humanities, which directly affects the ability of our junior colleagues to get tenure. They just have to publish a book—and it is in far too many cases, a middling dissertation dished up as a book that answers to no compelling need and will not be read in any case. It is in every way a self-destructive syndrome.
Yikes. (I personally don’t buy the “will never be read” argument. It will, when it has to be.)
I took the bait, but I didn’t really find any original ideas in this article, and was left at a loss. What stood out for you, other than the architecture? Did you get any sense of direction, positive or negative, from it? If you did, I’d be curious to hear.
I thought it a piquant example of its type, notable for who wrote it, and also for asides such as Dialectic of Enlightenment not being that successful of a work after all.
“Direction” seems an awful lot to expect, but you’re probably more idealistic.
I was planning to post a pointer to the Searles myself, but pica’s lack of enthusiasm has me wondering what else I should be reading.
Admittedly my own enjoyment was tainted by—and perhaps wholly due to—egocentric satisfaction in recognizing a few personally well-established beliefs and experiences translated into such different circumstances. (Like one of those heartwarming foreign film Oscar winners.) He captured some of what appealed to me in the theorists I read outside of academia, some of what appalled me when I learned of their canonization, some of the skepticism which led me away from analytic philosophy, and even some of my beloved neuraesthetics (minus the labwork):
... the literary or imaginative is not in any meaningful way an “object” but a primary mode of reflective thinking. It is just as important as Kant, in his third critique, belatedly understood it to be, as the very soul of our human intelligence. Its point is not to define the form of beauty or the formlessness of the sublime, but by reflective judgment to consider what things are for. Aesthetic judgment, accordingly, is fundamental, not because it participates in someone’s elitist idea of artistic finery but as the root suggests, because it is grounded in aesthesis, in feeling as experienced, whereby we rely upon our common sense as a way to resist the suasions of our common understanding.
As usual in such ventures, his more hopeful rhetorical gestures sounded hollow to me, but this panicky denunciation of The Republic seemed genuine enough:
... it turns out that the most telling objection to Homer comes down to this: he was not popular and was never in power.